Demon Pond (Yashagaike)
Director – Masahiro Shinoda, Screenplay – Haruhiko Mimura & Takeshi Tamura, Based on the Play by Kyoka Izumi, Producers – Kanji Nakagawa, Shigemi Sugisaki & Yukio Tamizawa, Photography – Masao Kosugi & Noritaka Sakamoto, Music – Isao Tomita, Art Direction – Setsu Asakura, Kiyoshi Awazu & Yutaka Yokoyama. Production Company – Shochiku
Tamasaburo Bando (Yuri/Princess Shirayuki), Go Kato (Akira Hagiwara), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Gakuen Yamazawa), Yatsuko Tanami (Nurse)
Japan in 1933. Schoolteacher Gakuen Yamasawa journeys to a drought-stricken village in the north in search of a missing friend Akira Hagiwara. He asks food of the beautiful Yuri and she asks of him a story of payment. When he tells her about his friend, he realizes that his friend is her husband. Akira has accepted a job as the keeper of the village bell – if the bell is not struck thrice daily, the Dragon God imprisoned within the nearby Demon Pond will escape and the pond will overflow and flood the village. Akira thinks the superstition nonsense but has stayed because of Yuri. Meanwhile, inside the Pond, the Dragon God’s current embodiment, the Princess Shirayuki, has received a marriage invitation from the price of another pond. She desires to leave so that she can marry but cannot because of the pledge of the bell. Her chance comes when the villagers decide to sacrifice someone to stop the drought and choose Yuri.
This little seen Japanese fantasy is an amazing and beautiful work. Based on the traditional plau Yasha Gaike (1913), the story of the Dragon Princess, it is unlike any fantasy film you will have seen before. The film opens as though it is a work of Japanese neo-realism. The first half is mundanely muted and shot on grainy film stock, observing the hero’s travels as he passes through the drought-stricken lands.
The film takes one by surprise and opens out during its second half, abandoning the drab realism for some extraordinary colour scenes as we venture inside the pond. These scenes have been conducted with amazing beauty – it is as though the cantina characters from Star Wars (1977) have decided to play Alice in Wonderland (1865) on the glintzy sets from a Busby Berkeley musical. The creatures are amazing – catfish and green slime beings, one that exists just as a mouth, and bizarre experiments with makeup and hair. The film is often hauntingly poetic, especially one scene where the ghostly creatures are driven back in slow-motion by the tolling of the bell.
Director Masahiro Shinoda draws from the kabuki tradition, where he has made a number of other films, most notably the classic Double Suicide (1969). Here Tamasuburo Bando gives a performance of enchanting beauty as both the wife and the princess. What most do not realize is that Bando is actually a male performer who is in kabuki tradition is an onnagata, a man who appears dressed as a woman. And if you think Japanese special effects begin and end at the cheap rubber suits of Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1954) and Toho, then the stunning almost dream-like end disaster sequence will prove an immense surprise. This is a film that should be given a wider release.
Demon Pond (2005) was a remake and is in fact the filmed version of a revival of the play as staged and filmed by director Takashi Miike.