The savage genius of the Japanese director Shohei Imamura, recently on view here in "The Ballad of Narayama," recurs in the 1979 film "Vengeance Is Mine," playing at the Biograph in a one-week engagement. Shocking and relentless, the movie pioneers an unholy border between Rembrandt and pornography, finding a transcendent unity in the abasements and attainments of man.
Based on a true story, "Vengeance Is Mine" is thinly plotted, episodic. On the surface, it's almost a "Dragnet" episode, complete with police-blotter subtitles and a score full of brass and sawing cellos. The movie is extremely dark, cramped with walls and screens in the foreground, brightened by small patches of gold and blue splashed against the blackness -- a sort of Japanese film noir.
It opens with a police caravan taking Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) to an interrogation room; what follows are flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, showing the train of depredations that got him there. Imamura shoots the murders with a distant, clinical, mostly stationary camera, and there's nothing neat or Hollywoody about them -- Enokizu does his work with steak knives and hammers, and the killing takes a painfully long time, filled with grunting, frantic struggling, pleas for mercy, scrabbling in the mud. It makes you a callous observer eavesdropping on murder as it actually is.
In "Vengeance Is Mine," nihil humanum alienum est is the understatement of the year; there is a powerful realism at work here. Enokizu fills the time between murders by dallying with prostitutes, which Imamura shoots with the same clinical camera. There is more violence, then more sex, then more violence and then sex mixed with violence -- the vision never wavers. "Vengeance Is Mine" is like a film Alex might be shown in "A Clockwork Orange," moving you from disgust to a kind of giddiness, to puzzlement and then to prayer.
Behind thick-rimmed, bookish spectacles, flashing a supercilious smile, Ogata plays Enokizu masterfully as a kind of Tamburlaine, a sensualist taking from the world by right. He's Leopold and Loeb, the kind of Ubermensch that American movies of the 1950s were careful to tear down, but that's not how Imamura sees him; he's in command until the end. As the dazzling supernatural ending points up, Enokizu is in touch with something primal, and therefore, for Imamura, something sacred. The vision is barbaric, the technique civilized; in Imamura, form and content encapsulate all that's best and worst about us. Imamura is a poet of the harsh, a tour guide to horrific mystery.