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  • random_avenger15 September 2010
    Shôhei Imamura (1926-2006) was a director known for his dark themes and unique vision, and his 1964 black and white drama Unholy Desire a.k.a. Murderous Instincts is a great example of his cold style. The story deals with a middle-class housewife Sadako (Masumi Harukawa) who lives with her common-law librarian husband Riichi (Kô Nishimura) and his young son Masaru. After she is raped by a burglar Hiraoko (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) while being at home alone, she cannot even think about letting anyone know about what happened and initially intends to kill herself, but cannot bring herself to do it because of her love to Masaru. When the rapist keeps coming back claiming to love her and tries to convince her to run away with him, deep inside she starts questioning if her suffocating life with the emotionally cold, demanding and unfaithful Riichi is any better than what Hiraoko could offer.

    The idea of a woman falling with love with her rapist may sound misogynistic at first, but I don't think the film ultimately carries such a message at all. The passive Sadako's past is so full of psychological mistreatment by her in-laws that it doesn't feel like much of a stretch to think that to her, rape is not necessarily worse than her life as it is. To me, the vibe the film sends regarding the connection between physical and emotional abuse and how they relate to love in general appears to be more pessimistic than outright misanthropic. Still, as cruel as the picture is, Imamura doesn't wallow in misery: Sadako is able to stay strong throughout her trials, even if she has occasional bouts of weakness amidst the contradicting forces pulling her apart. The very last shot, a close-up of Sadako's face after everything has seemingly been resolved, leaves the ending open for interpretation.

    The instantly striking aspect of the film is Imamura's stunningly beautiful visual style. The black & white cinematography, stark shadows, wonderful scenery and the thoroughly planned mise en scène ensure that practically any frame of the film could be hanged up on a wall to be admired as an artistic photograph. The cramped interior scenes make use of tight close-ups and some unconventional camera angles, while the spacious outdoor set pieces allow the use of wide angles and tracking shots, for example during the climax on a snowy mountain or Sadako and Hiraoko's dramatic encounter on a moving train. The average shot-length is longer than in most modern films and the pacing always stays unhurried, making the film long but never tedious. The somewhat avant-garde music is also used sparingly but all the more effectively.

    The recurring shots of Masaru's pet mice in a tiny cage with a hamster wheel are obvious symbols for Sadako's de facto imprisonment by her family and in-laws, but shots of passing trains also keep reappearing in the film all the way through. Perhaps they are hints of possibilities for her to get away from her life, either by jumping in front of a speeding train like she initially plans to, or by accepting Hiraoko's offer and leaving with him for Tokyo? In any case, the noisy, screechy sounds of locomotives certainly heighten the tension of the disturbing scenes of abuse that take place in the family's house right next to the train tracks. A couple of moments, such as Sadako watching a shirt flying in the wind above her, also add a dreamlike feel to the mix, softening the harsh realism a bit.

    In a way the directorial style and the examined themes reminded me of Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's awarded 2001 film The Piano Teacher: both films have a female protagonist who has grown up in an oppressive environment, but while Imamura's Sadako is unwillingly pulled into an abusive relationship, Haneke's Erika actively seeks men to mistreat her. Well, even if the comparison is a long shot, anyone interested in the nature of abuse should definitely give both films a look, as both are masterly created pieces of art. At the moment I have only seen a handful of Shôhei Imamura films, but I have been impressed by all of them. Still, Unholy Desire may be my favourite of them all; the wonderful visuals and the calm, observing handling of the controversial subject make the tale a highly enjoyable, if distressing, cinematic experience.
  • Also known as Intentions of Murder, this marks my sixth Imamura film and my appreciation for this Japanese filmmaker continues to grow. I rank him with Kurosawa among the Japanese greats. To think Hollywood has only recently been appropriating what Imamura was pioneering back in the 60's and that Imamura's film has a scarce 195 votes I believe is almost unethical.

    That a loveless housewife married to an abusive husband who cheats on her should fall in love with the thief who breaks in her house one night and rapes her and the resulting movie is neither played for laughs nor reduced to hokey melodrama is a testament to the creative force at hand.

    Imamura's uncanny ability to find the absurd in the mundane, the blackly comedic in the serious and the humane in the bleak and hopeless, this curious heady mix, eccentric but not for the sake of it, with which the director as sympathetic anthropologist handpicks his characters from the lowest strata of society, observes their struggles, triumphs and follies (like the shots of mice running aimlessly inside their cage he uses in the movie - animals, a usual if not subtle metaphor for Imamura), not with the detached amused air of the cynic (like the Coens tend to do), not to present them as quirks to amuse the sophisticated cineaste too inhibited to even aknowledge the trappings in himself, but truthfully, honestly, with a hint of sadness but never without humour to admire their downfall when they succumb at the last to their animalistic desires.

