I almost wasn’t going to review this film – what I have to say about it is hardly the kind of thing that is going to make you want to see it (at least, that’s what I’m assuming). But then again, I thought, in the interests of full disclosure, why not talk about it? After all, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, right? As so many of the reviews around seem to attest.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call it trash, of course, but it certainly wasn’t what I’d call a finely crafted film either – more like mostly unpolished and ultimately somewhat uninspiring (not used euphemistically). I suppose I should be fair and start by saying that Underwater Love is a pink film. For those of you (like me, until this film) uneducated in such things, pink films were popular in Japan between 1960 and 1980 and were considered “erotic productions” – soft porn films which showed nudity and depicted sex but still abided by the current (at the time) censorship laws. According to film scholars like Pia Harritz, pink films, due to this censorship, were forced to explore the complexity in the representation of gender and the human mind instead of just focusing on the rude bits as Western pornography was able to do.
So, why the film festival circuit attention on this film, if it’s just soft core porn? Well, aside from being a pink film, Underwater Love is also – wait for it – a musical. Sounds like it might make for an interesting combination worth your time, doesn’t it? That’s what I thought too, but now all I can think is that I hope it’s a better example of a pink film than a musical. Yes, there is sex, fairly explicit and extremely no frills, where typically the women make pained, breathy sounds in high pitched voices while the men sort of do their thing, although if one wants to be specific, it’s a little deeper than that (ha. No pun intended).
Asuka (Sawa Masaki) is a fish factory worker who happens upon a kappa in the nearby lake. Putting aside all mythological reports of the kappa (not someone whom you particularly want to get close to, since traditionally they liked to suck people’s livers out through their… well, not mouth), our tale starts to unfold when Asuka discovers this cute little fellow from the water is actually her childhood friend Aoki (Yoshiro Umezawa), who drowned at the age of 17. Aoki, after some vaguely puppy-dog like behaviour (he followed me home, can I keep him?) reveals that he has returned to protect Asuka from her fate. Asuka then finds herself caught between her future – that of her marriage to her actually likeable factory boss Taki (Mutsuo Yoshioka) – and resolving her past ties to Aoki.
There’s some potential love rivalry in Asuka’s clearly promiscuous factory worker friend which never really eventuates, and neither does the fiancé really make any trouble worth the dramatic tension, which really just about sums up this entire narrative – there’s no real tension in it. Although it’s set up like a drama, the fairly pedestrian acting and the slightly random plot devices aren’t enough to support it and the whole thing feels a little like it’s, well, under water. Dream-like? Yes, I suppose you could call it that, but that’s only if you’re being kind.
Sadly, the musical side of things leaves a little to be desired also. The songs are a little lost for context and don’t truly seem to flow from the action as you would expect with a musical. Instead they seem more emotive, like something a child would invent with little art beyond the fact that it made them feel good at the time. Maybe that was the point? There is a certain charm to it. The scenes where Asuka sings and dances were suffused with more beauty and allure than any of the sex scenes, which were dank and strangely depressing in comparison. Was that deliberate on the director’s part? Was Christopher Doyle’s lens more enamored of the childlike notions inherent in these pieces or was it all just a happy coincidence?
Who knows. If it had been a little more like Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark then it might have been elevated into something truly special, and even the sweet, wistful note on which the film ends isn’t enough to redeem the is-it-conceptual-is-it-not see-sawing the film does. Considering it was shot in five days, I suppose it deserves some respect that it wasn’t a confused mess, but the speed of production certainly shows and Doyle seems to be for the most part uninterested, or at the very least severely understated.
At a push, looking at Underwater Love as part of a legitimate area of cinema studies is probably going to keep most film students and those people actually interested in intellectualising pornography happy, but without that benefit the film is a dilute exploration of its themes – that of grief and loss and moving on – which likely won’t engage the average film viewer.