Friday, January 9, 2009

REVIEW: Vengeance is Mine


復讐するは我にあり (Fukushû suruwa wareniari)

Released: 1979

Director:
Shohei Imamura

Starring:
Ken Ogata
Rentaro Mikuni
Mayumi Ogawa
Mitsuko Baisho
Nijiko Kiyokawa

Running time: 140 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr


Shohei Imamura’s "Vengeance is Mine" depicts the truth-based story of a man who committed a series of murders across Japan in the early 1960s before a 78-day manhunt resulted in his capture. Unlike most films about serial killers, it forgoes a sense of urgency or the quick pacing of a thriller. It even goes so far as to deny any solid form of explanation for the killer’s actions. It keeps a firm distance from its subjects, not exploring them so much as showing them (though at times within close proximity), letting if not insisting the audience members make up their own minds about them. Watching it, one strongly gets the sense that Imamura was acting not as an inquisitor, but merely an observer.

The film’s central performance is given by Ken Ogata, who passed away in October 2008. Playing Iwao Enokizu, a man who embarks on a life of crime for no practical reason, he sometimes exudes a cool, cocky charm, sometimes pent-up frustration and unhappiness. While he has genuine emotions and at times expresses them quite strongly, the final impression he gives is one of a man who doesn’t really know what he wants from life, but knows all too well what he doesn’t want, so he follows his animal instincts with fervor, perhaps finding comfort and reliability in them regardless of where they might lead him.

This being an Imamura film, "Vengeance is Mine" is filled with characters influenced by vices and base instincts. Sex, money, drink and, yes, death, all appear as entities of great temptation and formidable control, providing the raging currents that flow freely throughout his vision of Japanese society. Their prominence throughout the film serves as a constant reminder of these characters’ persistent humanity.

Though Enokizu remains an ambiguous figure, much is revealed about his past and personal life. From an early age, he harbors little love for his father, at one point angrily scolding him when the older man cowers before a Navy officer. Their relationship is further complicated by the father’s attraction towards Kazuko, Enokizu’s wife. Though both are sexually attracted to each other, they resist their impulses so as to remain true to their Catholic beliefs. This hotbed of emotions offers no easy assessment of these three characters, but instead stands as a sort of testament to the conflict and complexity that can exist between people regardless of bonds of marriage, religion or blood.

Later in the film, Enokizu takes refuge in an inn that practically functions as a neighborhood brothel. The owner, who herself must sell her body to keep the building’s lease, soon becomes quite attracted to the killer, even after she discovers the truth about him. Her mother, who spies on the inn’s clients for money, formerly served fifteen years in prison for murder and feels an odd kinship with him. Enokizu’s encounter with these flawed people doesn’t result in anything so melodramatically typical as a personal revelation or all-out love, but instead a unique connection built upon lust and a strange species of affection. It is as if, by fleeing his previous family, he finds yet another one with which he forms a different yet similarly distanced relationship.

In its portrayal of this strikingly strange case, Imamura’s film provides an insightful look at the lives and habits of Japan ’s more marginalized citizens. Much to his credit, his portrayal of them isn’t overwrought or overly dramatized; these are just people, living their lives the best they can. Enokizu appears before them like a passing shark, his actions chaotic and mysterious, yet, scarily enough, he isn’t that different from any of them. I think that, by watching this film, viewers aren’t meant to “figure out” this character, but, simply, to ponder and consider through his actions (and those of the people around him) the all-too-flimsy barrier we maintain between impulse and restraint.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog.

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