Shohei Imamura’s final film Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001) is a fantasy of letting go and giving in, a Y2K love story set against a backdrop devoid of romance. It is also, perhaps most famously, about a woman named Saeko (Misa Shimizu) who is stricken by a mysterious erotic illness: she cannot stop “venting” (or ejaculating) veritable lakes of water, and the only solution is to have frantic sexual encounters.
Luckily for her, she has a chance meeting with Yosuke (Koji Yakusho), a life-long salaryman who has recently lost his job and, consequently, his purpose. When he catches Saeko shoplifting and venting in the middle of a convenience store, his perfectly packaged supermarket-lunch life is disrupted by a magical realist love affair. Their relationship is simple and question-free, based entirely on impulse.
The word “venting” is apt, as Saeko’s disease is aligned with a concept that melodrama studies calls “leakage”: when we are overwhelmed, emotionally or spiritually, something has to come out, whether tears, vomit, or, in Saeko’s case, ejaculate. Having lost her mother years ago in a symbolically-appropriate drowning, Saeko transforms her medical problem into an outlet for her pain, using it to forge a slippery but rewarding connection with Yosuke. As silly as the premise may be, Imaumura engages with the trope of ‘woman’s body as site of mystery’ earnestly, leaning into the absurdity and never rendering Saeko abject.
Imamura’s portrait of early-aughts malaise borders on prophetic; or, as Yosuke remarks, “I expected the 21st century to be different, but nothing has changed.” Twenty-two years after the film’s debut, responses to our every need are beta-tested and algorithmically attuned. Each month a new dating-app advertises a salve for loneliness, but the sheer quantity of slogans papering the subway only emphasizes the depth of the hole they promise to fill. Imamura presents the audience with an alternative lifestyle, one in which Saeko and Yosuke become servants to their own desires, ignoring calls to serve productive society. The sex scenes are desperate and imprecise, but they are actually sexy in that they feel like bursts of clarity in an otherwise muddy world. Saeko and Yosuke so obviously need each other; their relationship is one of pure symbiosis.
There is something sweet about it all, something truly romantic and Romantic. Nowadays the word “visceral” is scattered casually throughout the typical Letterboxd review, but Warm Water Under a Red Bridge is concerned quite literally with the viscera of love. The 21st century promised tidy automation that would deliver us from the messiness of our base wants, but Imamura’s love story is sticky, sweaty, and sopping wet.
Warm Water Under a Bridge screens through April 6 at BAM.