Underwater Love Review
35 year-old Asuka (Sawa Masaki) is at that point in life where society expects her to have settled down in marriage and begun the journey into parenthood. Her co-workers at the fish-packing plant refer to her as the old woman of the group, regardless of her childlike personality and respect toward mother nature. But they’re to learn that Asuka has indeed found a man to share the rest of her life with; he being Hajime (Mutsuo Yoshioka), the company boss. It seems like the easy way out for Asuka, until one fateful day that is.
When she discovers a live fish in the plant she hurries out to the nearby river to set it free. There she’s greeted by a kappa - a thought to be mythical water creature - which turns out to be the reincarnation of her old school acquaintance, Aoki (Yoshiro Umezawa), who drowned in the local swamp seventeen years ago. Unbeknownst to Asuka, however, the God of Death looms over her, and only Aoki can help to free and set her on her rightful path to destiny. But not before he engages in some down time with the local floozy (Ai Narita), who has aspirations of leaving behind this rural community and heading out to the big city of Tokyo.
From Beauty and the Beast to The Calamari Wrestler, tales of unlikely romances have graced our screens, delivering messages of overcoming social fears and cosmetic barriers to remind us that love can blossom anywhere and anyhow if you open your heart and mind to its many facets. In that respect Underwater Love might not feel quite as unique as we’re led to believe. In fact, by additionally adhering to many of the social themes explored throughout contemporary Japanese cinema (incidentally enough Third Window offering plenty of examples), it’s all the more telling that what we have here is something a little gimmicky in approach, one whereby the sum of its pieces remain greater than its whole.
Directed by Shinji Imaoka - dubbed one of the “Seven Lucky Gods of Pink” (similarly to the 90s “Four Heavenly Kings of Pink”), Underwater Love is a joint Japan/Germany production, boasting cinematography from the world renowned Christopher Doyle and a kitsch pop soundtrack by French/German duo Stereo Total. Such ingredients indeed prove to be a potent mix in bringing to life this oddball concoction of comedy, drama and musical interludes, which proves to be quite a handsome production, bearing in mind most of it was shot in single takes over the course of five days. That in itself isn’t unusual by pink standards, more that the 86 minute length is! Its budget constraints are clearly evident, and rarely convincing, but it’s easy to see a charm when aided by Doyle’s skilled compositions, which are underpinned by some lovely metaphorical nuances.
As a “Pink musical” it’s perhaps not quite so strong, featuring a handful of catchy, yet tautological asides which essentially deal with making life-changing decisions. The saving grace, however, is Sawa Masaki’s overly enthusiastic performance, which sees her with a perpetual grin plastered on her face, while flapping her arms about incessantly, no matter how serious the subject matter becomes. Her dedication continues throughout the feature’s fair quota of sex scenes involving Umezawa’s playful portrayal of the childish water sprite, which may do enough to raise eyebrows for those unaccustomed to just how outlandish pink cinema can get. Imaoka literally leaves nothing to the imagination here as he works around censorship concerns by making way for some “interesting” prosthetic work.
Third Window Film’s anamorphic 1.85:1 PAL transfer is generally pleasing, sporting strong clarity and bright colours. Anything untoward seems down to the director’s discretion, such as the slightly blue/green tint and wavering contrast levels; greens can look particularly unusual in exterior shots, with some slightly blown highlights in whiter areas, but it’s apparent that a lot of the shoot took place during overcast days.
The Japanese DD5.1 soundtrack is a pretty solid offering, and certainly a rarity amongst this genre. The front channels remain the most active element, picking up dialogue crystal clear, while the rears afford some mild ambiance and enhance Stereo Total’s flavoursome beats. There are issues with lip synching, but nothing too distracting, while the optional English subtitles provide a solid translation.
Arguably the main draw here are the three interviews with Christopher Doyle, conducted by Stephan Holl from Rapid Eye Movies. First up is a chat on the film set, which offers a brief, but frank discussion with the cinematographer, who provides his two cents on what makes the Japanese Pink scene unique in comparison to the west. The hotel room interview, recorded just before the film’s Tribeca premiere this past April, is a little more hands-on in terms of discussing the universal language of cinema and how Doyle sees the film making process when working in different countries. He goes on to discuss a little about producing and shooting specific scenes. The Hair Salon interview is the longest of the three, and has a general fussy documentary feeling about it. Christopher Doyle - in a rather interesting patchwork jacket - goes into more detail about the function of a cinematographer, providing both a sincere and amusing philosophy on film making, which makes this an essential watch.
There’s also an interview with Shinji Imaoka, which serves as both a primer to Pink Cinema and to discuss the concept in bringing Underwater Love to life. So there’s talk of shooting on small budgets, incorporating musical and fantasy elements, shooting sex scenes and working with Christopher Doyle.
A couple of trailers aside, there are also three short pieces entitled The Pink Porcupines, which provide some alternative camera angles during several of the film’s sex scenes.
There are no subtitles provided for bonus content.