Mizu no Onna (also known as Woman of Water), a film that took me (and just about everybody else) by surprise. It's a film that is very difficult to compare to other films out there, a unique experience that leaves you begging for more. It's often cataloged as a Japanese drama, but the categorization doesn't really do the film justice as its mystery roots run deep. Mizu no Onna is a weird genre-mix, a real beauty, definitely worth seeking out.
Hidenori Sugimori is one of those unsolved mysteries of cinema (think Charles Laughton's Night Of The Hunter). A director that garnered a lot of interest with his first film, only to completely disappear from the world of cinema after that. Granted, Mizu no Onna isn't the world's most accessible film, but Sugimori shows such a strong sense of dedication and direction that it's difficult to believe he was unable to get his second film funded.
Mizu no Onna revolves around Ryo, a pretty normal, everyday woman. The only peculiar thing about Ryo is that whenever she experiences something important in her life rain starts to pour, to the point where it actually becomes a forebode of important things to come. One fatal afternoon the rain starts pouring again, soon after Ryo gets a message that her fiancé and soon to be husband just died in a car crash.
Ryo's life is turned upside down and she decides to sell the bath house she operates in order to get her life back on track. But before she can go through with her plan she runs into Yusaku, a shy and introverted young man who is sneakily camping out in her bath house. Yusaku is a pyromaniac running from the police, but Ryo finds comfort in his presence. The water and fire metaphor isn't exactly subtle of course, the execution on the other hand is.
Visually the film has a lot to offer. Sugimori has a very unique, intriguing style that mostly surfaces in short but intense bursts. For the most part the film's styling remains close to that of other Japanese dramas (meandering camera movements and subtle editing), only to surprise the audience with a magnificent camera angle or quick edit when Sugimori switches gears. The color scheme is near perfect too, dominated by dark blues and grays and only to be disturbed by warm reds when Yusaku is around.
The soundtrack too adds a lot to the atmosphere of the film. Anime enthusiasts might (and definitely should) recognize Yoko Kanno's name as the composer of the soundtrack (though in all honesty, I feel she made her best work for live action films - Tokyo.sora), who delivers one of her best works to date. Often mysterious and fantastical, the music is a essential to the cross-genre mix that defines this film.
While reading other people's opinions it surprised me how many commented on Ua's lead role. I feel she does a terrific job as Ryo, convincingly coming off as a normal woman who has learned to deal with her particular predicament. Even though she faces yet another strong performance of Tadanobu Asano, Ua holds her own and the two of them carry the film in equal measures. Secondary roles are scarce but well-casted too.
Mizu no Onna is a strange little film. Parts of it feel very familiar, other parts feel alien and unique, as if two different people composed the final version of this film. This tension never comprises the overall atmosphere though. Sugimori can be a bit vague when explaining certain events and multiple viewings might be required to get all the details in order, but I think people will be more put off by the peculiar (and often slow) pacing.
Mizu no Onna is film that stayed with me ever since the first viewing. The combination of drama and mystery is brilliant in its execution. The symbolism might lack subtlety, but Sugimori goes a long way in compensating that with strong imagery that will burn itself deep in your mind. An audiovisual masterpiece bearing a strong dramatic undercurrent, it's a real shame that Sugimori hasn't made anything new ever since releasing this film.