There is no diving into Demon Pond. If anyone is caught doing so, Judge Daryl Loomis will personally escort them from the premesis.
Don't ring the bell.
Director Takashi Miike has earned a reputation in the West for ultraviolent splatterfests and for good reason. Most of his films that have received international distribution, like Ichi the Killer, Dead or Alive, and his American debut in the "Masters of Horror" series, Imprint, are full of extreme violence and sexual perversions. However, in the 20 years that he has worked, he has directed over 50 projects in wildly varying genres and quality. While all can't be great, all of them that I've seen, good or bad, have something interesting about them. I've learned to expect nothing from his films and am consistently rewarded by his kinetic camerawork and highly choreographed violence. I did not expect a stage play, however, and without the elements that add all that life to his films, can it hold up on performance and story alone?
Facts of the Case
Yamazawa, on a hike through the same woods that his friend Akira disappeared into two years before, comes upon a ruined temple on the banks of a curiously white river. A woman named Yuri comes outside offering a room at the temple for a story but, when the woman doesn't like the story, she runs away. When her husband comes outside to check on the commotion, lo and behold, it is Akira, who tells of why he dropped out of society. He has taken a job to ring the bell three times daily that, on the surface, appears to be a simple job that keeps him close to the beautiful Yuri. Legend, however, merges with reality as the tolling of the bell keeps the Dragon Princess in the pond at bay. If a single ring is missed, she will leap from the pond in the form of a flood to smite the village below.
Based on a fairy tale by popular turn-of-the-century writer Kyoka Izumi, Takashi Miike has put together a minimalist production that incorporates elements of Kabuki and Noh traditions with modern sensibilities, but is strict with none of it. The set consists of only two walls that serve as a house and a bell tower, and a white line drawn on the stage to represent the river. Everything else is left to costuming, performance, and the audience's imagination, which is allowed to run wild filling in the details of this story. We have a lot of elements working at once that build to a good and clear conclusion. Yamazawa and Akira are legend hunters, searching for historical bases for folk legends. This is how Akira disappears and how Yamazawa eventually finds him. They become players in the legend; the real world and fairyland collide, but can exist together. Without the Yamazawa and Akira, the legend cannot come to pass. Though they are not part of the original story, they become integral to its fulfillment the instant they cross into it.
Miike deftly mixes these elements with issues of ancestral obligation and superstition to tell this story about love pitted against tradition. As the story moves from present to past and back again, we find the Dragon Princess cowed for centuries by her "aspects," which take the form of various fish, from seeing her love, the Serpent King. He lives in a larger lake in a different part of Japan and sent a letter expressing his desire for her. She is madly in love, but leaving Demon Pond means destroying the town below, a town her ancestors vowed to protect long ago. A young and brash dragon, however, she didn't make the vow and doesn't understand why she should keep it. This is paralleled in "reality." Drought has scourged the land below, leaving the townspeople starving and destitute. The think they have a solution, though. Historically, so they say, droughts have ended by humiliating a young girl and sacrificing her in the pond. Yuri is helpless to resist them, but Akira won't let that happen. To save Yuri, however, he would have to leave the bell silent, which would in turn kill the townspeople. Is the life of one worth the lives of many? Mortals and divine alike must make this decision. On either end, regardless of their choice, the results are tragic.
While direction during the performance itself is minimal, Miike did a very good job in putting Demon Pond together. The story flows swiftly and, though it is occasionally confusing, is very successful. There are some editing flourishes that add a little spice to the proceedings, but it is otherwise stylistically bare. The performers all do very well and look like they're having a great time. It is an interesting story with sparse sets and performances that demands participation on the part of the viewer and is very successful.
Cinema Epoch's release of Demon Pond is adequate, but unspectacular in every way. The image transfer is clean with no grain or artifacts, but the play was filmed statically on video so is not very dynamic. Likewise with the surround sound which is, understandably, very front heavy. There are stereo effects as characters move from one side of the stage to the other, and the surround channels are reserved exclusively for audience noise and a slight bit of echo, which adds nicely to the theater effect.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It really isn't easy to understand stage plays from other cultures. Japan has centuries-long traditions of Kabuki and Noh theaters based deep in their culture. Looking at Japanese theater from a western perspective and having to rely on translation to understand the language make this very difficult. Similarly, if somebody was to stage a production of Long Day's Journey Into Night in Japan, the cultural intricacies of O'Neill's masterwork would likely ring hollow for them. It's easy to understand that the audience is enjoying themselves. They laugh at the jokes, gasp at the danger, and applaud wildly at the end. The subtleties of the play that cause these reactions, unfortunately, are lost on my western ears, and it keeps me from being fully engrossed in the production.
Takashi Miike has done an excellent job with this subtle stage production. He exercises restraint even in the most violent parts of the story and adds another successful piece in his widespread body of work.
Not guilty. Sink the town, Dragon Princess, find your love!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Epoch
• Interview with director Takashi Miike
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