Debuting feature director Hidenori Sugimori shows a striking visual imagination in “Woman of Water,” a dreamy tale of elemental encounters that never quite coalesces thematically but nonetheless remains an absorbing, richly poetic drama. Set mainly in a small-town sento bathhouse, the story of a woman who prompts rain showers every time a significant event occurs in her life has the air of a folktale embracing natural and mythological elements. While it’s too oblique and meandering to attract major attention, the film should find a welcome in fests attuned to Japanese esoterica.
When title character Ryo (Ua) has her wisdom tooth extracted, a rain storm begins. As she frolics in the downpour, her fiance and father are killed in an auto accident just days before her wedding, leaving her suddenly alone. As she grieves in the house after the funerals, an isolated indoor rain shower caresses and consoles her.
Debating whether to sell the bathhouse and start afresh somewhere new, she takes a trip to Mt. Fuji. She meets Yukino (Hikaru), a similarly bereaved woman in the woods, who draws comfort from Ryo before sweeping off again like the wind. Back home, Ryo finds a stranger, Yusaku (Tadanobu Asano), in her house, whose reticence dissolves as he reveals his love of fire. She offers him work stoking the huge sento furnace and the two become lovers. The final element of earth is represented by Midori (Mayumi Ogawa), a homeless mute bag-lady with the face of a ghost, who lost her family in tragic circumstances and calls regularly at the bathhouse to remove the grime of the streets.
Asking no questions of each other’s past, Ryo and Yusaku’s yin-yang balance proves harmonious for a time as he warms her water and she calms his flames. When she learns via police information that Yusaku is wanted for several counts of arson, Ryo ignores the knowledge. But Midori reacts differently, attempting to protect the girl she regards as her daughter. Her hostility confirms Yusaku’s suspicion that it’s time to move on, taking his leave in flammable fashion.
Played with ethereal grace by singer Ua in her first film, the main character is a charismatic one given her role as a purifying, all-accepting force for the troubled humanity she encounters. The setting of the sento, too, brings fascinating nuances, serving as a place of cleansing, liberation, renewal and equalizing nakedness.
Despite these intriguing central elements, however, writer-director Sugimori develops the story and the characters’ relationships in a manner as misty and opaque as the vapors that cloud the bathhouse or the rain-drenched exteriors. The film’s evocative images make it a visually stirring, often sensual experience. But the determinedly indirect approach and confused plotting, mixing dreams, deja vu and arcane symbolism make it also frustrating and emotionally distant in increasing measure as the drama progresses.