Most people these days, if they know Kyoka Izumi at all, it's from his appearance (as a drastically modified "her", that is) in Bungo Stray Dogs. This is a little like only knowing Orson Welles because he did voiceover work. Izumi's novels and plays inhabit a singular and idiosyncratic place in Japanese letters. They rejected modernity at a time when Japan lunged headlong into it, embodying a Gothic and fantastic sensibility, and exuding an atmosphere not matched by any of his contemporaries or influences. Only perhaps Ryunosuke Akutagawa (who claimed Izumi as an influence) comes close with what he evokes or aims for.
Masahiro Shinoda's Demon Pond (Yashagaike), adapted from one of Izumi's best-known plays, exhibits two key strands of Izumi's work: it has the simplicity and directness of a fable, but also the complexity of modern fiction. Only seen briefly outside of Japan when it first appeared in 1979, it's spend decades in near-limbo, with only the occasional badly subtitled print surfacing. Now it has returned in a 4K remaster, the better to show off its dreamlike visuals and the mesmerizing dual performance of the legendary onnagata (female impersonator) Bando Tamasaburo.
The lady of the lake
In what appears to be Taisho-era Japan, a professor named Yamazaki (veteran actor Tsutomu Yamazaki) enters a mountain village hidden away in the province of Echizen. Drought is rampant. The one freshwater spring in the area is tiny and secluded, not nearly enough for a village of thousands. And the waters of Demon Pond itself are undrinkable. Yamazaki is not there to research the wildlife, though. His real mission is to find what became of his friend Akira, who vanished in that area some years back.
Akira (Go Kato) still lives, albeit in disguise. He now has a wife, the delicate Yuri (Tamasaburo), although both she and her husband are reluctant at first to entrust themselves to this interloper. But over time Yamazaki extracts from them the truth of what has kept Akira there. Legend has it that a dragon god inhabits the nearby Demon Pond, and must be supplicated by ringing a temple bell. Unless this happens at precisely the same time each day, the dragon will cause the waters to rise and flood the village. The previous bell-ringer died not long after Akira came to the village, and now Akira has taken upon himself that responsibility.
Not everyone is happy with this arrangement. The townspeople are fed up with constant drought, and so a flood from the lake might come as a blessing — yes, even if it comes at the likely cost of their own destruction. And the spirits who inhabit the pond and the forest would also enjoy nothing more than being set free, the better to take revenge on foolish humanity or — as with the ethereal Princess Shirayuki (again, Tamasaburo) — to reply to the missives of a suitor. At the center of this multi-way tug of war, Yamazaki struggles to protect his friend and beloved from the greed and short-sightedness of both mortals and spirits.
A fairy tale for grownups
A simple story is not always a simpleminded one. The bare plot of Demon Pond fits on an index card, but the implications of everything in it unspool in all directions. At first the movie seems to be setting itself up for a confrontation between the narrow-mindedness of mortal men and the wisdom of the spirit world, with the former being exploitive and foolish and the latter bearing the wisdom that only the otherwordly can claim. Then we find the truth is more complex and difficult: the spirits are no less beholden to their own cowardice and selfishness than human beings are, and that courage and moral fiber are not matters of divinity or mortality, but choice. And some choices, as we find, are just plain cowardly and cruel, as when the villagers decide to swap a human sacrifice for the mere ringing of a bell.
Before Demon Pond my big exposure to onnagata performances of any kind was by way of the excellent An Actor's Revenge, a movie as stylized and theatrical as the performance in it. Bando Tamasaburo, an onnagata who achieved the status of a living national treasure in recent years, has appeared in a few other movies that might be familiar to readers here: Seijun Suzuki's Yumeji, and, amazingly, Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis, where he appeared as none other than Kyoka Izumi. But Demon Pond is his best moment on film — he switches between two roles seamlessly, that of the wilting flower Yuri and the imperious Princess Shirayuki, each an entirely different manner of femininity. Even when Tamasaburo's voice occasionally gives away that this is a man and not a woman, the face and especially the body language tell us something entirely different. And because the whole movie has such a deliberately theatrical flavor, none of that feels like a lapse in its aesthetics.
Masahiro Shinoda has directed some truly fine movies that aren't bruited widely enough outside of Japan: the sterling yakuza tragedy Pale Flower, Double Suicide (another great example of theatrical cinematics), the original adaptation of Shusaku Endo's Silence, Under The Blossoming Cherry Trees (also worthy of the label "adult fairy tale"), and many more. He uses here a mix of location shooting and what are quite clearly big indoor sets, a la Kwaidan, and while some of the individual effects are dated (e.g. the spectacular climax), the whole is not. In fact, I feel like the more forensically real the effects in a movie, the less it has the chance to conjure up a dreamlike atmosphere like the one required here.