Onmyoji II (2003)
Anthony Romero
June 8, 2006
Note: review may contain spoilers

Following Yojiro Takita's entertaining Onmyoji (2001), many were hungry for more adventures starring Seimei and his band of allies. It took two years, kind of a rarity in Japanese cinema where sequels are often churned out annually, but Takita delivered his anticipated sequel to the series. Unfortunately, his second offering ended up being a poor successor to the throne, as it lacks a lot of what made the first enjoyable to watch. To the writing staff's credit, the story here is at least creative and a nice continuation for the series; however, it doesn't save the film from an embarrassing final act that falters to properly develop and involve its huge cast of characters, and even though the acting is acceptable with high production values they do little to elevate the feature as a whole.

In terms of plot, the movie starts out with a series of mysterious deaths occurring through out the capital. The only connection between the incidents is that each victim was of nobility and that each had a different piece of their body removed. These events are interrupted by the quaking of the Ame no Murakumo, a legendary sword said to have been crafted from the tail of Yamato no Orochi, as the ministry brings in sorcerer Abe no Seimei to examine it. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, Seimei cannot stop the blade's movement. In the meantime, another sorcerer by the name of Genkaku has begun to develop a large following for his miraculous healing ability. Some in the ministry hope that he might exercise the sword himself, and possibly replace Seimei, yet he refuses the offer. Meanwhile, the murders continue as a young girl loses her eye before she is killed as the guards witness a demon fleeing after the attack. Seimei begins to investigate both incidents, as he believers that the demon's victims are in fact representative descendents of the eight gods who opened the door to the cave in the legendary story of the “Birth of Japan”, and that Ame no Murakumo sword is the last piece of the puzzle. Working around this theory, Seimei and his friend Hiromasa begin to protect who they believe will be the next victims as they are in a race against time to prevent the demon from claiming the legendary sword.

Looking at the story as a whole, it's definitely not a bad concept, and it's also nice that writers Itaru Era, Baku Yumemakura and Yojiro Takita didn't attempt to make a cookie-cutter sequel out of the plot from the first film. For inspiration, the writers drew on a lot of elements from the “Birth of Japan” legend, which should be a very familiar topic for Toho enthusiasts due to Three Treasures (1959) and its remake Yamato Takeru (1994). The mystery angle of the story, while also evoking references from folklore, makes the plot involving to the audience, or at least to those familiar with the legend. The problem here is not the setup, though, but the incredibly weak climax. The movie does have a riveting turn of events just before this, with the awakening of Susa-no-o, as his effortlessly destroy the capital with his blade. However, the film falters to do anything interesting beyond this point as it limps to its finish with almost painful results. It's almost jaw dropping how bad the climax is, as this revolves around Seimei dancing around in pretty much drag, I'd prefer not to state it so crudely but it's an apt description, as Hiromasa plays his flute as part of a ritual. The sequence where he is being flailed about in the air, while repeatedly shouting, is just horrendous. Susa-no-o arrives on cue during the climax, yet he is paralyzed by the music so there is no pay off there. Genkaku appears as well, as he draws the Abe no Murakumo sword in preparation to battle Seimei. What follows, though, is anything but what one would expect, and a far cry from the amazing confrontation between Seimei and Doson at the end of the first movie. Instead of taking part in the battle, Seimei continues his dance as he dodges Genkaku's attacks in he process. It's not quite clear what the aim of the scene was, whether it was supposed to be comedic or exciting as it fails so hard at both. The whole redemption of Genkaku element after this is pretty awful too, considering this is a man whose goals have killed countless people in the capital just a few minutes ago, although it's the least of the final act's problems.

In regards to character development, it's kind of a mixed bag. Seimei is more or less in line with what one would expect of the character. His persona doesn't really evolve here from the first film, except that he seems more compliant with the Mikado. As far as Hiromasa goes, unfortunately the feature doesn't find a great deal for him to do. It's not bad enough that he could have easily been written out, but it's close. To make the character seem more important, they have given his flute playing more or less spiritual-like powers, as it's vital to Seimei's ceremony near the end and is able to stop Susa in his tracks; however, with no explanation it just seems like the writing was desperate to justify his inclusion into the climax. The character once again has a love interest here, this time in the young princess Himiko, but it never really amounts to anything as it doesn't evolve beyond a simple crush and certainly lacks the emotional payoff that his relationship with the Lady of the Full Moon had in Onmyoji (2001). Still, Hiromasa and Seimei have a great deal of chemistry together, and it's simply great to see them interact in the start of the movie as it tends to evoke a lot of what made the first film such a pleasure to watch.

