JAPANESE cinema, like sushi, is an acquired taste. But "Vengeance Is Mine" by Shohei Imamura is not easy to appreciate, even if you have an appetite for films like "The Makioka Sisters" or Kurosawa's samurai classics.

Imamura eschews the samurai and the graceful geisha girls to document Japan's low life, like an anthropologist digging in ash cans. "Vengeance Is Mine," made in 1979, marks his return to feature films after nine years of documentaries and television programs. And that experience marks the movie, which resembles a Japanese "Dragnet," down to the corny, exaggerated score.

It's a relentless dramatization of the life of mass murderer Iwao Enokizu and his relationships with his family and his victims. Ken Ogata plays the unfeeling Enokizu, a human Vegematic who slices, chops and hacks his victims to death, but only after he gets to know them. The blood is orange and the murders look like B-movie parodies.

The story follows Enokizu on a 78-day crime spree, shifting confusingly in time and place. Now and then the screen goes black. Times like these you have to remember the days when you swallowed your raw tuna bits whole. Times like these you have to remember this is the Japanese avant-garde. So either it's art, or you are just sitting in the dark, listening to people grunt in a foreign language, looking at a large dark square.

Artistic vision or someone else's nightmare? It's hard to tell. The director freely mixes fantasy and reality, dream-time and real-time. And we can't always follow, should we even care to.

All the same, Imamura does achieve his declared goal -- "to make messy, really human, Japanese, unsettling films." And the actor Ogata is a perfect weapon. He's extremely effective as a creepy sociopath and part-time sex maniac.

Before you get your hopes up, the sex looks painful and the parties involved usually discuss such topics as severance pay in mid-act. The typical Imamura heroine, wife of the murderer, attempts to seduce her father-in-law, and seems quite happy to learn that her mother-in- law is about to die. These two are the nicest folks in the film, with the exception of a madam and her mother, who likes to peep through key holes and is a murderer herself.

VENGEANCE IS MINE (Unrated) -- In Japanese with English subtitles at the Biograph.