    Beautifully filmed, daring in its New Wave experimentation, its dynamic shots (the camera peering from improbable angles, through doorways, inside tunnels, along with moving trains), its great use of the widescreen canvas, its sound design. Recommended for fans of the director's work and anyone interested in Japanese New Wave cinema.
  • Yet another excellent film by Japanese director Shôhei Imamura! I'm amazed by how much great work he made!

    'Intentions of Murder' revolves around Sadako, a plump woman with a peasant background who is abused by her loveless husband and in-laws and is raped by a degenerate thief. Her life is so full of bitterness and suffering, that she constantly contemplates committing suicide. Unbearably heavy as that may sound, the film is very artfully carried by Imamura's skill, inventiveness and great wisdom. The director never makes fun of Sadako's tragedy – on the contrary, he shows the deepest sympathy for her (much like he does for the female lead in his previous film, 'The Insect Woman') – but he handles the film's material with a relatively light touch by making use of a playful soundtrack and by highlighting the absurdity of its situations in a way that sometimes verges on black comedy. This is the story of an underdog who, while devoid of any wit, much wealth or classic good looks, is possessed with the strongest mettle and tenacity.

    A recurring theme in his work (and particularly in my favorite film of his, 'Profound Desire of the Gods') is the clash between the structured mores of society and our unruly human desires and emotions. Inconvenient as it may be, our animal nature doesn't always accept the order that we try to impose on it rationally. This contradiction between different impulses can cause confusion, embarrassment, distress, violence... And yet, to some extent we're left with no choice but to somehow come to terms with that wild, anarchic aspect of our humanity.

    I think it's fair to say that beyond our survival and animal instincts, the director points to love (both self-love and love for those around us) as the best compass in life. In this case, Sadako's love for her son serves her as a guiding light, even when it all seems hopeless. Imamura, despite populating many of his films with despicable, selfish characters, in the end seems to show some faith in human kind. It's a welcome spark of optimism in what would otherwise be a very darkly cynical perspective.

    In an interview provided as an extra-feature by the Criterion Collection, Imamura explains that he needed to loosen up after having finished his 1960 film, 'My Second Brother', which won international acclaim but was too strait-laced for his taste. His style began to change after that, and I believe it's with 'Intentions of Murders' that the director began to play with surrealism, something that would become more prominent in later films like 'The Pornographers' and 'Warm Water Under The Red Bridge'.

    It's true that a few of the metaphors in this film are a little too obvious (particularly the hamster in the cage). But there's so much more going on here, including beautiful black and white photography, a powerful story in general and really solid acting. This is a film that I highly recommend watching.
  • bazarov2422 April 2009
    Warning: Spoilers
    In detailed fashion, the film investigates the troubled psyche of a dull, uneducated lower-class housewife in a backward northeastern, province. The woman is so stupid that she is scarcely aware of the drabness of her life with a petty, bickering husband and his whining mother, or of her own thwarted sensuality.

    One night, left alone in the house, she is awakened by a wild-eyed lunatic, brandishing a knife and demanding money. The sight of her ripe young body, trembling with terror, soon changes his mind. He forgets the robbery and rapes her.

    The next morning, gathering her ravished self together, the woman mumbles to herself that she really ought to commit suicide. Then she sneezes.

    Finding self-destruction unexpectedly difficult, she wonders if she should tell her husband what has happened. Somehow, she has a feeling he wouldn't understand. She scarcely understands herself.

    To her confused surprise, life goes on. Then the rapist returns. She resists a little less.

    Before long, she is wandering through the streets in search of him. This time, she tells herself, she really must persuade him to leave her alone.

    The director, Shohei Imamura, has something deeper than shock effects in mind. His theme is natural instinct versus social convention, and his approach is original. Despite the handicaps of Japanese slowness and a fantastic ending that resolves the situation so neatly that it tends to blunt the message, he has designed an arresting and provocative film.

    FOR much of its inordinate length, this Japanese drama is a strange and fascinating film.

    Its lurid title, "Unholy Desire," suggests violence and sensationalism. On that score, for once, the plot fully lives up to expectations. It is an authentic shocker.

    Much of its interest comes from Masumi Harukawa's remarkable performance as the wife. Instead of the usual sensuous movie actress discovering amour, she is a fat, foolish, ploddingly passive creature—the last woman one would expect to awaken to violent passion. The conflict between her wildly perverse instincts and her complacent demeanor is a creative and comic conception.

    Shigeru Tsuyoguchi is disconcerting as the rapist, and Akira Nishimura's weak and faithless husband, finally defeated by the unsuspected vitality of his cowlike wife, is a well-shaded characterization. The director, who attracted some attention here with his odd "The Insect Woman," sometimes errs on the side of artiness, but he reveals a distinctive talent.
  • This movie is likely a masterpiece and far ahead of most of the world cinema at the time of its release, and it should definitely be more widely known, but I didn't give it ten stars because of its rather lengthy runtime. Maybe it's because I've seen the film in fragments and not in one piece, but I still think that the runtime could've been polished, even though the pacing and the flow of the story is perfect. It's probably just the way I've seen it that made it a bit irksome.

