Shohei Imamura undoubtedly constructed the film Vengeance Is Mine precisely so that many critics would take a variety of readings on it. The Freudian reading is easy enough, and the social commentary, too. One thing that stands out about the film is its consistency between form and content. The film is very much about its main character, Iwao Enokizu, a sociopath based on a real person in Japan’s recent history who goes around murdering people for rather arbitrary reasons. Just as Enokizu is dispassionate in his killings, so is the film, from the camera to the lighting to the narrative structure. (The narrative structure is so choppy, for lack of a better term, that the above use of the term “constructed” really does seem to apply to Imamura’s making of the film. It’s as if he pieced it together.) Shots of Enokizu killing people with a hammer or knife or his bare hands aren’t distinguished from the shots that precede his brutal actions. The film rejects any sense of causality in its own form and, in this way, cooperates with Enokizu’s random acts of violence. Whereas Kurosawa’s earlier Sanjuro climaxed with the infamous spray of blood when Mifune’s character begrudgingly defeats his nemesis, sprays of blood take place at very anticlimactic moments in Vengeance Is Mine. That the film is considered part of the Japanese New Wave is fitting, and reminiscent of the dispassionate acts of violence in the French New Wave (think Shoot the Piano Player or Pierrot Le Fou). Enokizu has only contempt and disdain for his own past, which stands simultaneously for order and hypocrisy. His father’s association with the Catholic church and his tryst with his daughter-in-law have none of the respect for the previous generation one might find in an Ozu film. On the contrary, just as the rules of cinema are ignored here, so is patriarchal order in general.
Vengeance Is Mine sutures the viewer to the loner Enokizu, not to elicit sympathy for him but rather to force the viewer into an uncomfortable realm in which s/he doesn’t care what happens in the film any more than the film’s character cares about what he is doing. The film’s closing shots of Enokizu’s flying bones, hurled by his excommunicated father and dishonored wife over a cliff, do suggest a kind of terrestrial transcendence or Ozu-like return of things from whence they came. While Imamura seems to have done all he could to expose the harshness of the world from one man’s narrow experience, it’s the film’s own form, again, via freeze-frame, that grabs the viewer’s attention but this time from a different point of view. Enokizu is gone but not gone, become part of the landscape and the horizon, both rejected by his family and bid an affectionate adieu by his family. Much of the film had previously been inscribed with subtitles (original to the Japanese film – not English words) contextualizing the Enokizu’s steps from the vantage point of a police dragnet. Thus Enokizu’s life is cheapened as a manhunt (he is described as an animal by other characters) as he cheapens it by his own actions. Rather than verbal inscription, the finale frames a motionless image that suggests something ineffable and almost nirvana-like about Enokizu’s end.