Review: Vengeance is Mine (1979)

The handsome devil himself


Review by: Topo Sanchez
SCUM Rating: ★ ★  

Based on the true story of serial killer Akira Nishiguchi, whose killing spree gripped Japan during the late 1963 to early 1964, Vengeance Is Mine is director Shohei Imamura’s masterpiece exploring the uglier side of the human condition. But unlike your usual crime cinema, Imamura is not interested to play psychiatrist and rationalise the killer’s behaviour for the audience. The director does not even attempt to try to understand the inner workings of the killer’s psyche. Instead, he keeps a distance and keeps the camera rolling in an objective, matter-of-fact approach, much like a documentary.

The films opens with Iwao Enokizu, arrested after a 78-day manhunt, being escorted to the station in a police car. Straight away, we are given privy to the defiant and arrogant personailty of the killer who, after accepting his fate, continues to taunt and talk down to the police officers. The film then unfolds into a series of flashbacks intercut with the present day, and tells a story of a remorseless swindler who uses his charm and intelligence to carve out the life that he wants. Time moves freely in a non-linear manner in this film, but its so expertly done that the audience will still be able to pick up on visual cues and piece together the chain of events in a coherent manner.

Father Kayo and Daughter-in-Law Kazuko

And to make things even more interesting, Imamura introduces two subplots that runs alongside the main story – the first being the unhealthy attraction of Iwao’s wife Kazuo to his father Kayo, and the dirty business that mother and daughter Haru are secretly running. Perhaps director Imamura was using these subplots as a platform to give an extra dimension to Iwao’s character development.

The concept of the family nucleus is portrayed in an extremely warped and shocking manner in this film. Iwao had previously raped and impregnated Kazuko during a random drive-by, and the only reason he marries Kazuko is to foil his father’s attempt to arrange a blind date for him. Little do we expect that in the end, Kazuko would end up falling for her father-in-law Kayo, but it is also Kayo that will give his consent to another man to rape Kazuko.

The inn which Iwao stayed at when he went into hiding, was run by a mother and daughter team. Mom has just recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for killing someone, and daughter Haru is a kept woman whose lover is the one paying the lease for the inn. Together, mother and daughter runs the inn like a brothel, arranging for call girls to service their customers whenever its needed. Haru would later fall for Iwao, and both mother and daughter eventually find out his true identity as a killer on the run. But somehow, they maintain a ‘normal’ relationship with him. Until he kills them, that is.

Mother and Daughter Haru Asano – Innkeepers. Pimps.

Yeah, pretty sick stuff I know. Maybe that’s why Iwao is filled with so much hate and cynicism towards humanity.

Iwao Enokizu is brilliantly played by Ken Ogata. Cold, detached and ruthless at times,  smart, funny and charming when he wants to be. He toggles between identities effortlessly, from a university professor, bail lawyer, charming lover, to a stone-cold murderer. Killing was like a simple chore or errand that he has to check off the to-do list on a lazy Sunday.

My favourite scene was when Iwao entered a neighbourhood convenience store and stops at the knife display section. He randomly picks one knife and asks the shop owner for the price. After hearing the price, he casually inquires about another one. He pauses for a moment and decides to go for the cheaper knife out of sheer practicality. Like how a man shopping for a drainage pipe would just choose the cheapest one since he was selling off the house anyway. Small scene, but it says so much about the man.

Cheaper blades will do the job just as well

The ending scene is quite unconventional too. We see the incestuous lovers / father / daughter Kayo and Kazuko carrying the the bone remains of Iwao after his execution. As they toss his bones down the mountain, the film freezes frame. No matter how many times they try, the film freezes each time with his bones in mid-air. I guess Iwao is still defiant and angry towards his dad, even after death.

A film like Venegeance Is Mine is only possible at the hands of an expert director like Shohei Imamura. It has a good blend of experimentation, eroticism, drama and thriller while avoiding all the common cliches of the film genre at that time. A brilliant movie that leaves u wanting for more.


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About The Author

As a child, Topo Sanchez filled his little head with the great mysteries of UFOs, Bigfoots and bearded women as bedtime stories. His first revelation came about while watching El Topo, when he realized that two freaks became normal if they combined. So he figured if three combined, they would be superheroes (hence the birth of SCUM). His first words to his mom were 'Klaatu Barada Nikto!'

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