Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Vengeance is Shohei Imamura: Vengeance is Mine

Those who had a run-in with con man Akira Nishiguchi were fortunate if they only lost a few hundred thousand Yen.  He also left behind a trail of bodies. It was precisely the sort of case that appealed to Shohei Imamura’s artistic sensibilities, inspiring his return to narrative filmmaking after a string of legit documentaries. Appropriately, Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine (trailer here) screens in New York during the similarly titled Vengeance is Shohei Imamura film series now underway at the Asia Society.

Henceforth known as Isao Enokizu, Imamura’s Nishiguchi proxy never had a good relationship with his devoutly Catholic father, Shizuo. He was somewhat closer to his mother, but her persistent health problems largely keep her out of the picture.  He was a punk as a kid and graduated to full blown criminality as an adult.  Nevertheless, his father convinces his wife Kazuko to remarry him during his first prison stretch, for religious reasons.  Frankly, she will not see very much of him, even after his release.

As the audience witnesses in graphic detail, Enokizu will murder two former truck driving colleagues on their collection day, launching a seventy-eight day crime spree that will thoroughly embarrass the Tokyo police.  Given the in media res opening, it is clear Enokizu’s luck will eventually run out.  The question is how long he can last and how much damage he can do in the meantime.

As it happens, he finds the perfect hiding spot: a discretely tucked away suburban no-tell motel, run by proprietor Haru Asano and her mother, who specialize in procuring prostitutes for their guests.  Posing as a visiting professor, Enokizu maintains a professional relationship with Asano during his initial stay, only becoming her lover later, when his secret is out.

Motivations are a strange thing in Vengeance.  There is no accounting for them, beyond the usual lust, wrath, and resentment. While on the surface, Vengeance functions as a manhunt procedural thriller, an atmosphere of moral decay hangs over the entire film. It opens with one of the messiest, clumsiest murder sequences perhaps ever and proceeds to show viewers several of Enokizu’s furtive assignations, where sex and violence are provocatively intertwined, so you should probably leave the kids home for this one.

In a career defining performance, Ken Ogata is convincingly seductive within Enokizu’s on-screen world, but he leaves viewers deeply creeped out. He is a pure sociopath, whose emotional range spans from cold blooded calculation to spitting rage.

Ogata’s Enokizu is a practically a force of nature, like a hurricane, but his father and assorted lovers are not merely generic victims.  Rentarō Mikuni expresses in vivid terms just how the elder Enokizu’s moral failings are exacerbated by the stress and disgrace generated by his son.  Likewise, Mitsuko Baisho is achingly pitiable but still remarkably sensuous as his long suffering wife Kazuko.  Mayumi Ogawa is also equally haunting as Asano, a woman condemned to a life of Dickensian struggle by the scandals of others.

Both in terms of its themes and scope, Vengeance is one of the great films of the 1970’s, sitting comfortably beside the likes of Coppola’s The Conversation and Polanski’s Chinatown.  It is definitely a muscular noir, but it has a bitingly existential chaser.  Highly recommended for all movie lovers, it screens free of charge this Friday (1/24) as part of the Vengeance is Shohei Imamura mini-retrospective at the Asia Society.