[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
Like many serial killer stories, Vengeance Is Mine begins with the discovery of a corpse. Assuming that a Korean immigrant has passed out drunk in her field, the farmer that spots the body sends one of her laborers to rouse the trespasser and chase him off the property. When the subordinate gets a closer look, however, she immediately shrieks in terror. “This guy ain’t sleeping, he’s dead!” she cries, before quickly adding, “And he ain’t Korean, he’s Japanese!”—as though the distinction makes any difference whatsoever.
Then again, viewers familiar with Japanese history will recognize the importance of that seemingly insignificant line of dialogue.
Having thus established its satirical tone, the film basically abandons the conventions of its genre. Director Shohei Imamura isn’t interested in the psychology of his villainous protagonist, nor does he particularly care about his motivations. Instead, he focuses on exploring the sociopolitical climate that enables the existence of such a monster: what kind of culture, he asks, allows a wanted conman and murderer to not only evade capture for seventy-eight days, but to do so almost effortlessly?
The answer: a country so thoroughly preoccupied with maintaining the superficial appearance of respectability that it can no longer recognize the rotten truth just beneath the surface. While Imamura doesn’t stoop so low as to blame the victims, every supporting character wears a façade of some sort—from the pious Catholic innkeeper (who secretly lusts after his daughter-in-law) to the successful textile manufacturer (who embezzles funds from his own company in order to financially support his mistress—who, by the way, he mercilessly abuses). This pervasive atmosphere of hypocrisy, repression, and moral decay makes it easy for Ken Ogata’s charismatic, chameleonic criminal to blend in with the crowd: merely donning a pair of eyeglasses, a three-piece suit, and a sheepish smile transforms him into a mathematics professor, a defense attorney, an aspiring real estate agent. And why should anybody question his (obviously fraudulent) identity? After all, he’s such a polite, soft-spoken man; surely his resemblance to that mugshot is a coincidence!
Combining the chillingly blunt violence of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the darkly comic style (emphasis on dark) of American Psycho, Vengeance Is Mine is a genuine masterpiece of the cinema macabre; I won’t soon forget its rich thematic subtext.