Intentions of Murder Review
Shohei Imamura's follow-up to his remarkable 1963 feature The Insect Woman is a thematic peer to the earlier film, but ultimately a more troubling one. I'd also regard it as the superior accomplishment. Imamura seems to have left little in the tank with Intentions of Murder (Akai satsui). The film is quietly massive. Sometimes slow but entirely involving, the 150 minutes of runtime allow the director to establish a controlled and ambitious fable where nothing is easily dismissed, digested or fully interpreted. While Imamura wasn't a filmmaker necessarily defined by a single film or with any one work obviously the best, Intentions of Murder is what I most often have difficulty getting a satisfactory handle on, and I think it may also be his finest picture.
As with other Imamura heroines of the era, the lead character Sadako is an unhappy, unappreciated woman of less than modest stock who is dragged through conflict only to emerge with complicated, specific victory. She shares a common strength of survival, achieved only by circumstance here. Through her repeated displays of plain, unrefined mediocrity, she transcends the nature of ordinary and demands interest, even sympathy. Sadako’s suffering becomes a theme of sorts, encompassing more than just herself, and her reactions, while passive to a fault, remain steadfastly human. She's decades and a couple of generations removed from her grandmother, but a supposed curse the older woman put on her master's family has persisted over the years. Sadako is looked upon unfavorably by virtually everyone, especially her mother-in-law and even Riichi, the common-law husband who fathered her child. That relationship seems shakily built on a night of lust that persevered across time into a loveless existence. Librarian Riichi has even been having an affair with a co-worker for a decade but seems to hold little interest in her. Sadako knits occasionally but mostly stays at home, watching too much television according to Riichi.
The lived-in commonness Imamura gives Sadako, where her frumpy youth is little help in the cage of social class she occupies, is consistent with the director’s interest in the lower middle class of postwar Japan. His films resonate through an artificial universality, as the audience may not truly share the heroine’s situational concerns, but Imamura’s jaundiced eye makes us feel like we do. There’s a griminess to witnessing Sadako’s invasion, of home, privacy and self. A man, later identified as strip club musician Hiraoka, wields a knife as means to take only a few dollars, but becomes inspired in the process to force himself on Sadako. It’s a repulsive act given full horror by Imamura. What’s unexpected, leaving the viewer further disoriented, is the single tear that falls down Hiraoka's face when he rolls off of Sadako. Aside from bringing to mind questions of character and motive, the tear slightly humanizes, for better or worse, the rapist and makes his monstrous behavior gather new dimension. This is a person whose actions disgust even himself.
The tear also serves as a warning to the viewer that things will not be quite as cut and dry as possibly expected. The rapist will return, remorseful but still volcanic. An odd arrangement develops between attacker and victim. Imamura doesn't let his audience ever know quite what to make of this situation. The actress who plays Sadako, Masumi Harukawa, is so extraordinary, perfect really, as to evoke the character's empty, passive will into each of her actions. It's incredibly frustrating to attempt to pin any conventional emotion on her. There's no way to fairly judge any reaction as normal or correct in her situation. Japanese custom dictates the shame of a rape victim requires suicide despite her obvious innocence. Sadako sharply feels this but cannot bring herself to follow through either time. She instead gains comfort by eating, voraciously attacking cold miso soup over rice. When the dynamic between Sadako and Hiraoka continues she confronts it by relenting, transforming what were rapes into consensual acts. Her shame too subsides to some degree, though never entirely. The psychological implications here evolve from troubling to completely stunning.
