Underwater Love: A Pink Musical

Take the memories of a high school romance that never was. Swap out one of the characters for a water spirit. Add a maverick director of Japanese sex cinema. Filter through the lens of an internationally renowned cinematographer. Serve with a garnish of German synth-pop. Whatever it is you’re now imagining, you’re probably still unable to fully anticipate the oddities of Underwater Love [Onna no kappa] (2011).

The first thing the viewer will encounter is a screen filled with a vibrant pink – immediately evoking its genre status as a Pink Film (pinku eiga), a term which broadly stands in for Japanese sex cinema (an oversimplification, but there’s no need to go into the details here). As the backdrop slowly modulates through different shades of pink, a narrator provides a brief introduction to the characteristics of the water spirit known as the kappa – a creature from Japanese folklore which has a beak and a turtle shell, needs to keep its head moist and likes to eat cucumber.

The twee tones of the opening theme merge into the crunching sounds of a cucumber being eaten as we’re treated to the sight of a gorgeously filmed lake covered in algae and lotus plants, panning upwards to reveal the kappa Aoki (Umezawa Yoshiro) chilling out chest-deep in the water. After contemplating this beatific scene for a good 90 seconds, the camera speed accelerates the pace of ripples and breeze to allow a smooth transition into the rolling boil of a cooking pot at a nearby fish factory. Here we meet Asuka (Masaki Sawa), one of the factory workers, who expresses a childlike delight at finding that one of the fish from their latest haul is still alive. Attempting to hide it from her co-workers, she suddenly breaks into a song-and-dance number. All of the women join in while a man in a pot spins awkwardly across the screen. At the sudden cessation of the song, Asuka remembers the fish in her hand and dashes outside to return it to the lake – only to see it immediately eaten by the kappa, who thanks her and does a clumsy little hand dance. By the time she returns with her co-workers there’s no sign that he was ever there – but her excitement at her discovery causes her to finally grant her boss (Yoshioka Mutsuo) permission to announce their engagement.

Driving home from work, Asuka is surprised by the sudden appearance of the kappa in the middle of the road. He casually informs her that he is her old high school friend Aoki, who drowned in a swamp and came back as a kappa. Unsure which fact to be more freaked out by – that he’s a kappa, or that he’s come back from the dead – she calms down pretty quickly after he informs her that this sort of thing is perfectly normal, taking him home so they can catch up. Reacting guiltily when her fiance Hajime turns up, she first tries to hustle her betrothed out of the house before submitting to his badgering libido in order to distract him from the splashing noises in the bathroom.

Asuka is treated to another surprise the following day when Hajime introduces the factory girls to their new part-timer – Aoki, “disguised” in a hat, dark glasses and face mask. Informing his employees that their new co-worker suffers from a sensitivity to sunlight, Hajime seems blithely oblivious that Aoki’s mask barely conceals the shape of his tortoise-like beak, let alone the fact that his shell is blatantly poking through the back of his shirt and his hands are green. This doesn’t appear to put off Asuka’s friend Reiko (Narita Ai) in any way – observing Aoki’s dejection when Asuka refuses to take him home with her, she drags Aoki off to an abandoned house in the woods for sex, completely unphased – if anything, excited – by her discovery that he’s a kappa.

In between attempts to reconnect with Asuka, Aoki hangs out with a weird guy in a multi-coloured dress who’s constantly drinking and smoking. This turns out to be the God of Death (Moriya Fumio) – apparently Asuka is destined to die for some unspecified reason in the near future, so he’s just kicking around with his mate Aoki until her time arrives. Aoki isn’t really cool with the idea of his high school crush dying in her 30s, so after being discovered in her house by her jealous fiance, he convinces her to run off with him into the wilderness to save her life. Venturing into the swamp where he died to meet his fellow kappas, Aoki convinces their elder (Satō Hiroshi) to relinquish his “anal pearl” (shirikodama) in order to save her life. Yes, I said “anal pearl” – but believe it or not, this isn’t a weird sex thing – this is actually part of kappa folklore! Normally the transaction goes the other way around – kappas would supposedly feed on the life force or soul of their victims by extracting it through the anus in the form of a ball. They also have three anuses themselves – which I suppose explains how the elderly kappa might have an anal pearl to spare. Presumably, then, by reversing the process and inserting the shirikodama – which is depicted here as a large gristly pink ball – Asuka is adding another person’s lifespan to her own, although the script sees no reason to explain any of this. Interrupted in the process of washing the pearl, Asuka defeats the God of Death in a sumo match before finally completing the uncomfortable process, only to discover that Aoki has died. Bringing him back to life through sex, he turns back into a human and they go at it again before he disappears into a puff of glittery smoke.

Having broken off her engagement, Asuka reads the old love letters that she and Aoki never sent each other during high school, cherishing the memory of their brief reconnection and hoping for their reunion in a future life. Cut to Aoki the kappa holding a tape deck, kicking off a final dance number in which Asuka is joined by the rest of cast (in full costume) for a joyous song-and-dance finale!

