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DEMON POND

A little known stunner by Japan’s Masahiro Shinoda, whose visual brilliance, audacity and fecund imagination are put to excellent use in this spectacular Kabuki-styled fantasy.

The Package
     It’s become quite obscure in recent years, but 1979’s DEMON POND (YASHA-GA-IKE) is certainly one of the most impressive features directed by Masahiro Shinoda, who’s known for classics like DOUBLE SUICIDE (1969), SILENCE (1971) and BALLAD OF ORIN (1977). DEMON POND also marked the acting debut of the popular female impersonator Tamasaburo Bando, whose unique presence is indispensable to the film’s overall effect.
     In 2005 Takashi Miike remade DEMON POND, and that film unfortunately remains better known than this one.

The Story
     Summer 1933: a horrendous drought afflicts Japan. Yamasawa, a school teacher on summer vacation, arrives in a secluded village in search of drinking water. Leaving the village, he happens upon a stream whose water revives him. He questions Yuri, a strangely beautiful local woman, about the stream, and she informs him that it springs from the “Demon Pond,” a poisonous body of water at the bottom of which dwells a fearsome dragon. Yuri is overheard by her husband Yagiwara, a colleague of Yamasawa who inexplicably disappeared from his Tokyo home three years earlier.
     Following this a most unexpected rain shower hits the village, during which Yamasawa and Yagiwara are reunited. Yagiwara explains that he left civilization in order to discover for himself if the legend of the Demon Lake was true, and ended up settling down with Yuri in the village.
     We next meet two of the inhabitants of the Demon Pond, a mud creature and a crab, who discuss how they’re kept in check by an ancestral promise decreeing that a massive bell that must be rung three times each day by Yuri. If she fails to do so the pond will become a torrent that will completely submerge the village. A third inhabitant, Catfish, appears, and the other two take him to their ice-bound lair under the pond, where other humanoid animals reside. Among them is the unearthly Princess Shirayuki, the personification of the dragon haunting the area, who’s extremely anxious to break the spell confining her and her fellow creatures to the Demon Pond.
     The villagers, meanwhile, decide to sacrifice Yuri to the pond’s denizens in order to bring rain. Yagiwara attempts to save her, and in the melee the scheduled bell-ringing fails to occur…

The Direction
     In this film Masahiro Shinoda offers up a wildly eclectic and at times unwieldy collision of styles, ranging from hard-edged (if highly stagy) realism to hallucinatory fantasy to Hollywood-worthy spectacle. This is in keeping with the narrative, which encompasses horror, fantasy, screwball comedy and romance.
     The proceedings are marked by patently stage-bound sets, dominated more often than not by vast blood-red skies that will be familiar to viewers of the Japanese horror classic KWAIDAN. That film was inspired by Japanese mythology, and here too a vivid atmosphere of legend and folklore dominates, imparted in no small part by the deliberate artificiality of the scenery, and also the people-portraying-animals motif.
     The sight of patently human “animals” will be disconcerting to Western viewers, but is fully in keeping with the type of Kabuki drama referenced here--and actually makes for some extremely compelling imagery once one adjusts. That doesn’t apply, however, to the climactic special effects orgy, which is impressive by most any standard.
     The proceedings may be a bit on the talky side, given the highly voluminous exposition that has to be laid out, but the Technicolor visuals are sumptuous enough to hold one’s attention. Another standout element is Tamasaburo Bando’s dual performance as the virtuous bell-ringer Yuri and the dragon-woman Shirayuki. This “woman” may actually be male, but in both guises “she” has an appropriately unearthly air and look, appearing to have emerged intact from a classic ukiyo-e painting.
     The one discordant element, I’m sorry to report, is the Moog synthesizer score by Isao Tomita, which is a constant distraction, and dates the film appreciably.

 
Vital Statistics

DEMON POND (YASHA-GA-IKE)
Shochiku Eiga

Director: Masahiro Shinoda
Producer: Seikichi Iizumi
Screenplay: Haruhiko Mimura, Tsutomu Tamura
(Based on a play by Izumi Kyoka)
Cinematography: Masao Kosugi
Editing: Zen Ikeda, Sachiko Yamachi
Cast: Tamasaburo Bando, Go Kato, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Koji Nanbara, Yatsuko Tan’ami, Hisashi Igawa, Norihei Miki, Juro Kara, Ryunosuke Kaneda, Fujio Tokita, Jun Hamamura, Megumi Ishii
 

     

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