“Without demons,” the sorcerer Abe-no-Seimei says at one point in Onmyōji II, “human life would be pretty dull, wouldn’t it?” That’s easy for him to say — he’s the one who can summon, banish, invoke, curse, bless and enchant just about anything in the land. It’s his friend, the churlish Hiromasa, who almost always gets the worst of it when goblins and spirits start running amuck in the capitol. (Given how easily he continues to be spooked, I’m amazed Hiromasa hasn’t opted for a nice, quiet clerical job somewhere out in the country by now.)
Onmyōji II is of course a sequel to the original Onmyōji, which was a visually lavish but ultimately fairly silly fantasy. II is no less lavish and only slightly less silly, but perhaps this time I was primed for that. I walked in expecting nothing more than a goofy good time, and got it. But the mystique inherent in the concept as it is presented here is evaporating fast, and by the time Onmyōji III rolls around I may not elect to bother. You can only ride the same merry-go-round so many times before you realize the horses never change.
The mischevious Abe-no-Seimei tries out his latest magical stunt
on the callow Hiromasa: his doppleganger done up as a Buddhist monk!
For those who missed it the first time, an Onmyōji (literally, “yin-yang master”) is the Japanese equivalent of a court vizier or astrologer in Heian-era Japan (their Middle Ages). Abe no Seimei (Mansai Nomura) is the court’s most feared and respected onmyouji, and the slightly naïve Hiromasa (Hideaki Ito) has over time become his friend. Hiromasa is only slightly less naïve now than he was the first time around, but still seems to fall for many of Seimei’s little magical stunts (and is just as easily spooked by them, too). Plus ça change.
Hiromasa has a crush on the Princess Himiko (Kyoko Fukada, of Dolls), who’s not only graceful and pretty, but a better shot with a bow than most of her would-be suitors — including, naturally, Hiromasa himself. Thing is, Himiko has the disconcerting habit of sleepwalking at night and remembering nothing about her sojourns. Hiromasa then encounters a young biwa player, Susa, and hatches the brilliant idea of recruiting him to help woo the princess…but weird things happen when Susa and Himiko are brought together.
Hiromasa has a soft spot for the lovely Himiko, and forges
a friendship with Susa, the biwa player, to woo her.
While all this is going on, Seimei has been called out to investigate Genkaku, a mysterious wizard who appears to have magical healing powers. Seimei suspects Genkaku of having been involved in a series of murders committed around the capitol, where each of the victims has had a single body part bitten off. The real (?) culprit is a demon-like monster, but when Himiko comes across it during one of her nocturnal fugues, it reverts into … Susa. No prizes for guessing very little is as it seems From that we plunge into one frenzied bit of mystical nonsense after another, leading to a gleefully absurd climax that goes right to the gates of heaven itself.
For a movie that’s basically a well-mounted retread, Onmyōji II’s plotting is amazingly Byzantine, like ornamental gold chasing on a cardboard matchbox. We get flashbacks, unaccounted-for magical powers, summonings, old vendettas, legendary weapons, beastly transformations, and good and bad magic of just about every conceivable variety. Not that any of this isn’t interesting — I was never bored, and the production designers have mounted all of this in a very handsome way. But for all of the effort they put into the film, all of its flash and filigree (to quote Terry Southern), I had to wonder if they couldn’t have also come up with a meatier story.
Writers have a term for a certain kind of character who has, as of late, become a stock annoyance in bad (or at least mediocre) fiction: the “Gary Stu.” This sort of character is always wise, always correct, always in possession of great powers, and even always making the proper sacrifices for his friends. In short, he’s a heroic bore. The problem with Onmyōji is not just that Seimei is a Gary Stu, but outside of him there’s really no one else worth our time. All of the other characters are either placeholders, conveniences of the plot, or props. In the case of Seimei’s magical companion Mitsumushi (Eriko Imia), she’s literally a prop: when not needed, she conveniently turns into a butterfly — or a piece of paper.
What bugged me so much about the first Onmyōji movie also bugs me about the sequel. How is it that they can have such a great-looking movie, invest it with such potentially interesting situations, and in the end come up with something that’s barely better than your average made-for-TV movie? I could not say if it was the source material: Onmyōji was derived from a long-running series of novels by Baku Yumemakura, which have not been translated into English. The manga versions have a marvelous aura of mystery and beauty about them that only comes partway through here.
There’s a part of me that wonders if the whole enterprise was just not meant to be taken very seriously — whether a certain amount of winking at the audience was intended. Case in point: The monster makeup (except towards the end of the film) looks suspiciously like the “lobster” forehead appliances created for Star Trek’s Klingons, and the movie’s palette of CGI effects are also distressingly unsophisticated. Maybe they were simply giving the film the look they thought it deserved, and nothing more than that. This was one of those times I wish everyone involved had shot a little higher, and given us something that had more convictions to have courage in.