Combustible Celluloid Review - Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001), Shohei Imamura, Daisuke Tengan and Motofumi Tomikawa, based on the novel by Henmi Yo, Shohei Imamura, Koji Yakusho, Misa Shimizu, Kazuo Kitamura, Mitsuko Baisho
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With: Koji Yakusho, Misa Shimizu, Kazuo Kitamura, Mitsuko Baisho
Written by: Shohei Imamura, Daisuke Tengan and Motofumi Tomikawa, based on the novel by Henmi Yo
Directed by: Shohei Imamura
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 122
Date: 05/02/2002

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Precious Bodily Fluids

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It was rumored after the 1999 release of Shohei Imamura's wonderful Dr. Akagi that the 75 year-old master Japanese director -- the maker of Vengeance is Mine, Ballad of Narayama and Black Rain -- was retiring.

Fortunately for us, that information turned out to be wrong. Imamura has returned with a movie that's every bit as funny, unruly and odd as both Dr. Akagi and his 1997 Palm D'Or winner The Eel.

More than one reviewer has already complained about how this movie doesn't offer enough content to justify its running time. That's just hooey. In no particular order, this film explores the physical essence of life, the nature of sex and the idea of destiny. At any given moment, Imamura's images contribute something new to any or all of these themes.

In truth, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge will no doubt leave some viewers baffled, as the many elements that fly around during the film's two hours do not always connect. But just watching the moves they make is an enthralling experience.

Koji Yakusho (Shall We Dance?, The Eel, Cure), who is slowly catching up to Toshiro Mifune as the most recognizable Japanese actor in the U.S., stars as Yosuke Sasano, an unemployed Tokyo businessman who hangs around with a homeless "philosopher" when he's not job-hunting. The philosopher, named Taro (Kazuo Kitamura), tells Yosuke to have plenty of sex while he still can. He also tells of a "treasure" hidden years ago in a house near the red bridge of the title.

With nothing better to do and an unpleasantly nagging wife intermittently calling him on his cell phone, he journeys to a small seaside town in search of the bridge and the house. He finds both, but also meets a girl, Saeko (Misa Shimizu).

Saeko lives in the house with her senile but clairvoyant grandmother (Mitsuko Baisho), who does nothing but write fortunes on scraps of paper. (Yosuke's says he has good luck coming.) It's not long before Saeko seduces him, and to his own surprise and ours, her body gushes out gallons of clear water at the point of orgasm.

Yosuke finds himself intrigued and decides to stick around for a while. He soon lands a job working on a fishing boat and befriends an African athlete living in Japan and training as a runner for the Olympics. One of his co-workers on the boat finds out about his arrangement with Saeko -- she signals him with a mirror when it's time for another "eruption." He jumps off the boat, runs back home (usually outrunning the African athlete) and "services" her.

Imamura accompanies these scenes with strange, cartoony music and shots of Saeko's steaming water slipping away into a nearby stream, where the fish suddenly begin jumping onto fishermen's hooks.

On top of Saeko's mysterious water-gushing, the film makes references to Yosuke's life-essence, which may or may not be slowly drained away during his sex with Saeko. And also to the runner, whose Japanese coach makes him run with a lack of food to replenish his body sugars (the first time we see him, he's illegally fishing to get more food).

As if there's not enough going on, we the movie drops hints every now and then that Yosuke is a dead ringer for Saeko's former lover (we never see him and never learn what happened to him).

But what about Taro's treasure? Ah... that's a secret that only the most astute viewers will ever know.

I began the film looking for clues related to the title. What does the movie show us that's red and/or related to water? I soon found that, when Saeko first gushes all over Yosuke, she's wearing a red sweater. But after that, the little metaphors started swishing around like a steam bath and I simply relaxed and let it wash over me.

Imamura's signature style is still evident in the new film, a celebration of sloppy recklessness and sheer chance on the surface, while remaining carefully composed and precisely studied just underneath. Some reviewers have compared him to his countryman Yasujiro Ozu, which couldn't be more wrong. Rather, I prefer the comparison the Village Voice made recently, to Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth, the humanist responsible for the odd, wonderful films Local Hero and Housekeeping.

I suspect many viewers will be disoriented and put off by Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, but if you let go and enjoy the ride, you'll find a sly comedy and a clever poem that's worth cherishing.

Note: Warm Water Under a Red Bridge did, indeed, turn out to be Imamura's final film. He died in 2006.

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