Sometimes you’re better off dumping all pretenses of being a critic and just coming out and saying you like something a whole lot. So it goes with Shonen Onmyouji, because, well, guilty as charged: it has a bunch of things in it which I like a whole lot. It’s set in ancient Japan, with elegance and mystery to spare; it has courtly intrigue and diabolical magic aplenty; and it moves at a decent pace and actually feels like it goes places with its story. Triple play.
Much like the little beastie that sits on the hero’s shoulder throughout this series, there’s been this devilish whisper in my ear the whole time I’ve been pounding out this review. Sucker! You’re only saying nice things about it ‘cos you’re a pushover for historical fantasy, hissed that voice. Fine, smart guy, have it your way. I pushed right over for Otogi-Zoshi, even though technically that was only half a period piece. It was also, and more importantly, a killer show that I would gladly watch again any day of the week.
I also pushed over for Hakkenden, and Moribito, and Requiem from the Darkness, and Blade of the Immortal — although I’d opine those are all good-to-great shows by most any standard. Onmyouji’s a bit closer to the middle of the road — it’s definitely not as thought-provoking as Moribito or as atmospherically lush as Otogi-Zoshi — but I walked in skeptical and in the end was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
The onmyouji of the title were the viziers, wizards and sorcerers of ancient Japan, who banished ghosts, sealed off curses and kept watch over heaven and earth for all manner of portents. Given that at the time Japan was in terrible shape — the decadent ruling class was crumbling under the rise of the military, and famine and unrest (and in this show, supernatural incursions) were tearing the capitol apart. Against this backdrop unfolds the story of Abe no Masahiro, the shonen onmyouji of the title, grandson of the legendary onmyouji Abe no Seimei.
Masahiro may have an auspicious lineage, but he’s spent most of his life without a hint of spiritual power. Grandpa Seimei sealed off his abilities while he was still a wee ‘un, presumably to prevent them from going haywire and causing more bad trouble than any growing boy would need. Since then, the boy’s bombed out at finding a substitute for spook-hunting — his handwriting is atrocious, he can’t compose a coherent verse with a sword held to his neck and he’s even less musically competent than the original Sex Pistols lineup.
Then one fine day a spirit appears in front of him — a curious little thing like a cross between a rabbit and a fox, and with a smart mouth on him to boot. He seems rather surprised that Masahiro can see him at all, and serves as Masahiro’s reintroduction to his work in the spirit world. He’s annoyed that Masahiro isn’t able to identify him correctly (“I’m not a mononoke, you dummy, I’m an ayakashi!”), and Masahiro retorts by naming him “Mokkun” as a way of chafing his nerves all the more. As much as they annoy each other, they do work well together: Mokkun serves as Masahiro’s guide in some of the darker corners of the spirit world, and Masahiro quickly finds he’s not as powerless as he’s been led to believe.
Soon Masahiro is “kicked upstairs” into the academy for budding magicians such as himself. This counts only nominally as progress. When Masahiro’s not being worked to death by the other onmyouji-in-training or grousing about the various ways he can wring Mokkun’s prank-pulling little neck, he’s wrestling with how best to deal with Akiko, the pretty daughter of the powerful Minister of the Left. She, too, has connections to the spiritual world that make her not only a good friend but a target for all the wicked things that go bump in the night, and so Masahiro must serve as her protector from all such things.
The more Masahiro finds out what he and Mokkun both have hastily shoved under their respective rugs, the more dicey their lives get. For one, there’s Mokkun’s real form — the humaniform (and hunkily handsome) Guren. Or maybe we should call him by his real name, Touda, a name Masahiro recognizes as being Abe no Seimei’s own familiar. These two have a history going back, one which encompasses more than just jolly nights out on the town dispelling malicious spirits. There are great hurts and terrible wrongs that have been buried here, and Masahiro will only become privy to them by degrees.
The show doesn’t depend exclusively on a freak-of-the-week approach to keep things moving. There’s Akiko’s impending arranged marriage to another man, which puts Masahiro quite literally between a devil and his deep blue sea (or, in this case, pond). There’s an archrival of Masahiro’s in the onmyouji academy, who ends up being possessed by a jealous demon and unleashing all manner of trouble. There’s the “12 Shikigami Spirits,” a walk-on cast of lesser gods with histories (and internecine rivalries) of their own. And interleaved with all of this is Mokkun / Guren / Touda, slowly evolving from being Masahiro’s sidekick and friend into something terrible and monstrous, and with the only apparent solutions being either Guren’s own death or everyone else.
In the abstract, most of this conflict is standard-issue stuff. That “shonen” in the title is a strong hint about the show’s overall flavor and audience. But along the way, a couple of things happen, all of them good. The show accumulates gravity and intensity (although it never plummets off a cliff into complete despair), and by the time we get to the climactic sacrifices at the end, both self- and other-, they’re not just throwaways. Masahiro’s a likable guy, and not just because he’s cute and has pluck, but develops real courage and nerve. When faced with a grim choice regarding Guren, he goes to do the right thing for the right reasons — knowing full well it’ll break his heart.
On a technical level, the animation’s a notch or two down from some of the other period shows I cited (Moribito, Otogi-Zoshi), but it’s still decent. Most scenes glow with color, and the design work mixes period dress and architecture with some very modern-looking indulgences; the flashy outfits on a couple of the Shikigami wouldn’t look out of place on an episode of, say, Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D’s. And as with a lot of other historical shows, the music’s great: not just the more period-oriented mood music, but an opening and closing theme that don’t send me diving for the remote and punching for the next chapter.
The only major flaw in the presentation, apart from there being no extras worth speaking of, is the English dub. Don’t blame FUNimation for this; they’re just repackaging what was Geneon’s already-finished product. The dub script itself is decently done, although the way Masahiro and Mokkun deliver some lines comes off more in the vein of Xena than anything appropriate to the period. Your tolerance for this sort of thing will depend on how jarring you find it when you watch a show set in Japan’s own past and have lines like “Right on!” or “Earth calling Masahiro!” coming out of the characters’ mouths. Me, I groped for the remote and switched back to Japanese audio with each disc (English is the default).
While it’s not in the same stratosphere as some of my other favorites in roughly the same category, Shonen Onmyouji still stands out that much more from the rest of the pack. Pick it up as a nice change of pace (or as an antidote to the mind-numbing repetition of Inu-Yasha), and if you like its long-ago-and-far-away flavor consider steeping yourself in some of the other shows mentioned here. They, and this one, don’t get enough attention as a matter of course.