Intentions of Murder: Eros and Civilization

May 21, 2009

Early in Shohei Imamura’s Intentions of Murder, the librarian Riichi distractedly peruses Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization while conversing with his clinging mistress, Yoshiko. One can read the reference in many ways: as a glancing jest, as an (uncharacteristic) Imamurian homage to an intellectual influence, or simply as one of many signifiers of Western culture on the cold, autocratic Riichi, embodiment of much of what Imamura loathed in contemporary Japan. That a seemingly insignificant detail turns out to be richly suggestive and key to the film’s meaning indicates how cunningly contrived Intentions of Murder (1964), like so much of Imamura’s work, is.

The very setting for this assignation—rows of books indexed and arranged—bespeaks the official culture, ordered and rational, with which Riichi is repeatedly associated, in contradistinction to the slovenly, obtuse, and instinctual nature of his peasant wife, the film’s heroine, Sadako, whom Imamura described thus: “Medium height and weight, light coloring, smooth skin. The face of a woman who loves men. Maternal, good genitals, juicy.” The asthmatic Riichi is, by comparison, reedy, dry, his sparse, pinched features contrasting with Sadako’s sturdy, bovine plumpness. (She gorges herself on leftovers after being raped, instead of killing herself as Japanese code dictates.) As so often occurs in Imamura’s films, Eros and instinct, ancient and intractable forces, here incarnated by Sadako, undermine and ultimately triumph over civilization.

Imamura said, “You may think that all this [the Yokohama skyline] is real, but to me it’s all an illusion. The reality is in those little shrines, the superstition and irrationality that pervade the Japanese consciousness under the veneer of business suits and advanced technology.” He famously stated elsewhere, “I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure,” an analogy that subsumes all of his cinema, and certainly Intentions of Murder, in which the superstitious, lowborn Sadako, grandchild of a suicide and daughter of a bar hostess, represents Imamura’s “reality” to the illusory reason and control of her feudalistic, class-obsessed husband and his terrorizing mother. Riichi dismisses a rival at work as “the son of a peasant,” and resists registering Sadako as his wife, and Masaru as their son, because of her “embarrassing” peasant background; “You’re only a housemaid!” he cries, tearing her hair, when he suspects her of an affair with a young student neighbor. (Double standards about adultery, as well as smoking, are thematic markers in the film.) Concerned with appearance and position, the clenched, retentive Riichi complains that Sadako spends too much on food and electricity. (The cost of things—rice, television, an abortion—is detailed throughout with the materialist insistence of Mikio Naruse.)

As if to prove his pronouncement “I like to make messy films,” Imamura’s teeming ’Scope frames can barely contain the outsize performances, hectic energy, and eccentric spectacle for which he is celebrated. (Note in Intentions of Murder how he places the little joke of Masaru removing his addled grandfather’s false teeth during the Shinto ritual in extreme left frame, so that one hardly notices it, or sends Yoshiko stumbling across Hirose Bridge in the lower edge of the frame while the image is focused on the rapist.) Also “messy” is Imamura’s impure conflation of genres, here including thriller, documentary, family chronicle, home drama, noir, and train film (Donald Richie counts Intentions of Murder as the best example of the latter). Echoing Godard, this radical Japanese “New Wave” filmmaker claimed “to destroy this premise that cinema is fiction”; Imamura’s fiction films are based on real-life stories and on meticulous, detailed research that earned him a reputation as a cultural anthropologist, while his documentaries, especially A Man Vanishes (1967), often incorporate many narrative devices. Though ostensibly cast as a thriller, Intentions of Murder was based on Imamura’s actual sociological study of a woman living in northern Japan—the studio initially turned it down because its story belied the expectations set by the title.

Thematically, too, Imamura’s films can be characterized as messy, rejecting as they do the official version of Japan and its emphasis on order, conformity, ritual, tradition, and technological efficiency. Instead, Imamura portrays Japan as a tumultuous world in which voyeurism, violence, fetishism, and incest are as unremarkable as they are recurrent, and in which amoral, willful, sexually driven women scramble to survive, rejecting the attempts of weak, dependent men to control them. The vital, obdurate “Imamura woman” stands as a rebuke to the self-abnegating victims of Mizoguchi’s cinema. Slapped, strangled, raped, derided, and denied her rights, Sadako nonetheless prevails over the males in her life, all of them sickly, ineffectual, or dying. Riichi, his face encased in a sick mask, calls for his inhaler the minute he comes home; the rapist clutches for his ampoules as his weak heart succumbs. Even Sadako’s beloved son is ailing, so the household may lose its sole heir. Forever eating, puzzling over the house accounts, and bemoaning her fate, the slow-witted and hapless Sadako is the proverbial earth mother. Little wonder Riichi nuzzles between her ample breasts, and calls her Mommy during sex.

But the messiness of Imamura’s cinema can be overstated; taken literally, the term inevitably becomes pejorative, obscuring the director’s remarkable formal and narrative achievements. Imamura emphasized his obsession with structure: “The writing of a screenplay, especially, is something that can’t be done without analysis, dissection, and composition—in short, without painstaking labor.” That labor shows: the manic, flashy Pigs and Battleships (1961) has a narrative precision and formal control that belie its hyperbolic tenor, while The Insect Woman (1963), The Pornographers (1966), and Intentions of Murder all reveal intricate narrative and visual design. The Pornographers, for instance, rigorously inscribes its theme of voyeurism with three devices: Imamura often shoots scenes through windows, screens, and doors, forcing the spectator into the position of Peeping Tom; he punctuates the film with looming, almost subjective shots of an ever watchful carp; and, in the final image, reduces the picture to the size of one of the character Subu’s porn movies.

