Director Shohei Imamura might be Japanese cinema’s answer to Tom Waits. For several decades, both artists have concerned themselves with society’s wretched refuse: drifters, freaks, mystics, philosophers, wanton women, and the bottom rungs of the working class. The septuagenarian Imamura has a few years on baby-boomer Waits, and this makes it easier to forgive the discrepancy between the miraculously high quality of Waits’ recent work and the triteness of the humor and symbolism in Imamura’s newest film, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge.
Adapted from a novel by Yo Henmi, Warm Water follows a newly unemployed Tokyo office drone named Yosuke (Koji Yakusho) to a small fishing village near Kyoto, in search of a stolen Buddha statue a friend claims is hidden in a seaside house there. Upon arriving, he meets a young woman in a supermarket. Saeko (Misa Shimizu) is attractive but peculiar—for one thing, she’s shoplifting when he finds her. But even more bizarre is the water pouring out from between her legs, collecting in puddles at her feet.
Yosuke follows Saeko to her home, where he is greeted by her grandmother, who is senile but blessed with the ability to tell fortunes with uncanny accuracy. With no time wasted and no formalities, Yosuke and Saeko are soon having sweaty, animalistic sex—and again, here comes the flood. It’s a longstanding problem for Saeko, not only a sign of her arousal, but also a source of great embarrassment. She worries she’s nothing more than a novelty for the men who make love to her.
This lends itself to some interesting ideas about the subversion of gender roles. Saeko regularly becomes “backed up” and needs to release this “life force” within her. But as her relationship with Yosuke progresses, he’s under constant pressure to ease her biological ills. It’s rare for a male filmmaker to examine the bedroom politics of obligation, and Imamura is gutsy for turning the tables.
Unfortunately, this theme exists alongside a more explicit message: the importance of asserting one’s masculinity (free will) against the monstrous women whose gale-force sexuality feminizes men and drains them of their strength and “vital essence.” Imamura articulates the very things men dread: impotence, and the sense of being “whipped.”
Saeko’s early scenes with Yosuke are beautiful, tugging at the awkward sweetness of attraction, the moment-to-moment flip-flop between the shy and the sexual. Watching them copulate for the first time seems as voyeuristic and dirty as cheap homemade porno, but there’s almost an innocence to how they go about it. The suit-and-tie, staid Yosuke comes alive in the thrall of this woman. It’s the best sex he’s ever had. Relationships often start out this way: fresh, unpredictable, breathtaking. You take the plunge in the spirit of experimentation, and try to withhold judgment about your partner’s perversities. Saeko would be lucky if she were just, “HOT WET HORNY AND WAITING FOR YOU!!!,” as the e-mail spam messages say. But her flow is so heavy she’s become a fetishized freak show.
But as a couple, these two don’t have much to go on besides Yosuke’s unusual fetish and Saeko’s need to fulfill that through release, and as a result, we don’t have much to watch. The shock wears off almost immediately, but Imamura insists on making Saeko’s “water” a running gag. The contrast between pleasure and eventual discomfort isn’t stark enough to illustrate any underlying message Imamura might hope to express about the politics of sexuality.
There’s a side plot involving Yosuke finding temporary work with a crew of fishermen. It’s here that Imamura unleashes some potent visual commentary, with a glimpse of the lifestyle and politics of the blue-collar Japanese fishing culture. Imamura is not afraid of including a little dirt, and the fishing boat is caked in slime, the crates slathered with mud in every crevice. These scenes are awash in a ruddy, Godardian sense of socially observant neorealism.
Warm Water‘s feminine half is softer but never Hollywood-slick. The color palette offers subtle blues and sea-greens, pale yellows, eggshell whites, and a few hints of vibrant red. We see the stunning gleam of refracted sunlight—off a mirror, off the camera lens. It’s like amateur photography, but in the best sense: It’s the beauty of human error and natural interference with the sanctity of the shot. Imamura’s small town looks like exactly the kind of small town it represents—peeling paint, rotting wood, bums, nothing quaint and cute designed to draw tourists. The sea is ever-present; the life of the villagers depends on it, and we are invited to enter this world.
Modest as this existence is, it’s incredibly charming, sometimes too charming (for instance, the recurring presence of an African marathon runner, serving no obvious purpose other than to provide comic relief, sort of like Eddie Murphy’s talking donkey in Shrek). The psychic grandma and her exotic bird are cloying too, although it is the grandma who is the subject of one of the movie’s significant (and blatantly obvious) punch-lines.
I was hoping for some mixture of pop-erotica, science fiction, social statement, and magical realism, and expecting more by way of the latter three. Two scenes deliver: one among the cloudy lights of a blue-green spiral tunnel inside a water-research facility, and one in a fetal position surrounded by psychedelically colored chakras. Regardless of how well the scenes work with the story (the story’s a mess—it doesn’t know whether to be an Amélie-style sugary gumdrop, a Marxist manifesto, or a Philip Roth novel), they create some lovely intervals, a change of scenery, a chance to take stock of everything going on in the film.
Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, like its title, is overbearingly precious and pretentious. Yet Warm Water is brave, ambitious, philosophical, visually striking, and often funny. It’s terrific conversation fodder, to be sure—even a cursory plot summary will inspire marvel, laughter, or disgust.
Ultimately, I’ll have to file this one away as a companion piece to David Lynch’s epic fever-dream Mulholland Drive: Both films promise so much, sparking and crackling with the potential to be white-hot classic, but neither ever quite manages to burn the house down.