Define the Japanese New Wave however you like—there are innumerable possible launching points, and the name players in the fifties and sixties were old and young and in between—but from any juncture, Shohei Imamura was a primary figure and, at the same time, somehow atypical: a thorny artiste among pulp mavens, a pop comic amid tragedians, a deep-dish cynic and folksy absurdist both. When he died in 2006, at seventy-nine, the two-time Palme d’Or winner was one of the last of this postwar filmmaking generation—those who captured a moment of conflict in Japanese society, between modernity and received notions of “Japaneseness”—survived only by Seijun Suzuki, Kon Ichikawa, and Nagisa Oshima. And he may have been the least categorizable filmmaker of the lot, careless with genre and frenzied about social critique. He could also be viciously funny, a factor that alone would’ve set him apart from most of the others.
The son of a doctor, Imamura began as a studio apprentice to Yasujiro Ozu, and quickly established a distaste for his sensei’s restraint and quiet eloquence. In fact, Imamura was always sort of a Japanese Samuel Fuller, fascinated by working-class ruin and primal impulse. The run of satirical taboo busters that included Pigs and Battleships (1962), The Insect Woman (1963), and The Pornographers (1966) sensationalized his reputation worldwide and offered a vision of postwar Japan we hadn’t seen before: as a rat pit of feral opportunism, debasing American occupation, greed, lust, and violence. ( The nearly three-hour Profound Desire of the Gods, 1968, went to an extreme, epically limning a secluded island gone bonkers with inbreeding and superstition.)
Vengeance Is Mine (1979) launched again into the moral squalor of modern Japan, during and after the war, manifesting the country’s spume of self-hating guilt in the form of a serial killer’s maturation and anti-career. It’s paradigmatic Imamura in that the movie evades codification at every turn: Is it psychosocial critique? Serial-killer thriller? Nippononoir? Black farce? In the first few minutes, we see Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), abruptly and apropos of nothing at all, bludgeon a coworker with a hammer and then jam a knife through his breastbone. Why? Iwao’s odyssey of impulse homicide and flight from the law seems genre simple at first blush, but for Imamura a story is never the clean sum of its outline. Jumping back and forth in time, we see Iwao as a sociopathic youngster constantly in combat with his traditional, Catholic father. Later, as an adult, he’s a manic misfit scrambling from one corpse to the next, not unlike Lou Castel’s hyperactive man-child in Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket (1965). But in case you think you’ve got the character, and the movie, pegged to a psychological flowchart, the mature passage of Iwao’s journey, before his capture, sees him as a slick con man masquerading convincingly as a traveling university professor, quietly conniving his way into an Osaka inn-keeping family’s life. Then he kills again.
Self-control, repression, adopting masks—without playing to the cheap seats, or displaying righteousness, Imamura critiques his nation’s personality with a steel-tipped whip. The movie abounds with behavior begging to be avenged with a cold dose of prairie justice; every family unit we meet is self-poisoning and run through with secreted rot. Iwao has a marriage arranged for him by his frustrated parents; once he goes off to prison for the first time, his possibly disturbed wife and bitterly conflicted father participate in a mysterious, quasi-incestuous pas de deux that involves, at one point, the cold-blooded killing of a dog with boiling water. (“Do you need to take him alive for some reason?” she asks inquisitive cops during a manhunt for Iwao.)
The inn family in Osaka that Iwao burrows into later is hardly better, comprising a piggish philanderer who spends all the mortgage money on whores; his beaten, whining “kept woman” Haru (a hair-raisingly pitiable Mayumi Ogawa); and her elderly, splenetic hag of a mother (Nijiko Kiyokawa, adding muscle to a sixty-six-year career that included many films with Mikio Naruse), who not only spies on everyone’s sex, including her daughter’s, but has a homicide on her record as well. The film, and Iwao, reach their blood-pressure crisis point after both Haru and her mother discover that the learned scholar in their midst is actually a hunted murderer, and collude to keep his identity hidden. When Haru’s abusive master attacks her in a fit of pique, punching and raping her in front of her mother, the old woman must leap onto Iwao to prevent him from grabbing a butcher knife and setting the situation right.
