To be “New Wave” in film means very little. There are no set parameters that define how inclusive or inconclusive the term is. In France, the New Wave occurred outside of the established studio system independently, in West Germany the government and its sanctioned television stations financed the first directors of the so called movement, while is Japan the studios themselves nurtured unknown directors on low budget films and even branded them New Wave in an attempt to capitalize on the success of the French New Wave. Beginning in an established studio system prompted a higher degree of genre and style diversity in the Japanese New Wave, so that on a technical level few New Wave films had very much in common. Nagisa Oshima displayed proficiency for a unique blend of social satire, eroticism and existential fatalism. Seijun Suzuki’s films manifest the debauchery of Americanized Japan as well as the pulpy camp of American B-Movies in a context of rebellion against traditionalism. Shohei Imamura’s films adhered closely to the classicism of his mentor Ozu, but only as a means to subvert and explore Japanese society. In this respect, Imamura is among one of the most accessible of these filmmakers but also the most overlooked. Without the kinetic energy of Oshima and the vaudevillian camp of Suzuki, Imamura presented what appeared to be very little in terms of rebellion on the technical level. However, because Imamura utilizes a classicist visual style, his subversion becomes far more significant and meaningful. Imamura’s Vengeance Is Mine (1979) represents his style and sociological interests with the utmost clarity, and goes further to demonstrate the thematic values of the New Wave in general. That is not to say that Vengeance Is Mine is a classic film exclusively because of its context, on the contrary, New Wave or not, Vengeance Is Mine continues to be one of the most masterful Japanese films ever made.
In keeping with the subversive attitude of the Japanese New Wave, Imamura’s film opens with a crowd of people, accompanied by the press, jeering as police bring in to custody Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), a renowned serial killer. This instance, that is recreated throughout the film as bystanders leer from windows and passing cars at the violence Enokizu has wrought, is indicative of what Imamura saw as Japan’s moral decay as it journeyed farther and farther into the modern age. This relationship between tradition and modernity is reinforced in the film with scenes such as that which occurs on a truck, where Enokizu mocks an old man’s working class values. Later in the film Imamura, using flashbacks, indicates that Enokizu’s prejudice for the older generation stems from his relationship with his father (this relationship is a reflection of that between Imamura himself and his mentor Ozu). For Imamura, modernity, though useful in terms of its technological and economic innovations, has undermined Japanese values, the very values propagated in the films of his mentor, Ozu, as well as in the films of Ichikawa and Kurosawa. Yet, Vengeance Is Mine neither advocates modernity not traditionalism, preferring instead to investigate the conflict exclusively, depicting the failings of both perspectives. Similarly, the relationship between Enokizu and the popular press in Vengeance Is Mine works as a social commentary in direct correlation with Nagisa Oshima’s Violence at Noon (1966).
In Vengeance Is Mine and Violence at Noon, both filmmakers are fascinated by the acts of violence perpetrated by their protagonists. Where Oshima uses black and white photography as a remove from the violence, as well as to reinforce the realism of the drama, Imamura revels in the red of the blood, saturating the color of his film. Thematic concerns are what bind these two films together, their narrative construction differing to such an extent that it becomes difficult at times to group Oshima and Imamura together within the same school of filmmaking. Though each film makes use of flashbacks, Vengeance Is Mine is concerned with the testimony of its flashbacks in so far as how they pertain to police procedure, rather than the existential reflections of Violence At Noon. To establish the police procedural aspect of the narrative, Imamura places a sequence of police investigations into Enokizu’s murders accompanied with titles that inform the audience of various statistics (time of death, age of victim, manner of death, etc) before the flashbacks begin at the beginning of his film.
An analysis of the narrative arc employed in Vengeance Is Mine reveals a closer affiliation with the pulpy crime films of Samuel Fuller rather than the heightened camp of Seijun Suzuki’s films. Just as stylized as Suzuki, Imamura is able to practice restraint, investigating reality not through unreality but through either reflection or magnification. This mode of filmmaking is exactly what set Samuel Fuller above his contemporaries in America. But Imamura is not enamored of the American cinema, on the contrary, in Vengeance Is Mine he depicts Americans as loud and obnoxious, alluding to their ability to corrupt and derail Japanese society in the wake of WWII, a standpoint Oshima also articulates in two of his earliest features The Sun’s Burial (1960) and Cruel Story Of Youth (1960).
More thematic similarities between Imamura and Oshima arise in the treatment of sex in Vengeance Is Mine. Sex in Oshima’s films, particularly Empire Of Passion (1978), is a means by which characters control one another. In Vengeance Is Mine, sex is a prelude to emotional of physical violence, staged to be just as graphic and equally disturbing. The sexuality in Vengeance Is Mine is incestuous (Enokizu’s father sleeps with his wife) and promiscuous (Enokizu’s father forces Enokizu’s wife to pursue other men while Enokizu is in prison). The sexual degradation of Vengeance Is Mine further emphasizes Japan’s moral dissent, just as the film charts the Americanization of Japan as it tells Enokizu’s life story. The association between sexual depravity and moral decay was also the subject of Oshima’s Double Suicide: Japanese Summer (1967). But unlike Oshima, Imamura prefers to let his scenes of sex and violence occur in longer, more naturalistic sequences, ignoring the New Wave trend of rapid fire jump cuts.
The visual palette of Vengeance Is Mine is one of realism, lit with naturally motivated light. Imamura’s combination of static shots and fluid pans and tracking shots juxtaposed with slow hand held sequences makes Vengeance Is Mine equally significant as Imamura’s early work with visual obstruction and deep focus. The tone and varying style of Vengeance Is Mine pointed to a new trend in Japanese filmmaking, where the energy of the New Wave would be reined in to accommodate the more meditative narratives that dominated Japanese cinema in the eighties. The desire to pursue a more philosophical mode of filmmaking came from the failed youth movement of the sixties and the increase in pornographic film production. To return to the comparison with Nagisa Oshima, Oshima’s later films are intrinsically linked to this new trend that Imamura had been working towards for a decade before Vengeance Is Mine. Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) and Max Mon Amour (1986) are static in comparison to Boy (1969) or Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968). The stasis of these two later films is a direct result of Imamura’s influence on Oshima that is best exemplified by Vengeance Is Mine.
That said, the timelessness of Vengeance Is Mine is totally the product of Imamura’s portrait of Enokizu. The helplessness of those around Enokizu, the moral decay of Japan, and the ruthless violence of the film present the failings of humanity with a stark clarity that many claim to have achieved but few have truly realized. In a global society still tormented by violence and moral depravity, Vengeance Is Mine continues to be relevant and effective in the presentation of its themes and cruel excess.