Warm Water Under a Red Bridge – Shōhei Imamura

21 Dec

Nationality: Japanese

Delicate and charming love story with touches of magic realism and one very strange slant that only the japanese could have come up with.

When trying to find a term that sums up this film, the words ‘Good Hearted’ seem to be inescapable.  There is such a warmth about it – a sweet, beautiful, almost comforting warmth – as warm as that warm water flowing under the bridge itself, which I shall not explain just yet.  (I want to seduce you a bit more first.)  This is an enchanting love story, a work of magic realism where reality is coloured with hints of the strange and the almost mystical.  It is filled with that sense of gentle tenderness and strong emotion that the Japanese can be so exceptionally good at – managing to convey it without any sense of mawkishness or awkwardness – and in the process overriding any expectations we may have from the basic subject matter (which I haven’t explained yet), which could so easily have been disastrous . . .

Somewhere in Tokyo lived an old man in a blue tent, full of books.  Homeless – derelict – but liked by everyone who knew him and known as the ‘Blue Tent Philosopher’.  A street genius – a wise man who never did anything in his life to escape from his tent but doesn’t seem too dismayed or unhappy about his lot.  He knows what’s important about life and it ain’t struggling to get on in a career or being competitive or ‘successful’.

And he has a story to tell.  According to his rambling chatter, shortly after the war, he left a certain treasure hidden in a distant town – in a house by a red bridge.  According to him, he never got round to going to collect it again – but there seems to be something more behind his talk on the subject than meets the eye.  Maybe it’s even true.  Eventually he dies quietly in his tent – an almost unknown but strangely significant presence no longer there.  But the story of the hidden treasure lingers in the minds of his friends.  Lingers until the recently laid off saleryman Yosuke Sasano, fed up with life in general and tangled in a far from happy marriage, decides that he has nothing to loose and goes to take a look.  I think all of us have that fantasy – of finding a treasure and finally escaping from the mundanity of existence.  It is one of the great archetypes of human imaginings and dreamings.  However, this is no ordinary treasure hunt story.  He does indeed find a treasure – but a treasure that is far more extraordinary than any hidden gold and we dive deep into a curious sexual fable and love story that only the Japanese could have come up with.

Warm Water under a Red BridgeWarm Water under a Red Bridge

Instead of treasure, it is the young woman and her seemingly senile grandmother who live in that house by the red bridge that are the real discovery.  He meets them and is quickly drawn into fascination and love – and into an entire new life in this small town.  She is no hermit or mystery figure, just a very engaging modern small-town girl – but she does have one very curious characteristic.

She produces water.

Now – oh gawd . . . this is where I have to choose my words with some care.  I just know that the moment I said that, something shifted gears in your head.  Something suddenly clammy and dirty and smelly.  And you immediately forgot my earlier words such as ‘good hearted’ and ‘entrancing’ and ‘sweet, beautiful, almost comforting’.  After all – we all produce water to one degree or another.  Whatever slang term we may care to apply to the process.  And we don’t tend to like the process much except under rare and special circumstances.  But we aint talking golden showers here in this film.  We are talking warm water under a red bridge!  Whatever that water is, it is more like some archaic mystical gift than a bodily function.  We are talking about a character blessed/cursed with some curious liquid phenomenon that seems to stand as a symbol of everything feminine and sexual.  It fills her up like emotion and sex made liquid until she has no choice but to find some way to release it – usually by doing something mildly naughty like shoplifting, to give herself a bit of a thrill, an act that tends to leave puddles in odd places around the town.

And that is how our wandering ex-saleryman finds her, and sets about making her acquaintance, still half-convinced that there is treasure hidden in that house.  Of course – there are other, better, more luxurious ways to release that water when the pressure begins to build.  Come on, admit it – few things beat sex after all, either physically, emotionally or metaphorically or anything else.  And it is not long before our ex-saleryman gets an unforgettable surprise in the form of a sexual encounter that erupts like a high-pressure hose (which sounds like a fun special effect to stage).  While he and his clothes – and the entire room! – are drying off, it quickly becomes apparent that the indivisible wheels of love and sex are in action and that he has indeed found a very curious treasure.

No matter what the twisted pressures of both modern life and classic spiritualist morality like to say, sex is a force of immense power and is fundamentally a happy force.  Not the only powerful force in life by any means, but definitely up there among the strong ones.  And this film’s frank acknowledgement of that has to be a part of its success.  The pressure of water that builds up inside our lovely water girl, which must be released somehow or else it will simply release itself, stands as a nice physical metaphor for the power of the human sexual urge itself.  In a world that sometimes seems like a sea of stories about how sex can go wrong, become something bitter or dangerous – or at the very least filled with issues and activism of some kind or other – it is kind of refreshing to encounter such a direct and positive statement about it.  Maybe the world needs to be reminded of the simple sweetness and fun of the act!  And this film manages it in such a delicate, quirky and gentle way that it really is very compelling.  Not a hint of ickyness anywhere.  Much as I hate to even mention film certification, this film only got a 15 rating. That means almost nothing of course, but might reassure some people that there is little distasteful going on here.  In this case you will just have to accept this bizarre wet element as a part of the overall tapestry of this story – and as a part of its exuberant and engaging nature.

Meanwhile, as Yosuke is only too happy to assist in the water release process and as the warm water periodically flows out of the house’s drains, into the river outside and under that red bridge (where it seems to have a positive effect on the local fish), other plot elements are winding their way through the story.  Do not forget, after all, that this started off as a treasure hunt, and the spectre/memory of that unassuming old street philosopher and his treasure is never so far away.  The film is filled with webs of seeming connection and fate that are (fortunately) not overt or hammered home.  Just a weird sense of the patterns of the world.  It is subtly done and it is maybe only when the film is over that you get a sense of what a nicely rounded off entity you have just experienced.  It ended leaving me with one of the nicest and warmest feelings I have had from a film for a long time.

The bottom line is that this is a beautiful, cute, joyous and just downright engaging work, with very good performances all round. Even the gorgeous classical score stood out as something quirkily brilliant that fits the film perfectly.

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