Starring: Mansai Nomura Hideaki Ito Eriko Imai Mai Hosho Hiroyuki Sanada
Running time: 112 min.
Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr
Ever since “Departures” overturned expectations by winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, much attention has been given to its director, Yojiro Takita. As many are discovering to their surprise, among the first films he helmed are a wide number of titles in the softcore “Train Molester” series. Between them and “Departures”, Takita has produced an extensive output of films that fall under many different genres. One of them is 2001’s epic-scale fantasy “Onmyoji”.
Based on a series of novels by Baku Yumemakura, “Onmyoji” is set during the Heian era in the then capital city of Heian Kyo (presently Kyoto ). The term “onmyoji” refers to priest-like figures who, in ancient Japan , studied the sun, moon and stars, practiced divination and warded off evil spirits. In the film, they could just as easily be called magicians, as their more extraordinary feats are made possible through magic spells. In the opening scenes, the audience is introduced to Seimei (Mansai Nomura), an impish yet powerful onmyoji regarded by his colleagues with fear and respect. But instead of the wise old sage that some might expect him to be, the youthful sorcerer is hardly the ideal model of responsibility, casting spells as often and casually as if they were mere card tricks. He soon meets a young lord named Hiromasa (Hideaki Ito) with whom he forms an unusual friendship. Together, they work to protect the Emperor (or Mikado) and his newborn son from intruding demons led by the evil onmyoji Doson (Hiroyuki Sanada).
As I watched this film, I would every now and then be reminded by the impressive period structures and costumes, wandering spirits and presence of a sorrowful flute in the film’s score of Akira Kurosawa’s great feudal era-set works (“Throne of Blood” was the one I thought of most often). However, Onmyoji is a much more sugar-coated, comic bookish kind of film, sprinkled liberally with overtly fantastical elements and the special effects needed to realize them onscreen. The demons that frequently pop up aren’t pale-faced beings inspired by Noh theatre, but instead are covered with garish makeup effects like fangs and contact lenses more in the vein of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the “Evil Dead” films. Almost immediately, Doson sticks out as the classic archvillain, complete with a torch-lit cave lair, a sinister-looking moustache and an ugly purple bird who serves as his spy. Assisting him in his evil plans is Lord Motokata (Akira Emoto), whose daughter is afflicted with an illness, inspiring him to act against the healthy infant prince out of jealousy. Such a setup could have made him one of the most interesting characters in the entire film, but his screen time is sadly limited to a handful of scenes while the significantly less complex Doson hogs the spotlight.
On the heroes’ side, Lord Hiromasa serves well as a likeable, sometimes inept and thankfully human character next to the enigmatic Seimei, whose continual impish nature, seemingly omnipotent powers and holier-than-thou manner often grow tiresome and even annoying. The two men are assisted by Lady Aone, a woman who ate the flesh of a merman so as to become immortal and protect the kingdom from the vengeful spirit of its previous prince, and a sprite-like companion of Seimei’s who, when not in the form of a butterfly, does little more than stand in the background and parrot the cocky onmyoji’s enigmatic responses.
“Onmyoji” clearly fits the bill as an out-and-out fantasy tale, a Japanese-style slice of swords and sorcery. Though it possesses a considerable cast of characters, they are too often neglected in favor of the numerous displays of action and magic. As a result, the film often feels hollow and smacks of squandered potential. But as a simple piece of entertainment, “Onmyoji” performs well enough. If that’s all viewers are looking for, and if they’d like more of what this film offers, Takita returned to Yumemakura’s world in 2003 with a sequel before moving on to “Departures” and his moment of Oscar glory.