"I think that human beings are under some sort of spell. I want to be released from that."
Since he is frequently places his camera at a distance from the characters—giving them a roomy frame to act in—it comes as no surprise that, in putting together a play, Takashi Miike would use an oversized stage. It's gigantic, about twice as wide and three times as deep as it probably should be. And it's not that the stage has to be large to fit the set: there's only the suggestion of a house on the right, some steps leading to a door that remains closed on the left and a chalky painted stream that runs down the middle.
A large stange is more amorphous. It allows the actors to remain equally in conversation while standing next to each other or while thirty feet apart, and to allow Miike to introduce massed crowds of people into what are otherwise intimate scenes. No video projections, no special effects besides lighting and a fog machine, no images besides those created by the bodies of the actors. The sound design and music, by Miike's frequent collaborator Kôji Endô, never attempts to overstep its bounds and become a film score. There are only theatrical effects; Miike, a film and television director, makes no attempt to turn the theater into either. The wraparound shades-wearing protagonist of this series of essays—and believe me when I tell you that A Decade with Takashi Miike is a story with a moral hero and not just one who gets by on his smarts, even if all of his adventures do sometimes seem to add up to a picaresque—is a man bound by playful fidelity. One part respect, one part impulse.
Miike's adventures had taken him from Osaka to the motorcycle-racing circuit to the set of Imamura's Black Rain to the V-Cinema industry to film festivals and international co-productions, and Demon Pond was his first play. Put together in 2005, it was staged from a script by actor / playwright Keishi Nagatsuka, a modernization of Kyōka Izumi's 1913 play, which Miike had first read and become obsessed with in high school (an adaptation of the play had previously filmed by Masahiro Shinoda in 1979). A video recording, edited from footage shot with a ten-camera set-up during a live performance, is available on DVD. Though that video presents it without intermissions, the play consists of three acts:
Act one: domestic drama. There's a white-haired couple (we aren't yet sure whether they're young or old); their conversation is ambigous. The husband goes inside their little house to rest while the wife continues washing rice in the nearby stream. Yamazawa, a schoolteacher travelling on his summer break, arrives and the wife offers him tea and a peach. He asks how he can repay her, and she asks him to tell her a story. After some crap about a talking peony bun doesn't impress her, he decides instead to tell a true story: how one of his close college friends disappeared while studying folklore in the region. The story makes her immensely uncomfortable and she tells him to leave, though he insists that she let him stay at the house for the night. The husband enters, and the schoolteacher recognizes him as his missing friend, Hagiwara. He and his wife remove their white wigs, admitting that they are just disguises. The husband is the local bellringer, whose task is to keep up an obscure superstition—to ring a temple bell (the temple itself long gone) three times a day to appease the magical Demon Pond and keep it from flooding the village below. He tells the story of how, while travelling through the area, he came upon his dying predessecor and promised to keep up his tradition, even though none of the people of the village believe in it. The schoolteacher doesn't have much time—his summer break is almost over—and so he and the bellkeeper decide to hike up to Demon Pond before he returns to the city, leaving Yuri, the beautiful wife, behind.
Act two: fairy court intrigue. Two clowns enter stage left, having just caught a large carp, which they decide they will sell to the village headman. They discuss Yuri, who is rumored to be a witch, and when they try to spy on her sleeping, a crab (Miike regular Ken'ichi Endô; this is kind of like John Ford casting Victor McLaglen as a dog) appears to scare them away. They drop the carp, which is transformed from a prop into an actor via blackout. The carp and crab discuss their master, the "little princess" of Demon Pond, before a catfish arrives, carrying a letter to her from the "little prince" of Serpent Pond. The catfish envoy is a priest, and he is afraid that he is being sent to his death by the prince for certain "indescretions." Together, the three of them open the letter, which contains only water. Suddenly, the little princess arrives with her entourage of female nurses (played by men) and debates whether she should go and visit her lover, the prince of Serpent Pond. If she leaves, she will take the water of Demon Pond with her and flood the village below. She curses the promise she made centuries ago to never flood the village as long as the bell is rung three times a day.