Intentions of Murder also tellingly deploys obstructions in the frame—the massive wooden post that sits off center in the funeral sequence as the old women chat about tabi, for example—and many scenes are shot through portals and apertures, doors and windows, the steps of a ladder or grates of a sliding screen. (Riichi and Yoshiko’s trysts are repeatedly filmed through shelves of books, as perhaps all those of adulterous librarians should be.) This voyeuristic impulse culminates in Yoshiko’s clandestine photography, which has a mortal aura, her camera’s focus like a gun’s target, and a deadly outcome. (As in Hitchcock, eyeglasses and cameras are associated with death; Intentions of Murder has odd, probably unintentional, echoes of Strangers on a Train.) But, portending the ending of The Pornographers, doubt is cast on the image. Sadako, faced with the incriminating evidence of her dalliance with the rapist as Riichi turns detective and inquisitor at her hospital bed, blithely lies, denying that the woman in the photos is she. Her repeated evasion takes on the intransigent force of refusal, as if repudiating the very ability of film to capture reality.

Sometimes Imamura’s symbolism can be unsubtle or overinsistent—Intentions of Murder’s animal imagery is particularly blatant, as is that of the train, which one hears over the opening Nikkatsu logo even before the first image appears—but the director is also capable of nuance: the motif of modern appliances (television, fridge, iron, vacuum cleaner, sewing machine) complicates the pattern of natural and animal signifiers (caged mice, silkworms, chickens) that cluster around Sadako, for instance. Across the film’s visual surface, rhymes and repetitions connect objects, images, and characters. A shirt drifting through the air with a surreal, herky-jerky life of its own prepares for the dream sequence of Sadako floating through space. The rapist’s knife and the household iron, the latter wielded as both weapon and mirror, not only recall each other in their similar spadelike shape, but the iron also forges, as do the aforementioned inhaler and ampoules, an analogy between Riichi and the rapist when the husband’s sexual attack on Sadako is similarly reflected in its shiny underside. Likewise, the chicken wire through which Imamura shoots Sadako as she feeds the birds finds its echo in the square metal mesh of the library stacks, barrier between Riichi and Yoshiko, against which the latter presses her yearning face. The chicken coop and the library: respective realms of animality and order, as Imamura’s predominant schema has them. (With her bun, tweed coat, and spying eyes magnified by egregious glasses, Yoshiko embodies a thin, neurotic opposite of Sadako.)

Imamura and his customary cinematographer, Shinsaku Himeda, do some of their finest work in Intentions of Murder, employing the director’s trademark freeze-frames, fleshy, contorted close-ups, extremes of rack and shallow focus, one smarting zoom shot, and deftly constricted space—the house hemmed in by the railway tracks, its spare interior with one bare, hanging lightbulb—in which foreground and background are organized in perpendicular tension with the horizontal sprawl of the ’Scope composition. After Sadako’s rape, the camera first gazes up at her from an extremely low angle as she screws in a lightbulb, and then, following a montage of knife, bloodied sheet, and overturned lamp, swirls overhead in a slow vertigo that captures her traumatized torpor. The film’s graphic power—allover images of a wall of locks, a bed of silkworms, or Masaru’s line drawing; the sudden snow that envelopes Sadako as she leaves one tram and boards another—sometimes recalls the artier Teshigahara. In a virtuosic triple play late in the film, the camera fastens on the “empty” image of a hospital room, old crone in back­ground, crouched on the floor, flanked in the front room by an examination table on the right and a wall and medical tubing on the left, as Sadako and her doctor discuss her abortion offscreen; cuts to an even more voided frame, an Antonioni-like abstraction of mottled wall, with Sadako placed almost imperceptibly at its right edge; and follows that with a formidable long take, initially static, mid-distant, as Sadako waits on the platform, then freed and racing, as the rapist pursues her onto the train, following the two with a protracted lateral shot through several compartments. (In one of the film’s many formal repetitions, this reiterates the rapist’s pursuit of Sadako and her son, shot in handheld, vérité style, in the department store.) The soundtrack is equally inventive, from Toshiro Mayuzumi’s eerie music of cello, spare percussion, and koukin to Imamura’s ambiguity of sound source and trick bridging: Riichi looks up worriedly from the library stacks, as though he hears a pelting of hail, though it’s unlikely he does because the hail belongs to the next scene and a different locale.

Intentions of Murder seems to anticipate Nagisa Oshima’s harrowing Violence at Noon (1966), another black-and-white ’Scope “thriller” that features a home-invading rapist who offers double suicide to his victim, two contrasting women characters, train travel, and a rural farming community posited as an agrarian ideal. (In both films, the past impinges upon the present in flashbacks that are often unsignaled or, sometimes, cued by music.) If both directors desired a Marcusian utopia of aesthetics, sensuality, and play (Eros), especially amid the tightly battened monoculture of Japan (civilization), they were also aware, as Violence at Noon and Intentions of Murder attest, that when the repressed returns on this ancient, constricted archipelago, it sometimes comes wielding a knife.

James Quandt, senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto, has curated several touring retrospectives, including the recent In the Realm of Oshima. He has edited monographs on Robert Bresson, Shohei Imamura, and Kon Ichikawa and is a regular contributor to Artforum. His recent published essays include ones on Robert Bresson, Pedro Costa, and Jia Zhang-ke. Quandt was awarded the Japan Foundation Special Prize for Arts and Culture in 2007.