Saturday, July 11, 2009


Who's the worse person: Giulio Sacchi, the kidnapper and murder in Umberto Lenzi's Almost Human, or Iwao Enokizu, a habitual con man and murderer of five people in Shohei Imamura's portrait of a real-life killing spree in 1960s Japan? In objective terms, Sacchi killed more people. In cinematic terms as well, he is portrayed as a loathsome monster (the English-language title is more apropos than the Italian original) and, perhaps wishfully, as an aberration that might be eliminated if the police had proper powers to do so. Enokizu, however, seems like a less aberrational figure in Imamura's Japan. That's not to say that the director thinks Japan is a nation of murderers. But Vengeance Is Mine, contemplating a killer who happened to be Catholic, insists on the pervasiveness of sin and refuses to comfort the audience with an easy dichotomy of evil and innocence.

At the same time, Imamura doesn't lose focus on the pure horror of Enokizu's crimes. The initial double murder scene has blood enough for anyone, plus a de-aestheticizing clumsiness to Enokizu's attacks with hammer and stiletto. It also has a singularly outrageous moment when our protagonist has to clean up between murders. There's no place around to wash the blood off his hands. So he pisses it off. Then he grabs some fruit from a tree and squeezes the juice out to cut the urine smell. You don't want to kill with smelly hands, after all.

Imamura is interested in the why of Iwao Enokizu. His investigation reveals a tragic, twisted family. A flashback points to a formative scarring experience from World War II when the Japanese military requisitions boats belonging to Iwao's innkeeper dad. Dad seems to be singled out for abusive treatment because he's a Catholic, and because he takes his religion seriously, he refuses to cooperate with the militarist government. When little Iwao sees an officer slap Dad around, he grabs a wooden board and whacks the white-clad thug in the leg. Suddenly, Dad relents and gives the boats to the government. We can tell that he's doing it to save his son from whatever reprisal the officer might have in mind. But all Iwao sees is his father becoming a double coward, for not fighting back and for backing down from his principles. Worse, the officer forces Dad to recite some formulaic lines of happy servitude to the Emperor. The government certainly doesn't look good in the kid's eyes, but Dad comes out worst.

A lot of Iwao's future crimes seem motivated by a desire to make his father miserable. That streak of gratuitous rebellion extends to his rejection of an arranged marriage in favor of a girl basically off the streets whom he's just knocked up. Imagine the complications, then, when father and daughter-in-law begin to fall in love while Iwao's in jail on a fraud conviction.

Yet Iwao never takes his rage out on them physically. As his father says later, he can only hurt people who've done him no harm. That includes a law professor whose identity he steals. Under that alias he begins an affair with Haru Asano, a female innkeeper with a shady operation of her own.

Usually people want to cover up the smell of alcohol, but I suppose that if you keep a corpse in your closet there could be worse odors than those from a spilt bottle.

She and her mother are procuresses. Men check into their inn and they call the local madam to send over some entertainment. Like his dad and his wife, here's another genuine love story. You know something warm and generous is stirring in Iwao when he tries to strangle himself. Haru has feelings that transcend conventional scruples. When she figures out that Iwao is the man wanted for three murders, she still wants to stay with him, and he does for a while. But Iwao seems to need to be evil or see himself as such, and he lashes out at the thought of happiness with lethal force, even if he breaks his own heart doing so. At least that's how I read the scene when he finally strangles Haru (before killing her mother as well) and then says, "Thank you."

The movie is told in flashback, opening with Iwao's capture, and closes five years later, after his execution, with his father and widow performing a ritual (I assume) by tossing his bones off a cliff into the sea with mounting vehemence that seems to mingle grief and relief. Dad is still trying to urge Kazuko away, but she still wants to stay with him. She tells him that Iwao used to say he was a great deceiver, and he pretty much agrees with this, only for her to add that "that's what I like about you." That leaves us with the mystery of human relationships, some of which can end in passionate murder while others retain a promise of happiness, and the further mystery of their intertwining complications. Is the elder Enokizu really to blame for Iwao's crimes. Imamura most likely doesn't believe in absolute answers. For him, there seems to be blame enough to go around for everyone.

This is my second Imamura film. The first I'd seen was his follow-up, the ribald and harrowing Ballad of Narayama, which has everything from bestiality to ritual abandonment of the elderly on an icy mountain. Vengeance is Mine is a more mundane affair in its setting, but shares a specific creative sensibility, as well as Ken Ogata (Paul Schrader's Mishima)as a leading man. Both films have moments of extreme outrageousness (though in Narayama these are more often funny than horrifying) worthy of exploitation cinema, within a framework of moral seriousness that marks the films as arthouse fare. It's a mix you don't see often elsewhere, and it makes me eager to try more Imamura films.


Rev. Phantom said...

Halfway through your review I went over to Netflix to see it this was available and it was! I put it at the top of my queue. This one sounds right up my alley.

Samuel Wilson said...

Rev., I just hope you felt the same way after you read the rest of the review! It's meant more to be thought-provoking than horrifying, but it has some truly harsh moments.