Onmyoji is perhaps
one of the more well known Toho films out
there, appearing often on the ShoTime channels
in America. Opinions on Onmyoji vary;
however, it is one of the better films Toho
has in their fantasy genre, more specifically
the genre of New Jidai Geki (New Period Piece
film). Along with Legend of the Eight
Samurai, this is one of the genre's better
films in the areas of acting, pacing, and
plot. Though the special effects are passable,
the musical score is great.
The story of Onmyoji
spans over 150 years worth of history, with
the meat taking place in the Heian era of
Japan’s history. During this time, humans
are depicted as living together with fantastical
creatures. Some were Yokai, but the majority
were oni, creatures often interpreted as demons.
To rid human existence of oni were the Onmyoji,
civil servants that worked for the central
government. Not only were they tasked with
exorcising the oni, but they also predicted
future events using tools like the lo pan
and the I, Ching (The Book of
Changes). They predicted coming occurrences
by observing the affairs of men and also observing
changes in the cosmos.
In the year 794 AD, the Onmyoji
claimed that the guardian of the city of Heian
was about to appear, essentially portending
ill fortune. One hundred and fifty years earlier,
the authorities assassinated Prince Sawara
under false accusations. His vengeful spirit
could not be calmed until a mound was built,
Shogun’s Mound. To make sure the mound
was never destroyed, a certain woman, Lady
Anoe, was made immortal and appointed guardian
of the site.
Back in the "present",
unrest builds within the central government.
The instability caused by the result of the
Mikado's romantic entanglements tips the balance
of power, and the head of the Onmyoji, Doson,
decides to help Fujiwara no Motokata, the
Minister of the Right in the Mikado’s
court, who was affected by the shift. His
grand design is to create a sense of turmoil
to further his brewing scheme of conquest,
and resurrecting Prince Sawara is the key
to his plan. The one in charge of bringing
order out of all this chaos is Minamoto No
Tadamasa, a samurai for the court. He teams
up with an Onmyoji who, from an hierarchical
standpoint, is under Doson. Nevertheless,
this Onmyoji proves to be more skilled and
powerful. His name is Abe No Seimei...
The direction of the film by
Yujiro Takita pursues no other course than
that of drama. Each scene is brought to life
in a way that utilizes a dramatic cue in the
right place at the right time. There is tension
developed between the two protagonists Seimei
and Hiromasa, and there is tension between
the court officials; that is what a story
of this nature thrives on, and Takita makes
sure that we see the emotions that are racing
through this intricately woven tale. There
are also visual shots that are incorporated
in such a way as to portray the traditionally
perceived beauty of the of Heian era of Japan.
This is not to say that Takita is one of the
best directors around. Admittedly, none of
these shots hold any metaphoric value. The
tale is told with simplicity through and through.
However, the cinematography is keen, with
sets detailed to an exquisite degree.
The most interesting part of
the film is how it interprets women (the underplayed
sex of Japan’s culture from that era)
as the movers and shakers of events. The film
makes the point that women should not be purely
used for political and/or personal gain. Lady
Anoe was, and still is, in love with Prince
Sawara. It is the presence of the Mikado’s
new baby that causes turmoil within the court.
His old mistress, Sukehime, is pressured for
not being "good enough" or "beautiful"
enough to keep the Mikado’s fancy, and
yet she is still used... transformed into
a Namanari in an attempt to kill the Mikado.
There is no fury quite like a woman’s
scorn, but it is even more dangerous when
one is able to manipulate that age old chestnut
for personal gain.
When it comes to acting, we
are clearly treated with better-than-average
fair. The two stars are Mansai
Nomura, playing Seimei, and Hiroyuki
Sanada as Doson. Nomura is one of Japan’s
most formidable Kyogen actors who also was
fortunate enough to work with the legendary
Kurosawa in Ran
(1985). Sanada has seen said by some (most
notably the director of The Last Samurai)
to be the "Tom Cruise of Japan".
Along with winning five Japanese Academy Awards,
Hiroyuki has been part of the Royal Shakespeare
Company, not to mention gaining early practice
with a stage adaptation of Makai Tensho
(based on the 1981 film in which he starred;
both the film and the play were directed by
Fukasaku). Two heavy weights giving their
all in this film is a real treat.
Nomura plays Seimei excellently.
It is mentioned that Seimei was rumored to
have been born from a fox, and Mansai’s
facial features definitely show off this side
of Seimei’s personality. Seimei is a
unique character, often a little alienating
to the people around him, particularly towards
Hiromasa. However, this is a character who
does show laughter, worry, a sense of urgency,
and deep contemplation. Mansai covers all
the emotional bases very well. The viewer
may be taken out of the film by his performance
only when Mansai is directed to cry. It is
a hit or miss for viewers, but for this reviewer
at least, it was a miss. Other than that,
he excels, especially when he has to do rituals
that involve certain dances.
Sanada plays a classic villain.
A manipulative villain who has a quiet class
and reserve about him. Only during the last
third of the film does he really show an "end
of the ropes - anything goes" attitude.
This is something to be expected from the
actor, whose villainous characters have become
more and more numerous since this movie (e.g.
Rush Hour 3). There really aren't
any idiosyncrasies in his performance that
are strong enough to pull the viewer out of
The rest of the actors and
actresses do their duty to one degree or another.
Hideaki Ito, who plays Hiromasa, pulls off
the comic relief, hamming it up with aplomb.
Koizumi is the shining star of the female
troupe, playing Lady Anoe, a woman who is
immortal and carries around the usual baggage.
She helps to bring a solid layer of drama
to the film. Yui Natsukawa, the Lady of the
Full Moon, is the woman who suffers most of
the torture that arises from the Seimei-Doson
conflict. She doubles not only as a melancholy-laden
mistress but also as the oni/vampire-esque
Namanari. Playing Mitsumushi is Eriko Imai,
whose character is somewhat superfluous, except
to add dramatic force to a few scenes (which
require her to go into her butterfly form).
The score for the film is masterfully
composed by Shigeru Umebayashi. Although the
orchestra isn’t as full as it would
be in the sequel, it still proves to be more
than functional and helps to cradle (and even
magnify) the feeling and emotion in several
scenes. The best thing about the music is
that it has a distinctly Japanese flavor.
Not only does the style reflect this aurally
pleasing aspect of the film, but also the
choices of instruments lend to the
atmosphere. The best example is the theme
that plays over the end credits. The use of
Japanese woodwind, string, and percussive
fair really accents everything nicely, not
to mention the occasional (and welcome) vocals.
For kaiju fans put off by the
mystical elements of films such as Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999), Onmyoji
is a nice place to start when gathering some
cultural insight. While not a full history
class on Japan, it does provide a solid starting
ground on understanding Japanese mysticism
and how it may have affected peoples' lives
long ago in classical Japan. Careful directing,
competent writing, shining performances, and
a sound musical score (with a slightly addicting
nature) make this film a winner. It may not
be Kurosawa, but Onmyoji certainly
stands tall on its own two legs.