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MOVIE REVIEW : A Compelling Fable in 'Demons in Spring'

October 13, 1989|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The title of the poetic, compelling fable "Demons in Spring" (at the Little Tokyo Cinemas) refers to the white crests of waves caused by the collision of warm and cold currents in the sea off Sanriku, the northernmost district of Japan's main island of Honshu. In ancient times, the people of Sanriku believed that every spring the breakers carried with them a demon.

For more than 25 years, actor-turned-director Akira Kobayashi has wanted to film the Tokuhei Suchi novel inspired by this legend. It was worth the wait, for "Demons in Spring" uses the familiar stylized conventions of the Japanese period picture to create a unique and stunning experience.

As a darkened sky rages with thunder and lightning, Saburoshi (Masaru Matsuda), a handsome, muscular young fisherman, manages to rescue Yuno (Sachiko Wakayama), his well-born, fragile-looking true love, from an arranged marriage. They escape by sea, only to wash up nearly drowned on the shores of Sanriku. According to custom, as strangers they should be thrown back into the ocean to appease the gods, but a wise village elder (Toshiro Mifune) intervenes. Yet they face a fresh ordeal as the masked village chief (Sakae Takita) orders Saburoshi to undergo a series of superhuman feats before being allowed to claim Yuno as his wife.

This severe testing of the hero, as much a staple of Western mythology as of Eastern, gradually gives way to a consideration of how ancient peoples employed ritual and sacrifice to try to make sense of a harsh and unpredictable universe.

The chief, who clearly has designs on Yuno, and his soothsayer mother (Keiko Tsushima) seem at first merely figures of sadistic evil. They acquire tragic dimension as we come to realize that they are concerned with the survival of the community, which suffers periodic outbreaks of plague. (Interestingly, the chief's audiences with his people, held in a large structure of silvery natural wood, are every bit as formal as those of an emperor or a shogun, even though the kimonos of these humble, fearful subjects are virtually rags.)

In its attempt to understand customs that might easily be dismissed as ignorant superstitions, "Demons of Spring" is reminiscent of both Shohei Imamura's "Kuragejima: Legends From a Southern Island" and the more recent "Himatsuri." Above all, "Demons in Spring" is an adventure-filled tale very well-told, thanks to Kobayashi's skill and passion and to the gifts of screenwriter Ryuzo Kikushima, one of the Japanese cinema's most distinguished veterans.

Like Kikushima and Mifune, composer Masaru Sato has also been a frequent Kurosawa collaborator, and all three contribute strongly to the film's resonance. As for Matsuda and Wakayama, they recall the beauty and innocence of Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour in John Ford's "Hurricane."

'DEMONS IN SPRING'

A Shochiku release of an Anak Co. production. Executive producer Kazuo Inoue. Director Akira Kobayashi. Screenplay Ryuzo Kikushima; based on a novel by Tokuhei Suchi. Camera Yoshikatsu Suzuki. Lighting Mitsuo Onishi. Music Masaru Sato. Art directors Yoshiro Muraki, Kazuhiko Fujiwara. With Toshiro Mifune, Masaru Matsuda, Sachiko Wakayama, Sakae Takita, Keiko Tsushima, Teruaki Mochizuki. In Japanese, with English subtitles.

Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.

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