Underwater Love (2011)

First published by Little White Lies

Underwater Love (aka Onna no kappa) announces its generic affiliation from its very opening frame: a screen filled with lurid pink. For this is the kind of Japanese low-budget softcore ‘eroproduction’ known as pinku eiga or ‘pink film’. At its prurient peak in the Sixties and Seventies, today the genre tends to be a stepping stone for young directors (the early careers of, e.g., Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Suo Masayuki, Takita Yojiro and Wakamatsu Koji were all painted pink), and can accommodate any amount of thematic deviation and stylistic experimentation – just so long as there is the requisite quota of genitalia-free sex scenes included in the mix.

Sure enough, Underwater Love, directed and co-written by one of the Noughties’ so-called ‘Seven Gods of Pink’ Imaoka Shinji, is a film of strange contrasts and incongruities. Much as the bright pink of its prologue clashes with the rich green of its first narrative shot, there are also striking juxtpositions of naturalism with surrealism, of high art with low brow, and of eros with thanatos. Here workers at a rural fish-packing factory frolic with a mischievous supernatural aquatic creature known as a kappa. Here there is seemingly no emotion – loss, disappointment, defiance – that cannot be expressed through an endearingly amateurish song-and-dance number (scored by French-German synth duo Stereo Total, whose lyrics, written for an earlier, rather different draft of the film’s screenplay, have now assumed a freefloating, abstract quality). Here death itself – portrayed as  a chain-smoking, bandana-wearing dude in a skirt – can be averted with the insertion of a magic ‘anal pearl’.

With each scene shot in one take only (over a total of five and a half days), and with the ‘creature FX’ restricted to the kappa‘s cheap (and cheap-looking) prosthetic beak, pate, turtleback and twisty penis, Underwater Love wears its budgetary limitations on its sleeve – but this overtly lo-fi approach is offset by some flashes of genuine visual poetry in the cinematography of Wong Kar-wai’s favorite DP Chris Doyle, and by a committed performance from Masaki Sawa (as heroine Asuka).

When we first meet Asuka, she has just found a fish ‘still alive’ in one of the factory’s vats, and insists on carrying it back to the sea so that it can go on living. Though only 35 years old, Asuka is already dubbed ‘the old woman’ by her co-workers and, desperately aware that her time is running out, is about to resign herself to a loveless marriage with her oversexed boss. Like the fish, she is in dire need of rescuing before her life comes to an end. Then out of the blue – and out of the water – comes Aoki (Umezawa Yoshiro), Asuka’s childhood sweetheart who drowned before he had ever finished high school. Now reincarnated as a kappa, but still exhibiting all the fecklessness of an adolescent, Aoki will gain sexual experience from one of Asuka’s up-for-it colleagues, while pursuing his agenda of saving Asuka from the premature death (whether metaphorical or literal) that she faces – if only she can rediscover her own youthful vitality and love for life.

To say that this musical sex comedy (with dark undercurrents) is quirkily weird would be an understatement. There is plenty of sex, of course, although none of it is either remotely titillating or even appears intended to be so. The film’s final act of congress (between Asuka and a metamorphosing Aoki) manages to be grotesque and dramatically intense all at once, as though Asuka is finally saying yes to life while also embracing the pain and death that inevitably come with it. All this elevates Underwater Love way above your average tits ‘n’ ass exploitationer. Imaoka’s film is too shoddily thrown together, too patchy and uneven, to qualify as any kind of masterpiece – but it might just leave the more adventurous viewers out there tickled pink.

Anton Bitel