“Damn Christian!” somebody barks in a flashback to 1938, in which Iwao’s father attempts to stand up to the imperial militarization that targeted minorities even as it was laying waste to eastern China. The reflex to avenge this injustice is never exercised by the director, however, despite the title’s quote from Romans 12. Catholicism hangs intheairofthefilmlikeabad smell, its rarefied code of propriety, sin, repentance, and ritual taken as even more of a hypocrisy than it’s often judged to be elsewhere, given its oil-and-water mix with the strict traditions of Japanese conduct, and with the soulless bankruptcy of the nation after surrender and Westernization, as Imamura saw it in film after film. The director rarely lets us forget the contradictions either, just as Iwao rarely humps a hooker without his crucifix dangling from his neck.
Imamura belongs on the shelf with Fritz Lang, Luis Buñuel, Fuller, Douglas Sirk, and Claude Chabrol, labeled “Sardonic Objectivists.” Vengeance Is Mine, typically, wastes no breath on compassion, no calories on decorousness, and no time on explanations. His use of orthodox modes of symbolism can be scanned only as maliciously ironic: Iwao’s happy early days of random killing are set in springtime and prominently figure a lush tree of ripening persimmons (a fruit rich in Japanese meanings—rejuvenation, friendship, love, etc.), while his dark days of incarceration and death-row heel cooling are wintry and sunless. Even Imamura’s interior spaces—always a priority in Japan—are deliberately cramped and chaotic, in direct contrast to Ozu’s famous measured rooms. (Early on, a police interrogation is interrupted by an elderly pair of inn clients, seen only from the back—but they’re unmistakable clones of the visiting parentsof Ozu’s Tokyo Story.) Imamura is outrageous, but he’s not manipulative: Iwao’s murders, from the first blow to the final, crowning strangulation, capped by the furtive wiping of semen from the victim’s thigh, are shot unceremoniously, head-on, patiently, at arm’s length, and are unpunctuated by music. There’s a cool ethics to his approach, just as there is in Lang and Hitchcock, and just as the cartoony, make-us-feel-it school of the last quarter century carries with it a distinctly exploitative character. Inflicted death and violence are not to be enjoyed as spectacle in Imamura but merely considered as facts of existence and symptoms of folly.
As Daffy Duck once said, thanks for the sour persimmons, cousin. But the Lord doesn’t seem to avenge anyone, and what crime would be redressed, anyway? The film ends after Iwao’s execution, as his unhappy wife and unhappier father attempt to throw his bones into the ocean, only to see them freeze, recalcitrantly, in the air, refusing to be disposed of. As particular as it is, Vengeance Is Mine becomes in this instant an individualist, Sadean riposte to civilization altogether—an expression of resistance to its communal conventions.
Though he never broadcasts it, Imamura clearly sympathizes with his nation’s rebel misfits, the lost ones with more respect for their own urges than for the suffocating public code. If revenge has been exacted in Iwao’s tale, it is for the very indignity of being born and confronted with life in Japan.
Ironically, Imamura’s personal story was a happy one, artistically, in the last phase of his career: as he aged into his seventies (and after he emerged from an eight-year hiatus following 1989’s painfully grave Black Rain), he cowrote three of his most buoyant, devilish films, The Eel (1997), Dr. Akagi (1998), and Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001), with his two grown sons. His cynicism had not faded, but his heart had grown larger—the acidic vision of Japanese society so palpable in Vengeance Is Mine had warmed into a genuine ardor for the wilder exhibits of the human zoo.
Michael Atkinson writes about film for Sight & Sound, the Village Voice, In These Times, and TCM.com. He is the author of seven books, including the novels Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat. His website is zeroforconduct.com. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2007 DVD release of Vengeance Is Mine.