In regards to the rest of the characters, the movie tends to suffer from trying to juggle too large of a cast. It also doesn't help that the movie introduces some red herrings in regards to its character development either. For example, Himiko is repeatedly referred to as a “tomboy princess”, one who could even take on demons. Given that kind of reputation, and the fact that it's brought up often, most tend to expect that we are going to see her take part in a battle at one point in the movie. Unfortunately this couldn't be further from the case, as all she does is shot her bow and arrow at bull's-eyes while kind of whimpering around the fact that she wants to help Susa. Not at all the type of character one would have expected, and perhaps hoped for, given her introduction. The movie's villain, Genkaku, is also kind of a conflicting character. He starts off as being a kind of harmonious figure, healing those who come to his forest like surroundings as he quickly picks up a following. Unfortunately his character makes a huge and sudden shift to a more maniacal, “death to the capital”, type of figure without any transition. As it turns out, according to his back-story, Genkaku has always hated the capital, which was brought on after they attacked and slaughtered people from his village when he was younger. This revelation makes his more genteel persona at the start of the movie seem even more out of place, especially since this is a man who is willing to sacrifice his children and is not beyond killing his own wife if it furthers his goals. Although, I guess, it's at least nice that he was given proper motivation for his aims, unlike the antagonist in the first movie, Doson, who just seems to be evil and power thirsty by nature. As far as the rest of the cast goes, they are hardly worth bringing up. Susa for example, the “demon” of this film, is fairly underdeveloped beyond his admiration for Hiromasa and feelings for his sister, something which definitely could have been played on more to make his transition into Susa-no-o more tragic. It's also a shame to see what was done to the Mitsumushi character for the sequel, as she is relegated to mostly a scenery role as she doesn't do much. She has one, fairly cheesy, scene where she takes on a group of sumo wrestlers in order to get a lock of hair for Seimei, yet the whole ordeal feels tacked on and its about all she gets to do of any substance as she vanishes come the climax.

As far as the acting goes, it's fairly lackluster as a whole, although not bad all the same. Mansai Nomura returns here as the enigmatic Seimei, and gives far and away the best performance in the film as he adds that perfect layer of mysteriousness and confidence to his portrayal. Hideaki Ito as Hiromasa is also back, although unfortunately his delivery in the movie is fairly uneven. Ito tends to add a more contemporary touch to his character, removing the more subtle and reserved aspects of Hiromasa in favor of more blatant humoristic moments, which seem off to those familiar with the first film. There are quite a few new faces in this film as well, including Kyoko Fukada, who plays princess Himiko (or Amemiko), in the movie. Sadly, her performance here is mostly a bore as she lacks any energy in her delivery and keeps a pretty stern face through out the proceedings. Kiichi Nakai as Genkaku, Onmyoji II's antagonist, tends to fare better, although he has trouble trying to capture the range that his character requires from him. He nails the more peaceful and brooding aspects of Genkaku perfectly, yet falters at trying to give a memorable performance as the more stereotypical madman he becomes for the second half of the movie, which is also a far cry from Hiroyuki Sanada's riveting performance as Doson in the movie's predecessor. The movie also has some well-recognized actors in the supporting cast as well, like Masatoh Eve as Himiko's adoptive father. Now I have always been a fan of Eve's, he seems like a very underrated actor who has started to appear in a number of films recently, although always as a supporting cast member. He does a great job here as well, as he adds a good level of remorse and seriousness to his portrayal, although he falters pretty hard when it comes to trying to give a forced laugh at his daughter.

The movie's saving grace, though, is the excellent production values. The special effects for example are often amazing, and a vast improvement over its predecessor as effects director Katsuro Onoue is really coming into his own. CGI in particular is done with much better results, as things like transformations and scrolls floating in the background seem to blend in with their surroundings without sticking out in the least. The special effects also lead to some breathtaking shots as well, such as the aerial view of Himiko's village. On the downside, the destruction of the capital, while an imposing sequence, could have been done better as the effects aren't quite up to snuff with everything else in the film. It's also disappointing that Orochi never makes a more triumphant appearance in the film, instead subjected to a glowing entity in the sky until it joins with Suza, as the movie evokes the character so often. Although, I suppose, to add a full-fledged monster into the proceedings would have seemed a little off. These minor grievances aside, other aspects of the production also fare incredibly well, as it would be unfair not to mention the excellent set design seen in the film. This also tends to be a vast improvement over the more closed and less refined sets seen in the first movie, as there are several very impressive backdrops here that include the Izumo temple and the forest where Genkaku dwells in the first part of the film.

In terms of the music heard in the film, Shigeru Umebayashi returns to the series to score the second outing. Unfortunately his music here seems to slip into the background without much in the way of memorable cues. Still, Umebayashi does a fairly good job, as his main title for the second movie, a remixed version of what was heard in the first, is extraordinary, as is the music that plays during the final battle, although it's stock from the first movie.

In closing, Onmyoji II is a fairly lackluster film that's very hard to place any kind of numerical score to. The movie had a lot of promise with some interesting ideas and it's entertaining to watch the start of it, yet its final act is so abysmal that it leaves a sour taste in the viewer's mouth. It's also shame that this feature likely killed the chance of more movies in the series, especially considering the first film was given a better reception then most within in the United States.