Of the three Shohei Imamura films included in the DVD set, Pigs, Pimps, And Prostitutes: Pigs And Battleships, The Insect Woman, and Intentions Of Murder, the last film, a black and white effort made in 1964, is clearly the least of the three, although it is still quite a good film. Intentions Of Murder (or Akai Satsui or Unholy Desire) lacks the satiric edge and humor of Pigs And Battleships and is missing the realistic drama of The Insect Woman. In this manner the trilogy resembles that of fellow Japanese filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Pitfall, Woman In The Dunes, and The Face Of Another; with an arguably great first film, a masterpiece second film, and a daring, but merely good finale, because the last film overreaches.
Intentions Of Murder is the longest film, at 153 minutes, and it could have shed 30-40 minutes with no great loss. It follows the life and times of a plump young housewife, Sadako Takahashi (Masumi Harukawa), in a northern Japanese city, Sendai, who ended up marrying her lecherous employer after he impregnated her (seen in flashback). His family still looks down on her, to the point that her son Masaru (an actor whose name is not available online nor in the DVD credits), is not even legally registered with Sadako as his mother. Early on, with her husband out of town, at a conference, Sadako is raped by a burglar, Hiraoko (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi), and after thoughts of noble suicide and eating, she decides to tough it out. Then, Hiraoko becomes a stalker, and rapes her again, only to declare his love for her. Meanwhile, Sadako’s husband, Riichi (Kô Nishimura), a librarian, is having an affair with a thin, bespectacled co-worker, Miss Masuda (Yuko Kusonoki), who obsesses over him, and sets out to break up their marriage, claiming that she is his true wife because she has been his lover longer than he has even known Sadako. She stumbles upon Sadako’s new man, Hiraoko, whom she mistakes as a willing lover of Sadako’s, and intends to prove that she is as unfaithful as he is. Masuda does this so Riichi will leave Sadako and she can raise Masaru as her own. Riichi is almost as abusive to Sadako as Hiraoko, calling her fat and stupid at every opportunity, as well as being an unfaithful louse, despite his having asthma and being attended to by his wife at every occasion. He is a weak man, both physically and ethically. Yet, Sadako is mistreated by all the men in her life, including her bratty son, who disobeys her and even calls her fat.
But, things complex as Sadako finds out she is pregnant, and does not know if the fetus is her husband’s or the rapist’s. She takes a train to a doctor’s office in a nearby town, and Hiraoko confronts her, claiming the fetus is his, and wanting her to run away to Tokyo with him. When she refuses he tries to push her off the train. But, he has a heart condition and takes pills for it. Hiraoko has a seizure and she pities him, giving him an ampule, thus saving his life, but making his fixation even greater. He then cons her to a hotel, to explain things, and this time she willingly has sex with him. She plans to bribe him into leaving her alone after Masuda tells him about the rapist, and Sadako denies all, which sets Riichi’s lover off to prove Sadako is having ‘an affair.’ Sadako then plans to kill Hiraoko with a poisoned tea, after she goes off with him on a train to Tokyo, and they have to walk through snow after a derailment. Masuda follows, snapping photos the whole way. Sadako tries to poison the rapist, when they take shelter in a tunnel, but at the last minute knocks the cup out of his hand, and Hiraoko claims he knew it was poisoned because her hands were shaking. They kiss, but he has another attack, and loses his medicine in the snow. Sadako cannot find it and he dies. She panics and runs. Masuda finds the dead rapist and photographs him, and follows Sadako back on the rain to Sendai.
Leaving the train station, Sadako doubles over with pain, and is taken to a hospital, where she miscarries. Masuda, photographing everything, steps into the street to get the license plate of the ambulance, and is killed by a truck that slams her high into the air. It is a moment that is unexpected, humorous, and evokes a ‘yeah, baby’ feeling in the viewer because she, not Hiraoko, is the real villain of the piece, as the two abusive men are no match for Sadako’s resilience. But, Riichi gets ahold of his lover’s camera, via another coworker, develops the film, and sees photos of his wife, and confronts her with them. She denies most, and throws his accusations back at him, showing she knows of his adultery, and with whom. Riichi then tries to find out if the fetus was his or not, but is told it had been disposed of. The film ends with a lengthy epilogue, wherein the family reforming, Riichi getting promoted, and Sadako getting legal recognition as Masaru’s mother.
