This was Shohei Imamura's return to cinematic fiction eleven years after the release of his brilliant, big-budget flop, The Profound Desire of the Gods, and following a string of feature film and television documentaries. Vengeance Is Mine contains many of Imamura's trademarks: incestuous relations, miserable poverty and a fleshy excess of sweaty, passionate sex. However, this film's brutal violence and narrative indifference distinguish it from any other in his oeuvre. The exploits of Ken Ogata's serial killer are presented with uncomfortably dispassionate detail. The screenplay is based on the celebrated novel by Ryuzo Saki, which in turn was based on the true crimes of serial killer Akira Nishiguchi. While both Saki and Imamura took liberties with this story in order to explore themes related to Nishiguchi's crimes and the period in which they were committed, fiction is rarely so honest or disturbing.
The scene that most viewers of this film seem to remember best is the last, when Ogata's father (Mikuni) and wife (Baisho) throw his post-cremation bones to the sky, only to see them hang defiantly suspended in mid-air. But the most remarkable moment of this film is one that nobody seems to notice. A portmanteau scene was shot to depict Ogata climbing a stairwell as he prepares to murder the mother of his lover; in a hall adjoining the stairwell, his own mother (hundreds of miles away, in her own home and a state of senility) staggers quietly, preparing to berate her husband for the amorous relationship with his daughter-in-law that he hasn't quite pursued. The execution and implications of this scene are extraordinary; rarely in cinema does one encounter theatrical novelties that are so brilliantly conceived, or so effectively staged.
The cast is as excellent as the story. Seasoned, popular veterans (Rentaro Mikuni, Nijiko Kiyokawa) are paired with numerous promising young stars of the late '70s (leading man Ogata, Mitsuko Baisho, Chocho Miyako), many of whom went on to achieve much greater fame. Ogata and especially Baisho were mainstays in Imamura's casting until the director's death in 2006.
Imamura will probably be best remembered for The Ballad Of Narayama, Black Rain or The Eel, and that's just as well. The accessibility of those films doesn't detract from their excellence in the slightest. But Vengeance Is Mine occupies a curious position as one of his most unique, innovative and provocative films. The sensitive and objective viewer will come away from it feeling simultaneously threshed and comforted.
This film was initially released to Japanese theaters on my birthday: April 21st, 1979. A pleasant coincidence!