“Man’s been a lecher all through history.”
The film begins with the death of Taro, known locally as the “blue tent philosopher.” There’s a rumour going around that he hid some sort of treasure in a house at Noto. The protagonist, Yosuke Sasano (fittingly portrayed by Koji Yakusho), has just recently been laid off after the president of the company he worked for mysteriously went missing. Yosuke knew Taro for quite some time before the old man’s death (harkening to such sage advice as, “The real meaning of freedom, is to think for yourself and reach your own conclusion”) and so, he decides to travel to Noto to find this treasure: a gold Buddhist statue (stolen from a Kyoto temple no less). “Head towards the river and just before the inlet you’ll find a red bridge. There’s a house beside it, covered with trumpet flowers…upstairs there’s a window overlooking the red bridge,” are Yosuke’s only clues as to its whereabouts. Taro explained that he had stolen it just after the war when all his family died in the air raids. He fled Kyoto and stayed at that house for a month and stashed it there, meaning to go back for it but never getting around to it.
A woman, Saeko Aizawa (Misa Shimizu), now resides at the house living with her senile grandmother who has dwelled there for some time. Her grandmother writes fortunes on paper, still under the impression that a local shrine is paying for them when, in reality, Saeko is tossing them over a sea cliff because no one will buy them. Meanwhile, Yosuke sends unemployment checks to his estranged wife and son. He vaguely defends his absence: his marriage is on the verge of a quiet divorce. When he meets Saeko, she is shoplifting; a pool of water at her feet. She drops a dolphin earring, and soon he returns it. She confides in him: she has this condition and she needs his help. Only by doing “something naughty” can she “vent” an abnormal buildup of water, and so they begin a sensually therapeutic ritual. When he’s away, she reflects the sun to bid him enter and cure her of her ailment. Yosuke soon gets a job as a boatman catching fish, ducking out periodically to attend to Saeko’s venting. Yosuke is eager to assist but is nevertheless awkward about the whole matter.
There is a quiet mythology at work here that should be familiar. Saeko’s venting is never explained. However, that’s not the point. It is symbolic of man’s need to be wanted, to be required and relevant. It is women like Saeko who drive men to better themselves and overcome their inhibitions – unless those men descend into jealousy and complacency. One could even suppose that this film is Imamura’s insistence of relevancy in what would become his swan song. However, the film is not pure male fantasy, in fact, that’s not what it is at all. “You get confrontational when you’re challenged…a perpetual loser,” Yosuke’s wife tells him conversationally. Yosuke is a man of dreamful fancy; he is serious but aloof, quiet yet adventurous, conformative and open-minded. He is neither a character to be vilified nor noticed. “My boss always said I was too hesitant, I thought too much,” Yosuke confesses to the blue tent philosopher, who contradicts him saying he thinks too little. The fluidity (no pun intended) of the cinematography (never too flashy) and the understatement of the premise is what makes it all work.
Imamura’s 2001 feature film was unfortunately his last but it retained all of the elements of his distinguished career: the naturalism, the honesty, and the existential fable. It is a fitting swan song in that it is quite mythological and gloriously symbolic of one of Imamura’s favorite subjects, the power of woman: to soothe, to rectify, to rearrange, to encompass. “You know yourself it’s an impossible tale.”