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The Criterion Collection presents
Vengeance Is Mine (1979)

Kawai: After all this time, I still don't get why you killed those two women on Hamamatsu.
Iwao: I don't suppose you do. Can't say I really understand it myself.

- Frankie Sakai, Ken Ogata

Review By: Jeff Wilson  
Published: May 14, 2007

Stars: Ken Ogata, Mayumi Ogawa, Mitsuko Baisho, Chocho Miyako, Nijiko Kiyokawa, Rentaro Mikuni
Other Stars: Frankie Sakai, Kazuo Kitamura
Director: Shohei Imamura

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for nudity, violence, gore, adult themes, language
Run Time: 02h:20m:36s
Release Date: May 15, 2007
UPC: 715515023528
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

We've been inundated with serial killer films over the last twenty or so years, but few of them approach Vengeance Is Mine, Shohei Imamura's 1979 look at a Japanese killer from the early 1960s. Imamura's black, sardonic outlook perfectly suits a film that peers directly into the corrupt heart of Japanese life. Criterion's DVD comes up lacking in extras, but why worry when the film's this good?

We meet Enokizu Iwao (Ken Ogata) as the police take him into custody following a 78-day festival of murder, theft, and other crimes. Jumping back and forth in time, Iwao moves up and down the length of Japan, proving himself a slickly capable if often sloppy criminal. His story is played out against that of his family, in particular his father (Rentaro Mikuni) and estranged wife (Mitsuko Baisho), who carry on a troubled relationship of their own. With Iwao in custody, the police seek, as do we, what he did and why he did it.

From the start, it's clear that Iwao is largely amoral and untroubled by his crimes, more worried about how cold prison will be rather than his eventual death sentence. As the film unfolds, we see that Iwao isn't so different from everyone around him; he's just more willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. And everyone around him has their own ugly faults; his father and wife carry an extended, barely sublimated lust for each other, for example. His final two victims, innkeeper and kept woman Haru (Mayumi Ogawa) and her pervy mother Hisano (Nijiko Kiyokawa) have a variety of quirks, Hisano in particular. Like Iwao, Hisano is a murderer, and has been introduced to peeping by the lecherous landlord Ideike (Kazuo Kitamura). It's in this section of the film where Imamura lays it on a bit too thick for his own good; a scene where Iwao and Hisano debate their respective moralities is punctuated with a shot of a poolful of snakes and a hanging pair of wading boots next to a noose. Not the most subtle of metaphors. Hisano's own depravity leads to Iwao's one moment of conscience; when Ideike rapes Haru in front of an actionless Hisano, Iwao is the one prepared to grab a knife and gut him.

As Iwao, Ken Ogata leads an excellent cast. Ogata rarely allows anyone to see whatever it is that lies beneath the surface of Iwao, instead using a blend of smarm, threat, and charm to get what he wants, and if those don't work, brutal violence. The pivotal figure for Iwao is his father, whose failure to stand up against a military officer in the late 1930s earns Iwao's permanent scorn and hatred. The family's Catholicism marks them as outcasts of sorts, but Iwao certainly isn't a model Christian, and the rest of the family doesn't exactly live up to high ideals either. The final meeting between Iwao and his father shows two men who completely fail to understand one another. The futility of their relationship is underscored in the unexpected final scene, in which father and widow go to dispose of Iwao's remains after his execution. Imamura freeze-frames each chunk of bone mid-flight, as if forces beyond their control are dooming the family to eternal imprisonment with Iwao, even if only as a looming psychic presence. It doesn't quite work for me, at least in technical terms, as the freeze-frame is simply too jarring stylistically, but it's a potent idea nonetheless. If nothing else, it fulfills the title admonition, which as more fully stated by Paul in the Bible, urges the follower to "overcome evil with good"; visiting evil upon others is God's responsibility. In Imamura's Japan, that sentiment is in short supply.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Criterion has transferred the film at an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, and I found it generally pleasing. A look at this and the Region 2 release from the Masters of Cinema label in the UK show Criterion to have a much more colorful image, tending toward the reddish end of the spectrum. I haven't seen the film theatrically, so I can't judge which one is "correct," but I like the color palette as presented here. The picture otherwise looked free of any major defects.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The original mono soundtrack is the only option here, and while nothing outstanding in technical terms, it sounds fairly clean and crisp.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Thirty-two page booklet with essays, notes, and interview with Imamura
Extras Review: The main feature on the disc is a 1999 interview with Imamura (10m:17s). The generally stone-faced director discusses Vengeance from the scripting on—brief but worthwhile. A trailer and teaser are here as well. The enclosed booklet includes more materials, such as a map of the real Iwao's time on the run (I presume—the booklet doesn't make this clear), which shows the changes Imamura and writer Masaru Baba made in the story. Also to be found are a portion of an interview with the director and an essay by critic Michael Atkinson.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

A chillingly cold-blooded look at a multiple murderer, Vengeance Is Mine provides far more substance than the usual serial killer/crime film. Criterion's DVD is fairly light on extras, but the presentation is otherwise first rate.


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