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I should confess at the start: I don't speak Japanese. This means that
I likely missed many of the nuances and meanings beneath the words
spoken by the characters in this play- not to mention the subtitles
going by at times at a quick clip- and I may have missed a couple of
the jokes that appeared to get big laughs or the significance of some
of the Noh stylistics. But as an ardent fan of Takashi Miike, and his
body of work that may not be the best of Japanese film (Kurosawa or Ozu
or Kobayashi would be the one of three good choices), but certainly has
the widest range of any director; picking out something of his to
watch, however sometimes familiar and derivative, is like picking out
something from a menu at a reputable restaurant. Not everything is
perfect, but usually you get a very good meal.
Demon Pond is no exception, only now there's the distinction of it being live, video-taped theater, with Miike directing both the camera-work and editing as well as the actors on stage. The play is about a pond, of the title, and the principle character Yamazawa, Hagawara, and Yuri. There is a bell right next to where Yuri lives, and it must be rung three times or else there will be dire consequences. But there's also a drought going on in the nearby village from a lack of the river from the pond. There's also curses to be had, and an irate princess who can't stand that the bell is rung as it keeps here from her one true love and wants to cut it down. There are some other things that happen- one of which in the last act that would be a terrible spoiler- but suffice to say it's surrounded in fable and mythological lore, the likes of which will be more familiar to the students and fans of Japanese mythology and stories.
In fact, one of the joys of Demon Pond is storytelling, as sometimes a character will prove himself by telling a story, as one does for Yuri to possibly get a place to sleep for the night. It's also a plus that, for much of the time, the humor is genuine and I found myself laughing along with the audience at both the absurd little beats in the script and the exaggerated performances by the supporting players (while my least favorite section of the play, the mid-section with the men with their catch of fish, there are plenty of crazy laughs). Here and there the story might be a little tough to follow, as characters go on and on about things that don't have much to do with the central plot. When it does work, however, it's a splendid synthesis of superb 'stylized' acting (i.e. the princess), production design and flamboyant costume designs, and sweet and somber music. There are even one or two fairly quotable lines, like "Don't scream 'Tokyo' at me in anger", or "I like Veggie, but don't call me Mr. Veggie!"
So, congratulations to Mr. Miike, as he's somehow pulled off some very good and fascinating direction on a good fantasy play/video, even if, sad to say, I'd still much rather see how he'd do it as a real film: now *there* would be something incredible. And, as another note of interest for Americans, I happen to find the DVD as something of an anomaly at my local Blockbuster. 7.5/10
I wish more people in the U.S. could see the diversity of Miike's work.
He's unfortunately lumbered with the reputation of his shocking
"Audition." It seems to me after seeing almost a dozen of his movies,
that his signature style is his ability to work in any style, now
confirmed by this stage play peopled by film actors who are just as
good in live theater as they are in his and other directors' films.
This play updates a traditional Japanese folktale about the consequences of not complying with the gods' wishes. It's eerily predictive of the 3/11 string of disasters, not so much in exact detail, but in the way some elements of society can't be bothered to respect the power that nature can bring to bear on human-created structures and institutions. In this story, nature is chiefly represented by a tantrum-prone, love-struck demon princess, and her minions. That's pretty telling. For millennia, the Japanese cosmology has sought to ease humanity's relationship with the capriciousness of nature. This is deeply ingrained in Japanese daily life, but as seen with the aftermath of the 3/11 Tôhoku earthquake and tsunami, putting a bunch of nuclear reactors on earthquake-prone stretches of coastline is modernism and human hubris gone amok. Nature just is what it is. The way it's written in kanji, 自然 (shizen), is telling. The kanji mean "self" and "as it is". People disregard it at their own peril, and to the detriment of others around them.
The leads are played with heart and skill by Tomoko Tabata, Shinji Takeda and Ryûhei Matsuda. Miike makes good use of a supporting cast of other well-known movie actors in multiple roles: some human; some animal; some shape-shifting demons, gods and other supernaturals--without major adjustments in their appearance (unlike all the technological, costume and makeup resources he availed himself of in his other big supernatural story, "Yôkai Dai Sensô"). Likewise, the stage set is simple and uses lighting and sound (not so much naturalistic in either case, as evocative) to indicate locale. Where there might be bloodshed, he doesn't even make use of stage blood, trusting the audience and his actors to make the experience real.
Although this is a stage play, the camera work is closer to that of a TV production, well coordinated to make the best use of small moments in close-up. However, it never tries to be anything other than a stage play, and the audience's response and participation are critical to appreciating it as a real-time work. It's the next best thing to being there.
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