In the opening scenes, serial killer Iwao Enokizu is taken to a police station, where he is greeted by an angry mob and a huge crowd of journalists. The police interrogate him, but he refuses to answer. The film then switches to a series of flashback sequences, starting with the initial murders. Enokizu tricks and then kills two men, steals their money and disappears. He travels to another city, where he asks a taxi driver to take him to an inn where he can get a prostitute. He tells the innkeeper, a woman called Haru, that he is a professor at Kyoto University. The police, searching for Enokizu, put out bulletins with his face on television. The prostitute thinks the professor is Enokizu, but she is told not to go to the police because of her job.
In a flashback going back to Enokizu's childhood, he is seen as a rebellious, violent child and son of a Catholic father, whose fishing boats were confiscated by the Japanese Navy in the 1930s. As a young man, Enokizu is convicted and imprisoned for fraud. His wife, who is attracted to his father, divorces Enokizu, but is persuaded by Enokizu's father to remarry him, due to the father's Catholic beliefs. After the remarriage, she tries to seduce the father, but in vain. Enokizu, discharged from prison, accuses her of sleeping with his father while he served his sentence.
Enokizu, still wanted by the police, travels to Tokyo. He tricks the mother of a young defendant into giving him the bail money for her son. He then befriends a lawyer, kills him and uses his apartment, where he hides his victim's body. He sends some money to Haru, and travels back to her place, where Haru's mother, a convicted murderer, has recently been released from prison. Haru and her mother realise that the alleged professor is the wanted man, but keep it a secret. Enokizu kills both Haru and her mother and pawns their goods. A prostitute, who identifies Enokizu on a placard, reports him to the police.
Five years later, Enokizu has been executed and cremated. His father and wife go to the top of a mountain to scatter his ashes, but the thrown bones remain hanging in the air.
The film won the 1979 Best Picture Award at the Japanese Academy Awards, and was awarded for Best Screenplay and Best Actor (Ken Ogata) at the Yokohama Film Festival.
Over the years the cinema has given us any number of tales of the criminal underworld, and explorations of the mindsets of murderers. Yet for all that's come before there's been nothing quite like Shohei Imamura's Vengeance Is Mine... [The film] has no wish to make sense of a "senseless crime," it only wants to make "senselessness" palpable. And that it does—to devastating effect.
Imamura belongs on the shelf with Fritz Lang, Luis Buñuel, Fuller, Douglas Sirk, and Claude Chabrol, labeled "Sardonic Objectivists." Vengeance Is Mine, typically, wastes no breath on compassion, no calories on decorousness, and no time on explanations.
Though we find in Imamura's film an emotional and psychological complexity that risks repelling viewers with as much force as they might experience from a blood-and-gore thriller, there is a humanity here that is captivating.