When you have to look closely at the life of a murderer, you look for reasons, and the true crime film Vengeance is Mine offers a few.  This is a crazy, gritty, equally seductive and repulsive Japanese film made by Shohei Imamura, a legendary director who is spoken of in the same breath as Akira Kurosawa.  While it may not function as an expose of how a seemingly well-adjusted young man becomes a killer, those who enjoy exploring the minds of the psychotic and murderous behavior will be left with a lot to chew on. Based on an actual murderer who became the target of a national manhunt in 1963, Vengeance is about an almost inexplicable evil that seems to have no remorse.  If you wonder what separates humans from animals, this film won’t help much.

The Players:

  • Director: Shohei Imamura
  • Writer: Masaru Baba, Ryuzo Saki
  • Cast: Ken Ogata, Rentaro Mikuni, Chocho Miyako, Mitsuko Baisho


After being released from jail from a fraud convinction, Iwao (Ken Ogata) returns home in the summer of 1960.  Iwao confronts his father, Kayo, (Chocho Miyako) and confirms that his father has been sleeping with Iwao’s wife, Kazuko (Mitsuko Baisho), on top of pimping her out.  Kazuko falls for the father and hopes to have a future with him while his feelings of shame prevent him from making a family with her.  Watching Iwao’s increasingly erratic behavior during this confrontational scene is a demonstration of exquisite acting – it’s the best showcase of Ogata’s performance.  It becomes clear that Iwao may never recover from such revelations.

The narrative structure of the film is non-sequential, it shifts between Iwao’s interrogation by the police and the reenactment of the events leading up to each murder. And the tone and tension of the film shows a director in control of his domain. Imamura’s film is not only perfect in terms of tone, but also it weaves together a story of complicated human dynamics.

Much of the third act focuses on the finals days of the manhunt for Iwao.  The suspense is masterful, you want to know Iwao’s fate, even though you know he’ll get caught.  “Wanted” posters are ubiquitous, and television news segments become increasingly concerned with Iwao’s whereabouts, and this is where the true crime elements really shine. Iwao has been hiding at a brothel, where he’s developed a relationship with a prostitute named Haru (Mayumi Ogawa).  It’s striking to see that Kazuko and Haro are two women who have lost their individuality in society and become emotionally dependent on men who have become shameful in all respects.  But Iwao’s killings have little impact on him, as is demonstrated in a scene where he kills a man and proceeds to have dinner with the dead body visible in a closet behind him.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:

Mr. Ebert, I agree when you point out that “the most disturbing thing about Iwao is that he has no feelings at all about his victims.”  It appears that it his nature is to kill.  Vengeance is Mine is the type of film that feels like a documentary for good reason. Imamura viewed himself as a cultural anthropologist and after being raised amongst the more privileged side of Japanese society, he grew more interested in the lower half’s.  I was intrigued by your following statement, “his POV is sometimes a little above eye level, which has the effect of diminishing his characters, presenting them perhaps as entomological specimens”.  It’s interesting to talk about this film with Imamura’s life in mind.  As an 18 year old, Imamura listened on the radio as emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s WWII defeat, an event that thrilled him and made him free to question what makes us human without holding back.  Imamura seems to have some disregard for governmental and religious authority.  As a documentary filmmaker for much of the 1970′s, he preferred to explore Japanese outsiders such as the groups of women who were exported in the pre-war years to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese military and soldiers who fought overseas and chose to remain outside of Japan after the war.  With Vengeance is Mine, it is clear that the outsider is a murderer raised within a polite society.  As you mention, “we realize how much we desire such stories to explain their evil, and what resolve it takes a storyteller to deny us”.  I found myself searching for answers, which is something that separates us from animals.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GOOD

Do you like Vengeance is Mine?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?

Next week’s review:  Heart of Glass

Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films.  Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  By taking on Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine this week, he now has 278 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.