First off I’ll have to admit that this was a very difficult/confusing film to review for reasons I will mention soon. To compound this, I am here reviewing the unsubtitled version (as I only now became aware of the existence of the subtitled Region 1 DVD). But despite the incredible number of noble, proclamative speeches and the sheer volume of dialogue herein, it was not the language which is confusing, but rather the HUGE amount of background content which is frequently referred to but hardly ever explained.
Easily two-thirds of this film has explicitly to do with Onmyoji magic which in itself is a bewildering and esoteric mix of Chinese Taoist magic fused with Japanese Shinto/animism. Without doubt the references to Onmyoji magic are nothing short of mysterious to Japanese audiences let alone slightly intoxicated Western reviewers such as myself. Thus the primary dynamic fueling the plot was nigh conceptually inaccessible to me. I will certainly be watching the subtitled version soon to see whether the subtitles attempt to add any explanation of these things or whether they too merely assume audiences’ vague familiarity with the concepts.
In essence this is a tale of Japan’s move toward modernity at the expense of its traditional spiritual sensibilities. This theme permeates countless Japanese films and anime such as Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and Pom Poko or (recently reviewed) films such as Kibakichi (2003) and Hakuchi (1999). In the current film, there are three main factions amongst which the plot develops:
- The secular modernists led by character Shibusawa (played by classic Zatoichi’s Shintaro Katsu) whose primary goal is to move Tokyo into a modern and architecturally sound era.
- The traditional Onmyoji artisans who use ancestral magic to protect the populus and thwart evil. These work in concord with the modernists realizing the inevitable progress of humanity.
- The Evil Onmyoji magicians led by character Kato whose demented ambition involves the collapse of technological advance and the destructive resurrection of malignant spiritual forces.
In other words, while human architects and physicists plod along with their ambitious and optimistic reconstruction of Tokyo, beneath them burns a fiery ancestral battle whose outcome alone will determine the spiritual and material future of Japan.