Shoni Imamura’s final film, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001) has finally come to Blu-ray. The last work of this Japanese New-Wave master, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge finds office worker Yosuke Sasano, played by Koji Yakusho (Cure, Pulse), out of work at the end of Japan’s infamous “lost decade.”
With the practice of permanent contracts (Shūshin koyō) colliding with a collapsed economy, the middle-aged Yosuke is forced into homelessness in Tokyo, trying to find work while separated from his wife and child. The audience meets Yuosuke upon the death of a friend, “The Blue Tent Photographer” Taro, played by Kazuo Kitamura (Kwaidan). An old corpse surrounded by a dense library, his death is uneventful, like so many tragic unhoused deaths. However, he did leave Yosuke with something of note — instructions to find a post-war treasure stashed away in the town of Himi, Toyama, a fishing village. Inside a closet on the top floor of a house next to the red bridge, a golden Buddha statue is hidden in a pot.
Desperate for money and held to account by his wife, Yosuke seeks out his prize. Instead of a statue, he meets a young woman by the name of Saeko Aizawa, played by Misa Shimizu (Shall We Dance, Eeel). She and her grandmother (Mitsuko Baisho; Dreams, Tales from Earthsea) live in the house he’s seeking. Encountering her in the grocery store, Yosuke spies her stealing some cheese…and leaking a large puddle onto the floor from underneath her dress.
Following her home, Yosuke discovers that Saeko has a special “gift,” a superhuman amount of vaginal discharge when excitedly aroused, by sex or by crime. As she puts it, “naughtiness.”
Warm Water Under a Red Bridge is both a sex comedy and work from one of Japan’s great issues-artists at the end of his life and the end of the worst economic disaster in Japan. Marrying magical realism with satire, the film pokes at erotic thrillers, Japan’s nuclear anxieties, the burdens of capitalism, class divide, and the very idea of pursuing lasting happiness of any kind. Constantly finding new ways to pair comedy and tragedy, the film fills the town with fascinating neighbors and situations, such as an African exchange student forced to train for marathons while chased by his trainer on his bicycle, both of whom are outrun by Yosuke on his way to get some, giving Tom Cruise a challenge for the best on-screen run in film.
Originally filmed on 35mm, this new digital transfer is very solid, doing a great job of bringing the colorful Kodak colors through and retaining a pleasing amount of grain. Shot on spherical lenses largely in daylight, the film oscillates between a handful of stunning shots and a largely flat, but colorful image. Where the image occasionally shows its age, the blame lies with the film’s time of release. Largely, the special effects of the film are practical, centering around whatever hose system delivers the comical spray from under Saeko throughout the film. However, when Saeko and Yosuke tour the local nuclear power plant that poisoned the river in her childhood, the film employs computer-generated models to take the camera where it cannot go, into the reactor. While the computer-generated images show their age with low-poly textures and bare-bones light shaders for the reflections, the compositing work around these images is excellent, sustaining the integrity of the film’s reality. In fact, the well-conceived magical realism of the world lets Imamura get away with integrating several poor images into the film. Notably, a later vision that appears before Yosuke is simply a .jpg image with a drop-shadow effect, but it’s funny, and his lover’s discharge makes the local fishery thrive when it mixes into the river water, so the jpg plays.
The film loads the female orgasm with subtext about generational pain, the itai-itai disease that plagued villages outside of nuclear plants in Japan, and the economic forces of gender roles, and then undercuts every sex scene with music that’s a cousin to the Benny Hill theme. Body Double (1984) it is not. More than eroticism or upward mobility, the satire of Warm Water Under a Red Bridge points the audience towards the absurdity of loneliness and what lengths we’ll go to in escaping it. With millions of people out of work, Japan was a lonely place in 2000, and Imamura, having spent his career exploring sexual politics, class divide, and nuclear disaster, fixated on hyper-realistic detail, summed everything up in the satirical line “It’s no laughing matter, be serious about it.” A great joke.
If you want to learn more about the under-sung director who brought this and several other films to Cannes, the only special features not dedicated to promoting other Film Movement releases (a trailer for Film Movement itself, Oh Lucy! (2017), and the excellent Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021)) are the trailer for Warm Water Under a Red Bridge and a very good video essay, Messy and Juicy, by the film curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, Tom Vick. The essay breaks down Imamura’s relationship to class, mortality, and decorum. The real meat on the bone is the 16-page booklet inside the box, containing an excellent essay by film scholar Hwang Kyunmin titled She Shall Redeem the Man. A primer on Imamura’s career as much as on the film itself, it’s an excellent piece of scholarship with only the shortcoming of leaving you wishing it’d keep going.
While the special features may be sparse, what’s there is solid, and the film itself is incredible. With the new restoration and transfer, it alone would be worth the price of admission.
Warm Water Under a Red Bridge Special Features:
- Messy and Juicy video essay by author and film curator Tom Vick
- 16-page booklet with new essay by film scholar and writer Hwang Kyunmin
Available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital on May 23rd, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Film Movement Classics Warm Water Under a Red Bridge webpage.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.