Sadako’s behavior grows increasingly difficult to understand for the remainder of the film. Her rapist transitions into a stalker, an admirer, and, finally, a lover. When she has the chance to end the arrangement, Sadako summons up the nature of her own humanity by saving Hiraoka’s life. True to the film’s title, her intentions eventually do include murder, but Imamura warns that this is no answer for a much more complicated problem. Metaphor is tucked away inside Sadako’s actions. For such a seemingly simple woman, her strength in feeling and action lends itself to gloriously complex readings. Imamura’s films are obsessed with showing that those treated as not mattering by more forward-thinking society people are usually the ones who best represent the hope within humankind. Sadako’s basic good, in the face of mistreatment and shunning to the point of not even being acknowledged as the mother of her own son, doesn’t triumph in a soul-stirring moment, but it does more realistically permeate her every action when those around her often deserve much harsher treatment. Playfully, Imamura gives just such a fate to a particularly loathsome character, the long-time mistress and co-worker of Sadako’s librarian husband. The director’s dark humor is almost always sprinkled unexpectedly throughout his films, and the shocking, morbidly funny dismissal of the bespectacled would-be spy is deeply satisfying, perhaps even too much so. One gets the feeling that Imamura especially detests the character and those like her who are so hypocritical as to be humorous. Hypocrisy was a favorite target for the director, and in the case of Intentions of Murder, the heroine’s world crumbles partially due to the Japanese customs that stray far from consistent or fair. Sadako’s rape, of which she was entirely a victim, would have disgraced her entire family had it become known, yet her husband’s affair raises little concern.
There's some tendency to draw too broad an auteur swath where we measure the film almost entirely against what's known about Imamura and his work. The director came from middle class origins but soon enough jumped into the seedier side of Japan without hesitation. He cherished a full sense of the particulars of Japan's uniqueness with as much reverence as the otherwise starkly different Yasujiro Ozu, with whom Imamura apprenticed as an assistant director. The two men simply saw Japan with different points of fascination. Imamura gleaned equally from libraries and red light districts while Ozu was more interested in family situations. Where Imamura is so absolutely intriguing is this realistic spin he adeptly meshed with acknowledged fiction. It's often mentioned that he did documentary work beginning with the semi-fictional A Man Vanishes in 1967 and continuing up until 1979's Vengeance Is Mine, a fiction work that unsettles with moments that feel truthful, and that many of his other films can be described as adhering to an almost nonfiction narrative.
It may have been these experiences of seeing the more unwashed side of Japan that influenced Imamura enough to develop a great humanity in his treatments. Imamura the documentary director found a clinical coolness. Imamura the purveyor of the downtrodden favored a chilly empathy where he could still present the objectivity missing from most any other filmmaker's agenda. His films don't instruct the viewer to empathize with the characters. They merely ask that these people be treated with the same respect as anyone else, maybe more, and at least understood before being criticized. The value in this is somewhat lessened by viewing Intentions of Murder, or most any of Imamura's films, as simply part of a filmography. It's easier to dismiss a movie as one in several when doing this. Instead, take Intentions of Murder on its own. Watch it, see how you react. Don't only place it inside a little shoebox of a director's career.
Though knowledge of Imamura’s films obviously helps put Intentions of Murder in context, it plays quite well even on its own terms, with or without metaphorical implications. The black and white Scope photography is frequently beautiful and framed with great care. A shot of Sadako at the far right of the frame waiting for a train reminds us why inches of plasma should never be the ideal point of reference. The snow storm that hits the Tokyo area near the film’s end cleanses some of the thematic muck, adding purity in mind if not in truth. Visually, scenes like these give the film a richness that begs to be experienced more than simply watched. There's an earlier sequence, this one on a train, which proves crucial in the story and finds Imamura quickening the pace. At one point during that particular section, the viewer can see shadows of the camera and its operator in the window. Usually the assumption would be that this was an unintentional error, but given some of the ideas explored in A Man Vanishes, the director may have at least left it in on purpose.
