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The movie has been described as a Japanese "In Cold Blood," and that will do for starters, I suppose. But the Richard Brooks film of "In Cold Blood" went for a black and white, grimly realistic documentary look, while director Shohei Imamura has wider concerns in "Vengeance is Mine." His film is based on the true story of real crimes, to be sure, but it is also a cry of despair and hopelessness on behalf of its insane hero.
The hero (who is heroic in the same doomed sense as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment) is Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata). We learn that he went on a killing rampage in the early '60s, murdering two railroad employees for their money and then fleeing across Japan - killing, committing fraud, posing as a university professor, somehow eluding the police for 78 days.
The film begins with bloody scenes showing his early crimes, and then flashes back to a traumatic childhood incident in which his father, devoutly religious, is shamed in the young son's eyes by a naval officer. This sort of instant psychoanalysis is about as convincing as the angel from heaven whose arrival was expected momentarily in. "In Cold Blood." But Imamura doesn't insist on the motivations of his character. Instead, he follows him across Japan and through several relationships, including one with a prostitute and another with a woman innkeeper who comes to love him and offers to share his fate.
There are also scenes combining violence with the terrible madness that possesses Enokizu. An encounter with an elderly lawyer on a train, for example, leads to a murder and then to a grisly and unspeakably depressing scene in the lawyer's apartment: The killer tapes up a closet containing the victim's body, and then sits down to drink himself senseless.
Movies about actual crimes are usually frustrating because, limited to the facts, they pretend that the facts are enough. (This was also the flaw of Norman Mailer's book about Gary Gilmore, "The Executioner's Song.") "Vengeance is Mine" transcends those limitations and gives us a portrait of a killer that is poignant, tragic and banal enough to deserve the comparison with Crime and Punishment.
"Vengeance is Mine" plays at 7 and 9:15 p.m., Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday at Francis Parker School, 2247 N. Clark; admission is $3.50.