Demon Pond (1979)

“There’s a firm covenant: as long as this bell is rung three times a day, the village is safe. The princess is bound by it.”

Demon Pond Poster

Synopsis:
A teacher (Gakuen Yamasawa) traveling through a drought-ridden Japanese village meets a long-lost friend (Akira Hagiwara) who has remained in the town both because of his marriage to a beautiful local woman (Tamasaburo Bando), and because of his promise to uphold a superstitious legend: he must ring a bell three times a day in order to prevent the nearby pond’s Dragon God (also Bando) from flooding the town.

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Review:
This unusual movie by director Masahiro Shinoda (Double Suicide, 1969) is unlike any other fantasy film you’ve ever seen. Buoyed by Isao Tomita’s synthesized score (which draws heavily upon classical Western music themes — most notably, and appropriately, Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral”), the film immediately evokes an atmosphere of mystery, magic, and potential harm. Kabuki actor Tamasaburo Bando is wonderful in dual roles as both a village woman (Yuri) and a sympathetic demon (Princess Shirayuki) longing to join her lover in another pond; you would never guess these characters were played by a man. My main complaint about the film is that the scenes with the pond creatures are over too quickly: since the bulk of the narrative centers on the villagers, we ultimately learn far too little about Shirayuki and her coterie. A more balanced screenplay would have elevated this unusual, visually stunning film even a notch higher.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Tamasaburo Bando as both Yuri and Princess Shirayuki
    Bando
  • Haunting visuals
    Imagery
  • The colorful, enormously creative costumes and make-up of the pond creatures
    Costumes
  • Isao Tomita’s score

Must See?
Yes; it’s unlike any other fantasy film I’ve ever seen.

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One Response to “Demon Pond (1979)”

  1. In agreement with the astute assessment here. If this site were called japanesefilmfanatic.org, no doubt ‘Demon Pond’ would be a must. Since that’s not the case, it’s harder to say. Mainly because it’s an extremely difficult film for the average ff to find. I can’t imagine ‘DP’ will be available on DVD anytime soon.

    Most western ffs know the work of certain Japanese directors (Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Imamura, etc.); many more know those of certain genres: action (i.e., films by Kitano, Suzuki), horror, samurai, anime. Having spent many years in Tokyo, I’m familiar with films by quite a few directors which will most likely not make it here. That’s unfortunate, to say the least. (That includes work by more mainstream directors like Naruse, Morita, Gosha, Takita, etc., and the underground stuff – like certain provocative films from Nikkatsu’s ‘pink movie’ catalogue.)

    As for ‘DP’, it certainly is unlike other fantasy films. Director Shinoda is working with very tricky material: the first half is straightforward, moody, tense; the second opens onto a progressively high-octane visual extravaganza which, at times – and for those unfamiliar with Japanese theater – borders on camp. Bando is certainly captivating and very precise in his dual role. (Years later, he played the lead in ‘Nastasja’ – a version of Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ – opposite Toshiyuki Nagashima; directed by Polish director Andrzej Wajda.) Tsutomu Yamazaki gives a very natural, grounded-in-reality performance as the student. (He was memorable in Kurosawa’s ‘High and Low’, the following year appeared in ‘Kagemusha’; soon after became a staple in the company of director Juzo Itami, appearing memorably in ‘The Funeral’, ‘Tampopo’, ‘A Taxing Woman’, etc.)

    I feel Japanese cinema remains under-explored in the US.

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