Imamura’s return to feature-film-making “Vengeance Is Mine”

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I’d put off seeing Imamura‘s return after an eleven-year hiatus to making a feature film, the 1979 “Fukushû suru wa ware ni ari” (Vengeance Is Mine), which has been available on a Criterion edition DVD for some years, because I was boycotting anything about serial killers. Two of the four 1963-64 murders that Enokizu Iwao (the character was based a real-life con man/murderous thief named Nishiguchi Akira, who was played by Ken Ogata, who played the title role in Paul Shrader’s “Mishima” and the son reluctant to carry his mother up to die of exposure in Imamura’s vertion of “The Ballad of Narayama”) are very gruesomely portrayed: both men put up significant fights and were stabbed multiple times (though there is less blood than in the murder of his wife and her paramour at the start of “Unagi”/”The Eel”). Two occur off-camera (only glimpses of the corpses are shown) and a strangling does not shed blood (though it is particularly distressing being someone who has been onscreen more than the other victims).

Most of “Vengeance” shows Enokizu on the run, with wanted posters plastered across Japan and even in a short before the feature film when he goes to a movie. Posing as a university professor from Kyoto, Enokizu hides out in the rural Asano Inn run by Haru (Ogawa Mayumi). Haru procures prostitutes for guests and her mother (Kiyokawa Nijiko) peeps at them (what is a female “peeping Tom” called? “Peeping Thomasina“. perhaps?).

Haru takes up with Iwao, knowing that he is a murderer. But Haru’s mother did time for murder, too… though the old woman is considerably less sympathetic to the fugitive they are harboring off and on through a 78-day national manhunt. (He goes off a couple of times, murdering a lawyer in Tokyo.)

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The local prostitutes are creeped out by the peeping old lady and when they start refusing to go to the inn to service the clientele, the viability of the business is endangered. I’d predict that after Enokizu is apprehended (revealing that he is is not a plot spoiler, since the movie begins with his being taken to a police station and refusing to answer questions), business would boom, as it already was at the inn run by Enokizu’s father (Mikuni Rentaro).

Enokizu’s wife Kazuko (Baisho Mitsuko) is in love with Enokizu’s father, and he is powerfully attracted to her, but the love is unconsummated due to his Catholicism. In flashbacks we learn that Enokizu was outraged when the Imperial Navy commandeered the man’s fishing boat. (He bought the inn with the money he was given for his boat.) Enokizu was an angry, unmanageable child, but I completely fail to see vengeance in the murders he commits as an adult. Indeed, when his father visits him before his execution, he remarks” “You can only kill those who never harmed you.” (so could not kill his father whom he believes has cuckolded him).

Enokizu’s motivation — beyond getting money — remains opaque. There is no evidence of guilt (or of the more Japanese response of shame). The killings do not seem to give him pleasure or any feeling of release (so I was perhaps mistaken in considering “Vengeance” a “serial killer movie”). He is even less introspective than Imamura’s “Insect Woman” (whose interior monologues the audience heard: she did not dwell on being raped or failing in suicide attempts).

Speaking of insects, Haru is something of a moth drawn to a flame. There is also no visible basis for Haru falling in love with Enokizu. She expresses herself ready to die with him. He has sex with her, but does not speak of love or exhibit any. (He makes a move to keep her from being raped by a rich businessman who has paid off the inn’s mortgage, but is stopped by the old woman, who does not want to have the goose laying golden eggs eliminated.

The Criterion blu-ray includes a ten-minute 1999 interview with Imamura in which he says nothing about the motivations of any of the characters. (He praises Ken Ogata, who he says showed him that he could again work with actors after a nine-year hiatus after being fed up with actors.)

Imamura studied social anthropology during an earlier, involuntary hiatus in his film career (after the commercial failure of the expensive “Pigs and Battleships“). As I have noted about other Imamura films, in very marked contrast to films directed by Ozu Yaujiro with whom Imamura began as an assistant director, the camera often looks down on the characters. (Also it moves, as Ozu’s camera did not, though it is immobile in the murder scenes, which might be considered a very perverse homage to Ozu.) Imamura looked at Japanese like an entomologist looks at insects, showing behavior — not just in “The Insect Woman” (which also begins and ends with beetles’ Sysiphean efforts) and in the rural village in which anyone reaching the age of 70 is taken up on a mountain to die, “The Ballad of Narayama” but in all his movies.

I detect some compassion in Imamura’s last movies (Dr. Akagi, The Eel, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge), or perhaps I supply it and project it onto his intentions. I’ve said that Imamura films are easier to admire than to like, but I find it difficult even to admire “Vengeance Is Mine,” despite Himeda’s color cinematography (less flashy than his black-and-white work for Imamura’s 1960s movies), Ogata’s craft, and Imamura’s uncompromising naturalist (not realist) documentary vision. (Only the epilog is surrealist.)

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

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