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  Warm Water Under A Red Bridge  
  Year: 2001
Koji Yakusho and Misa Shimizu
  Director: Shohei Imamura  
  Cast: Koji Yakusho, Misa Shimizu, Mitsuko Baisho, Mansaku Fuwa  
  The Skinny: Shoehei Imamura 's latest is an extremely intelligent piece of filmmaking. The usual mix of irreverent comedy, social commentary and genre escapism is helped by Imamura-san's predictably smooth direction. Koji Yakusho is excellent, and the film is affecting.  
by LunaSea:
     Old age can often play really bad tricks on you. It's inevitable. You settle down, feel satisfied about what you've done in the past, and maybe even stop caring. Many directors suffered in the last phase of their career for that reason, or probably because they couldn't find their voice anymore, couldn't translate their vision into film, or just couldn't plain do something that compelled them. As a result, their last few films lack any passion, creativity or panache, and seem content with being just a stale reminder of the director's glory days. In his mid seventies, Shohei Imamura doesn't fit that description at all, because the master is still producing smart, incredibly polished works full of energy and irreverent creativity like his latest film, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge.
     In a certain sense, this film feels like Yasujiro Ozu's last film An Autumn Afternoon. It shares with that film the impression that the director still has a great vitality and many things to say, even if the film isn't anything particularly new for him. Imamura still shows a great understanding of how to tell a story and make a great film out of it. Warm Water is not as ambitious as some of his older classics like The Pornographers, Vengeance is Mine, The Ballad of Narayama or Black Rain, but like The Eel and Kanzo Sensei it goes more in depth than its initial premise may suggest. It brilliantly uses comedy without exaggerating it, comments on the current economical and social situation in Japan, and has a delightful charm that is easy to connect with.
     Yosuke (Koji Yakusho) is the classic corporate man, with a job at an architectural firm, a wife and a kid. Suddenly, like many other people in the modern Japan of the 21st century, Yosuke is laid off. His world that once guaranteed a secure job for a lifetime crumbles and he's not prepared to approach this uncertain future. In addition to that, he keeps being hassled on the phone by his wife, who requests that he find a solution and wants some money right now. All he can do is try a few interviews, even lowering himself to accept half his usual pay in one of the more striking scenes of the film. Nothing works; it seems that the economic bubble that allowed Japan to reach unprecedented heights is now just a trembling, fading hope that things can get better. When he recalls a discussion with the savvy old Taro, telling him of a precious Buddhist statue hidden in a house by the red bridge in a small town on the Noto Peninsula, he decides to try and see if the legend is true. After all, he doesn't have much to lose at that point.
     The town turns out to be nothing like you'd imagine, populated by strange characters. Case in point: a young African athlete who's come to Japan to train for the Olympics, and plans to use the notoriety he'd earn to become president of his native land. He's followed by his trainer, who is apparently only there to whack him if he gets out of line and never leaves his bike. Then there's the bizarre owners of the inn where Yosuke decides to stay, a senile fortune teller, and the young fishermen who offers Yosuke a job because - get this - Yosuke defended the African man they vocally assaulted for violating an obviously made-up fishing law, and conclude that only a serious, hard working man would do that.
     However, nothing prepares Yosuke enough for what he sees next. While shopping at a supermarket, he notices someone who at first simply seems like a shoplifter, but she also secretes a large amount of transparent liquid that flows down her legs right down to the floor. Perplexed, he takes a closer look and finds a fish shaped earring amongst all that liquid. He tries to follow the mysterious woman, maybe to give it back to her but also because he's interested by what he just witnessed.
     The woman, Saeko (Misa Shimizu), flirts with Yosuke from the beginning, offering him ice and the cheese she just stole from the market, and then out of nowhere goes straight to the man's pants, both embarrassed and excited. That's how their relationship begins, and the result is something you can only appreciate by seeing the film. Imamura could have portrayed their first unexpected, wacky sexual meeting with the eye of a voyeur, but he strips the scene (and the rest of their meetings) of any malice and just makes the proceedings funny, charming and especially weird. Really weird. The water Saeko secretes flows down the floor, goes outside and reaches the river. On its path, we can see an uncharacteristic line of flowers and a large amount of fish assembled to the spot where the water flows. Is this liquid magic? The villagers probably think so, and they keep describing Saeko as "the monster," for reasons we will learn later.
     Instead of developing a conventional love story from that scene, the director creates a different situation: the woman at first needs Yosuke to empty her of the fluid which seems to cause her fits of kleptomania (Yosuke agrees to help her cure this "disease" by having sex whenever she feels full), and his reaction is that he finds himself enchanted by both the town, its population, and Saeko as well. He decides to take the job they offered him, even if it will pay less than usual. However, staying there gives him the satisfaction that he's not forced to do anything, and he's not a corporate drone anymore. He's finally removed from his overbearing wife, and even if he throws a fit when she tells him to sign divorce papers on the phone, he eventually forgets her.
     The film continues to develop this lovely story and mixes fun scenes with charming ones. There's a sense of quiet beauty to everything, and somehow the film feels right even if it doesn't create violent emotions or exciting developments. Warm Water Under a Red Bridge is a film that consists of small moments and surprises with its maturity. There isn't one weak moment. The script flows like Saeko's magic liquid and the great performances by the leads just make it better. Koji Yakusho, as always one of the world's most reliable actors, gives Yosuke a real edge. Yosuke's behavior becomes truly involving because Yakusho is perfect at portraying flawed, realistic characters that deep down are good. At first Yosuke goes to the town for the statue, then it seems he's so attracted by Saeko's peculiarity that sexual exploitation comes to mind. But slowly he becomes interested in her beyond those things, and we feel his change. Misa Shimizu is equally excellent as a woman who knows what she wants and is easy to connect with. However, she also possesses a multi-faceted personality and, like everybody else, is somewhat flawed.
     Add to the package the weird balance between realism and fantasy, quirky comedy and serious social commentary, and the unique characters and situations and you have the full picture of what Imamura has created. You never feel for a minute that the director loses control of the film. He smartly makes everything work, from the strange soundtrack to the often beautiful cinematography and sets. I wish all the directors could make such a polished, strangely enchanting and charming film at seventy-plus years-old. Imamura-san is still one of the best, and if this turns out to be his last film, then hats off to a tremendous career. He really deserves it. (LunaSea 2002)
  Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Japanese Language Track
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles

image courtesy of Deltamac Co., Ltd. Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen