Confusing ‘Onmyoji’ casts an interesting spell


By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
May 2, 2003

2 stars

Once you get past the exotic costumers and Kabuki-inspired makeup in “Onmyoji,” you realize that the subtitled Japanese film really is a dark, supernatural fairy tale not unlike “The Lord of the Rings.” OK, there are no dwarves, elves or sorcerers in “Onmyoji,” but the film is peppered with magicians, demons and, well, the undead.

The story takes place during the middle Heian period in feudal Japan, but the plot is timeless. An emperor is impatient for his wives to produce a male heir to the throne. When one finally does, he’s horrified that a Yin-Yang master–who is supposed to protect the royal family from the supernatural–has cast a spell on the infant.

The emperor enlists the skills of Abe no Seimei, the most gifted of his Yin-Yang masters, to transform the hideous creature back into a baby.

Released theatrically in Japan two years ago, “Onmyoji” was a blockbuster back home. Only Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning animated feature “Spirited Away” outperformed it at the box office.

Love, intrigue and deceit intertwine for the makings of an exciting film, but the movie unfortunately gets off to a laboriously slow start. For every breathtaking shot of a butterfly being sliced in half and morphing back into a “servant god,” there are jarring transitions that look as if two unrelated scenes were spliced together just because.

That said, Abe no Seimei (pronounced in the same cadence as Obi-Wan Kenobi) is an intriguing creature.

Mansai Nomura, the newcomer who plays him, exudes rock star cool and otherworldly facial expressions in his portrayal of the renegade Yin-Yang master. Guiding a nervous young swordsman into a battle,         Seimei calmly shows him how to destroy a demon using magic and the considerable powers of Lady Aone, who is immortal–thanks to nibbling on the flesh of a merman more than a century ago.

Based on a series of popular novels, the film isn’t as accessible to Western viewers–most of whom probably aren’t familiar with the genre. As a stand-alone piece of work, the film can be confusing, especially when the eyes are drawn to the action, which makes it easy sometimes to forget to read the subtitled dialogue.


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