Onmyoji (aka Yin Yang Master, 2002) Movie Review

“Onmyoji” (or “Yin Yang Master”) is about wizards at a Japanese royal court (circa 1000 A.D.) that do battle for the fate of the current ruling emperor. On one side there’s Seimei (Mansai Nomura), an effeminate wizard with some powerful mojo and a habit for playing jokes; on the other is Doson (Hiroyuki Sanada), a brooding wizard trying to usurp the power of the court for some odd reason. I say “odd” because Doson claims to despise the current ruler, makes a lot of speeches about how he thinks all of this imperial power stuff is for the birds, and yet goes nuts when his numerous plans to take over said “power stuff” is foiled by Seimei.

Probably the closest equivalent to a George Lucas movie post-1999 offered up by Japan, “Onmyoji” uses cutting edge CGI and computer technology to render an elaborate ancient city and magic powers. Although the wizards in the film tend to chant spells rather than shoot them out of staffs or whatnot, there are scenes of appearing and disappearing ghosts, monsters, and at one point, a baby morphing into a demon. Although the special effects are well done, they’re nothing to hang your hat on simply because they’ve become average by today’s standards.

“Onmyoji” is probably too episodic for its own good, and the film becomes one attempt by Doson after another to kill the current ruler and take power. Aiding Seimei in defeating Doson’s schemes is Hiromasa (Hideaki Ito), a young samurai official who plays the flute better than he handles a sword. To say that Hiromasa is something of a bumbling swordsman is an understatement. Although it takes Hiromasa’s kind heart and Good Samaritan conviction to convince the reluctant Seimei to act on behalf of the emperor.

You see, Seimei could care less about what happens to the court. As played by Mansai Nomura, there’s absolutely no seriousness to Seimei. He seems to be passing the time, spending his afternoons leisurely drinking tea with women created from paper and a butterfly that can turn into a young woman name Mitsumushi (Eriko Imai). Helping Hiromasa to nudge Seimei toward that whole “savior of the city” role is Lady Aone (Kyoko Koizumi), an immortal woman who has been entrusted with protecting a sacred shrine built to appease a ticked off spirit some 150 years ago.

There’s a lot to like about “Onmyoji”. The special effects aren’t shabby, although the demon makeup is a little silly. And the demon baby? Laughable. Or how about the demon woman with — get this — candles on her head. I kid you not. She walks around with three candles in some sort of contraption wrapped around her temple. I kept wondering how she keeps the dripping wax from getting all over her hair. Shampooing must really be a killer at the end of a long shooting day.

What little comedy there is (and there isn’t that much, actually) comes at the expense of Hiromasa’s bumbling and his lack of understanding of magic. The relationship between Hiromasa and Seimei is that of friendship, but with Seimei’s effeminate qualities you wonder if there’s not something more. Tings gets a little awkward when Lady Aone starts talking about how Seimei and Hiromasa are “destined to meet” and how they are “two stars that have become one”. All of this leads to Seimei cradling Hiromasa’s head in his lap.

As the chief villain, Hiroyuki Sanada seems to be having an identity crisis. Why exactly does Sanada’s Doson go from a quietly scheming wizard in the first half to a laughing idiot in the second half? I don’t understand the transformation, and can only assume that Seimei having shot an arrow into Doson’s “demon bird” somehow triggered the psychosis. If so, that’s a lot of loving directed at a bird, Doson-san. Needless to say, Doson’s obsession with the court is too poorly conveyed.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “Onmyoji” was based on a manga comic book. It has that colorful quality about it. Although for a movie about men who can cast spells and do other groovy things, there are surprisingly very little “magical” moments. Which is to say I didn’t see any oceans getting parted, super-duper rays coming out of fingers, or a lot of demon action. Sure, demons come and go, but they don’t really do much.

“Onmyoji” is an entertaining way to past the time, even if there’s nothing very deep about the screenplay, and the direction by Yojiro Takita is sometimes too slow. For an action film, the movie feels more like a drama, which the slow pace dulling a lot of the movie’s “action-packed” moments (of which there are shockingly very little to begin with). Even so, there’s enough to like about “Onmyoji” that I wasn’t completely dissatisfied when the final credits rolled.

Yojiro Takita (director) / Baku Yumemakura (screenplay)
CAST: Mansai Nomura …. Seimei
Hiroyuki Sanada …. Doson
Hideaki Ito …. Hiromasa
Eriko Imai …. Mitsumushi
Kyoko Koizumi …. Lady Aone

Buy Onmyoji on DVD