Many feminists deride the notion that a woman could fall in love with a rapist (see the American soap opera General Hospital and the early 1980s controversy of the Luke and Laura rape and marriage), and this is the basis for much negative criticism of the film but not once does Sadako claim to love her rapist. Yes, she once gives in to willing sex, but only to get him to agree to end it. But, in reality, her abuse at the hands of Hiraoko is not much worse than that her husband, Riichi, inflicts on her, and it’s clear she does not love him either. In fact, Sadako clearly shows that she has loathing for both men, and given the abuse many other people- male and female (her mother-in-law, played by Ranko Akagi) - have heaped on her, in her past (see via flashbacks) it’s not unreasonable to assume she might wonder if the rapist could, indeed, offer her a better life. After all, she does not know what we do, that he is a dying loser musician who can barely make ends meet playing at strip clubs. The reality is that the rapist falls in love with his victim, and this is the unbelievable part. The film tries to lessen Hiraoko’s guilt by claiming he only stole to pay for his medicine, and that the first rape occurred on the day he found out he was going to die. Given the simplicity of the character’s makeup, there simply is little chance that he could love anyone but his own self-pitying self. The trope also fails not because of its essence, but its clumsy soap operatic execution. There is simply no need for much of the film’s later cloak and dagger routines. It cheapens the real psychological issues that are affecting Sadako something that does not occur in the superior The Insect Woman.
The DVD, from The Criterion Collection, is a solid offering. The film is shown in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and virtually flawless. There are no noticeable scratches nor imperfections. Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda employs many cinéma vérité tactics and interesting schemes, such as freeze-frames and voiceovers that were used in the earlier films, and the scoring, by Toshiro Mayazumi, is, as in the other films, excellent and well deployed to convey character strengths and flaws, not to lead the narrative. The two mix especially well in a late scene where Masuda is following Sadako and her rapist, and violins crescendo during a shaky handheld scene. Another virtuosic musical moment occurs after the first rape, where a cartoonish ‘boing-boing’ sound dominates the scene. The screenplay, by Imamura and Keiji Hasebe, from a story by Shinji Fujiwara, is solid, but tries to pack to much into the film and, as mentioned, veers too often into melodrama. The DVD comes with no audio commentary and offers no English language dubbing. Fortunately, Criterion’s white font subtitles, which so often are unreadable against pale backgrounds in black and white films, are saved by the widescreen black bars, which make for, at least, a readable contrast for the subtitles. As for features, there is an interview with film critic and historian Tony Rayns, on the film, and an interview of Imamura by Japanese film critic Tadao Sato. Imamura’s interview, has a few good insights while Rayns’ interview is also solid, with no great moments nor gaffes, although he makes a cogent observation on the essence of the film being comic; noting a late scene where a table collapses under Sadako’s weight, after another harrowing experience with Hiraoko, as well as a scene with Masaru removing his grandfather’s dentures at a ritual. There is also an insert booklet essay by James Quandt.
Intentions Of Murder is actually at its filmic best when not dealing with the ideas of rape and murder. Its symbolism is quite strong and well used, especially its animal metaphors, such as the equation of silkworms with the penis and used to show Sadako’s odd feelings toward sex (note the smashed worm scene). Then there are Masaru’s two mice, the smaller one of which kills and eats the larger one, fascinating the boy and encapsulating Sadako’s ongoing battle with everything, as well as the treadmill they run on. Another great visual metaphor occurs when Sadako, several times, sees her reflection in the base of a hot iron, with each moment seeing her under a different sort of duress- be it physical or psychic. As a character portrait the film also succeeds, especially with its three main characters. Sadako is the most multi-faceted, but Hiraoko is not a caricature. His claims of love may seem contrived, but his evil, seen as a reaction to a death sentence, becomes believable, at least in Imamura’s hands- see the scene after the first rape, where it’s clear the man has a conscience, but also may simply be emotionally immature. Equally believable is Riichi’s indifference, snobbery, and hypocrisy. The only throwaway character is the paper-thin Masuda, whose only payoff comes in the moment of her death. In many ways, the film is reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, in that two young women, with obvious sexual abuse in their backgrounds, are left alone in a small home, only to have to fend off intruders and evil intentions. In Imamura’s film Sadako rises above fear and insanity by actually engaging and fighting back, empowering herself, whereas the heroine of Repulsion, played by Catherine Deneuve, sinks into despair and insanity by doing nothing, and twice resorting to murder- an act Sadako cannot broach.
But, too often Intentions Of Murder goes on a few moments too long in a scene, as if Imamura is admiring the scene’s cleverness, or really trying to hammer home a point. The worst example comes after Hiraoko’s death. The film goes on nearly another twenty minutes when it could have been neatly summarized in two. Nonetheless, it’s a good, occasionally very good film that, despite its flaws, is recommended viewing for its daring and successes. It is not a perfect film, but it is art, and fine art, at that.