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Onmyoji (Takita Yojiro 2001)


[The Yin Yang Masters]

Genre: Quasi-historical Supernatural Drama

review in one breath

Set in Japan's Heian Period (794 to 1192 AD), Onmyoji draws a picturesque world straight out of the Genji Monogatari. In many ways, the Heian Period can be viewed as the cultural zenith of Japan, for during this time Japanese art and literature flourished. It is during this period that the samurai class is first established, that the Japanese writing style of Hiragana is developed, and higher Japanese culture distinguishes itself from that of monolithic China sitting just across the Japan Sea. The period is marked by the temporary movement of the capitol from Edo (Tokyo) to Heian-kyo, today's Kyoto. The most culturally significant piece of literature produced during this era was the Genji Monogatari, a story of dynastic succession and turmoil. The Genji Monogatari's value lies not only in its status as one of the earliest epics in Japanese literature (and as a cultural treasure due to the wonderful paintings contained in the scroll), but also for the unparalleled vivid description of life within Japan's High Court and Royal households.

Though not literally taken from the work (Genji is not a ghost story), the setting, characters and situations in Onmyoji are those of a Genji-like world. The only difference here, however, is that the world of Onmyoji is one in which the world of men and demons overlap and in which magic and superstition abound. Anyone familiar with the Genji Monogatari will be able to readily identify the character behavior or cultural norms and expectations permeating Onmyoji.

The story opens in Heian-kyo (Kyoto) 150 years after the capitol's move from Edo (Tokyo). That we are now at the horizon of a mythical time is made plain by the explanation that the move of the capitol was due in part to the spiritual malevolence caused by the former emperor Shino, who, through a conspiracy by those who would become the Heian era dynasty, was forced into a miserable suicide. To protect the Heian Mikado (Emperor) from spiritual malaise, a new class of spiritual "warrior" is established, the "Onmyoji". The Onmyoji are masters of Shinto spirituality and the Chinese art of Ying Yang. Within the Heian Court, the Onmyoji are led by Dosoun who is consulted regularly by the Mikado regarding omens, fortune and divination (as well as some Feng-Shui home decorating advice). Also among the ranks of the Onmyoji, though clearly maintaining an arm's length from Dosoun, is (Abe no) Seimei who we soon learn is perhaps the most gifted and insightful of the class. His unparalleled mastery of the spiritual arts accompanied by his renegade attitude appears at first to present a threat to the stability of the Heian Court. We soon realize, however, that the dynasty's hope is pinned to Seimei's ability.

I was fascinated to learn that not only are the "onmyoji" an actual historical institution, but that Abe no Seimei is an historical figure of considerable reputation during the Heian period. There is significant historical documentation regarding the onmyoji and Seimei's spiritual influence, including several landmarks and geographical designations bearing his name throughout the Kyoto (Heian-kyo) region. There remain certain onmyoji sects dedicated to the teaching and influence of Seimei. There is also a Seimei Temple in Kyoto. Modern day onmyoji are available for consultation and exorcism should the need arise.

As in the Genji Monogatari, the Mikado is awaiting the birth of a royal heir. This would not be his only son, however, as he currently has a young male heir through Mitsumushi, one of his concubines. This Genji-like scenario of rival heirs to the dynasty sets the backdrop for the entire tale of Onmyoji. In classic fashion, many powerful vassals have allegianced themselves to the Mikado's first-born and Mitsumushi, his concubine mother believing that no other heir would emerge. News of the birth of an heir born of a princess means demotion if not failure for anyone whose allegiances were misplaced (due to the power that will be ultimately wielded by the mother of the heir, who undoubtedly is aware of those who were for or against her). Thus it is that a plot against the newborn heir quickly emerges; a plot involving demonic curses and large ghostly manifestations. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

A strange omen has arisen within the palace. A magnificently large squash has grown from a small pine tree. Clearly this is a portentous omen whose meaning must be deciphered! The young court vassal Hiromasa is sent to the home of Seimei to request his aide in discovering the meaning of the squash. Seimei's house is foreboding as its gates thrust themselves open as Hiromasa approaches and from out of nowhere a slightly strange servant girl appears to direct him to Seimei. Hiromasa finds Seimei in the innercourt surrounded by three beautiful maidens, all giggling along with their host. When Hiromasa requests to speak with Seimei alone, Seimei waves his hand and the maidens suddenly change (back) into paper origami dolls. The shocked Horomasa stands astounded with eyes and mouth wide open as Seimei explains spiritual transformations. He then points to the servant girl who led Hiromasa in and she morphs into a brilliantly blue butterfly. After thus having established that he will make a beautiful girl out of any bug or household object, Seimei is led back to the High Court to take a look at the Pine Gourd.

