on April 25, 2003 by Wade Major
Adapted from the Baku Yumemakura book, the Japanese import “Onmyoji” isn't likely to find quite the same commercial acceptance in the U.S. as it did in Japan, though it should strike a strong chord among fans of Japanese period films, particularly those with a mythical, mystical bent like “Ugetsu” and “Kwaidan.”

A Heian-era Mikado's court is the primary setting for the film which centers mainly on the role played by the Onmyoji or Yin-Yang Masters, magicians charged with protecting the Mikado, his family and subjects from assorted trouble-making wraiths and demons. Sometimes Onmyoji may even be called on to battle other Onmyoji, as is the case here. The reason for the rift is largely political--the father of one of the Mikado's wives envies the other for giving birth to an heir and conspires with master Onmyoji Doson (Hiroyuki Sanada) to turn the infant boy into Linda Blair circa 1973. To the rescue comes rival conjurer Seimei (Mansai Nomura), the Onmyoji equivalent of an eager young college man with “bright ideas”--bright ideas conveniently augmented by powers of illusion, exorcism and necromancy. The confident upstart proves so powerful, in fact, that he's able to turn back virtually all of Doson's spells and tricks with relatively little effort. As if that weren't enough, Seimei also proves a caring mentor to the eager young Hiromasa (Hideaki Ito), an amiable but otherwise superfluous figure whose sole function seems to be to serve as the film's lone audience identifier.

Reduced to its bare essentials, “Onmyoji” really isn't much more than a conventional “battling sorcerers” tale, albeit with a fanciful sense of Japanese mysticism and style. Though there's nothing here that audiences haven't seen a hundredfold in everything form “Excalibur” to “The Lord of the Rings” to “The Witches of Eastwick” or even Tsui Hark's popular Hong Kong “Zu Warriors” films, it's still firmly ensconced in the Japanese tradition which normally eschews the overwrought Hollywood and Hong Kong approach in favor of eerier, spookier sensibilities. And though most of that goes completely out the window in the film's effects-laden final quarter, “Onmyoji” never really betrays its cultural lineage, borrowing from Hong Kong and Hollywood traditions only for flavor and effect.

Japanese films are imported so infrequently these days that some may be surprised by the picture's ambitious production values. Though the effects are sometimes uneven, they're consistently effective, aided by subtly surrealistic production design, bold cinematography and accomplished staging by veteran director Yojiro Takita--still a far cry from the great Japanese masterpieces of the past, yet far more than fans of Japanese cinema have seen in years. Starring Mansai Nomura, Hideaki Ito, Hiroyuki Sanada, Kyoko Koizumi and Eriko Imai. Directed by Yojiro Takita. Written by Yasushi Fukada, Baku Yumemakura and Itaru Era. Produced by Tetsuji Kayashi, Kazuya Hamana and Nobuyuki Tohya. A Pioneer release. Fantasy. Japanese-language; subtitled. Rated R for violence. Running time: 116 min.

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