Act three: tragedy. The men of the village have had enough of an ongoing drought. Though they don't believe in the story of the bell, they do believe that a sacrifice to Demon Pond will bring back the rain. Yuri's uncle, the keeper of the shrine, has a lead a posse to come get her and take her up a mountain on an ox for the ritual. They promise that she will not be killed, but she resists. Hagiwara and Yamazawa arrive. It is almost time to ring the bell.
One of the most striking things about Miike's production is that the characters in Demon Pond are aware that they are on stage, and yet unaware that they're in a play. There is no winking to the audience, no "here we go again" self-awareness. There are gags about the set and the blocking of the actors (Endô, playing a bit part as a villager in the first act, insists on standing on a raised area to give himself authority), but Miike's 100% serious about the narrative and the tragedy implicit in it.
I only go to the theatre a few times a year, and when I do, it's more often than not with this project's originator, Ben Sachs, who goes to plays the way most people go to movies. Last month, Ben and I went to see a production of Baal put on by the TUTA Theatre, and walking out of the theater and into Chicago's Polish Triangle, we agreed that it was the best production of a Brecht play either of us had ever seen because the theater company had not attempted to be Brecht himself—because they vigorously performed an analytically-written play. No attempt was made to triviliaze the play with all sorts of excessive "distancing effects" (cheap in the hands of pretty much anyone but Brecht) that bog down pretty much any English-language Brecht production. That is: they had faith in Brecht.
This is the same sort of faith Miike has in his material and his actors: he casts men as women for the second act of Demon Pond not to "subvert" the play, but because he has faith that the men will be able to convincingly play old women while bringing out a certain aspect of their characters (and he's right about this, especially in the case of 83-year-old Tetsurô Tanba, whose deep voice and stern authority makes for a helluva matron). The men don't play women in jokey drag, through they still find humor in the roles. Similarly, the double-casting of some of certain roles is handled clearly, and never intended to confuse or mock the practice.
Formal playfulness (and Miike always plays within the form and never against it) springs out of a seriousness about human emotions, something Miike has in common with Alain Resnais. Private Fears in Public Places' indoor snow could just as easily be one of Miike's emotional manifestations, and certain aspects of I Want to Go Home and Life is a Bed of Roses now seem as much proto-Miikean as classically Resnaisian. But while Resnais occupies himself with the "greater matters of the heart"—romance and other follies that can come to dominate a person's life—Miike is concerned with the lesser ones, the sort of emotions that are always there and come to be taken for granted. Miike doesn't care much for quickie love stories and l'amour fou (ironic for an impulsive and intuitive man); he's more into long-term relationships—marriages, friendships, families—that go through phases instead of spiraling downwards. The princess of Demon Pond's pining for the prince of Serpent Pond, for example, is only a sketch, while her relationship with the omnipresent nurses is more fully realized. The two connections / frictions whose up-and-down flow gives Demon Pond its shape are the friendship of Yamazawa and Hagiwara, and the marriage of Hagiwara and Yuri.
In an interview conducted to promote Demon Pond, Miike briefly discusses how new technologies, like his beloved CGI, offer new ways to depict human emotions. He then adds that the emotions have remained the same and, in his usual plainspoken ambiguity (this is the same interview, after all, where Miike praises strip clubs as theatrical experiences, because the effect can't be replicated on film), says that what attracted him to Kyōka Izumi as a teenager was how "traditional" he was. And as Miike sometimes uses "flesh" and "role" interchangeably (his definition of acting: "the space and the flesh"), "tradition" and "emotion" become interchangeable as well. To him there is no difference between new approaches and old forms, because they are all trying to get at the same thing. The idea of modernizing Demon Pond's dialogue, of making modern theatrical effects (like recorded sound effects and complicated lighting) play a large role in a Taishō era play is not a resistance to tradition, but a continuation of it. Even if the results are different, the aim remains the same.