In a heart of darkness lies a battle for this world and the next.
Onmyoji is a fantasy epic set in Japan's Heian period, which ran from 794 to 1192 AD, and is the era of Japan's cultural enlightenment. Among the sweeping changes that occurred during the Heian period are the moving of the nation's capital to Heian-Kyo (now Kyoto); the establishment of a culture independent of the Chinese, including a new system of writing; and the build-up of a military composed of a new class of warrior called samurai, whose ultimate loyalty was to the emperor.
Directed by Yojiro Takita, Onmyoji is based on a series of novels by contemporary author Baku Yumemakura, and presents a romantic and magical vision of the Heian period. The film was wildly popular among the Japanese, pulling in The Lord of the Rings-style grosses in its homeland. And now, here it is on DVD in Region 1.
Facts of the Case
Onmyoji opens 150 years after the establishment of the new capital. The Heian period, we are told, was a time when spirits and demons wandered the earth, plaguing mortal man. The capital was moved to Heian-Kyo because the wrathful spirit of Prince Sawara, who was betrayed and executed by the Heian dynasty, cursed the old capital, seeking his revenge.
The onmyoji are a group of mystics tasked with defending the city from the malevolent intent of supernatural beings. The most talented of the onmyoji is Abe no Seimei (Mansai Nomura, Ran). Seimei strikes up a friendship with a young acolyte named Hiromasa (Hideaki Ito) as the two investigate strange happenings surrounding the emperor's newborn heir. Helping them unravel the mystery is the Lady Aone (Kyoko Koizumi), the lover of the long-dead Sawara, cursed with immortality 150 years earlier. With her assistance, Seimei and Hiromasa discover Doson (Hiroyuki Sanada, The Last Samurai), chief among the onmyoji, is behind the plot to interfere with the hereditary imperial line, and that they themselves are the guardians of Heian-Kyo foretold in prophesy. But when Doson channels the spirit of the vengeful Sawara, even the guardians may not be able to stop him.
What lends Onmyoji depth is its thematic density. Oddly melancholy for a fantasy epic, the film overflows with sorrow for love lost, love unrequited, and the agony of lovers separated by the void of death. "One's own heart can turn a person into a demon or a saint," Seimei tells Hiromasa at one point in the story, and indeed the tale's supernatural elements are metaphors for the destructive force of hate, envy, and resentment, and the redemptive power of love. Not only is the main plot driven by this sensibility but it's also reflected in every subplot and every relationship, including the burgeoning friendship between the two heroes. In one tangential plotline, for instance, Hiromasa romantically pursues The Lady of the Moon, a mysterious woman in a palanquin who is drawn to the young man's flute playing. He's left heartbroken, though, because the woman is a concubine of the emperor whose son has been passed over in favor of the newborn heir. The heartbreak and resentment of her rejection drive her to madness and leave Hiromasa grappling with his own sorrow. Ultimately, it's the failure of human beings, their selfishness and lack of respect for others, that unleashes demons.
Onmyoji is frequently compared to The Lord of the Rings, and it's a fair observation even if most make it for the wrong reasons. Most critics invoke Peter Jackson's blockbuster in order to shorthand the fantastic nature of Omyoji—it's easier to compare than to describe. But its pervasive sadness separates Tolkien's novel from its many imitators (a tone Jackson has been mostly successful in recreating on film, despite various fudges in the storyline), and that's what Onmyoji has most in common with its western cousin. The two are closer emotionally than they are in terms of storyline. Each presents a bizarre and detailed world that transcends genre, appealing to a broader audience, because of its complex emotional foundation.
Whatever their textural similarities, Onmyoji's special effects certainly don't compare with The Lord of the Rings'. The Japanese film's effects are a combination of animatronics and opticals similar to Hollywood effects of the 1980s, along with CGI on par with American television (think Star Trek: The Next Generation or the Sci-Fi Channel production of Frank Herbert's Children of Dune). They're not great, in other words, but once you're snatched up by the story, suspension of disbelief won't be a problem. The DVD preserves the film's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and the transfer is anamorphically enhanced. Color and detail are excellent, and the source was just about pristine. But there's more edge enhancement than would be ideal and, as a result, the transfer has a video-like quality instead of looking like it was sourced from film. I don't want to overstate things, though. The clarity of the image is excellent, close to perfect.
On the audio front, two Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are offered, an English dub (the default) and the original Japanese. I watched with the original track but sampled the English, and both are aggressive and immersive, making full use of the entire soundstage as well as the LFE channel. Directional panning is also used to great effect. If the soundtrack's so great, why such a low score in the "Scales of Justice" section of the review, you may be asking. Unfortunately, the Japanese track is slightly out of sync during the last 40 minutes of the film, enough so that it undermines the actors' otherwise strong performances.
Pioneer has two different offerings of Onmyoji on DVD, a barebones edition whose only extras are a trailer and selective filmographies, and a special edition that contains a making-of featurette, cast and crew interviews, deleted scenes, and a variety of trailers. Unfortunately, this review is based on the barebones edition, so I can't tell you a thing about the extras on the more elaborate release. I can tell you the film itself is worth checking out, though.
Onmyoji is a surprisingly rich piece of entertainment. Let me emphasize that entertainment is the key word in the previous sentence: despite all that stuff I said about sorrow and unrequited love and death, the film isn't a downer. The emotional complexity doesn't interfere with the film's functioning as an action-fantasy extravaganza.
The soundtrack problems during the film's final act are a drag (I tried the disc on various players to no avail, then did a little research and discovered I'm not the only one who's had an issue), but don't let it scare you away. In the least, give Onmyoji a rent.
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