One of my famous riddle synopsis I think. So what do you get if you get a German company to commission a film from top Pinku director Shinji Imaoka, but add in top cinematographer Christopher Doyle, give it a micro-budget, less than 6 days to film? Oh and make it a musical of sorts? “Underwater Love” is the results my friends. Let’s find out about it together.
Asuka (Sawa Masaki) is a 35 year old woman who works in a fish processing plant, and maybe her life has gotten away from her a touch. Engaged to her boss Hajime (Mutsuo Yoshioka), a man whose ideas of wedding planning is to stick his and Asuka’s photo’s on top of the models in wedding magazines. One day everything changes when she meets a Kappa (Yoshiro Umezawa) in the nearby sea. A Kappa is a Japanese mythical creature which has lots of strange habits (like eating cucumbers and challenging passers-by to Sumo wrestling matches), but is best described as a half human/half turtle water spirit. This one has a special interest in Asuka, as he claims to be the resurrected spirit of her childhood friend Aoki, who died in a drowning accident. Aoki has his reasons for connecting with Asuka, not only is he harbouring a long standing crush on Asuka, but he wishes to keep her from the clutches of a chain-smoking and cross-dressing god of death that has decided Asuka’s time is up.
Let’s not make any bones about it, “Underwater Love” is cheap, low budget and not for everyone. It may have Yoshihiro Nishimura on makeup and Christopher Doyle lensing, but this is single take film-making, with a warts and all result. The acting is shaky and the effects are akin to classic Doctor Who.
And yet, it is utterly charming and heartfelt.
Let’s get the sex out of the way. It’s there, but it’s somewhat fumbly and unusually natural. If a woman fellating a Kappa is something you call natural. And if some later necrophilia isn’t too disturbing. But at the same time, the film is not really out to titillate – people have sex, and for enjoyment and closeness rather than anything to do with power. It feels healthy. Also, Kappa aside, these are fairly normal looking people.
The musical aspect is also unusual. Occasionally the cast will start to lip-sync and dance badly to tunes by German Easy Listening/Electronica Duo “Stereo Total”, which strangely all works and makes the film even more fun and interesting. Kudo to Third Window Films who decided to include the Soundtrack CD as part of the DVD package.
Doyle doesn’t have much time to really stamp his visual skills all over the film, and to be honest the digital camerawork does maybe show up the almost gonzo approach to film-making on display. Yet, there are a few shots and scenes that totally belie the budget and subject matter.
At its heart though, “Underwater Love” is a really touching and genuine piece of work. It may seem an almost exploitative way of creating a Pinku movie for an international audience, but somehow it has an honesty and charm that movies with 100 times the budget and shooting time simply fail to achieve. It is fun and full of love for its characters and its audience.
I actually came to the film expecting to hate it, feeling it was a manufactured attempt to legitimise an aspect of Japanese cinematic culture under the guise of an art film. Instead, I found something that gets the GweiloRamblings grade of Recommended. And I was glad to be proven wrong.