Director Imaoka Shinji is known as one of the “Seven Lucky Gods of Pink” (shichifukujin), an umbrella term coined to refer to an informal grouping of roughly contemporary filmmakers who stand out due to their individual styles. Given the plot details described above, it should come as no surprise to learn that Imaoka is one the more idiosyncratic directors working in the pinku arena – especially when you consider his apparent lack of interest in the sex scenes which are supposedly the genre’s raison d’être. Not only are the sex scenes (four) outnumbered by the musical segments (six), but so little of what is going on is visible on screen that you could be forgiven for assuming that the sex isn’t real – although according to Jasper Sharp in his invaluable reference work Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema (FAB Press, 2008), this is entirely characteristic of the director’s approach to depicting real sex acts. The most explicit thing seen on screen is an act of fellatio performed upon the knobbly green prosthetic standing in for the kappa‘s penis – all other instances of genital contact are kept very much offscreen.

It’s difficult tell which is more astonishing – the plot of the movie, or the fact that no less a luminary than Christopher Doyle was enlisted as the film’s cinematographer. Born in Australia but having lived most of his life in Hong Kong, Doyle has won 60 awards at festivals around the world in the course of his career, including four Golden Horse Awards and six Hong Kong Film Awards. A long-time collaborator with Wong Kar-wai (acting as cinematographer on 9 of his 15 films), other notable directors with whom he has worked include Stanley Kwan, Chen Kaige, Gus Van Sant, Barry Levinson, Jon Favreau, Zhang Yimou, Philip Noyce, James Ivory, Fruit Chan, M. Night Shyamalan, Jim Jarmusch, Neil Jordan, Shimizu Takashi, Mark Cousins, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Asia Argento. Although Underwater Love seems an unlikely project to draw his attention, the opening scene of immediately catches the eye with its sumptuous depiction of the aquatic habitat and it’s in the outdoor scenes where Doyle’s work really shines. Although the factory scenes feel flat by comparison, the film’s celebration of youthful play suggests that this is a deliberate choice, and the scenes shot in the abandoned house – the scene both of Aoki’s lost youth and his playful sexual awakening – are the most vibrant of the indoor scenes.

Although lead actress Masaki Sawa seems an unlikely casting choice for something sold as a sex film, she brings the requisite sense of childlike exuberance to make her character work, throwing herself enthusiastically into the dance routines and infusing the film with joie de vivre. Most of her other work is outside the pinku genre, such as the “O is for Ochlocracy” segment of ABCs of Death 2 (2014) and the American/Japanese horror film Temple (2017). Umezawa Yoshiro’s deadpan performance as the kappa might stem from a lack of acting ability, but it supports the suggestion that all of this is perfectly normal and his dorkily incompetent dance is kind of endearing. Narita Ai is fun as the factory worker who does sex work on the side so she can save up to move to Tokyo. Moriya Fumio’s strange interpretation of the God of Death as a cross-dressing dirtbag seems even more unusual when you consider that he co-wrote the script and song lyrics with the director – but when you consider the context he’s working in, his amateurish performance certainly isn’t out of place.

The songs and score are provided by Stereo Total, a Berlin-based synth-pop duo comprising French novelist/musician Françoise Cactus (vocals, drums, theremin, guitar) and Brezel Göring (sampler, synthesizer, melodica, mandolin, guitar), with additional orchestral parts performed by the Elbipolis Barock Orchester. Forming in 1993, they remained a going concern until the death of Françoise Cactus earlier this year from breast cancer. Their contributions to Underwater Love are breezily poppy, jaunty and spiky, built on a simple melodic base which complements the sense of shambolic childhood experimentation infusing the film. Imaoka & Moriya’s lyrics are occasionally jarringly at odds with what is actually going on in the film, but that never really seems to matter.

It’s difficult to identify a target audience for Underwater Love, since it’s so defiantly its own thing. As a sex film it’s decidedly unerotic, with two of the four scenes (which occupy a vanishingly small amount of screen time) deriving their main appeal from the more fantastical elements. The performances are about as far as you can get from any naturalistic style of acting and the dance skills of the performers are largely absent. The kappa prosthetics are serviceable but will convince no one – the director doesn’t even make any attempt to hide the real human lips behind the kappa‘s beak. There is some beautiful imagery on display courtesy of Christopher Doyle, but it’s hard to imagine that a dedicated follower of his work would see this particular project as an essential viewing experience. And yet there’s an overall charm to the whole production which is infectious – and if you’re willing to buy into the musical style of the songs, the final number will have you leaving the film on a feel-good high. Is it a good film? Probably not – but I think that’s the wrong question to ask and I feel churlish for even suggesting it while its lingering memories continue to raise a smile, bopping away in an ungainly fashion in the background of my mind.

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