Boy: (bemused) You certainly do!
Warm Water Under a Red Bridge is a continuation of the themes that have preoccupied esteemed Japanese director Shohei Imamura for much of his career. This 74-year old filmmaker trains his detailed eye on a cross-section of small town life (near the Noto Peninsula, to be precise), accurately representing the lewd fishermen and shopkeepers who reside there. His characters are often middle-to-lower class, gregariously smoke and loiter, make endless small talk, are often preoccupied with sex, and are constricted by their societal roles, particularly that of women -- widely considered to be the weaker sex. Imamura's female characters are surprisingly resilient, much more than the cloddish men. Even the more likable male roles (pretty much all of them in Warm Water) are possessed by aggressive machismo and blundering jealousy.
One of Imamura's more accessible features, Warm Water is a comedy that breaks sexual taboos through freewheeling use of magic realism. That's not immediately apparent, though, which is a nice touch. We've grown accustomed to movies that don't offer such pleasing surprises. The story begins as a man at wit's end embarks on an impromptu treasure hunt. Former office drone Yosuke (Koji Yakusho, The Eel) roams the streets of Tokyo unsuccessfully looking for work. Much of his time is spent with the affable homeless philosophers that populate the waterfronts. One of the more wily tricksters in the bunch, Taro (Kazuo Kitamura), spins an elaborate yarn about a gold Buddhist statue he once stole from a Kyoto temple. He's too old and too damn tired to track it down, but encourages Yosuke to follow the clues to its whereabouts: a house near a red bridge, the entrance lined with trumpet flowers. It's about time Yosuke left Tokyo behind anyway -- all he's found is bad fortune. His nagging wife is about to leave him unless he comes up with some cash pronto, so what's he got to lose?
When Yosuke arrives at the red bridge, his adventure is diverted by encounters with the astonishing young girl that lives in the treasure house with her long-suffering clairvoyant grandmother (Mitsuko Baisho). One could safely say that Yosuke has never met anyone quite like the lovely, cheerful, elusive Saeko (Misa Shimizu), a compulsive shoplifter. While at the supermarket, he catches her in the act and draws himself into her life by returning the golden earring he finds in a small, inexplicable puddle of water where she stood during the theft.
It soon becomes clear that Saeko's kleptomania isn't what drives Yosuke to distraction, it's her seemingly magical and sensual ability to "make water" ...which is where the mysticism gets pretty thick. Audiences will either go with it or they won't. Prudes beware. In much the same way lovers spontaneously combusted in the odious Like Water For Chocolate (my comparison ends there), Saeko produces enormous quantities of water when she's excited. Sex is like a gigantic tidal wave. It's Imamura's way of transforming love scenes into virtuoso comic setpieces, but once he's mined the joke to the fullest he digs deeper into the novelty of male fantasy and that magnificent, indescribable female aura that sometimes transforms men into obsessive fools. It's Imamura's allegory for the "repulsive power" of women -- what attracts boys also mortifies them.
Leaving his former drab life behind, Yosuke stays with Saeko, becomes a fisherman, makes himself at home, and might even live happily ever after. Everything seems to be going well until one of his hobo pals from Tokyo (grinning Manasaku Fuwa, funny and sad) starts sticking his smelly little nose in all of Yosuke's affairs (he's in search of the treasure too, the old sot!) Then there's the problem that Yosuke bears more than a passing resemblance to Saeko's old boyfriend. Is he just an object for her desires? Hey, wasn't it supposed to be the men who objectify women? What the hell's going on around here, anyway?
Imamura's camera is restrained, sticking to rigorously composed images that sometimes remain static for entire scenes (a couple of times the unhurried pace becomes positively languid, but that comes with the territory with this particular director). Nothing stodgy about it, Warm Water allows viewers room to take in their fill of the locations and be attentive to the physicality of his characters. There's also tremendous energy from the cast, a sense of playfulness and excitement that seems appropriate. When Yosuke and Saeko aren't having sex, they're eating or telling jokes. There's a chorus of fishermen right down the block who delightfully grumble about their catch, their neighbors, and beautiful girls. Warm Water doesn't feel like the work of an elderly filmmaker gone out to pasture; it's young without being innocent or impetuous. Imamura's approach to storytelling is that of the curious spectator, inviting laughter and raised eyebrows at erotic hijinks, fistfights, sports, even philosophy. What makes his humor so unerringly perceptive is the lingering pain that burns underneath all that playfulness. That's human nature.
Aka Akai hashi no shita no nurui mizu.
Snow or warm water?
Run time: 119 mins
In Theaters: Saturday 3rd November 2001
Distributed by: Cowboy Booking International
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 79%
Fresh: 33 Rotten: 9
IMDB: 6.9 / 10
Director: Shohei Imamura
Producer: Hisa Iino