Thursday, November 24, 2011

Underwater Love

Underwater Love.
Original title: Onna no kappa
Directed by: Shinji Imaoka
Japan/Germany, 2011
Drama/Comedy/Musical/Pinku, 87min


You can stop with the Hentai jokes as of now. From here on it’s all Kappa! The Japanese water spirit, renown for being malicious troublemakers, with a bag of tricks ranging from breaking wind, peeking up women’s skirts, pulling kids into the water, rape and drowning people. Keep a cucumber handy as they are addicted to the vegetable, and tossing it in its direction could be what gives you the extra minute to escape the claws of the Kappa.

You may have seen him before in woodprints of the Edo period, or as the lurky turtle monster in Kimiyoshi Yasuda’s and Yoshiyuki Kuroda’s Yokai movies of the late 60’s, possibly even in Takashi Mike’s Yôkai daisenô (The Great Yokai War) 2005 … but you have never seen him like this. Stop what you are doing and come meet Kappa… you won’t regret it.

Middle aged Asuka [Sawa Masaki – who starred in Barbet Schroder’s, to date, last movie, Inju, la bête dans l’ombre (Inju: The Beast in the Shadow) 2008 based on a Rampo Edogawa novel] works at a fish processing plant. She’s got a pretty straightforward life, and her imminent future seems to be clearly staked out for her. Pretty soon she’s going to marry Hajime [Mutsuo Yoshioka – star of several Imaoka Pinku's], who runs the factory she works at and is something of a jerk. One day whilst rescuing a fish that has miraculously survived into the plant, she encounters a Kappa at the nearby harbour. Although Kappa waves at her, she tries to ignore it, even though she’s delighted by the fact that she’s seen a real live Kappa. But Kappa want’s more than a wave, he wants to talk to Asuka, and has a very determined agenda. Confronting her as she’s about to leave, Kappa reveals that he used to be her school friend Tetsuya Aoki [Yoshirô Umezawa] who after dying in a drowning accident several years ago, was reborn as a kappa… Asuka takes him home and stores him in the washing machine, where he - staying true to legend – waters his bare scalp to keep from dehydrating. But it’s not an easy ride, and despite having a fun time with Kappa, Asuka’s moral dilemma lies in the fact that she’s engaged and planning her wedding to Hajima. Kappa is rejected, and like a love sick teenager – which Tetsuya indeed was before his untimely demise – he takes comfort on the arms of Reiko [Ai Narita] starts to show an interest in him, Asuka soon get’s jealous and realises what she’s about to miss out on. Finally one last subplot is put into play. Kappa – Tetsuya – being a spirit figure, knows that Asuka is going to die soon, and the reason for him returning to the human realm is that he want’s to save her.

Part fantasy, part comedy, part musical – with music and songs written by French/German pop duo Stereo Total, part Pinku… yes turtle boy get’s his mojo workin’ too, Underwater Love is one hell of a funny and weird movie. It never really get’s too explicit, too surreal or too far-fetched. Imaoka commonly brings a comedic tone to his movies, and Underwater Love is no exception. This is why the sudden breaking out in song – much like Takashi Miike’s Katakuri-ke no kôfuku (The Happiness of the Katakuris) 2001 – the dopey characters, and semi impressive special effects – courtesy of Taiga Ishino who’s worked with Yoshihiro Nishimura and the J-Gore gangsters on several of their flicks. But at the same time the almost naïve make-up and prosthetics of Kappa work for the movie
Shinji Imaoka has been a solid name on the later years Pinku scene. He recently, 2009, directed a remake of Junchirô Tanizaki’s short story Hakujitsumu (Day-Dream). A movie that previously was adapted and directed by Pinku legend Tetsuji Takechi twice. First in a Wizard of Oz-ish style where the wraparound was in Black and White with colour dream segments in 1964, and again in 1981 in a more graphic and daring take. If you do not know the story then let me just mention that it’s about a visit to the dentists that takes on epic proportions concerning bondage, vampirism and surreal dreams with a powerful triangular love story at the core. Definitely a movie worth seeking out if you like bizarre and kinky Japanese movies – they are certainly amongst my favourites in the Pinku genre.

