Tribeca 2011: ‘Underwater Love’ is a soft-porn musical with heart.

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Underwater Love
Directed by Shinji Imaoka
Japan, 2011

Genre-mixing has become a mainstream element to modern day filmmaking. From zombies and slapstick (Shawn of the Dead) to video games and comic books (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) to  the “mumblecore” independent movement’s dramedies (Cyrus, Greenberg, Please Give), mixing genres has become a steadfast part of the way audiences see and identify with particular films. As the line between genres and sub-genres blur, occasionally a film comes along that goes against the grain, suggesting a new subgenre all its own. Thus is the case with Shinji Imaoka’s “pink musical (pinku eiga)” Underwater Love (Onna No Kappa), outlandishly splicing the extremities of musicals and soft-core pornography. Yes, there is porn. And yes, it’s actually brilliant. By juxtaposing the light nature of musicals to that of the graphic nature of pornography, Imaoka interjects an emotion that is pivotal to the development of the story’s characters as well as to the storyline, which is a trait hard for both genres to accomplish on their own.

Part of a new wave of pink directors known as the “Seven Lucky Gods,” Imaoka tells the story of Asuka, a thirty-five year old fish factory worker who plans on marrying her boss, Taki. One day she sees a legendary kappa, a Japanese creature with a human-turtle hybrid form. She soon realizes that the kappa is her old high school friend, Aoki, who drowned when he was seventeen. As she hides Aoki from her fiancé and friends, she must choose what is important and whom she loves. As outrageous as it sounds, the film provides a witty spectacle like no other. With a moralistic backbone and a familiar love story of cross-starred lovers akin to Romeo and Juliet, the film goes deep beyond its surface, defying all expectation.

On the surface, musicals and soft-pornography seemingly share a common thread: they are generally seen for their entertainment value and not as a plot-driven enterprise. Take the vast amounts of musicals out there, and see whether or not they attain their story if the music is taken out. Chances are it does. If Danny and his crew didn’t sing “Greased Lightning” in Grease, we would still get the impression that his car is fast and ready to race by watching the scenes that follow. How often do people joke with pornography, begging to “cut-to-the-chase” to whatever substance is actually in pornos and get to its visuals? Instead of making a piece strictly for its entertainment value, Imaoka does the impossible. He highlights just enough of both genres without being overindulgent or overly vulgar. Sure, the actual lyrics to the music don’t necessarily make sense, and some of the wide-angled sex scenes are tasteless, providing no justification to its storyline, but majority rule does come into play. Instead of seeing what is on screen when the sex scenes emerge, the scenes should be seen for when and how sex is portrayed between characters.

There is a love triangle sub-plotto the story, and without sex the story would be lacking. After all, the full title of the film is Underwater Love, A Pink Musical, prominently displayed on neon pink title cards. With some knowledge, there aren’t secrets held back from the audience, and what is seen is truly what’s gotten. Character development is obvious when comparing scenes to one another. Sex with Taki is fast and rough, with no ounce of romance. The way in which he kisses Asuka is sloppy and awkward, in contrast to the passion and warmth Asuka and Aoki share. Music is catered in the same light. During each music scene, either Asuka or Aoki are the main focus. As they both sing and dance, carefree, we come to learn that they are similar and meant for one another. What might have been heavy-handed, instead is accented in such a way where we root for our lovers and not plead for them to get a room.

Many won’t sacrifice the time to appreciate what the film is trying to express about eternal love and sacrifice. Its spectacle will be seen as trash, its music will be seen as Japanese campiness, and its sense of morality will be overlooked completely. But if films like Rocky Picture Horror Show, which make no qualms about sex and music, can still attain a cult following, Underwater Love has hope. We can only ask ourselves whether or not Imaoka made the right choices. Viewed with an open mind, the answer is yes.

Underwater Love will be screening at Tribeca Film Festival Wednesday 2/27 and Thursday 4/28. Please visit TribecaFilm.com for more details.

– Chris Clemente


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