It's a dark and snowy January night in 1964. While in the back of a police car sandwiched between two detectives, Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) takes time out from singing to note that "Life sure ain't fair." One of the officers corrects him by adding that it's also not fair to the five people he has killed. This one small, brief moment manages to brilliantly capture the essence of the man we'll be getting to know a little more about over the course of the next two and a half hours. Not equipped with traits such as empathy and compassion, and not kept in check with things like loyalty to family or fear in God, Iwao's life is a life about one thing: Himself. Nothing supersedes his own needs and desires, and if you happen to get in his way of him getting what he wants, then too bad for you. When Iwao and the detectives arrive at the police station, they're greeted by the press and an angry, threatening mob of people. The authorities have a hell of a time getting Iwao to cooperate. He's more concerned with keeping up his hygiene and staying out of the cold than giving a confession. After all, if they think they know what he's done and who's he done it to already, why does he need to rehash it? Iwao had been on the run for 78 days prior to his capture. We then go back in time to see the events leading up to a nationwide manhunt for Iwao.
In 1938 while WWII was underway, the navy showed up to lay claim on his family's fleet of fishing boats. A very young Iwao, already showing signs of being of a short-tempered sociopath with a violent streak, attacked a sailor and called his father Shizuo (Rentarô Mikuni) a "weakling" for not fighting back. Forced to sell out, the family used the money to relocate and open a hotel; the Goto Inn. Iwao's formative years were mostly spent in a reformatory in an ill-fated attempt to straighten him out. By 1946, he was serving his first prison term for stealing an American jeep. Not knowing what to do with him, Shizuo and his sickly wife Kayo (Chocho Miyako) set up an arranged marriage to Kazuko Omura (Mitsuko Baishô), figuring he may settle down with a wife and children to support. Hardly. Despite Kazuko and two young daughters now in the picture Iwao's criminal activities continue. Not surprisingly, Iwao proves to be a terrible husband. He's abusive, extremely cruel and has no issue being unfaithful. He also doesn't seem the least bit interested in his kids. The one thing that drives him is money, and he'll do anything to get it, which soon lands him another 30 months in prison for fraud.
While his son is in prison, Shizuo goes to Kazuko and begs her to give his son another chance and return to the family's inn. Reluctantly she agrees, but only because she's fallen in love with her father-in-law and vice versa. Because Kayo is very ill (she has a weak heart and other medical problems) and Iwao is useless and always locked up, Shizuo and Kazuko have become highly dependent on one another over the years, though they've never acted upon their mutual attraction. Shizuo is even kind enough to arrange for a friend to come make love to the lonely Kazuko while her husband is locked up. And that's perfectly fine with Iwao. Once he's released from prison, he uses the information as just another way to make some money by blackmailing his wife's one-time lover and threatening to kill him and burn down his house if he doesn't come up with 100,000 yen. After receiving that, Iwao claims he's finally going to go straight with a job at a PR company but even that is just a guise to swindle more money. Only this time, Iwao viciously stabs two men to death in the process and is forced to flee the city. A manhunt is now underway. Wanted posters with Iwao's face are plastered up everywhere and he's a frequent fixture on the news. The hangman's noose awaits if he's captured.
Iwao adopts various aliases and false identities, claiming to be lawyers and professors, in order to fleece money out of more vulnerable victims, while frequently hopping around from city to city to avoid capture. Along the way, he murders an aged lawyer simply because he wants a cheap place to stay and strikes up an odd relationship with Haru Asano (Mayumi Ogawa), a prostitute and hotel owner, and her gambling-addict mother (Nijiko Kiyokawa), who'd spent time in prison herself for murder. Haru has an older "sugar daddy" who pays her mortgage and has no issue slapping her around and raping her in front of her mother, as well as a younger lover, who ends up running off and getting married to someone else. So damaged by life, so desperate for love and companionship, Haru decides to let Iwao hide out in her hotel even after finding out who he really is, with tragic consequences.
This is a fascinating, compelling, insightful, extremely well-made, brilliantly written (Masaru Baba adapted the novel by Ryuzo Saki; which is said to be based in part on real-life serial killer Akira Nishiguchi) and directed look inside an unfeeling criminal mind. Many moments are grueling, uncomfortable and / or disturbing to watch, but it's also often very funny and all nicely balanced out with black comedy. I'd be hard pressed singling any one person out in the cast, as all of the actors are exceptional in their respective roles. The only thing that didn't quite work for me was the very last scene.
Though it didn't really seem to get its due outside of Asia at the time, Vengeance ended up sweeping many of the awards in its home country. It was nominated for 12 from the Awards of the Japanese Academy and won for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography (Shinsaku Himeda), Lighting (Yasuo Iwaki), Screenplay and Supporting Actress (Ogawa). It also won many other Asian film awards. The DVD is from the Criterion Collection.