Narita airport is a melancholy place - a vision of the future imprisoned in barbed wire and bad blood.

In 1966 the designers envisaged an automated gateway to whisk international air travelers in and out of Japan with magnificent efficiency. Instead, they blundered into a series of bitter conflicts with the surrounding population that have turned the airport and support facilities into a $2 billion white elephant.

Completed in 1973, Narita has seen bloody riots and four deaths, but no airliners. The airport has remained closed with interest and maintenance costs mounting at more than $150,000 a day.

Now the government - its patience finally exhausted - has begun a new drive to open the airport this November. It is by no means certain to succeed. As in the past, police action has rekindled the anger of farmers, students and human rights organizations ranged against it.

Armed with a court order, police recently demolished two steel towers that had blocked landings on the sole runway and served as a symbol of resistance. A riot followed and the fourth Narita death occurred after a veteran demonstrator, a 27-year-old taxi driver, was struck by a police tear gas grenade.

Leftist student leaders vowed to fight back with "guerrilla warfare." After years of such strife, the mothballed airport is defended like an army base. A semi-permanent garrison of 2,000 riot police guards the perimeters and all approaches.Intruder detector systems, high barbed wire fences and ground entanglements back them up.

Even so some employees don't feel safe. One nervous airline official sped past a shack occupied by demonstrators and crouched behind the wheel: "We have to speed up or we shall be hurt," Nario Sano of Japan Air Lines explained.

The heart of the airport is a deserted, silent void drained of life. The assemblage of huge, shuttered buildings is a futuristic palace of Versailles, or perhaps the set of a science fiction thriller. Only an occasional gray police bus drones across the dazzling white acres of concrete. The vista is unsullied by tiremarks, or vehicles, or airplanes. Below the control tower a man jogs backward across the expanse of an empty parking lot.

Standing on the horizon like citadels are five new hotels. A maintenance man polishing the doors of one finished three years ago smiled as he said: "We will open when the airport does."

A 600-strong maintenance force runs the machinery, sweeps away the dust and keeps the airport in suspended animation. Electric clocks show the time. The crash rescue crews have been on 24-hour duty for the last three aircraftless years.

From the cathedral roof of the main lobby a sepulchral, computer-controlled voice booms meaningless flight announcements. In the operations center, air traffic controllers practice with nonexistent aircraft. "It's been very disappointing," said Higuchi Katsuji. He was assigned to Narita in 1974 as a $11,600-a-year controller and fills his time checking equipment and training on a simulator.

Narita is a planning disaster of the first magnitude, and peeling away with the paintwork is the popular foreign image of Japan as a super-efficient nation where progress is unstoppable. The Japanese farmers have resisted the construction of an airport in their midst as vociferously as any of their Western counterparts.

Nearly everything that could go wrong has happened. Under the main terminal is a huge catacomb, dimly lit and partly flooded. It is an embryonic station for the super express trains which were to have carried air passengers the 40 miles to Tokyo in only 30 minutes. Local opposition has blocked construction of the track and there is considerable doubt that it will ever be built.

Travel time is one of the major objections foreign airlines raise at the prospect of moving to Narita. Their passengers will have the options of a 70-minute journey on another rail line or a drive over a heavily used highway that can take three hours. The taxi fare will be around $54.

Another unforeseen setback left the airport without a fuel supply. Concerned over the dangers of an underground pipeline carrying jet fuel, residents were able to prevent its completion. Recently the airport authority negotiated rail transport of the fuel and use of a temporary pipeline.

Then there was the problem of Hidemasu Koizumi, 28, an activist who owns and refuses to sell a small field that bisects the main access highway.

"We must not let the airport open," said Koizumi. "All the farmers, laborers and proletariat are losing their blood to the vampire government."

The underlying cause of the Narita confrontation is an environmental backlash against the mushroom growth of the postwar years which coated much of Japan with concrete and polluting industries. Farmers will no longer unquestioningly yield their land.

It was hortage of land and the opposition of villagers at the first-choice site that forced government planners to pick Narita. The airport is only one-seventh the size of Dulles, and it will be at least five years before a second runway is completed.

The decision to build the Narita airport was made in 1966 after it became apparent that the existing Tokyo airport at Haneda was reaching its traffic limits.

Observers who charge the airport authority with consistent mismanagement say the initial blunder was the worst.

The protesting farmers, who had not been consulted in advance by the government, found allies among ultra-leftist student groups who saw Narita as a focus for opposition to the government. By paying compensation to the last tree and offering alternate land in some cases, the authority was able to buy out nearly all the farmers.

The costs of the struggle have been many and varied. All senior officials of the airport authority resigned in 1974 to take responsibility for the delays. Their replacements are harassed men whose occupational hazard is stomach ulcers.

Outside of the authority which has yet to make a cent of revenue in 11 years, the biggest loser is Japan's national carrier, Japan Air Lines. The company took on 3,000 extra employees and spent $155 million dollars in building hangars, a computerized cargo terminal and flight kitchens. All stand idle.

In Narita new town, thousands of houses and apartments built for airport employees are empty. Intended to house 60,000 people, the community is a ghost town of 9,000. Maintenance squads have changed the tatami mats in unoccupied dwellings three times. CAPTION:

Picture, Leftist students carrying staves renew their protests against Narita airport outside Tokyo with a parade Sunday. Police said there were no major clashes. (AP)