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Underwater Love

January 2, 2012

Delighting pop-art piece from a pink director.

Onna no kappa: Underwater Love (Japan/Germany, 2011)

Being a film that is barely Japanese, Underwater Love must be the most unlikely yet strongest candidate for the official “made-in-Japan” product of 2011! Pink director Shinji Imaoka has gathered an unbelievable gang: Wong Kar Wai’s former cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Germany’s pop-duo Stereo Total, and Japan’s splatter-madman Yoshihiro Nishimura. The genre is soft-core kappa musical!

The kappa are Japanese folklore creatures – mischievous frog-men and troublemakers who give people hard time. Underwater Love’s kappa is a lesser evil –he rises from the sea to chase a long lost love. The kappa, before his death and turning into a cucumber chewing, water run greenie, was in love with a now middle aged woman.

Billed as “the world’s first pink musical” Underwater Love isn’t actually that much of a pink fair. Director Imaoka has gone an extra mile to bargain from the genre requirements – there’s more singing and dancing than sex in the film.

At 85 minutes Underwater Love also exceeds the typical genre specs by good 20 minutes. This is entirely rare, though: the genre’s most valued directors (Noboru Tanaka, Tatsumi Kumashiro, etc.) have always been granted some extra freedom. And why not; Imaoka’s pic is a film well suited for festival distribution, perhaps even limited theatrical run in selected countries!

Imaoka is the most interesting of Japan’s active pink directors. A former apprentice of the genre’s notorious devil Hisayasu Sato, Imaoka now follows his own, much more romantic path. His clever senior-pinks Uncle’s Paradise (2006) and Tasogare – The Tender Throbbing Twilight (2008) were international festival favorites, and the 2005 Frog Song was widely distributed on DVD. Frog Song also ended with a delighting frog musical of an ending.

Underwater Love came to be when the Germany’s moneymen suggested Imaoka a co-production. The team was supplemented with (probably) the world’s most famous cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Berlin based German-French pop-duo Stereo Total, gore-nuts sfx-artist Yoshihiro Nishimura, and even Midnight Eye’s film critic Tom Mes. The whole film was shot in five days – an unusually long schedule for a pink film.

The outcome is an excellent film. Imaoka directs with love for silly cinema, Doyle raises the visual bar far above the genre’s modern standards, Nishimura’s simple kappa masks do the job, and most of Stereo Total’s Japangrish language kitsch songs unexpectedly catchy. Humor adds to the already light tone, but without underlining the silliness of it all too much. A hipster pic it is not, although bound to be slated as one by less educated audiences.

For a pink film there is a relatively few sex scenes – only four – and thankfully so (sex is pretty much the most boring invention in the history of cinema). What is found in the film is fun and romantic – as is the rest of the film. While not a kid’s film due adult themes and graphic sexuality, Underwater Love is indeed quite an innocent and charming fantasy for adult audiences – something much less stressing than your average pg-13 action film.

The 36-year old lead actress Sawa Masaki is worth an extra mention. Pink films often stumble with their less-than-talented pink cast, but the TV/mainstream actress Masaki is no genre regular. Her endlessly energetic performance doesn’t always hit the target, but no one can blame her for lack of trying. Yoshiro Umezawa, mostly hidden under the kappa mask, is even better in his voice-acting driven role.

While minibudget Nippon-insanity’s become a curse word for some, Underwater Love strikes back and proves limited resources can produce not only charming, but also technically competent “cult cinema”. Multiply the budget by 100 and it probably wouldn’t have made it a any better movie – well, maybe the lip sync would’ve improved, and they would’ve had enough time and film to complete the final scene (rather than use freeze frame). However, the fact that retakes could not be afforded, and time to practice simply wasn’t there, merely comes out in bursting positive energy.

Even though it lacks any deeper content, Underwater Love is one of most enjoyable films of 2011 – and for a closer reference, beats Yoshimasa Ishibashi’s bigger budgeted but slightly similar pop-explosion Milocrorze (2011) hands down.

DVD note: Third Window Film’s UK release is well worth picking up, being native pal for once, and featuring the original soundtrack on CD (limited to 2000 copies)

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