(Introduction is in my review of “Pigs and Battleships.”)
I was restless and despairing of making it through Imamura‘s 1964 “Intentions of Murder” (Akai satsui), especially knowing it runs 153 minutes. Like his previous film “The Insect Woman,” there are freeze-frames from the start of “Intentions,” though they seem more motivated than those in “Insect Woman” and include many photographs shot by Yoshiko (Kusonoki Yuko) the very near-sighted would-be second wife of Takahashi Riichi (Nishimura Kô), a provincial librarian who sired a child by the movie’s protagonist (and not narrator, but source of some internal monologues that shows little in the way of self-consciousness, or, indeed, of any kind of consciousness), Sadako (stage actress Harukawa Masumi).
Sadako does not seem overweight to me, though other characters repeatedly describe her as “fat” or “big.” She is the granddaughter of a mistress of Riichi’s landowner grandfather. Sadako is in the household registry (required in Japan) as a maid, not as Riichi’s wife and mother of the petulant Masaru (Hino Toshihiko, who does not look frail to me; indeed, he looks plumper than Harukawa does).
Sadako’s status is tenuous. Her mother-not-quite-in-law, Tadae (Ranko Akagi), is contemptuous of her, though her quasi-husband is more so. Sadako accumulates some money of her own by weaving, much as Riichi attempts to undermine any potential autonomy… at the same time as he is trying to avoid the clingingess of his increasingly insistent mistress/coworker Yoshiko .
While he is away, a burglar named Hiraoko (Tsuyuguchi Shigeru) breaks in while her husband is gone and rapes her at knife-edge. He is a jazz musician (drummer, TB or something having made it impossible to continue to play trumpet) at a strip club. He is besotted by Sadako, who is rather bovine even if she does not look especially bovine to me. The Eternal Woman (Imamura style) thinks about killing herself out of shame at having been violated, but when she fails to throw herself in front of an oncoming train, she goes home and has some cold miso soup. (Later, she fails to hang herself. In both cases, she covers up evidence that anything out of the ordinary had happened.)
Sadako and her suitor are often on trains or streetcars or in train stations, and eventually in a long tunnel. Sadako has poisoned some tea to rid her of the man who refused to go away even when she gave him all her savings, but her problems take care of themselves in fairly plausible ways (accompanied by her stonewalling her husband’s suspicions). At the end, it seems that she has prevailed, not just survived. For one thing, she continues to work on her noisy loom even with her husband (now so registered) wanting to go to sleep. Both husband and son are sickly,. (Both are also childish; Masaru has the excuse of being a child). The woman of the people has vanquished the samurai bloodline, but it is a weak bloodline, it seems to me. (Hence, my title, though in addition to silkworms, there are mice belonging to Masaru in a very small cage. The smaller eats the larger one—literally.)
The last half hour or so is visually flashier with the train to Tokyo being blocked by a snowdrift and three leading characters setting off through the snow (in unsuitable shoes…). The ironic happy ending perhaps contributed to my liking the film more in retrospect than while I was watching. And/or the admiring explications by Tony Raynes (on the disc) and by James Quandt (in an essay in the booklet accompanying the disc) convinced me that there was more there there than I’d thought. (The tv interview by Sato Tadao of Imamura is mostly about the cast, though I learned that it was not shot in winter, so that the snow was a major production.)
I’ve already said that I like the expressionisictly photographed fifth more than the first four-fifths, but need to acknowledge that often brilliant use of dark and light areas in the interior compositions. Considering how cramped Japanese dwelling-places tend to be, there is astonishingly deep focus in many shots.
The Criterion edition has a stunning visual transfer (at a 2.35:1 ratio) with two substantial interviews is in the three-disc Criterion set “Pigs, Pimps, & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura” (with Pigs and Battleships and Insect Woman). Although in mono, the soundtrack (peculiar to western ears that have not absorbed a lot of Takemitsu sounds) is very clear, too.
I like the last half of “Pigs and Battleships” and the last fifth of “Intentions of Murder,” but the expressionist lighting and photography by Himeda Shinsaku and the mostly naturalistic observation of the difficult status and lack of options of women in Japan make all three of these uncompromising films of enduring interest (though it took Rayns’s bonus feature to convince me about “Insect Woman”). Himeda (1916-1997) also shot Imamura’s more surrealistic 1966 “Pornographers.” and Imamura’s return to using actors (after making a series of documentaries), “Vengeance Is Mine” (1979), both with male protagonists and both available on Criterion DVDs.
Imamura is the only director whose films have won three Golden Palms at Cannes (Ballad of Narayama, Black Rain, The Eel). He also directed human-flesh-eating pigs better than Pier Paolo Pasolini (in “Porcile”).
©2016, Stephen O. Murray