When the great cinematic iconoclasts grow older, their work often becomes gentler and warmer - which is exactly what we see in Shohei Imamura's perversely delightful romantic comedy "Warm Water Under a Red Bridge." It's an easygoing gem of a picture, and there's a serenity about its viewpoint and style that relaxes you - even though the movie is full of bizarre sex acts, visions of social decay and even a little knock-around violence.
Carnage, death and extreme social injustice were the mainstays of Imamura classics like "The Insect Woman" (1963), "Vengeance is Mine" (1979) and "The Ballad of Narayama" (1984), but here he treats the flare-ups and fisticuffs as little jokes, the childlike foibles of hilariously explosive hotheads.
That doesn't mean that this supreme Japanese filmmaker takes life's injustices or cruelties any less seriously. But Imamura's story about a Tokyo loser who travels to the Noto peninsula in search of hidden treasure and finds instead erotic bliss is deliberately cheeky and outrageous, full of wacky gags and eccentric characters. It's a movie that makes you smile, but the silliness never struck me as strained or calculated. As he unrolls his tongue-in-cheek yarn about a community of misfits, lovers and strange intercourse, Imamura seems to be winking throughout.
The film is based on a novel by Henmi Yo, and it stars the ubiquitous Koji Yakusho (the male lead in "Shall We Dance," "Cure" and 1987 Cannes Palme d'Or winner "The Eel"). Yakusho, who has the most believably hangdog everyman look since the late Takashi Shimura ("Ikiru"), plays Yosuke Sasano, a longtime Tokyo businessman who has just lost his job and family and spends his times hanging around some likable bum pals, including wily Gen (Manasaku Fuwa) and bookish Taro (Kazuo Kitamura). Taro dies shortly after telling Yosuke all about a precious Buddha statue he hid in a house in Noto near a red bridge.
Badgered by his mercenary wife, Yosuke heads for the little town, where he quickly finds the house and the two women who live there: Mitsu Aizawa (Mitsuko Baisho) and Mitsu's granddaughter, Saeko (Misa Shimizu, Yakusho's costar in "The Eel"). The Buddha will prove much more elusive.
But the true treasure, as Imamura quickly and slyly reveals, lies not in earthly riches but in the two fantastic women who live by the bridge. Mitsu loved Taro dearly and waited for him for decades, and Saeko possesses the most unique lovemaking abilities on display in any recent movie. Mitsu, sensing a kind of rising tide within her loins, is driven either to shoplifting or sex - and if she chooses sex, her climax always results in a flood of water so copious and pure it can replenish the nearby river and bring back long-absent fish and food.
I first saw "Warm Water" at the Cannes Film Festival, where it strongly divided audiences. Some of them found the notion of life-giving female orgasms so offensive or implausible that they refused to engage the film on any level. But you either get a joke or you don't - and here, Imamura is expressing a kind of pathetic sexual fallacy. Women so enrich and beautify the earth, and the lovers are so hot-blooded and right for each other, that their passion irrigates the land, makes flowers bloom and reawakens the ocean. Who needs a Buddha, expensive or not, when such treasures are at your fingertips?
The rest of the story shows how Yosuke finds himself in the provinces after losing himself in Tokyo. As always in Imamura, there's a Balzacian lustiness to the gallery of characters: the rough-and-ready fishing Uomi family (Isao Natsuyagi and Yukiya Kitamura) and sleazy Miki (Hijiri Kojima), the conniving cellmate of Saeko's ex-lover. And, as always, Imamura keeps a pointed flow of social criticism - here aimed largely at Japan's post-'60s loss of tradition and community, but expressed more tenderly than in his darker masterpieces of the past.
So gentle is "Warm Water Under a Red Bridge" - so beautiful its photography by Shigeru Kamatsuhara - that watching it is almost unalloyed pleasure from beginning to end. But the film will mean more to longtime Imamura admirers who know that he was the Japanese Bunuel, a caustic social comedian who spared no one, and that "Vengeance Is Mine" is the greatest, most realistic portrait of a psychopathic killer in all of the cinema. Now he looks on the world with the achieved serenity and economy of old age, even if some vitriol is still bubbling below.
"Warm Water Under a Red Bridge" is a movie about love, friendship and finding oneself, and it takes all its subjects very seriously while seeming to treat them with the lightest and most piquant of touches. Like its bizarre heroine, it irrigates our souls.
3 stars (out of 4)
"Warm Water Under a Red Bridge"
Directed by Shohei Imamura; written by Motofumi Tomikawa, Daisuke Tengan, Imamura, from the novel Henmi Yo; photographed by Shigeru Kamatsubara; edited by Hajime Okayasu; production designed by Hisao Inagaki; music by Shinichiru Ikebe; produced by Hisa Iino. A Cowboy Pictures release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:59. No MPAA rating. Adult. (Sensuality, language and slapstick violence.)
Yosuke Sasano - Koji Yakusho
Saeko Aizawa - Misa Shimizu
Mitsu Aizawa - Mitsuko Baisho
Gen - Manasaku Fuwa
Taro - Kazuo Kitamura Masayuki Uomi - Isao Natsuyagi
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times