There’s a big difference between a truly great show and one you just feel an endearing affection for. Shonen Onmyouji is by no means a ground-breaking piece of work, but darn it all if I don’t like it. It’s got a mix of elements that hits a personal sweet spot, an attractive visual style, and a compulsively watchable storyline. As Frederik Pohl once said about another movie, “It may not be Bach, but it’s certainly Offenbach”, and that’s still plenty good.
A description of the show would probably be best served by talking about the title. Most of us reading this know what shonen means (young man), but onmyouji is probably going to send most of us scurrying for the dictionary. Sometimes translated as yin-yang master, an onmyouji was the feudal Japanese version of your friendly neighborhood ghostbuster — plus astrologer, sorcerer and a few other supernaturally-inclined vocations, all rolled into one. If the term rings a distant bell or three, chances are you might have stumbled across the two live-action movies of the same name, Onmyouji I and II, also issued by Geneon before they ended up in the great Suncoast Video cut-out bin in the sky.
Both the movies and this TV series use the same historical figure for inspiration: Abe no Seimei, a real-life onmyouji who served the Heian court. In the show, he’s not so much the hero as a (literally) grandfatherly figure to the real protagonist: Masahiro no Seimei, Abe’s grandson and a budding onmyouji in his own right. The kid has a remarkable amount of power of his own, but for years it languished behind a seal established by Abe himself as a protective measure. Now with diabolical spirits of all kinds running wild in the capitol, Abe and his onmyouji cohorts need all the help they can get, and so Masahiro has to balance a life of more “conventional” spiritual work with some more advanced exercises.
Good thing he’s not in it alone. Among them is a spirit-world sidekick of sorts, Guren (no, not Lagaan), a little foxlike creature whom Masahiro calls “Mokkun” — short for “Mononoke” — with the capacity to unleash a spiritual butt-kicking of his own if the moment calls for it. He also has the intermittent help of Abe, although the old man can only stick his neck out so far for him — and the emotional involvement of Akiko, a noble daughter. Much to everyone’s surprise, Akiko has a little bit of spiritual second sight, enough to see Mokkun for herself and to become a target for the odd diabolical infestation.
I was following the series on my own shortly before Geneon’s implosion, so picking up with disc 3 didn’t pose any difficulties. This volume follows two basic plotlines, the first being Masahiro’s struggle with a malevolent spirit named Kyuuki, while Akiko is getting ready to be married and thus put forever out of Masahiro’s reach. Kyuuki wants Masahiro’s well of spiritual power for himself, and is prepared to do anything to get it … including offering Masahiro the chance to be with Akiko for keeps.
Fortunately Masahiro’s not that easy a pushover and sticks to his principles, and his reward is unexpected in the extreme: Akiko swaps places with a relative, and ends up in Masahiro’s household as a “family member”. And so now he has to deal with her as a sister of sorts — not the easiest thing in the world when he’s been harboring a crush on her ever since he saved her bacon back in Volume 1. Things like this make him an endearing sort: he’s not a perv or an opportunist, just a decent young man who happens to be way in over his head — and whose ambitions are leading him to get in even deeper over his head.
The second half of the disc deals with an equally knotty problem — an evil female sorcerer who resurrects the restless spirit of the ungrateful dead, and sends it out to take vengeance on the nobleman who exiled him and ruined his life. Bad enough, but it gets worse: one of the people possessed by the evil spirit is a cohort of Masahiro’s at the onymoji academy. Masahiro doesn’t particularly like the guy — and Mokkun hates his guts — but he also has no ill will towards him, and leaps into action when the other man’s forced to steal a dangerous magical artifact from the onmyouji archives. If Masahiro wants to dispel this demon, he may have to sacrifice the life of the people under its spell, but he’s not settling for that as an answer — and so the volume ends on a down but also defiant note.
Video: These days the baseline for what constitutes a quality show is pretty high. Shonen Onmyouji meets that bar pretty easily: it’s 16×9 (no progressive scan, though), with a wonderfully lush color palette. The animation’s TV-show-level, but with enough flair and period color to make up for it.
Audio: Sadly, the only mix available on the disk is Dolby Digital 2.0 for both English and Japanese. It’s perfectly serviceable in both incarnations, although a show like this would probably benefit from having some actual surround mixing.
Dialogue: Geneon didn’t do a bad job at all with their dubs from what I’d heard of them, and the one for Shonen Onmyouji is serviceable enough. Some things grate on my ear — the little-old-man voice they chose for Seimei Sr. is fairly silly — but for the most part they’re well-chosen. Best of all, the Japanese subtitle track isn’t a reiteration of the dubbing; the two diverge for the sake of what sounds better in English, but never in ways that obscure plot points.
Menus: Nothing terribly special here — just static slates with artwork from the show. At least that makes them easy to navigate, and the episodes are given multiple chapter points.
Extras: The only extras on the disc are for other Geneon titles — a bit ironic at this point, but all of them are titles that are indeed being released here: Elemental Geleade, Ayakashi — Yotsuya Ghost Story, and (oh, yeah) Black Lagoon.
The Bottom Line: Even if the plotting in Shonen Onmyouji is nothing to write (or even phone) home about, I’m still fond of the show. The setting alone is a selling point for me, and will be for anyone else with a taste for anything set in medieval Japan. Start with Otogi-zoshi first, though — it’s by far the more superior show — but this one is still a pleasant diversion.