A signature in many of Imamura’s films, the presence of insects or other lowly creatures allows these entomological wonders to crawl around the wide black and white frame in obvious parallel to the director’s tread-upon characters. Intentions of Murder has a flashback to a silkworm making its way along Sadako’s thigh before disaster strikes. The worms appear again late in the film and it’s difficult to forget the oozing insides crushed out of one particularly unlucky fellow. There’s also a pair of white mice, pets of Sadako’s young son, featured prominently by Imamura. Though the action isn’t shown, one literally eats through his companion. The image of a dead mouse with a hole through its midsection is another that’s hard to shake after viewing. These apparent interludes are done in such a matter-of-fact style as to be fascinating. I think of the ill-fated worm and mouse and then I think about how Intentions of Murder makes the viewer feel. It doesn’t seem entirely different. Imamura gnaws at your insides when he’s not squeezing the life out of you, and it’s oddly thrilling.
Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura is Criterion's name for the box set release of Intentions of Murder, Pigs and Battleships, and The Insect Woman. The films are exclusive to the set and not released individually. Each dual-layered R1 disc is housed in an individual keepcase with its own 16-page booklets inside. A distinctive font has been used throughout the set, including in the text of the essays, and a striking hot pink color that resembles the inside of a dragon fruit brightens up the interior of the box as well as the actual discs.
As with the previous films, Intentions of Murder utilizes a wide 2.35:1 frame with intentionally high contrast. The contrast here isn't hardly as pronounced and the extremely bright whites are used sparingly. The snowy portion of the movie obviously relies on a certain brightness, but it doesn't look overly artificial. Heavy blacks are still common in the transfer. They look appropriately stark in appearance. The image overall may be just a shade superior to what was done with The Insect Woman, but all three of the Imamura films are very similarly and impressively brought to the home viewer. I'll reiterate that the detail or crispness isn't perfect, a notch below a Criterion release like the Hiroshi Teshigahara set from a couple of years ago, but the result is still excellent.
A thin hiss can be heard for parts of the Japanese mono audio. It's not much of a detriment to an otherwise adequate track. Despite having a distinctive score that builds on some of the sounds also heard in The Insect Woman, this film generally has less music and ambient noise than the earlier one. Criterion's single-channel track is a modest success, with clear audio at a consistent level of volume. The English subtitles are optional and white in color.
Critic Tadao Sato sits down with Imamura to discuss Intentions of Murder in a conversation (23:40) focusing on that film. We hear how the project went from a short story in a women's magazine to the more idiosyncratic work Imamura put on screen. As with The Insect Woman, it's such a treat to have these interviews that pry open Imamura's thought processes just a little on specific films. A video interview (12:38) with Tony Rayns maintains the consistency of the other two discs in the set. Rayns does seem captivated by the movie. A 16-page booklet inside the case offers James Quandt's take. Quandt, who edited a now out of print book of essays on Imamura, delivers a perceptive piece of writing well worth reading.
Though all three of the booklet essays for the Imamura discs provide nice, lengthy analyses, the Tony Rayns interviews sort of become the default voice while considering the films. Rayns also provided commentary on the Masters of Cinema release of Imamura's Vengeance Is Mine and he's certainly a perceptive critic. Still, with the exception of a brief introduction by director Alex Cox on that MoC effort, the supplementary, on-disc analysis for every English language Imamura release thus far has been done by him. At some point, hopefully as a few more Imamura titles trickle out on both sides of the Atlantic, I'd like to hear the critical chorus on the director expanded a little beyond just Rayns.
The Criterion Collection has taken three films by director Shohei Imamura and packaged them in a sensationally named box set, but these movies aren't exploitative or unseemly in nature. Imamura transformed layers of sleaze into something profound. He was concerned with a stylized version of life's truths as experienced by the oppressed, and his films refuse sentimentality but never lack emotion. They resemble documentaries even when the characters are fictional. Intentions of Murder is a particularly affecting work, and perhaps the most visually arresting of Imamura's black and white features. Watching the three movies in this set in the order they were made is probably ideal, with Intentions of Murder the most challenging and rewarding. If you like what you see, and these films won't be for everyone, make sure to pick up Criterion's supplement-free release of The Pornographers.