“Akai hashi no shi_ta no nurui mizu” (“Warm water under a red bridge,” 2001) was the last feature film directed by Imamura Shohei (1926-2006). The movie is a genial comedy, especially in comparison to “The Ballad of Narayama” in regard to the old lady and to “The Insect Woman” in regard to the lustful younger one, or to the violence of “Vengeance Is Mine” and in the first part of “The Eel.” Although the leads were carried over from other late Imamura movies (and “Shall We Dance?”, the Imamura movie that kept coming to my mind was the early (1966) “The Pornographers,” in the mix of comic take on sexual urges and wistfulness about defunct relationships.
At the start, there is a dead man in a shack along a canal in Tokyo. Taro (Kitamura Kazuo) had been a thief but in his old age had turned to philosophical speculation. One of his disciples Yosuke (Yakusho Koji, the protagonist if “The Eel”) was a college-educated salary man in a company that has dissolved. Yosuke has had to sell his house and his wife and son are staying with his wife’s parents outside Tokyo.
Taro had told Yosuke (and others) of a treasure he left behind in a house overlooking a red bridge in a town on the scenic Noto peninsula. Yosuke goes there and buying a box lunch, he sees a woman stealing cheese (with chili peppers) and seemingly urinating. One of her earrings drops into the pool she has made. Yosuke picks it up and tries to give it back to her, but she drives off.
Of course, she lives in the house where the treasure is supposed to be, and beds Yosuke. The pool in the store is a mere dribble to the liquid that spouts out of her having sex with Yosuke…. and draining into the tidal canal or river and drawing fish of all sorts (including a flounder) to the delight of the three older men who fish there.
The liquid (not urine) geysers entrance Yosuke, and he takes a job on a fishing boat to stay for more of Saeko (Shimizu Misa). Saeko lives with her senile grandmother (Baisho Mitsuko) who spends hours writing fortunes and the rest of the time sitting out front (with a scarlet macaw) waiting for her long-long love to return. I’m not sure whether grannie spurted in her sexually active days. The fishermen recall that she was a great beauty and that she never recovered from the imprisonment of her lover.
Also, Yosuke is the spitting image of Saeko’s fisherman lover Yoji, who was slain by a drifter, a category into which Yosuke fits. Of course, there are more connections with the past than are immediately obvious. Although Yosuke is going to a place Taro used to live in quest of something he left there, Yosuke is remarkably incurious and does not ask any questions about Taro’s time in the town. He is too enchanted by the spurting Saeko, I guess.
I also hazard the guess that Japanese are less squeamish about “body functions” than WASPs like me are (this surmise is not based solely on this particular movie). I was more grossed out by sucking out pus in “The Insect Woman,” but Saeko’s exuberant soaking her lover and surroundings is not a turn-on and I wondered how her body could hold the vast volume of liquid she expels… but then the amount of blood in the murder scene in “The Eel” also seemed to me excessive. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s fantasy, just nowhere near any of mine.
There are other entertaining figures including the fishing boat owner’s motorcycling son (Kitamura Yukiya ) and an African marathon runner training there. And late Imamura’s usual cinematographer, Komatsubra Shigeru, works magic with a variety of pans, tracks, and striking compositions.
The movie is as perverse as any of Imamura’s that I have seen, providing redemption and peace as in “The Eel,” which is for me Imamura’s masterpiece (and which also involved Yakusho’s character’s urban-rural migration). The magical realism is pretty genial for Imamura’s usually grim critical view of Japaneseness.
The only DVD extras are a theatrical trailer and a textual bio/filmography of Imamura (one of only two directors two of whose movies won the Palme d’or at Cannes—for “Ballad of Narayama” and “The Eel”).
©2016, Stephen O. Murray