Intentions of Murder is one of Shôhei Imamura’s quintessential works featuring strong female protagonists during the 1960s. This was perhaps the highpoint of his career, creating several other acclaimed films like The Insect Woman and Pigs and Battleships. Intentions of Murder is one of the longer films he’s created and a focused character study of Sadako Takahashi, a middle-aged housewife who lives in rural northern Japan and is dominated by her husband. She has a very plump figure and is not exactly pretty by most standards, she’s also not too bright either and clumsy in simple household tasks. However, through the course of the film she shows other admirable personal traits, most of all her survival instinct, and it is exactly this that fascinated Imamura so.
There is little subtlety at the start of this film, ten minutes in a burglar breaks into her house and beats and rapes her. She contemplates suicide afterwards (like traditional Japanese society might expect in those days) but does not go through with it, she does not want to leave her son, and keeps the incident secret. Surprisingly, the burglar/rapist Hiraoka returns to Sadako later and tries to confess his love for her. When she denies him he rapes her again, this time she struggles a lot less however, might she be enjoying this? A couple weeks later Sadako discovers that she is pregnant, visits an abortion clinic for information, and there is confronted by Hiraoka again, who claims the child to be his. She tries to get away from him, but when he has a heart-attack on the spot she ends up saving his life. In the meantime her husband has grown suspicious about Sadako’s possible affair, which she denies. Sadako meets Hiraoka again and he begs her to run away with him to Tokyo. How the story progresses might surprise more than once, although of course the title certainly hints into a direction.
Shôhei Imamura created a film riddled with symbolism and analogies in order to make a number of social statements. The 1960s were a transitional period in which gender norms and norms of sexuality underwent great changes, largely beneath the surface. The story of Intentions of Murder is one of a woman awakening to her sexuality, awakening to natural and primal strength contained herein, and keenly rising up against male dominance. But she does not flaunt her newfound strength. She does not make a point of ruling over men. She simply manipulates them subtly. She does anything she needs to survive, and also to care for her offspring. What Intentions of Murder consciously and effectively does is indicate parallels to society. Imamura himself explicitly claimed that his female leads mirrored the masses of society, and his background in social sciences should lend this claim at least some direct credibility. Sadako’s emancipation might have been largely abstract and symbolic, but it can be tied in suitably with society’s general changing attitudes.
It could be said that sexual oppression was at the core of problems facing women in 1960s Japan. Intentions of Murder might be seen a case study of a woman being pushed to resolve this oppression. It is an account of the sexual undercurrent connecting and essentially controlling the more concrete and political issues at hand. In the perennial dream sequence about two-thirds into the film Sadako was offered a choice for instant escape and rebellion, or remaining fixed in the traditional old ways. Neither was a feasible and desirable option for women at the time, for society was not ready for an immediate change: it had to occur more gradually. Women themselves had to undergo their internal and existential transition into self-confidence and agency first, this was the fundamental first step towards future external change. This external change was to manifest in the Second Wave of Feminism with its radical libs a decade later. The unofficial precursor to this was the gradually shifting attitude that this film symbolizes.
Sadako’s emancipation was a definite struggle, as was that of women in general at the time. At the same time, the men in the film seem to be progressively weakening healthwise. This can be translated into the so-called female uprising not eliminating its patriarchal oppressor by force, because there actually was no need to do this. Women seized the opportunities created by patriarchy itself, which was slowly crumpling due to its own weaknesses, to reassert themselves. In a way, men pretended not to truly need women for a long time, but that charade had to come to an end if Japan as a nation was to rebuild and even flourish into an golden era for both economy and welfare. This was what Shôhei Imamura envisioned in the early 1960s, and it was not far from the truth at all.