Vengeance Is Mine is a messy beast of a film, a sprawling neo-noir with a cold tone and a defiant narrative structure. Knowing only Imamura's other films in the collection - the triptych of Pigs, Pimps, & Prostitutes and The Pornographers - I was curious to see how Vengeance Is Mine - made a decade after those films and clearly focused on a male protagonist in a neo-noir context - would fit into his style. No surprise: there's plenty of gender and sexual politics here, from the killer's deserted wife desperate for her father-in-law's embrace to the lonely and abused innkeeper he slowly cons into his life before coldly strangling her to death in one of the most harrowing moments in the Collection. Imamura's eye towards the downtrodden and the overlooked remains ever-loyal, and consequently Vengeance Is Mine serves less as the crime docudrama it pretends to be and more as the confirmation of everything Imamura fears and loves about Japan, depicting the forgotten and the damned with equal objectivity.
I really loved the comparison of Imamura to Sam Fuller in the accompanying essay. Both directors produced work that walks the line between subversive and exploitative, and while Fuller could occasionally lapse into Freudian psychobabble, both directors were much more interested in shining a light on the overlooked questions of their respective societies than in answering them. Here, Imamura has taken a Fulleresque true crime story and made it his own - somewhat similar to what fellow new-wave Japanese director Nagisa Oshima did with the equally (if not exceedingly) disturbing In the Realm of the Senses just a few years previous.
Unlike Oshima, however, Imamura chooses to present his film as an unfocused (yet roughly linear) journey. Iwao is certainly the protagonist, but he's hardly the end goal. The finished product then is both confidently steered by a master at the top of his game and deceptively rudderless. This primarily stems from Imamura's refusal to take a stand against his protagonist or explain his motives with anything more than half-hearted flashbacks to travesties past. Throughout his other films in the collection, Imamura has shown no sympathy for Japanese men, and not much has changed here - no surprise when the film is about a charming lady killer that fascinated his nation. It makes for a dark epic that could easily seem unworthy of the journey required to digest it, but skates by on Imamura's supreme talent and irrepressibly twisted wit.