I can say with complete certainty that Underwater Love is the best Japanese soft core porn musical I have ever seen. Combining the musical genre with pinku eiga (“pink films”) and a touch of mysticism, this collaboration between pink director Shinji Imaoka and frequent Wong Kar-Wai cinematographer Christopher Doyle defies categorization, and often comprehension. What I can say of the film is that it definitely happened, and I am glad it did. Find out why, after the jump…
Underwater Love tells the story of Asuka and Aoki, once high school classmates, reunited years later. Aoki, who drowned at age seventeen, comes back to life years later as a kappa (a mythical Japanese water-imp). He finds Asuka aged thirty-five, engaged, and working at a fish factory, where he soon finds employment as well. When a hippy-ish God of Death tells Aoki that Asuka he has only until sundown to live, it prompts Aoki to embark on an unlikely adventure into the forest to save her life. While Aoki’s journey is the most fantastical, the narrative focuses on Asuka, as the musical numbers are all sung from her perspective and she is featured in the majority of the sex scenes.
The film’s tone is very difficult to gauge. The plot deals with difficult concepts such as fate, mortality, and eternal love. Meanwhile, though Japanese folklore depicts kappa as child-sized reptiles, Aoki’s kappa costume consists of a cheesy prosthetic over his mouth and nose, a rubber turtle shell, a yarmulke-like rubber scalp, green gloves, and a big green rubber penis (occasionally). He is clearly a full-grown man wearing several costume pieces, and no effort is made to conceal this. In spite of the heavy subject matter, this type of sheer ridiculousness found in most of the movie makes it hard not to burst out laughing during its darkest moments.
The depiction of the God of Death is one of the more thought-provoking elements of the film: Constantly smoking cigarettes, he sports long dreadlocks, a beard, sandals, a multi-colored dress, a headband, and multiple wristwatches. Far from an ominous, shadowy being, he is a grungy man in thirties who hangs out with Aoki and likes to drink. He delivers his message matter-of-factly, though its weight is considerable: We cannot escape death. The date of our death has already been decided. His frank tone underscores one of the film’s central questions: Is there any sense in trying to evade death if everyone dies eventually? Also, is there any sense in trying to evade death if it means inserting a mythical baseball-sized pearl into your anus and sumo wrestling with a God?
The film’s multiple musical numbers generally start with no warning and do not serve to move the plot forward. They all seem to be set to roughly the same song with a few minor variations (written by French-German electro-pop duo Stereo Total). The lyrics are either poorly translated (unlikely, as the dialogue is not) or are intentionally nonsensical. The song-and-dance sequences stand in stark contrast to the sex scenes, which teach us about important character relationships and are often essential to the development of the plot, especially toward the end of the film. They also provide erotic stimulation to those who enjoy seeing breasts, butts, and two people pretending to have sex for an extended period of time.
I hesitate to describe too many details of this film, because the pure amazement of watching it unfold is one its greatest strengths. Unfortunately, this movie is unlikely to see an American theater release, due to both its graphic nature and difficult categorization. So if you, dear reader, live in a city with an independent cinema, I strongly suggest you to write them a letter imploring them to purchase a print of Underwater Love and screen it at midnight. The next great cult film just hasn’t found its cult yet.
Guest writer Nat Towsen is a freelance journalist, writer, filmmaker, and comedian. He currently co-hosts The Moon, a variety show in New York City.