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Vengeance is Mine: the Criterion Collection

Shohei Imamura's Vengeance is Mine (1979) is, on the surface, the study of a thief and murderer named Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata). But as the picture slips back and forth in time, showing us Enokizu's 78-day killing spree, his early days as a "difficult" child of devoutly Catholic parents, and scenes from his arranged marriage, Imamura reveals private hypocrisy and corruption at the core of Japanese culture. Based on a notorious real-life crime, the film eschews any pretense of suspense — it opens with Enukizo's arrest, and then introduces us to the first of his murders right away. The nagging question, then, is why this man would do the things that he did, and Imamura has no easy answers — aside from the implication that all humans are bad apples to some extent, and that Enokizu simply represents the extreme. The artistry is in Imamura's escalation of his characters' ill-behavior, from the first drunk old man who Enukizu bashes with a hammer and then robs, to his own wife's lust for her father-in-law, to the amoral family of philanderers, call-girls and voyeurs who make up the residents of a respectable-seeming inn where Enukizu hides out. While there, the sexually insatiable murderer sleeps with the inn-owner's mistress, Haru (Mayumi Ogawa) whose aged mother enjoys spying on the guests' sexual activities. When the two women discover that Enokizu's a wanted man and not the university professor he purports to be, they cover for him, and Haru's mother (who has a 15-year prison stint in her own background) stops Enokizu from killing the inn owner when he beats and rapes Haru in front of them both. The message of the film is deeply nihilistic — in an essay written for the Criterion release, critic Michael Atkinson compares Imamura to directors like Fritz Lang, Samuel Fuller and Claude Chabrol, whom he dubs "Sardonic Objectivists" — which doesn't preclude it from having some genuinely funny moments. But in examining the encroaching Western influence on Japanese culture in the aftermath of World War II, Imamura cynically concludes that his people are morally bankrupt, and that no one is free from sin. Yet he has a sympathetic, almost affectionate, feeling for his unethical characters, even the ones who commit murder — killing, he seems to be saying, is simple an unpleasant part of the human experience, because people are all fundamentally immoral.

The Criteiuon Collection's DVD release of Vengeance is Mine offers a typically lovely high-def remastered anamorphic transfer (1.66:1) that's crisp and squeaky clean, with excellent contrast and color saturation. The DD 1.0 audio is also superb, remastered from a 35mm optical track print and cleaned up for this release. Extras include a 1999 video interview with Imamura (10 min.), plus the theatrical trailer and teaser trailer. The package offers a 32-page booklet with the Atkinson essay, a 1994 interview with Imamura by filmmaker Toichi Nakata, and a short piece written by Imamura in the 1950s regarding his approach to filmmaking. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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