Warm Water Under a Red Bridge is Shohei Imamura’s delirious ode to the female orgasm. For Imamura, the color red has become a starling indicator of passage between states of duress: In The Eel, a light inexplicably turns red and signals death, and in Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, a beet-red bridge comes to signify the gateway between sexual repression and freedom. Unemployed Yosuke (Kōji Yakusho) watches Saeko (Misa Shimizu) sneak a piece of cheese into her purse at a local supermarket as water accumulates around her feet. She drops a dolphin-shaped earring into the puddle and leaves the store. Yosuke, recently divorced from his nagging wife, returns the trinket but becomes addicted to Saeko’s sexual river. Her flow is the film’s comic center and is inextricably linked to Imamura’s notions of sexual shame and trust.
Saeko’s grandmother, Mitsu (Mitsuko Baishô), is a crippled byproduct of passion cut short: Her ex-lover, Taro (Kazuo Kitamura), shamed by his former criminal ways, abandoned the old woman and now lies dead somewhere in the town’s homeless sector. The senile Mitsu, still longing for Taro’s return, lulls herself to sleep by writing fortune letters for others (Yosuke’s portends good luck). Just as Saeko’s pent-up orgasmic fluid must eventually break loose, the old woman’s pressure-cooker emotions threaten to explode. Saeko is both shamed and liberated by her sexual power. When full, she can feel her inner water all the way up to her throat. “I have to do something wicked,” she says, channeling her sexual energy through shoplifting. And just as The Eel’s male and female protagonists were delicately linked by acts of murder and attempted suicide, Yosuke’s impending divorce and Saeko’s familial loss are inextricably bound to sexual longing.
Saeko, still haunted by memories of her mother’s drowning, has turned a watery death into a pent-up emotional river. Not only is Saeko’s orgasm daringly celebrated but it seemingly brings nature to life. Her release is legendary: It is a river’s source and nutrient center, and to the glee of local fisherman, fish accumulate in the river whenever Saeko releases her flow. Yosuke, now a town fisherman, is called to shore by the in-heat Saeko, who uses the glare of a mirror to attract the man’s attention. With the demand of performance comes the inevitable: Yosuke’s flacid penis and Saeko’s drought. Just as Yosuke begins to believe that sex with Saeko is making him loose his facial glow, Saeko comes to believe that the slow deterioration of her river suggests she may be having an affair. Here is a great film about addiction that is mindful of the expectations society places on men and women.