Published Sep 01, 2001
How is it in this, the 21 century, such an innovative nation such as Japan still harbours such prehistoric notions as epitomised by "Warm Water Under A Red Bridge"?
We are introduced to Yosuke, a newly laid-off businessman in search for work during which he befriends a drifter. The latter imparts his philosophy of life as well as the tale of a lost treasure. Yosuke agrees to search out said treasure as part of his quest. Meanwhile, he receives nagging phone calls from his estranged wife waiting for money. Following the drifter's instructions, Yosuke finds a house by a red bridge and the two women who inhabit it. The elder of the two spends much of her time waiting for something or making mute predictions. The younger, Saeko meets Yosuke at a grocery store where he spots her shoplifting. Finding her fish-shaped earring in the strange pool of water she leaves behind, he is compelled to follow her home. Their aqueous encounter reveals further mysteries about both Saeko and her grandmother. Yosuke then settles into his new locale, finds a job, familial freedom and ultimately love.
Director Shohei Imamura has been described as a master and being somewhat of a neophyte to Japanese cinema, I take this description for granted. Assuming this and knowing nuances in language are quite often lost in translations, I am still at a loss to find much redeeming about "Warm Water Under A Red Bridge." My main issue is the lazy chauvinism exhibited in the portrayal of women and men. In a modern movie supposedly about universal human foibles, Yosuke is still a failure because he is not a "real man." He grovels for a job that he doesn't get, defends immigrants and is made to look lesser for it, and he is harangued by his wife for not providing. It could be argued that all this is simply a device to garner sympathy for Yosuke, except for the stereotyping of women.
Women in "Warm Water Under A Red Bridge" are portrayed, without exception, as the bane of men's existence. The wife is a dragon, a tough's girlfriend is vacuous, Saeko's mother is superstitious, Saeko herself is servile, the grandmother pinning. None of these women exist on their own account. Further, other side characters are routinely berated for their cooking or perceived clumsiness. As in the neutrino tunnel, the men were reasonable and the woman emotional and flighty. This stopped being funny decades ago. Such cardboard portrayals aren't cultural nuances as much as a demonstration of lack of the perception.
One other issue with the film is the sole black character, as African student on an athletic scholarship and training for the Olympics. He is berated by every male character except Yosuke. The purpose of this character escapes me. If it supposed to be comic relief, I am not relieved, but rather frustrated. Maybe the apparent racism is purposely over-the-top as to be clownish it itself. Perhaps the irony is lost between the lines of the subtitles. Perhaps or perhaps not.
As for the seeming fantasy and mythical motifs throughout, they come across as hackneyed. The siren song of Saeko to Yosuke simply underscores the sexism the siren always lead the fishermen to their death. Indeed, his work mate continuously refers to Saeko as a monster that will drain Yosuke's "vital essence." From the looks of things, the director's "vital essences" were drained prior to making this film.
As a Western novice to Imamura's work, all these problems are quite unfortunate, as the premise is valid. If handled creatively, a lovely fable of vindication could have been told. It was not and we are left learning nothing that we haven't already grown tired of unlearning before.