Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge

Shohei Imamura's 'Warm Water Under a Red Bridge' could easily be mistaken for a pleasant and affable little movie rather than a wickedly subversive adult comedy. This is because, for the most part, 'Warm Water' actually is a pleasant and affable little movie. Exactly how it manages this I haven't entirely worked out, but the fact that I haven't quite got a handle on a film that nonetheless bubbles away in the back of my mind and keeps drawing me intermittently back to it is testament to Imamura's cinematic alchemy.

Plotwise, it offers a peculiar melange of crime movie, social drama, sex comedy and small town surrealism a la David Lynch. In a nutshell: shortly before his death, vagrant philosopher Taro (Kazuo Kitamura) recounts to his friend Yosuke (Yakusho Koji) an episode from his younger days involving the theft of a golden buddha and the hiding of same in a house overlooking a red bridge in a small village. Taro's getting old; wannabe entrepreneur Yosuke's business has gone bankrupt and he can't even land the poorest paying office job.

When Taro passes on, Yosuke - pressured by his ex-wife to continue maintenance payments - decides to follow up his story. He finds the village and the red bridge in short order, and loses no time insinuating himself into the house in question, whose current owner is the eccentric but captivating Saeko (Shimizu Misa). The first time Yosuke meets Saeko, she's shoplifting a piece of cheese from a local convenience store. She also appears to be peeing herself. Intrigued, Yosuke soon discovers that Saeko suffers from water retention and can only "vent" as a result of kleptomania or orgasm.

Disapproving of her tendencies to the former, he actively accommodates her in achieving the latter. Between heroic bouts of intercourse, during which he gets drenched, Yosuke becomes acquainted with some of the villagers. Shintaro (Yukiya Kitamura), though initially hostile, wangles Yosuke a job on his father's boat. African exchange student Ramin struggles to comprehend Japanese culture while he trains to become a marathon runner (his coach cycles full-tilt after him, swinging a baseball bat!). Saeko's mother obsessively writes fortune cookie messages (Saeko opines that she's on the receiving end of most of the negative ones) .A trio of anglers who barely seem to move from the riverside benefit from a teeming mass of fish suddenly enervated as a result of the apparently fertile waters trickling from Saeko's house, along runnels and outlet pipes, and into the river.

So far, so quirky. Then things begin to take a darker turn. One of Taro's fellow vagrant's shows up, also looking for the golden buddha, a reminder of Yosuke's erstwhile motives. There are revelations about Taro. Yosuke picks up on local gossip regarding Saeko and discovers he bears a strong resemblance to a former lover of hers who came to a bad end. Saeko's orgasmic deluges ebb to a trickle and Yosuke suspects infidelity.

Imamura's penultimate film, made when he was seventy-five, is as slippery as an eel (pardon the in-joke). Charming and feelgood for the most part, its more cynical moments creep up on you, trip you over and give you a sharp kick even as the next scene, accompanied by Shinichiro Ikebe's playful score, restores that warm fuzzy feeling. Make no mistake: under the colourful veneer and slightly disconnected aesthetic lurks as incisive (and sometimes as despairing) a meditation on human relationships as anything by Ingmar Bergman.

But unlike Bergman's work, which is often precise and formal, I am more inclined to think of 'Warm Water Under a Red Bridge' as a film-poem. As in poetry, cadence and nuance are more important than literal meaning. As in poetry, imagery is used as metaphor, emotionalism is derived from juxtaposition, and the simplicity of the thing is deceptive.


Samuel Wilson said...

It surprises me to see an Imamura film described as poetry after reading all about how he's the arch-anthropologist (or entomologist) of Japanese cinema, but I've seen enough of his stuff by now to believe your claim. I haven't seen anything from him later than Ballad of Narayama and I definitely want to see his late films and his documentaries. Thanks for recommending this one.

Hans A. said...

Very nice. I often find Imamura's work difficult to talk about, but Neil, you have seemed really to key in to his work. My hat's off to you, sir. Keep up the great work.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

I can kind of see why Imamura has earned the anthropology/entomology label, but that kind of categorisation smacks of Sight & Sound style film writing. And it's also a bit short sighted to suggest that a director with a scientific or philosophical bent can't also be a visual stylist. As austere as Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Tarkovsky are, both have created genuinely iconic cinematic images.

I must confess that 'Warm Water' is the only Imamura film I've felt completely at home with, certainly in terms of writing about it for the blog. I think I need to live with his other work for a bit longer before I get enough of a handle on it to feature it on The Agitation of the Mind. It helps that 'Warm Water' is perhaps his most "playful" film, plus I'm just a sucker for the visual beauty of it ... hence the sequence of screenshots I've posted as a sequel to the article.