In the time when demons and man shared the same world, the Mikado relies on the magical talents of the Onmyoji to protect the kingdom, the throne, and the city. When the daughter of an important minister is passed over in the Mikado’s quest to produce an heir, a plot unfolds that draws both Lord Minamoto no Hiramaki and the most talented Onmyoji Abe no Seimei within the Mikado’s inner circle to reveal the nature of the treachery. Could another member of the Onymoji class be behind the mysterious happenings in the castle?
Sort of sounds like something you’re read off the back of the DVD slipcase, doesn’t it? To accurately describe the complexities and subtleties of Onmyoji I’d have to retell the entire story. And what fun would that be for you?
Onmyoji flies in the face of our western understanding of Japanese Cinema. Onmyoji borrows from both No Theater and Hong Kong Wushu flicks to weave a somewhat gentle and cerebral exploration of mysticism and redemption. Onmyoji doesn’t rush the setup either and takes a good 30 minutes to even explore the fringes of the plot, fills it completely for the next hour, then spends a full half hour wrapping the whole thing up. That’s a tall order for a movie.
I am so used to watching films squander their promise on action sequences or inattention to detail that it took a long time for me to warm up to Onmyoji. I kept expecting the narrative to stall, but it didn’t. I figured any moment we’d see a big unnecessary special effects sequence, but it never happened. I was certain the plot would collapse under the weight of its complexity, but the plot remained solid.
I am not sure at which audience this film is aimed. It certainly isn’t the Ichi the Killer crowd and probably doesn’t offer enough eeriness for the Ringu fans, and there’s virtually no gore and only a smidgen of combat, so my guess is pretty much anyone else with an appreciation of both mystery stories and traditional fantasy might be right at home in the world of Onmyoji.
At its heart Onmyoji is a love story and tells the tale of both Lord Minamoto no Hirakami’s unrequited love for The Lady of the Full Moon, and the sacrificial love of Lady Aone and Prince Sawara, both tales own major props to Shakespeare’s romantic archetypes. The lovers are both innocent and doomed and gallant and flawed. Sarawa is corrupted by vengeance and Hirakami torn between his insecurity and his duty to the city.
Yojiro Takita’s direction surpasses the material and visually frames the plot complexities in wide uncluttered rooms, long tracking shots, and few distracting close-ups. His camera floats among the characters rather than existing separate. The effect is one of being drawn directly into the film, of participating in conversations with the characters, of breathing their air, touching their clothes, feeling their warmth.
The acting is universally excellent, notably Hirakami’s slow maturation from young lord to guardian of the city, from wide-eyed innocence of to wise and self assure. Hideaki Ito has several other films under his 28 year old belt and his experience shows in Onmyoji. He brings the necessary humanity to the role of a tragic hero.
Mansai Nomura’s depiction of the ultimately powerful, somewhat benevolent, always aloof Abe no Seimei is an incredible feat for a first role. His presence is absolutely magnetic whether confidently dispelling the demons from an infected gourd, or discussing the nature and power of names as a spell, he exudes confidence and wisdom. Seimei’s character provides the perfect counterpoint to Hirakami’s innocence. Seimei has seen and done all and though very young (we never know just how old he is) displays a keen understanding of both the political situation in the palace and the uncomfortable rumblings of Hirakami’s heart.
Onmyoji is one of the best films I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter in my time at Horrorview.
Pioneer releases Onmyoji with both English and Japanese Language tracks in 5.1 Dolby surround and the requisite English subtitles. Pioneer offers two different releases of Onmyoji the standard edition containing a filmography and original trailers/TV spots the special edition contains that plus a booklet, cast/crew interviews, and a “making of” featurette.
Both releases offer a widescreen anamorphic transfer that really shows off the attention to detail in the backgrounds and wide shots. I spotted no flaws. As with virtually all imported Asian releases the audience is better served by the original language track, and Onmyoji is no different. The vocal choices on the English dub are okay but in no way convey the same sense of urgency as those of the original actors.
The standard edition, which I have, is S-L-I-M, almost devoid of worthwhile the extras. The filmography is superfluous and the trailers are, well, trailers... Who watches these AFTER a film comes out anyway?
This film is also known as "The Yin Yang Masters" which is a sort of misleading title and is better suited to a five-dollar chop socky release from the Wu Tang Clan's kung fu emporium. Thankfully Pioneer releases this film with the title it deserves.