The world of Onmyōji is one where mysticism, magic spells, bizarre omens and good and evil spirits fairly ooze out of the walls. In fact, they literally do ooze out of the walls at more than one point in the film, only to be driven back by invocations and enchantments of various kinds. The spiritualists in this movie are never short of work. Given what they have to contend with, they should be asking for hazard pay.
This is, in a way, one of the shortcomings of Onmyōji — it's so top-heavy with spiritualism and occult oddities that it threatens to become flat-out silly. But it is a lot of fun, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it quite a bit. It's gorgeously photographed, and contains an amazingly credible recreation of Heian-era Japan, down to the stitching in the costumes. The one thing it lacks is a story that's more than featherweight, despite its sometimes overreaching complexity. There are some marvelous ideas at work here, and the movie was successful enough that it's inspired a sequel, but at the same time I couldn't help but wish they had been a bit more ambitious with their story.
In the court of the Mikado, the Onmyōji (literally, "yin-yang masters") are the secret power behind the throne. They're something like the Asian version of the viziers — reading omens out of the stars, calculating good and bad days, and warding off evil in many forms. Hiromasa (Hideaki Ito), a fresh-faced member of the Imperial cabinet, is rather leery of the Onmyōji — especially the intimidatingly powerful (and annoyingly smug) Seimei (Mansai Nomura). Seimei demonstrates his power by plucking a leaf from a tree and using it to slice a butterfly in half — which inspired me to wonder what use that was, until I found out later that it was, in fact, exactly the party trick it seemed to be.
One day when a bizarre, oversized gourd ripens on a pine tree, Hiromasa secures Seimei's help in finding out about it. It's a spell, of course, and in an amusing succession of scenes we see where it came from and how Seimei plans to go about getting rid of it. This sets the tone for a lot of what follows: Hiromasa begging for help, while Seimei smirks and dispenses both magical charms and cryptic fortune-cookie profundities. He seems to do very little time actually working: whenever Hiromasa comes to him, he's lounging around surrounded by women (although, as it turns out, they're not exactly human — and there are hints Seimei isn't human either).
Things begin to get genuinely dark when an heir is born to the emperor, but from the wrong woman. Worse, Hiromasa has been unwittingly wooing the "right" woman with his flute (and some cutesy advice from Seimei). It turns out one of the other Onmyōji, Doson (none other than Hiroyuki Sanada), is plotting to seize power, and afflicts the heir with a ghastly blight. Seimei once again rides to the rescue — but this time with an assistant in tow: the mysterious Aone (Kyoko Koizumi), who seems to have innate magical powers of her own.
There's a great deal more, which of course I'll do my best not to ruin, and the movie plunges deep into the thick of it and wallows uninhibitedly. Through the course of just under two hours we're given political intrigues, backstabbings, unrequited love, ancient secrets, passions from beyond the grave, an army of resurrected demon-monsters, and of course tons of magic spells flung about. What's curious is that for all of this fevered material, the movie seems to work hard not to be taken too seriously. Perhaps this is a matter of taste: when the demon army descended on the capitol, I found them to be more comical than threatening. In the same vein, there's a moment where a woman transforms into a hideous, vengeful demon, but it comes off as goofy when it should be chilling.
Like many Japanese movies that delve into the sometimes-mythologized history for their inspiration, Onmyōji takes cues from a real person. There was in fact a Seimei, and he apparently lived to the age of eighty-five while being in the complete confidence of the emperors and nobles of that time. But the movie hardly tries to be a serious biography of the character; it's more content to be a straightforward fantasy, and on that level it actually works fine as long as you aren't terribly demanding.
The other major flaw of the film is that it gives us Hiromasa as an ostensibly sympathetic hero (he's more like "us" than the somewhat self-important Seimei), but provides him with very little to do other than get dragged around and attacked (and woo the wrong woman, but the less about that, the better). He does convince Seimei to have a major change of heart at one point, but it's handled so dismissively that I blinked. Another throwaway element is Mitsumushi (Eriko Imai), Seimei's cute female sidekick, who can transform into a butterfly and back again. Great idea, but she's also given nothing much to work with except to parrot back many of Seimei's more banal statements and giggle behind her sleeve.
Onmyōji has a good pedigree. The director, Yojiro Takita, also made The Exam (a semi-satirical look at Japanese family life) and the wonderfully offbeat We Are Not Alone. The script was written in part by the very capable Itaru Era (who penned some of Takashi Miike's more psychotronic productions, like Visitor Q), so I have to wonder if there was a more biting, incisive side to the story that was watered down. Maybe they felt that would have gotten in the way, and based on the finished product, I can't say they were entirely wrong. Part of the film's charm is in how it doesn't let much get in the way of its supernatural extravagances.
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