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Director: Shohei Imamura
Writer: Masaru Baba
Cast: Ken Ogata, Mayumi Ogawa, Rentarō Mikuni, and Mitsuko Baisho
Length: 139 min
Label: Criterion Collection
Release Date: August 26, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Audio: Japanese: LPCM 1.0
- Audio Commentary with critic/filmmaker Tony Rayns
- Excerpts from a 1999 interview with director Shohei Imamura
- 32-page booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Atkinson, a 1994 interview with Imamura by filmmaker Toichi Nakata, and writings by Imamura on Vengeance Is Mine and his approach to directing
- Original Theatrical Trailer and Teaser
Japanese director Shohei Imamura has an interesting career trajectory. Beginning as an assistant to the, now, legendary director Yasujiro Ozu, Imamura soon grew tired of Ozu’s depiction of Japanese life. Despite the praise for Ozu’s authentic Japanese cinematic style, Imamura saw Ozu’s work as too detached, too open. After assisting on his third picture with Ozu, Imamura parted ways and, four years later, directed his first picture, Stolen Desires. Not interested in telling the stories of Ozu’s middle class, Stolen Desires began setting up the style that Imamura would strengthen as his career blossomed. After directing a string of features throughout the late 50s and early 60s, the 70s saw Imamura settling into a documentary world. It would be with Imamura’s return to narrative cinema that one of his boldest films was produced, the 1979 psychological crime drama, Vengeance is Mine. A moving, horrifying, and even charming fictionalization of real life Japanese serial killer, Akira Nishiguchi, Imamura’s film is a case study on humanity’s obsession—often glorification—of serial killers. Now available in a fantastic Blu-Ray package, courtesy of Criterion Collection, allowing every inch the film’s gritty texture to be enjoyed for the first time in a High Definition format in North America.
While the film is complex in its explicit message, the plot is fairly straightforward. After a series of time jumps, the film settles into the story of Iwao Enokizu’s seventy-eight day killing spree. Born into a devout catholic family, Iwao quickly grows a distaste for his father, whom he sees as both weak and hypocritical. Sticking with him all of his life, Iwao turns to seemingly motiveless debauchery, fraud, womanizing, and murder.
It is not the story itself that makes Vengeance is Mine the masterpiece that it is, but rather Imamura’s treatment of what could have been a conventional picture. Imamura is not deliberate in his portrayal of Iwao, in fact, it could be argued that Imamura either passes no judgment on Iwao’s actions or sympathizes with him. It doesn’t hurt that Ken Ogata’s performance makes it almost impossible to not sympathize with his heartless killer. Ogata adds a charismatic charm that almost negates his horrific actions.
Further, Imamura sets up not only Iwao, but also the film’s entire cast, as victims of their surroundings. This is where Imamura’s style shines. He transforms the everyday Japanese environments into visual prisons. Cascading hard lines, cramped spaces, the use of multiple spaces invading each other, complex framings, and unique angles, all create cinematic labyrinths out of ordinary spaces.
In many ways, Imamura tows the line between Ozu and Kurosawa. Not nearly as much of a victim to the claims of Westernization that Kurosawa has been subjected to, but also far from the removed tranquility of Ozu, Imamura forces these two worlds into one. The cramped, claustrophobic spaces of his interiors, the willingness to study the base human emotions, the interest in Japanese life, these are the aspects of Imamura’s work that are prominent. Vengeance is Mine is a film that will stick with you; it is a film like no other. Imamura doesn’t make anything easily digestible, nothing is wrapped up neatly, and the end will surely leave you with more questions than ever; this is why Vengeance is Mine is art. It is challenging but always entertaining. It doesn’t placate its viewers.
While I haven’t seen the Eureka disc in action, from what has been written—and from what I can tell via the screen caps available—Criterion’s AVC Encoded 1.66:1 transfer of Vengeance is Mine appears to be the superior release. Colors are accurate, faithfully depicting the murky tones of Japan’s underbelly/lower class environments. There is a hefty amount of grain, but, as I assume that much of the film was shot with available light, this can be expected. No attempt to soften the grain is made, which comes as a relief because the added grain really complements the overall feeling of the picture. The print is sharp and clear, with great contrast. Only the highest of praises can be given to Criterion for their work on this disc.
Again, Criterion’s work appears to be an improvement from the Eureka release. The LPCM transfer is well balanced and dynamic. There doesn’t appear to be any age related issues, such as pops, cracks, or hisses, present.
Ported over from the Eureka release, Criterion have included critic and filmmaker Tony Rayns’ 2005 commentary on the film. Rayns gives us a dynamic look at the film, offering a selection of information covering many different aspects of the film and its filmmaker. In addition, there is a wonderful 32-page booklet included in the package, containing the writings of Shohei Imamura and Michael Atkinson, an interview with Imamura, and the technical credits for the release. Rounding out the package is an excerpt of an interview with Imamura, and the film’s Original Theatrical Trailer and Teaser.
With Criterion Collection behind the title you really can’t go wrong. There are a handful of studios that you know, almost always, will deliver quality releases that are packaged to the brim with features; Criterion Collection’s Vengeance is Mine is one of these releases. With extra special care given to the HD transfer, this is a unique release, the only one quite like it on the market. Imamura may not have the fame of Kurosawa, or the respect of Ozu, but he is just as provocative of a filmmaker and we are certainly glad to see his work receive such care.