Intentions of Murder August 12, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s, Shohei Imamura , trackback
Forever transforming intricate layers of sleaze into something profound, Shohei Imamura continued on the same path he’d journeyed in 1963’s The Insect Woman with its follow-up, Intentions of Murder. The 1964 film approaches many of Imamura’s favorite subjects, notably an unremarkable and unhappy woman dragged through conflict and emerging with complicated victory. The women in his films tend to be forgotten and ignored. If they had any discernible positives, you could also add underappreciated. Their greatest strength is often mere survival, and in the case of this particular heroine, Sadako, it’s achieved accidentally. Through her repeated displays of common, 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 appearing perverse at times, remain steadfastly human.
The lived-in commonness Imamura gives Sadako, a young, but frumpy common-law wife and mother, 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 failing musician Hiraoko, 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 Hiraoko’s face when he rolls off of Sadako. Aside from bringing to mind questions of character and motive, the tear humanizes, for better or worse, the rapist and presents him not as a crazed monster, but a multi-dimensional person whose actions disgust even himself.
This possibly makes it easier to accept, though not necessarily understand, Sadako’s behavior in 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 Hiraoko’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, especially of this period, 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 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 always 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. She develops, in her own primitive way, a plan to deal with the shame, but her ineptitude also becomes a savior.
Imamura may be too clinical to allow a reading of Sadako’s failed suicide as anything other than narratively pleasing. It’s simply one step, the lowest before reversing course, in the continued process of her experiencing life through tragedy. Some viewers have found Imamura cold in his depictions of those barely above the fray, but it’s really more of a chilly empathy, designed as objective though not always staying there. His endings, unlike many of his contemporaries in the Japanese New Wave, tend towards hopeful, perhaps not in a traditional sense, but nonetheless with some degree of optimism. Part of the merit in Imamura’s work is that he doesn’t simply draw attention to a problem and artfully snicker. Intentions of Murder and many of his other films offer subtle reminders that dealing with the issue can be a solution in itself.
Sadako begins the film without claim to her son or husband, not respected by her mother-in-law, and potentially in danger of losing everything. It takes harrowing circumstances to correct these problems, but she emerges, despite the psychological scars, with a more stable situation, and one far better than if she had ignored the rape. If you’re inclined to dig for broad metaphors. Sadako is Japan and her rape is the country’s defeat in World War II, including the twin atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Keeping that analogy, Sadako’s despair was only solved after she came to terms with the attack and its aftermath. Facing it head-on, regardless of intention, became the necessary option.
Though knowledge of Imamura’s films obviously helps put Intentions of Murder in context, it plays quite well even on its own, non-metaphorical terms. 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 42″plasma televisions 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 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. Another sequence, on a train, is quite commanding, as well. 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 Imamura’s own A Man Vanishes, the director may have at least left it in on purpose. Probably not, but who knows for sure.
Likely to be entirely intentional, and a noted signature in many of Imamura’s films, is the presence of insects or other lowly creatures. Anthropological wonders 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 seeing. 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 your insides when he’s not squeezing the life out of you and it’s oddly thrilling.