Let me state for the record that I loved Yojio Takita’s Onmyoji (2001) so it was with great excitement that I anticipated the arrival of its sequel appropriately named, Onmyoji 2.
I’d read a number of Internet reviews that lamented the change in tone and depth between the original and the sequel, so my excitement was somewhat muted as I popped the DVD into the player. Well, seems all that fretting and worrying was unnecessary as Onmyoji 2 proves to be as good as any second film can be. Since the original Onmyoji offered the origin story of mystery-solving, city-protecting duo; sorcerer Abe no Seimei and courtesan Hirikami no Minimoto Onmyoji 2 allows their characters to grow a little as they are again thrust into a plot to overthrow the Heian Emperor.
At its heart the Onmyoji series resembles a mystery more than a traditional fantasy film, where our main characters Seimei and Hirikami fall into the Sherlock Holmes and Dr .Watson roles and race to find the identity and motive of the person, god, or demon currently killing nobles and stealing their body parts.
The Onmyoji stories are taken almost literally from ancient Japanese folk tales of the Yin Yang Masters, I’ve actually read a few of these in an old Japanese Fairy Tales book, and unlike their western counterparts, the tales do not move the reader towards a moral or life lesson, but are an exploration of motive and consequence. The Yin Yang Master stories, specifically, celebrate the cleverness of the Abe no Seimei character as he faces various mystical challenges in his service to the emperor. Each of the Onmyoji films captures several of these little vignettes and weaves them into the greater tale of mystery in the court.
Onmyoji 2 begins with six murders committed by demons at night in the city and the appearance of a mysterious man named Genkoku who possesses the ability to heal the sick and infirm. His reputation as a compassionate healer begins to draw a following among the nobles. When the emperor fears that his daughter, Amimiko, is in danger of being killed by the demons prowling the city, and the ancient sword of Izumo begins to rattle and sing in its display, Hirikami is dispatched to bring Seimei to the court to exorcise the demons and bring peace back to the kingdom.
But all is not what it seems. The sword was taken 18 years ago when the ruling Yamato clan massacred the (benign) Izumo clan and village leaving only one survivor, the girl adopted by Yamato as his daughter. Amimiko too has secrets, like Genkoku she has the ability to heal the wounds and sickness of others. At a scant 20 years old she is both a beautiful woman and a crack shot with a bow and arrow, nicknamed The Tomboy Princess. These two traits make her a sort of nuisance among the court as she so readily breaks with the established role of women. These two traits also make her unrelentingly attractive to the lovelorn Hirikami.
Another stranger appears in town, a young talented Biwa player named Susa, and forges a musical friendship with the flute playing Hirikami, when both men play their haunting melody for the princess she recognizes it from her past but cannot remember why or where she last heard the song they play.
Both Amimiko and Susa have a strange birthmark on their upper arms.
Seimei determines that a demon from the Izumo clan is trying to take 8 specific body parts to complete a diagram based on the 8 sins and that this is tied specifically to the lore of Shinto goddess Amaterasu and her brother Susa. The Sword of Izumo appeared when Susa killed the 8 headed dragon Orochi and found the sword buried within the flesh of its tail. (In Japanese history this sword is still said to be owned by the royal family!).
Once Seimei discovers the last piece of the puzzle, that Amimiko must be consumed by the demon to complete the diagram, he must race against time to find the sorcerer responsible for all these body stealing hijinks before he calls down destruction to Heian.
Okay, now I’ve tried to play fast and loose with the plot here because I don’t want to give away too much of the story. Better than half the fun of mysteries is working out the clues along with the detective.
Interstingly the characters of Seimei and Hirikami are the diametric opposites of what their western counterparts would be. They are members and protectors of a clan that massacres their rivals and because of that have drawn powerful and understandably pissed off enemies. If this were star wars, Seimei and Hirikami would be in service to the Emperor aboard the Death Star, the villains rampaging through the night would be Luke and Lei, if this were the Lord of the Rings trilogy they would be the guardians of Sauron, the villains stealing body parts would be Frodo and Gandalf.
Like almost all Japanese fairy tales, Onmyoji does not lead to a moral, it’s a tale of motives and honor. Even Genkoku draws tremendous sympathy even as he works to destroy the entire Yamato clan. He was king of the Izumo, he saw his entire clan slashed to death and burned. No wonder he’s pissed!
Shinto mythology plays a big, big, big part in the plot of this film and offers a refreshing new set of tales and characters drawn from history to explore. As Gristle McThornbody and I watched this I described it as “The Passion of the Christ” for Shintoists. To really get the film it helps to know a little more about the religion that just the name, but those not familiar with the pantheon of gods and demons that fill Shinto mythology Onmyoji is still accessible if you understand the storytelling style.
There are no great action set pieces here, no huge battles, no dragons, no battles between powerful villains, instead we are offered whispered spells, charms written on rice paper, florid dances and powerful music. So those looking for a Lord of the Rings type film will be disappointed. Luckily, I’m not one o them so Onmyoji 2 was a refreshing and engrossing two hours.
Onmyoji 2 retains everything that made the first film one of my favorite recent releases. It’s quiet, thoughtful, melancholy, and beautiful. The cinematography is only a little more reserved this time without the vast expanses of city shown and the action kept to more subdued locations like Seimei’s cottage and the courtyard at the palace. Still, much of the film looks as if it was taken from ancient Japanese artwork. The costumes are elaborate and beautiful, if not wholly impractical, and seem to come directly from rice paper drawings from the period.
The soundtrack uses traditional instruments, exclusively, and relies heavily on Hirikami’s flute and Susa’s Biwa to drive the background score. It’s lovely and I hope Geneon releases it on CD.
The Geneon DVD offers the film in 16x9 anamorphic widescreen with both original Japanese and dubbed English vocal tracks, English subs, a making of featurette, and some trailers. They also offer both Onmyoji films bundled together.