Underwater Love, Shinji Imaoka’s deliriously loopy creation, is a self-described “pink musical,” but it soon becomes clear that even that compound descriptor won’t begin to do justice to the film’s nutty reach. Opening on a lavender screen that signals the director’s intention to riff on the softcore pinku eiga genre of Japanese cinema, the film quickly moves into far more outré territory as all-star cinematographer Christopher Doyle frames a lotus field from which emerges an odd creature that looks human but has a small tortoise shell on his head and a beak for a face that’s very obviously a plastic mask. As it turns out, this creature is the folkloric Japanese being known as the kappa, a mischievous man-beast hybrid whose appearance establishes the film’s fantastical side. What isn’t immediately clear is that, for all its intentional silliness, Imaoka’s movie is really a love story—and a halfway convincing one at that.
The love in question involves Asuka (Sawa Maskai), a 35-year-old worker at a fish factory and the kappa, Aoki, who in his former life as a human was a high school classmate of Asuka and who now reappears nursing a 17-year-old unrequited crush on his old friend. In the meantime, Asuka’s become engaged to her boss, a man who waxes positively orgasmic over wedding brochures in which he’s pasted pictures of him and his fiancée over the models. Setting out both to woo his old classmate and to save her from a deadly fate that only he’s privy to, Aoki takes a job at Asuka’s factory (wearing a mask, sunglasses, and hat to cover his non-human features, he looks like Michael Jackson circa 1995), eventually leading her on an odyssey of death, resurrection, and huge, pus-like “anal pearls.”
But first there are musical numbers and sex scenes to be attended too and it’s safe to say that if the former relatively amateurish exercises are good, if imaginatively modest, fun, then the latter are quite unlike anything else around. The film’s centerpiece is shot almost exactly like a softcore porn sequence, but since it involves kappa-human copulation, the sheer absurdity of the situation continually undercuts, though never obliterates, the scene’s erotic charge. As Aoki couples with a buxom co-worker/prostitute, his partner pulls out his penis, which turns out to be a large, green plastic-y thing. Undeterred, the woman gladly takes the kappa cock into her mouth before the two start grinding away in ecstasy.
But it’s not long before Aoki turns his attention back to Asuka, bringing her to the land of the kappa as he tries to stay one step ahead of the god of death—a man oddly attired with samurai headband, four wrist watches, and a long, multicolored dress. Along the way there’ll be sumo wrestling, necrophilia, and the stuffing of the aforementioned anal pearl in…well, you know where, but in its final moments, Underwater Love becomes a celebration both of making the ultimate sacrifice for one’s sexual partner and of a touching youthful naïveté. As Asuka, framed against a melancholy seascape, reads a 17-year-old love letter from Aoki marked by innocent teenage desires (“Can we walk to school together?”), the romantic side of Imaoka’s film leaps at last to the fore, giving definitive final shape to all the irrepressible looniness that’s come before.