After briefly fondling the hanging gourd, Seimei abruptly plucks it from the tree and affixes a Shinto prayer to it. As he prays over the gourd we can see it change shape slightly. When it is cut open, a poisonous blask asp lies coiled within. This is no mere omen. Rather this is a curse aimed at the Dynasty and the Court. But whose curse is it? To discover the source, Seimei and Hiromasa set the asp on the ground and follow it. It leads them through the heart of the town (as startled crowds look on) and beneath a bridge at the outskirts. There they find the decaying corpse of a young woman in court kimonos. Seimei identifies the woman as one who deeply loved a current court official. As they return to the court, they peer into the home of that court official, and when Seimei's spell allows Hiromasa to see the spirit realm, they both watch as the ghost of the woman hovers around and embraces the otherwise oblivious man. This entire episode thoroughly impressed the young Hiromasa and he grows to esteem the cool and powerful Seimei.

Hiromasa is in many ways the central figure in this story. Not that his contribution to the plot determines the outcome, but that the camera tends to follow him predominantly. This results in our becoming the most familiar with Hiromasa out of all the characters here. We learn, for example, that he plays the Japanese flute very well. So well, in fact, that he frequently draws the attention of a court maiden who sits listening in her curtained royal carriage, face hidden from view. Although Hiromasa has not seen the face of the maiden who frequently attends his nightly songs, nor has learned her name, he has grown attached to her and clearly holds strong emotions for her. Throughout the course of the film, we learn with Hiromasa that his audience is none other than Mitsumushi who in tears proclaims her love for the Mikado despite his turning his affection to the princess mother of his newborn heir. Hiromasa's love for Mitsumushi will prove important when she becomes a formidable (and cool looking) demonic force through a sorcerer's manipulation of her grief and anger over being abandoned.

Back at the Royal Court, the newborn heir is undergoing increasingly mysterious turmoil. First, his caretakers notice that he is hovering in mid-air above his bed only to drop suddenly to the ground. A few days later, the poor little guy has developed grotesque deformities making him look much more akin to an Ogre heir. The panicked Court calls in Seimei to investigate this strange occurrence. After taking a look at the child, Seimei and Hiromasa walk deep into the woods where Hiromasa's flute inadvertently attracts the mysterious Lady Aone. Lady Aone, we find out, is an immortal with no particular love for the Heian Mikado. One hundred and fifty years ago her lover was Shino, the Mikado who was humiliated through conspiracy and forced into a pitiful suicide. Immediately following his death Lady Aone believed that Shino's spirit would return and vowed to be waiting there when he did. To facilitate this, she had the royal fishermen catch a mermaid which, legend had it, if eaten would result in the immortality of the ingestor. In a flashback we watch as the much more naive-looking Aone tastes a bit of mermaid sashimi. It becomes apparent that Seimei and Aone are in fact good friends and that he has intentionally summoned her for the task at hand.

Once back at the palace, our team of three begin their intervention to save the ogre baby. After painting several symbols on the child, Seimei begins his chant. No sooner had he begun than a hideous black cloud emits from the baby's mouth (burp!). The harder Seimei prays, the more the cloud emerges. But suddenly the tide turns as Seimei feels a dark power of the curse increase. We then see that it is Dosoun who, deep within his cave lair, intensely prays curses down upon the lad. Yes, Dosoun is bent on destroying the newborn heir. As these two Onmyoji battle it out, we watch in horror as the black cloud moves in and out of the kid's mouth as if he is blowing and then inhaling a black bubble. But Seimei's aura prevails and the large black cloud floats eerily above the observers only to be sucked into the mouth of Lady Aone who emerges none the worse. Later, outside the palace walls Seimei extracts the curse from Aone through some extreme (!) acupuncture techniques. While Hiromasa stutters with mouth wide open, flailing his sword, a multi-headed gaseous demon emerges and explodes into the heavens.

If you think Seimei has saved the day, let me just say that you've only tasted the appetizer of this full course meal. Before this tale is through with you you will:

  • witness the wrath of the real Blair Witch, watching her turn into a hideous demon,
  • realize the awesome power of an angry resurrected Mikado
  • watch huge dark clouds of departed samurai which possess humans turning them into superhuman ogre samurai able to leap 20 feet into the air
  • learn neat first aid techniques such as removing an arrow shot into your forehead by pushing it all the way in and removing it through your mouth (yourself).
  • watch more kick-ass duels between our two Yin Yang Rivals, Seimei and Dosoun.

This was a thoroughly entertaining film with good special effects. The historical element is also excellent. The star power of this feature it top-notch and the film became wildly popular in Japan.

(Psst... After this review, check out Onmyoji 2, released in 2003 by the same director, Takita Yojiro, and starring many of the same characters!)

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Genji Monogatari Ghost Story! Need I say more? Samurai/Ogre battles. (Non-fatal) Arrow shot to the forehead. Collateral damage to one blue butterly, one hairy crow, and one mermaid. One creative self-inflicted throat slit using a sword stuck into the ground. Alas, even Seimei's origami paper dolls are fully dressed. This one is way up there on the "strangeness" scale, overlapping Shinto superstition, Taoist mysticism, and an apocalyptic battle for Japan. Very cool stuff.

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