"Lose your free will, and you lose your humanity."
Warm Water Under a Red Bridge is both a whimsical Japanese tale and a beautiful corporate daydream—a stuffed shirt in mid-life crisis flight of fancy, a tale of coming into awareness of secret urges and desires.
Think Amélie, except written for middle-aged Japanese men, penned by the Marx Brothers, with heaps of sexual allegory and slide whistle sound effects.
A completely charming film.
Facts of the Case
Yosuke (Koji Yakusho) is at the bottom of his rope. He has suddenly lost his job, and is forced to live down by the water with the homeless, trying in vain as a middle-aged Japanese male to find a new job. His is estranged from his wife; she has moved away, and calls him to harass about money and employment.
Things are not going well, to say the least. Then, an old homeless man that Yosuke has befriended tells him a story. When the old man was younger, he stole a treasure from a temple and hid it in a pot, down by the seaside, by a house next to a red bridge. The old man is too enfeebled to make the journey, and sends his young counterpart on the voyage to retrieve the treasure.
One job rejection after another, Yosuke ultimately decides to go on the journey, and finds the house beside the red bridge still standing. It is occupied by a young woman named Saeko (Misa Shimizu) who he finds standing uneasily in a puddle of water in a grocery store, shoplifting cheese.
Things only get stranger from there.
As Yosuke finds himself suddenly employed by a teenage fisherman, staying at a small hotel with terrible food, making passionate love to Yosuke, and doing everything but hunting for treasure—despite himself, he begins to find himself embracing his ersatz lifestyle.
I am deliberately obscuring the most noticeable and interesting point of the film involving Saeko's character and her particular biological attributes. This is because, frankly, it is one of the best gags in the film. The best way to enjoy the film is to be ignorant of this gag, I assure you, and have it hit you full on in the face (literally) as it comes (even more literally).
Besides—this is a family website. My vocabulary is…limited.
What begins as a bizarre sexual joke (not to mention one of the oddest sight gags in the history of film) becomes a subtle allegorical imagery about the interconnectedness of all things in life and nature, the returning to the basic elements of being alive and existence as a whole. The transition is a sudden one, and hits you like a baseball would hit you if it were dropped off a tall building.
Warm Water Under a Red Bridge is an amazingly layered piece of work—a sweet tale about the anxieties of the Japanese working class. The director, Shohei Imamura, is one of only two directors in the history of the Cannes Film Festival to receive multiple Palm d'Or awards (a Technical Grand Prize for Black Rain  and two Palm d'Or's, for Ballad of Narayama  and The Eel ).
With a film career spanning four decades, his credibility shows in his work. The man is a master of his craft, pure and simple.
This film is a fairy tale for adults. If Amélie was a whimsical film for the twenty-something people, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge is a whimsical film for the mid-life crisis aged.
There is an ongoing obsession in the film with water; everywhere, water references—in the local river polluted with cadmium, the river that drowned Saeko's mother, the fishing of the ocean by villagers, the numerous umbrellas, and of course, the warm water under a red bridge (which is both the most profound and amusing allegory of the film).
There is even a scene of Yosuke and Saeko in a neutrino detector, deep within the mountainside, surrounded by over 500,000 liters of water. The scene stands by itself in the film, absolutely unexplained, and completely allegorical.
The adults in the film stumble and dance and become confused and upset, and generally act like misbehaved youths. Likewise, the youthful in the film (either the physically young, or the young-at-heart) are more centered, more at ease with their lot in life, and offer the most profound bits of wisdom and direction. The film seems to speak of a profound anxiety in the Japanese working class, but also, to the working class in general, to stroke the egos of the youthful, and to re-claim the vigor and energy of the years gone past. This is not a film about ducking responsibility—more about finding ways to live life in a mature, sophisticated way, without sacrificing the ethos and spirit of a raucous, passionate youthful existence.
The direction of the film is masterful. Every shot is meticulously and glorious placed, often hiding behind objects, peering through windows, like a voyeur, utilizing the on screen space like a canvas, filling the frame with depth and detail and movement of everyday things—clothes swaying in the wind, birds circling the ocean. All things become expressions of the canvas, and they sway to a gentle current.
The style of camerawork and direction is very appealing and fits the tone of the film quite expertly. The off screen space is utilized liberally, and the languid, long, lingering shots feel too modern to be Ozu-esque, but too fluid and dynamic to be akin to traditional Japanese cinematography. There is a beautiful balance between the Zen-like quality of the lingering shots and the sexual tension and proactive energy that permeates the camera movements.
The video quality is great, almost perfect. Colors come across vibrant and dynamic, with reds and blues being particularly rich and pleasing to the eye. Detail is sharp, and the picture is absolutely free from visual imperfections and defects. The movie looks as good as it feels.
The sound, likewise, is excellent. The ambient water noise that permeates the entire film on and off mixes in perfectly, the dialogue is crisp and free from distortion and muffling, and the sound balance is spot-on. The music in the film is a kaleidoscopic mix of traditional Japanese instruments and melodies, with contemporary styling, liberally doused with slide whistles, moaning trumpets, and goofy sound effects. It fits the film exquisitely.
Extras include a director's biography and filmography, and the original theatrical trailer, which, admittedly, is a pretty slim offering. However, the film itself is by far the best feature of this disc, and most people will find themselves more than satisfied by the presentation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It is hard to be critical of a film that is so instantly enjoyable and vibrant, but for the sake of objectivity—have at thee, film!
The subject matter is probably the film's best and worst feature, simultaneously.
Warm Water Under a Red Bridge is exactly the kind of film that can never be made in North America. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, I leave to your personal interpretation. As a film released for international distribution, the film is approachable by a North American audience, absolutely; but the entire tone, the pacing, the humor—everything—will put more than a number of people right off this film. The strange, deadpan humor, the allegorical nature of the storyline, the slapstick sexuality—the experience can be surreal. And, while I personally loved it, there are those people who will not.
The second best feature of the film is its gentle pacing, the way that the viewer becomes languidly carried along in the gentle flow of the film. Occasionally the film touches back to reality in grounding ways and manages to disrupt this gentle flow. Some jokes fall flat, shifting the harmonic balance from whimsy to awkward.
Too ambitious at times, the film sometimes feels less than the sum of its parts—like a rocket that shoots for Mars and only gets as far as the Moon. There is no crashing of rocket, but you may end up somewhere you did not intend to be.
Quirky, enjoyable, and just a bit obscure, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge represents a style and energy of filmmaking often missing from this continent. Falling somewhere between the fanciful whimsy of magic realism and the dry satire of working-class social realism, the film is unique and stands independent of its peers as a work that is both blunt and poetic, silly and downright enjoyable.
After forty years, Imamura is a true artisan in the cinematic world; but some of his previous films are not nearly as approachable to North American audiences (or readily available). The film is not flawless, nor is it perfect, but the best movies never are—they always leave a little to the imagination, a little to be rationalized and worked out, debated, prodded and probed. With the smallest of effort, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge can be a great cinematic experience, and with no effort at all, merely a charming, whimsical fairy tale for the postmodern adult.
The court is in recess as the judge tap-dances upon his desk in celebration of an excellent audio and visual DVD presentation to a fantastic, beautiful, silly and magical film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Director's Biography/Filmography
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