But back to Imaoka, who is considered part of the “Seven Lucky Gods of Pink” circle, and like most of the people working in Japanese genre cinema spent several years working for one mentor. Imaoka’s mentor was the great Hisayasu Satō, which makes him an interesting name in my book. But where Satō holds a more voyeuristic and rough approach to the pink themes, Imaoka tends to take the themes lighter, coming at the genre with a more comedic angle where the sex scenes not necessarily are the main focus. He may have alienated a lot of Pinku viewers with his restrained approach, but he’s gained a lot of acclaim from critics and even won the Best Director Award at the Pink Grand Prix. One can see why critics would favour them, as Imaoka’s movies frequently have a serious emotional theme from which his movies build off. It’s not rare to find characters stuck in the rut of convenience and every day routine whilst yearning for something else that they at one point in time gave up on.

Which brings me to the main theme of Underwater Love. Because it’s no surprise to see how the characters interlock with each other when you know that it is a reoccurring Imaoka trait. Asuka may seem happy in her current state, but she isn’t… which we will understand as the movie plays out. Tetsuya – Kappa that is – comes to the human realm with a longing for Asuka. He’s been in love with her since he was a young man, but never proclaimed his love. In death, reborn as Kappa he has a second chance.

Let’s talk about character development, and mainly because I’m excited by the chance to talk about character development in a movie like this. Tetsuya, a shy young man in life, comes back and offer’s his reborn state as a sacrifice to save a woman (Asuka) who never responded to his silent love all those years ago. In his final moments of the movie, he even bargains with a god of death, and when he finally reaches climax – metaphorically and actually in the movie, his arc ends. Asuka is comfortable with her nine to five grind, jerky husband to be and doesn’t really make much noise. Although by the end of the movie, she will have entered deep into the sacred forest, inserted the magic anal pearl into her rectum, fought and defeated a god of death and engaged in necrophilia. A young man afraid to speak up and proclaim his love evolves into a strong personality staking his life to save his love. A woman so passive that’s she content with a lesser everything evolves into a strong warrior wrestling gods and fighting for something better. Impressive character arcs to say the least, and beyond the goofiness of the comedy, singing and Pinku, a fascinating tale of development as they progress from one side of the spectrum to the other.

Then there’s the issue of cinematography… If I throw movies like Wong-Kar Wei’s Days of Being Wild 1990, Ashes of Time 1994, Happy Together 1997, In the Mood for Love 2002, 2046 2004, Yimou Zhang’s Hero 2002, Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park 2007 – all of them award winners for the cinematography – at you, then back that up with titles like, John Favreau’s Made 2001, Pen-Ek Rantarauang‘s Last Life in the Universe 2003, the Fruit Chan/Chan-wook Park/Takashi Miike horror anthology Three… Extremes 2004, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Lady in the Water 2006, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control 2009 – all of them movies know and favoured for their stunning visual imagery, well then you wouldn’t even think of sticking a Japanese Pinku, comedy, love story in there would you. But you can. All of them where lensed by the magnificent Christopher Doyle - the praised Australian cinematographer who has brought some of the most beautiful movies to the big screen over the last three decades. If not for anything else, you need to see this movie for its cinematography

Shot in a mere five days – in no way unique for Pinku - the flaws of tight budget and stressed production schedule shows despite some fantastic cinematography. But a movie concerning a lovesick fantasy figure searching for a sacred anal pearl so that he can trick the god of death, doesn’t really need high production values, as that one line alone more or less motivates the reason why you need to watch Underwater Love.

This is an instant classic, a hilarious blast with a sensitive story at the core. It’s a movie that kicks those Ninja Turtles back into the sewer where they belong and leaves us with a new icon of fantastic cinema –Kappa! I officially challenge you to the Kappa dance, which will start as of now.



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