Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Shohei Imamura, 2001)
Japanese Title: Akai hashi no shita no nurui mizu
In one of my morning commutes to work, I inadvertently sat beside this peculiar old man of probably eighty years of age. He smiled at me. I did not return the unspoken morning’s greeting as I was in no mood for weekday pleasantries. When the conductor came to collect our fare, I immediately gave him the correct amount and went on with my business. The old man got two little coins which I knew were not enough to cover his fare and gave it to the conductor. The conductor remarked “Sir, this isn’t enough. Your eyesight must be so bad that you picked up the wrong coins.” While, struggling to remove from his purse the correct fare, the old man retorted with a grandfatherly smile, “I may not be able to see these coins, but I can see a gorgeous woman more than a mile away.” The conductor laughed and received the correct payment. I, however, was more humbled than anything. It would take a quirky old man and his witty retort to make me realize the youth I was wasting away in my intent to flow along the work-a-day world. I finally gave the old man the long-delayed smile he deserved minutes ago.
At the very ripe age of 74 and with several outstanding films including two Cannes Palm d’Or winners under his belt, Shohei Imamura crafted Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, a quirky if not entirely whimsical concoction that seems to be dwarfed by the richer and more complex films Imamura made before it. The film tackles the story of Sasano (Koji Yakusho), a retrenched salary man who moves from the riverside tent city in Tokyo to a rural town upon the parting advice of a homeless philosopher named Taro whom he befriended. The philosopher urges him on a treasure hunt but upon arrival in the seaside town, he gets sidetracked when he discovers and eventually falls in love with Saeko (Misa Shimizu), woman with the curious condition of swelling up with immense amount of water that can only be released by the commission of a wicked act such as shoplifting or through sexual intercourse.
Despite the very simplistic if not trite predisposition, the film is still very much underneath the umbrella of the Imamura’s constant artistic interest, the relationship between the marginalized social strata and human sexuality. Here, Imamura again examines the always-reliable downtrodden Japanese corporate slave, pushed away from the norm of the economically successful post-war Japanese individual by forces which are beyond his control. However, instead of furthering such examination of the unlucky impoverished Japanese as composite for a commentary on contemporary Japanese society, Imamura most delightfully steers away from what is expected of him. Warm Water Under a Red Bridge does not have anything drastically important to say about society in general nor does it need to say anything pertinent of the times. Imamura has already spent a long and illustrious career doing exactly that.
Later in his career, Imamura would strive for humanism within the familiar context that he has grown accustomed to. Such humanism finds climax and maybe, near-perfection in Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, where Imamura’s thematic thrusts are inward, very similar to traditional parables and fables where the narrative primarily serves the characters’ growth to their inevitable betterment supposedly to touch on a universal human trait. The inward thematic thrust of Warm Water Under a Red Bridge becomes more apparent when the film is compared to his earlier works where the elaborate storytelling and characterizations are usually evocations of social and cultural situations that are larger than the films themselves, like the anti-American sentiment within a Japanese society that is under the influence of the American victors in Pigs and Battleships (1961), the struggles of the post-war Japanese women living in the fringes of society in The Insect Woman (1963), among plenty other grander themes that most of Imamura’s films apparently allude to. What Warm Water Under a Red Bridge most successfully imparts is the very personal appreciation of the proper pursuit of happiness --- not through the modernized method of financial stability as dictated by modern norms but through the most primitive yet certain representations of human satisfaction: a job that sufficiently provides and more importantly, an always interesting sex life.
In Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, sex symbolizes a bevy of human needs. In a humorous utilization of magic realism, Imamura conceives a woman’s orgasm as life-giving. He meticulously, and with a glorious touch of lyrical humor, paints how Seako’s fluids flow from the wooden panels of her house, down the drain, and into the river where a school of freshwater fishes delightfully feed on the water-bound nutrients. The sudden abundance of catch impresses the group of village fishermen, including the African student who is training there for the Olympics. It’s quite a refreshing tone, especially in a nation whose pornographic offerings consider such abnormality as a prized commodity along with other impractical yet curiously alluring sexual acrobatics. Here, its nothing short of magical, the way a community of men suddenly become under the spells of a particularly special woman, not through her ill-motivated whims but simply because she is created by nature that way.
Above the life-giving metaphor of sex is the overt satisfaction that is derived from letting go of the societal norms that have encaged the salaried Japanese man, and just seeking out true happiness. That is exactly the inevitable course that Sasano finds himself in. It’s a brush of impractical yet kind fate --- the way he becomes entrusted with the secret treasure by Taro, the way he is conveniently pushed out of the marriage by his nagging wife, the way he notices Saeko in a fit of orgasm while shoplifting in a nearby convenience store. Drawn first by the his desire to cure Saeko of her shoplifting ways through thrusting his sexual capabilities as the least immoral method of releasing her overflowing fluids, he eventually finds his place within the simplistic demands of that rural town where his unique schedule provides for him a sense of belongingness that is absent among the impersonal atmosphere of city living. It is the sex that perpetuates his purpose there, and when that is suddenly troubled by an enterprising ex-convict who sees Saeko’s talents as a source of fortune, he comes out the surprising hero, and defends it the way he hasn’t defended anything in his entire life.
The final few scenes in the film are both intriguing and wonderful. Sasano, jealous from the supposed infidelity of Saeko and disappointed because of the sudden depletion of the fluids that has become the source of his satisfaction, confronts his woman in the breakwaters beside the highway. All reason, sorrow, and questions are erased when in a fit of emotional upheaval (similar to Saeko’s being filled with water), he just lets go and makes love with Saeko. It’s probably one of the loveliest sex scenes ever committed to celluloid, where the sex is there not to make a harsh and guilt-ridden commentary on such pleasures but to celebrate it. Imamura’s visual style makes sure that the sex scenes in the film are both tasteful yet interestingly comical, with both of his actors brandishing an unlikely thus surprising indifference of the entire erotic act --- as if the sex only serves that very particular purpose of momentarily curing Saeko’s condition. In that final lovemaking sequence, it’s different. We are suddenly become knowledgeable of the emotional investments both have committed in that previously only sexual relationship. We acknowledge the hurt, the insecurities, the probable disappointments that suddenly blew up a few moments before Sasano lets go and makes love to Saeko. In that scene, the copulation is clearly not to cure Saeko’s condition, but to represent that final vow --- that with or without the fluids, Sasano has committed his entirety to Saeko. Metaphorically, that also represents Sasano’s acceptance of this new type of happiness, this new type of satisfaction that only Saeko and the entire simplicity of that rural town can provide. Imamura, in a stroke of genius, caps that final lovemaking with Saeko bursting her fluids in the air like a geyser exploding. Funnily, affectingly, and beautifully, a rainbow appears from her fluids as the film’s quirky musical score plays in the background.
In one of the film’s flashbacks, Taro reminds Sasano to have fun while he still can, or in the screenplay’s more imaginative terms, while he can still get an erection. Taro continues to say “Drown yourself in a woman's arms, be faithful to your desires without worrying about daily cares.” Taro’s reminders are the indubitable theses of Imamura’s swansong. It is inaccurate to refer to Warm Water Under a Red Bridge as profusely impertinent compared to Imamura’s other works. In fact, it probably is his most revelatory film; wherein the socially-aware artist suddenly steps out of the supposed legacy he is building to create something surprisingly amiable, entertaining, and personal. He generously grants his viewers the same grandfatherly advice the old man in the bus made to me: to live your life how it should be lived thus finding true happiness.