Woman of Water



Mizu no onna : Japan 2002 : SUGIMORI Hidenori : 115 mins

It used to be called the ‘pathetic fallacy’ – the poetic idea that the weather responds directly to the moods of the individuals who observe it. Filter this concept through the distinctive cultural lens of early 21st century Japan, and the result is Woman of Water, a beguilingly oddball little charmer in which rainfall accompanies every important event in the life of a young woman called Ryo (played by a singer-turned-actress known as UA). An especially torrential downpour is unleashed by the death of her father and boyfriend in a car crash – an event which leads to Ryo inheriting an atmospheric rural bath-house. Among her co-workers is troubled pyromaniac Yusaku (ASANO Tadanobu) – and it isn’t long before an unlikely romance develops between these personifications of fire and water.

Writer-director Sugimori is all too aware he’s making an art film with a capital A – and so apparently feels the need to insert several draggy sequences of ennui and very . slow . dialogue here and there over his two-hour running time. The symbolic characters are fond of exchanging portentous comments and very significant looks, and there’s the constant danger that the film will bog down into an episodic series of startling moments and intriguing touches in desperate search of a coherent narrative structure. But patient, indulgent audiences capable of settling into Woman of Water‘s distinctive rhythms may find this a rewarding experience, with more than enough original ideas to tide them over the more tedious stretches. KANNO Yoko’s music is a major plus – far from the usual kind of music that usually accompanies arty Japanese projects, and much closer to the kind of Hollywood themes associated with Thomas Newman. There’s even one instrumental theme that sounds amusingly like a very mild re-arrangement of a memorable Mark Mothersbaugh tune from The Royal Tenenbaums.

Woman of WaterAsano (so iconic in Ichi the Killer) is as charismatic as ever, and while this can’t be counted as one of his more stimulating roles, he and UA make a potent, offbeat screen couple: while he’s mystical and brooding, she’s surprisingly down-to-earth (especially as she’s apparently some kind of Lily Chou Chou cult figure in real life). Take away her meteorological ‘condition’ and Ryo would be a fairly unremarkable sort of girl-woman – but this straightforwardness is very refreshing and, in a film full of way-out characters and events, structurally crucial to prevent the project disappearing into a cloud of gratuitous weirdness. That said, Sugimori’s deadpan gallery of bath-house visitors is perhaps the most memorable thing about the film, including a dog named Louis; an itinerant painter who comes once a year to re-do the vast mural of Mount Fuji; and, best of all, the woman Ryo calls ‘mother’ – a mute, robotic, white-faced, doll-like mute entity like something out of a Noh play directed by Jan Svankmajer.

4th April, 2003
(seen 31st January, Old Luxor, Rotterdam – Rotterdam Film Festival)

For all the other reviews from the 2003 Rotterdam Film Festival click here.

by Neil Young