    Intentions of Murder (or Unholy Desire) is partially based on a story by Shinji Fujiwara and partially on director Shohei Imamura's actual sociological study on a woman living in northern Japan. The film bears some resemblance to Yoshishige Yoshida's The Affair (1967); both are about female protagonists in lifeless marriages whose lives get thrown in a pot after getting raped. Comparing the two films, we can see the differences between the two filmmakers' approaches; Yoshida is reserved, cold, delicate and geometrical, while Imamura's movie is messy, burning, instinct-driven and impulsive.

    Intentions of Murder revolves around the issues of women in '60s Japan, presenting a cynical outlook with some dark humor and several moments of genuine suspense, almost Hitchockian to a degree. Sadako, the protagonist of the film, finds herself in a conflict of multiple repulsion; on the one hand, there's her librarian husband Riichi, who cheats her with a fellow lady of the library and treats Sadako like a slave, and on the other hand, there's the rapist/house intruder, who promises her better life but she's obviously repulsed by him. Both men are sick and of fragile health, and technically weaker than her, but due to patriarchal societal norms they naturally come on top and so Sadako has to fight against their influences, the only light of her life being her son, whom she loves immensely, and who gives her hope in her life.

    The film also centers on a conflict between instinctual, traditional nature of Sadako's peasant self, and Riichi's strict, ordered civilized way of life. The contrast is laid out not only through the differing locations, the sunny farm and the categorized, orderly library, but also through the characters' bodies. As described by Imamura, Sadako is "Medium height and weight, light coloring, smooth skin. The face of a woman who loves men. Maternal, good genitals, juicy." She is like a Venus of Willendorf figure, with a large figure, plump breasts and strong maternal instincts (Riichi calls her "Mommy" during sex). On the other hand, Riichi is completely dry and pinched, looking almost lifeless in comparison to his wife. Imamura was always against the "veneer of business suits and advanced technology" and in favor of the "superstition and irrationality that pervade the Japanese consciousness", and in this movie he certainly shows it by siding with a woman who best represents natural instincts.

    The cinematography in this movie is beautiful, it just is. The utilization of indoor rooms, moving set-pieces, freeze-frames, negative space, snowy areas, moving trains, composition of characters and the placing of the actors behind various spatial obstacles, to the obvious, but certainly not needless visual comparison with animals (see Imamura's The Ballad of Narayama), --in this case it's caged mice- it all makes for a very visually striking picture. Some shots beautifully utilize everything they're given in regards to the setting, like the swinging lamp scene where the lamp swings around a dark room, partially illuminating Sadako's exhausted body in the back room at turns. The soundtrack is interesting too, with many odd sound effects reminiscent of the "boing!" sounds from Ennio Morricone's music.

    Intentions of Murder is truly an under-appreciated gem that should be known by everyone interested in '60 cinema. And when it comes to '60s movie industry, I think Japan had the best films by far.

    The movie also deserves respect for having the only nightmare scene I've ever seen where the character DOESN'T spring up like on a trampoline as they're waking up. Here, Sadako wakes up as usual, only in cold sweat.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    Viewed on DVD. Restoration = nine (9) stars; cinematography/effects =nine (9) stars; translation/subtitles = four (4) stars; score = two (2) stars. Director Shouhei Imamura upends conventional contemporary film practices by showcasing strong women characters and wimpy male ones. Bravo! The evolution of leading actress Masumi Harukawa's character is the plot. She starts off as a lowly common-law wife former household maid (fresh off the farm) and ultimately achieves everything (and a bit more) on her "things-to-do" list of life goals. It is humorous to watch Harukawa (often referred to as a "large women" in line readings) fake being abused/ dominated by her male co-stars who appear physically smaller and play sickly characters to boot (one has a serious asthma (or TB?) affliction; the other an incapacitating weak heart) when she could easily flatten them both (perhaps simultaneously!). Supporting actresses also deliver strong performances (including an obsessive/comedic one). Imamura's direction is fine, but his simulated sex scenes (meant to show Harukawa's sexual power and her growing awareness of same?) are boringly repetitious and far from artful. Voice-over expository usually indicates that post-production editing has tried to compensate for inadequate direction. But not for this film. The Director inserts Harukawa's commentary (while freezing the frame) to provide a window into her thought processes as her power becomes self evident to her character. Cinematography (wide screen, black & white) and special effects are outstanding. Dolly (tracking) sequences are often remarkable and rear screen projections can be virtually flawless (its hard to tell if an exterior has been shot on a sound stage or on location). Scenes photographed at floor level are for the most part effective in that they are "interesting" and do not distract the viewer from what is being performed. Lighting is a bit on the dark side until the snow scenes which occur toward the end of the film. A fair amount of back ground dialog is not subtitled. Some translations are too long and appear on screen too briefly. The "score" is a borderline "joke." Highly recommended. WILLIAM FLANIGAN, PhD.