A musical remake of a Korean black comedy.
Stylized, phonetic English ode to Spaghetti Westerns.
Teen pop sci fi.
Commercial family fare fantasy.
Commerical DTV action.
Video game adaptations.
Dozens of bizarro exploitation flicks.
Dozens of post-Kitano existential gangster flicks.
Pitch black, surreal, absurdist fare.
Magical realist arthouse dramas.
All the above, sometimes together, and more.
It is safe to say that if Takashi Miike announced tomorrow that his next project was a series of industrial films for Peruvian frog farmers or a line of Christian transgender pornos, people should not be very surprised. While he does have a definite Miike signature on all of his films, the man seems to be a workaholic who wants to play and refuses to be pigeonholed into one style or genre.
And so we come to Demon Pond, a stage play based upon a folk/fairytale by Kyoka Izumi that Miike helmed in 2005. The cast includes some notable names and Miike regulars like Shinji Takeda (Happiness of the Katakuris, LoveDeath, Pulse), Tomoko Tabata (Hidden Blade, Blood and Bones), Ryuhei Matsuda (Taboo, Izo, Big Bang Love, Juvenile A), Yasuko Matsuyaki, Kenichi Endo (Visitor Q, Like a Dragon), Kitaro, and veteran/icon Tetsuro Tamba (Three Outlaw Samurai, Bohachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight).
The story, like most fables, is pretty straightforward. Akira and Yuri live in a temple in the hills above a village. It is Akira's job to ring the temple bell three times a day, part of a tradition passed down through the generations, as the story goes, set by a monk who trapped a dragon goddess in the nearby Demon Pond. The bell is rung as a reminder to her of their pact, and so long as the bell is rung, she will hold the river back and keep the village from flooding.
Akira is actually there in semi-hiding and the above exposition and why Akira took the responsibility upon himself (one third believing the legend, two thirds falling for village girl Yuri) is explained when his old friend Yamazawa happens by. While the two friends venture to visit the titular pond, the villagers show up and accost the meek Yuri, insisting that she take part in lurid, potentially murderous and at the least shameful, a ceremony to appease the gods and end a devastating drought that has plagued the area. Meanwhile, the dragon princess longs to reunite and visit her lover on Sword Peak and her chorus of carp advisors must remind her of her obligation to stay at the pond.
Now, while there is certainly the requisite amount of rightly assumed fantasy, stagey melodrama, and fable morality/lesson learning, a large part of this production that viewers will be initially surprised by is the comedy. It is something the face value description doesn't indicate, but those who know Miike's work will see the same playful humor he often injects into his material. After all, this is the man who can spend 80 mins delivering a glum, slow paced yakuza flick only to turn it on its ear for brief, over the top, cartoonishly violent finale. In Demon Pond you'll find typically Japanese humor be it based on behavior (like a character pointing out that his listener should change his posture to lean forward more, like he's interested) to the sublimely silly ("Touching a middle aged female with his fins...").
The stage is very spare but effective. The color scheme for the background, floor, and structures is across the board a flat, dark gray. On the left side you have the temple entrance, the middle of the stage is separated by the painted, milky white stream that runs off the Demon Pond, and on the right side you have Akira and Yuri's home. When the scene changes to the Dragon princess' court the left and right sides are slightly altered with different, basic structures. Likewise the cast interchanges as well, the group of village men also serve as the carp group. Much the same as Miike employed in his recent Sakayuki Western Django, the costume design is retro-modern, traditional period era cloaks modified with zippers and layered tapering. Visually, Miike doesn't put forth much clutter, lets the actors do the heavywork, and really the only grand, eye-catching moment comes when Miike trots out some dry ice for the dragon princess' introduction.
The DVD: Cinema Epoch.
Anamorphic Widescreen. Well, it's a play and it was filmed live so the camera set ups are simple and the choice for media was fairly high end but still basic video. As such, what you get is serviceable but limited considering the setting, so the angles are mostly locked and the movement very straightforward. Technically the image transfer has nothing to quibble about.
2.0 Stereo, Japanese language with optional English subtitles. The mix is very plain and given the limitations of the setting this is understandable. Only a few moments have the odd bit where an actors voice wasn't quite hitting a miked spot in the theater. The subs are fine but the dialogue is very fast and I bet the timer had a headache. As such, there are a few moments where I had to skip backwards and speed read some lines.
Interview with director Takashi Miike (7:15). Miike touches on what brought him to the project and other generalities. A bit choppy and too brief for my tastes.
Another interesting entry into the Miike cannon. I'm not a big fan of plays but Demon Pond moves very briskly in its 2+ hour running time. I could see why some people might find the more modern comedy bracing against the traditional folklore and dramatics of the story, but I enjoyed it and felt it kept the play from being staid. I don't know how many spins this will get even from the most die hard Miike fanatic, so viewers might want to opt for a rental first and a possible later purchase if you really enjoy it.