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Onmyoji
cast: Hiroyuki Sanada, Ittoku Kishibe, Hideaki Ito, Erika Imai, and Kyoko Koizumi

director: Yojiro Takita

116 minutes (R) 2001
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Geneon NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Amy Harlib
Appearing all too briefly in limited distribution in the USA but fortunately available on DVD, this film was a box office hit in its home country of Japan in 2001 and deserves wider audiences here. I loved it along with huge numbers of Japanese folks but maybe some things are just too esoteric for the average American. Based on a real historical personage, subject of novels, manga (comics) and even a Brian Eno CD in its land of origin, the cinematic feature Onmyoji (aka: The Yin-Yang Master) - literal translation: 'adept sorcerer', situates its protagonist in the midst of a fantasy/ historical period background that bears loose resemblance to textbook facts but offers lots of fun and visual dazzle appropriate to a work of entertainment.

Set in the medieval Heian Period of Japan, about 1,000 years ago and centred on life in the Imperial Court in the capital Kyoto, the story posits that in that remote era, supernatural phenomena co-existed openly with the more quotidian aspects of daily living. The elite Onmyoji Doson, (mega-star Hiroyuki Sanada, famed for heroic roles in his youth now playing an excellent villain), serves the Heian Mikado or ruler (Ittoku Kishibe). Doson foresees that the sovereign's favourite concubine will soon give birth to a son and their city of Kyoto will enjoy the benefits of a new protector. Alas, the newborn soon succumbs to an ailment of occult origins. This prompts a concerned, kindly, young, flute-playing court noble and swordsman Hiromasa (pop-idol Hideaki Ito), to turn for help from the eccentric, bon vivant Onmyoji Seimei (Mansai Nomura), his mother rumoured to be a fox-spirit and his reputed power rivalling that of Doson, his former master.

Seimei, his great skills and were-butterfly magical assistant Mitsumishi (pop-idol Erika Imai) notwithstanding, seeks the help of the uncanny Lady Aone (pop idol Kyoko Koizumi) who seems to dwell more in the spirit world than in consensual reality. Assenting to ally herself with the efforts to exorcise the malign magic afflicting the Mikado's son, Lady Aone, Seimei and Hiromasa, teaming up, soon discover the clandestine cause of the malevolent spells to be none other than Doson, scheming to seize power for himself in the dual worlds of mortals and demons.

The formidable, ongoing barrage of Doson's assaults on the Mikado's family derive from an allegiance with an intensely envious court noble who, along with his ex-concubine daughter Sukehime (Yui Natsukawa), desires revenge against the throne because the young woman's birthing of only a girl child caused her to fall from favour in this patriarchal society. Here is an interesting subtext: the grief engendered by sexism that would not happen otherwise.

In addition to this main narrative, a subplot follows Hiromasa's romantic yearning for a mysterious woman who remains hidden in her carriage yet shows great interest in coming nightly to hear the young man play his flute and recite poetry. While Hiromasa, Seimei and Lady Aone get close to thwarting the baleful attacks on the Mikado and his offspring, the identity of the young noble's heart's desire may prove crucial to the outcome, especially when the entire municipality of Kyoto falls under siege by the burgeoning power of the demons summoned by the antagonist. This otherworldly threat, connected to the conflicts over a century in the past surrounding the founding of Kyoto (revealed through flashbacks), has much to do with Lady Aone's origins and an augury foretelling that two stars will become united.

The very cultural complexity that I find fascinating in this film, no doubt prevented Onmyoji from finding its audience in the states the way it did so successfully in Japan. This picture offers a dazzling array of period sets and exteriors (shot in historic locations); gorgeous costumes and hairstyles; clever make-up in certain key moments; lovely music; fine performances by an appealing cast, especially pop stars acquitting themselves well in this exercise celebrating their ancient cultural heritage; and special effects. The depiction of wizardly doings using effects sometimes quaint by Hollywood state-of-the-art CGI standards, nevertheless served the purposes of the story quite well.

What I found particularly amusing (but not intended that way), was the no doubt deliberate marketing decision to mix western occult symbolism with the authentic eastern devices. Onmyoji presents many scenes of rituals invoking magic power, these being mostly accurate and fascinating but all too frequently pentacles kept appearing in the proceedings! The familiar five-pointed star of the western mystical traditions had nothing to do with ancient Asian and Japanese sorcerous practices. The producers must have felt it necessary for western audiences to see a well-known icon signalling magery in the midst of what they would find wildly exotic. I thought the idea intrusive and anachronistic but understandable and it did not spoil the overall enjoyment of the film. This applies equally to the presence of astrolabes as background decorative objects in the chambers of both Doson and Seimei! Oddest of all - no actual yin/yang circles could be seen anywhere. The reference in the title again alludes to an image, albeit Asian and appropriate to the film's milieu, also easily recognisable in the western world.

Occidental intrusions for the sake of familiarity in the world market aside, Onmyoji's portrayal of the unusual, highly mannered, formalised society of the elites of medieval Japan came across vividly, and if the film might seem a bit deliberately paced for those used to the Hollywood genre formula of constant action, the measured flow of the story perfectly suited the time and place of its setting and it did build to a rousing denouement. Onmyoji offers a chance for non-Japanese audiences to enjoy a glimpse of a remote and distant past brought to cinematic life in a way that engagingly blends homegrown anime aesthetic with a Hong Kong wuxia/swordplay style of fantasy presentation to ingenious effect. Adventurous souls seeking to explore and experience some delightfully different entertainment laden with historical/fantasy content will find Onmyoji a magical treat.
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