I’m not always inclined to post about entire movies, especially as most of what I post here is initial responses on a first viewing, partly to try and get my own thinking in order, and hopefully to share some unvarnished points of interest that make a contribution, however tiny, to the knowledge sediment that is the blogosphere (there must be a better word for it – any ideas?). So, I thought I’d say something about just the closing shots of Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine (1979). I don’t think I’m giving too much away about the plot that isn’t given away at the start of the film, but obviously I’m talking about the ending, so don’t read on if you want to go and watch it: you can always read about the film from far more well-versed commentators with these links:
When I’m introducing new students to the study of film form and giving them sequence analyses to carry out, I always warn them not to attach fixed meanings to particular formal techniques or types of shot, mainly because meaning is always a fluid thing inflected by context of the film and the particular proclivities, interests, intertexts and expertises brought to the film by each spectator, but also because there is simply no easy connection between a type of shot and the inference that is designed to be drawn from it in every case. Each close-up, each match cut or tracking shot must be taken on its own terms as part of a broader formal system. The last few shots of Vengeance are a good example of a series of freeze frames which are specifically significant to this film rather than the ritualistic enactments of a constant piece of filmic syntax. To be a bit less convoluted about it, the same shot will do different things in different films.
Vengeance is Mine is a largely factual account of a notorious Japanese serial killer, Iwao Enokizu (in real life the killer’s name was Akira Nishiguchi, and you can learn a litte more, but not much, about his case here) filling in the details of how he spent the last 78 days of his crime spree on the run prior to his apprehension. Much of the story is told out of sequence, but the ending shows his wife and father, who have explored but ultimately resisted consummation of their mutual attraction throughout the film, scattering Iwao’s bones from a mountain overlooking the city in which he’d lived. As each bone is thrown, it stops dead in the air, failing to fall to earth as expected.
The effect is achieved by means of simple freeze-frames, a basic technique which is peculiar to cinema, often as a way of adding emphasis to a particular shot, allowing it to be inspected more closely than other images and therefore to be privileged, making it an indicative image of a broader theme. The rest of the film has been constructed in a starkly realist fashion, cataloguing events in a soberly distanced and seemingly unemotional way. This is probably the only instance where an expressionistic formal flourish is allowed to come to the fore and issue a powerful statement. What makes it most striking is that the two characters in the scene seem to be able to see the bones stopping in the air, which is obviously not possible and contrasts with the diegetic logic of the rest of the film.
The POV shots, eyeline mathes and reverse shots, connect the shots of the flying bones to the faces of the people throwing them and watching them fly. They become increasingly frustrated at the failure of the bones to return to the ground and be reclaimed by the land. It appears that, even in death, Iwao’s memory cannot be banished. The legacy of his killings and the shame and abuse that he heaped upon his family will always hang over them, whatever rituals of expurgation and excommunication are performed. This seems like an obvious point that would have been made anyway – his execution concludes his life but it is clear just from the looks on their faces that his family have been deeply affected by events. I think that the use of such an anomalous technique is a self-conscious point of stylisation that pushes the closing statement beyond the diegetic space of the film and out into the audience. That is to say, it shows that the effect of the murders will resonate beyond the lives of those directly involved and send shockwaves into wider society. By unsettling the structure of the film itself, the viewer can be jolted out of an externalised engagement with the story: the viewer is usually protected by being a voyeuristic onlooker, a watcher who cannot be watched, and the fictionalised characters of the film cannot witness the mechanics of the film that tells their story, but in this case Imamura connects the two zones by having them both see something impossible at the same level, with all protective boundaries ruptured.