[28 July 2003]
“Good water is a must. But I ended up with more than my fair share,” says Saeko (Misa Shimizu) to her lover Yosuke (Koji Yakusho), near the end of Shohei Imamura’s odd but effective sex comedy, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge. It’s a true enough statement, for sure, but not in any way one could reasonably expect. A film about finding love in a messed-up world, Warm Water offers an obliquely original (to say the least) and humorous take on the restorative powers of really good sex.
The film opens with Yosuke down on his luck times 10. He’s out of work and living alone in Tokyo, looking for something, anything, to support his family. The only time he hears from his unhappy wife (back in his hometown) is when she calls him for money he doesn’t have. To top it off, his friend and mentor Taro, an old vagrant known as the “blue tent philosopher” (because he reads “difficult” books) just kicked off. Things look bad.
His hard times end when he decides, in fairytale fashion, to fulfill a promise to old Taro, seeking a treasure the old man lost long ago: a stolen gold Buddhist statue hidden in a house, on the other side of the titular Red Bridge in a fishing village. Standing on the bridge, he finds the house inhabited by Saeko, the beautiful proprietor (with her senile grandmother) of a failing candy company. Yosuke discretely follows Saeko to a grocery store, where he finds her in an aisle, squirming erotically with some sort of fluid dripping between her legs.
Yosuke follows her home and, because this is a sex comedy, finds himself making love to her. Because Warm Water also embraces fantasy and symbolic meaning, during their orgasmic conclusion, the lovers are doused in a gushing torrent of Saeko-fluid. It erupts in high-pressure jets from her genitals as she alternately apologizes and proclaims her pleasure, all to the beat of a wacky musical arrangement. Overflowing the room, the fluid drains out of the house and into the river, attracting schools of suddenly excited fish.
It’s startling and uncomfortably funny, and, yes, patently ridiculous; it’s also compelling. Neither demeaning nor crude like a pornographic scene might be, the interlude’s obvious titillating quality is enhanced by the crazy music and the actors’ clearly over-the-top performances. It has that kitschy, burlesque feel of indulging in some taboo sexual play while nodding and winking to the audience, as if to say, “We know you’re kind of into it, and we know that you know that we know that you are.” Given the peculiarity of the sexual behavior, this comedic self-awareness is hardly an easy trick to pull off. The kitschy aspect could have easily slipped off into the realm of “dysfunction” or “perversity,” but in Imamura’s hands, the scene (and similar sexual scenes that follow) effectively straddles several trajectories: idiosyncratic sexuality, self-referentiality, the ideology of “love at first sight,” and broad comedy.
Beyond their sexual pyrotechnics, Saeko and Yosuke’s relationship develops a particular symbiosis (Saeko needs Yosuke to help her release her pent-up fluids and Yosuke needs Saeko to help pull him back together), there’s an unmistakable quality similar to what one finds in fairytales, trouble lurking just below the surface. Maybe it’s the settings (dreary urban landscapes, the run-down seaside village), or the hint that Saeko’s condition is tied to her mother’s death in a local river poisoned by big industry, or the fact that the economic system is grinding to a halt while a shadow industry of sex and drugs is doing just the opposite. Something’s just not right in the structural relations at the heart of this rural community.
Against this decomposing social backdrop, Saeko and her fluid offer multiple metaphorical possibilities: healing woman, with purifying essence; sexual woman, compared to the dried up failure of Yosuke’s long-distance marriage; plagued woman, with fluid symbolic of a violent purging of all that’s wrong with the world. All these “women” are present in Imamura’s film. But at the same time, none of them is present at all, because of the film’s narrative style, which pulls such figures out of the realm of serious possibility and into the realm of caricature, as if to say, “Believe, but don’t really believe.”
Which is fine, because Warm Water is, at heart, a gentle venture. It’s a comedy after all, without need to wade too far into the deep end of the dramatic pool. So, while the film touches on social and sexual issues, it does so with an easy hand. Disturbing elements (a flashback to the death of Saeko’s mother, or an allusion to the drug-related death of Saeko’s former boyfriend) are assuaged by gags and quirky punch lines.
What drives the film is the simple need that each lover has for the other. The treasure that Yosuke finds isn’t the economic boon in the shape of a gold Buddhist statue (which, in any event, would have been profoundly ironic, given that religion’s basic tenets), it’s connection with another person. At once effervescent and visceral, Warm Water wends its cheerful way from Yosuke’s comic desperation to the couple’s satisfying fulfillment. Under Imamura’s certain guidance, that turns out to be more than good enough.