For me, a bit too much like live theatre. I admire the experiment and normally I like that kind of thing, but this film was trying to lull me gently to sleep. The running time (over two hours) didn't have to be a warning sign, but unfortunately it is.
The director, Masahiro Shinoda, is known for this kind of thing. He's an important name. He was at the heart of the Shochiku New Wave in the 1960s, he won the 1991 Japan Academy Prize for Director of the Year for Childhood Days and he's won a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. More specifically, he's interested in: (a) socially marginal characters, which don't figure here, and (b) traditional Japanese theatre, which definitely does. His most extreme experiment in this direction is apparently Double Suicide, which has its actors being manipulated like Bunraku puppets on a non-realist set, with the same actress playing both the wife and the mistress in the love triangle.
This doesn't go that far. It looks realistic, except in the magical world of dragons and talking fish. What makes it feel anti-cinema is...
(a) It's slow. It has the kind of pacing that would be fine on the stage, but in a movie creaks a bit. Alternatively, to put it another way, it has a slight and odd plot. It feels like a Japanese fairy tale, with the same kind of dramatic progression that you get in such stories. I enjoyed the character interaction, then the last twenty minutes are powerful and woke me up again. However there's not enough in between for a two-hour movie and you'll have to put on your Artistic Appreciation Head if you don't want to start drifting away.
I'd better outline the plot. Tsutomu Yamazaki is a teacher, trekking through Japan on his holidays. He's dressed and equipped for darkest Africa. We watch him sitting on trains, climbing mountains and so on, until eventually he finds himself in a village where creepy white-faced people might be conducting a child's funeral. Not sure about that. They also have a water shortage there, which is demonstrated in a startling fashion. Yamazaki hurries off before the villagers get even weirder and soon finds himself talking to an eerie but beautifully spoken young lady, played by Tamasaburo Bando. However...
(b) Tamasaburo Bando is a male actor. No, the character isn't a transsexual. It's just that Japan has theatrical traditions of cross-dressing in both directions (e.g. kabuki, takarazuka) and so Shinoda's doing that here too. In fairness, it never occurred to me at the time that Bando wasn't female, although I did notice that the film's characters seemed to think him more beautiful than I did. He sold it to me. His voice is superb. He looks right, especially under traditional make-up. He's unearthly in a way that's appropriate for the character. Mind you, that said I was watching an old VHS-quality copy, so it's possible that the picture quality was fooling me.
There are actresses here, mind you. (In one case, unmistakably so.) Furthermore most of the roles are male, so there's relatively little cross-casting even with a nearly all-male cast. Bando's the main example, albeit in a double role.
(c) The magical lake people. This could have been goofy, although Shinoda gets away with it. You've got a carp, a crab and a catfish messenger advising the dragon in Demon Pond. All of these are played by men in costumes, mostly made of rubber, on what eventually becomes a stage. These scenes aren't going for mimetic realism.
I like the story, although at two hours it's being stretched out too far. On the stage, you'd love it. It's about the relationships and promises of its central characters. There's also Go Kato, an old friend of Yamazaki who disappeared three years ago and is now Bando's husband in the middle of nowhere, possibly keeping alive a bunch of mountain monkeys by ringing a bell three times a day. Well, maybe. He made a promise, anyway, and so now that's what he does. This couldn't possibly be called an action film, instead focusing on the emotions, responsibilities and fears of Bando, Kato and Yamazaki. They're good. I liked them.
Unfortunately the villagers are superstitious and disturbing. They make a bad decision for the final act, which is where the film really finds its power and we decide we're quite looking to seeing these apes pulverised by a tsunami. Bando is said to be the property of the village, for instance. Is she a person? Is she Kato's wife? No, she's baggage with no right to interfere in whatever the village men might choose to do with her.
I liked the finale's special effects, by the way. They were great, although I say that waving my "VHS-quality" get-out card. The lake people looked like angels.
There are two screen versions of this story, of which the other is, believe it or not, even more obviously theatre. It's by Takashi Miike in 2005 and it's simply a record of the stage play he directed that year. Shinoda's 1979 version is a movie with strong theatrical influences. Miike's film is just cameras pointing at a live stage show, complete with audience. It sounds good, actually.
This is a gentle, dreamlike film. It feels like a fairy tale, although in fact it's based on an Izumi Kyoka novel. It's slow, but in a peaceful way. I didn't get bored. I simply drifted, from time to time. I don't have much to say about it, because it's a low-density piece that does nothing much wrong except for being about an hour longer than necessary. The last act's great. I wouldn't say this was a successful experiment, but equally I wouldn't call it a failure.