Good sex is more valuable than the most priceless treasure. That’s the basic message to be found in veteran Japanese director Shohei Imamura’s often charming but ultimately overly elongated “Warm Water Under a Red Bridge.” A film with a terrifically engaging concept that overstays its welcome by quite a stretch, pic will nevertheless find appreciative niche audiences among the venerable director’s followers and among lovers of contemporary Japanese cinema. But possibilities for a breakthrough pic, for which expectations are raised for a while, appear too optimistic. Though “Warm Water” is visually very good looking, it will probably have more success on the small screen than in cinemas.
Twice a Cannes Palme d’Or winner (for “The Ballad of Narayama” in 1983 and “The Eel” in 1997), Imamura, aged 74, and his screenplay collaborators, have now adapted a book, by Henmi Yo, with a wildly amusing central idea — a beautiful woman whose body contains a magical spring from which water gushes freely when she experiences orgasm.
Yosuke, played by Koji Yakusho, Imamura’s star from “The Eel,” was a prosperous businessman and contented husband and father until the economic downturn; now he’s unemployed, broke and his wife has left him. One of his few friends is an old tramp, Taro (Kazuo Kitramura); something of a philosopher, Taro tells Yosuke about a place where he once lived, far away on the Noto Peninsula. Here, in an old wooden house overlooking a red bridge spanning a river, he hid a valuable golden Buddha stolen from a temple in Kyoto. When Taro dies, Yosuke realizes that if only he can find this priceless artifact he stands a chance of picking up the pieces of his life.
So he sets out for Noto, and soon finds the house — miraculously still standing — which overlooks the red bridge. The occupiers are a senile old woman fortune-teller (Mitsuko Baisho) and her beautiful granddaughter, Saeko (Misa Shimizu). Yosuke follows the girl and, in a supermarket, he sees her steal a package of cheese and observes that water seems to be seeping from her body. He follows her home and she tells him, quite openly, that when the mysterious fount of water wells up inside her she can only relieve it by stealing — or by sex.
In no time at all, the couple are indulging energetically in the latter exercise, and Yosuke is amazed when bursts of water like oil from a gusher explode from Saeko’s body. The water flows into the river, where its special qualities attract fish, which in turn bring fishermen to the scene.
Overcome with this entrancing encounter, Yosuke decides to stay on and sample some more of Saeko’s hospitality. He gets a job as fisherman, moves into the local inn, and rushes to service Saeko whenever she signals him — by mirror — that her waters are rising.
However, he’s unable to find the priceless Buddha, and it doesn’t seem to occur to him, as it will to most audiences early in the piece, that the “treasure” Taro was sending him to find isn’t gold, but the love of a very exceptional woman. It takes Imamura a very long time to come to that conclusion, and while the first occasion we see the watery results of Saeko’s orgasm it’s hilarious, the joke becomes less amusing with repetition.
The third act of the pic, involving a former lover of Saeko who has served time in prison, is rather heavy and takes the film into murkier territory. More successful are scenes in which Imamura obliquely comments on racism in Japan via the character of an African runner who has chosen this backwater to train for the next Olympics.
Ultimately a disappointment, “Warm Water” nevertheless has some tremendous qualities, principally the sunny performance of Misa Shimizu as the nymph with the eccentric waterworks, but also the nicely bemused portrayal of a man in lust from Koji Yakusho.
Shigeru Kamatsubara’s location photography makes a positive contribution throughout, but the repetitive music score by Shinichiro Ikebe is less successful, especially in the numerous watery orgasm scenes.