The mysticism and politics of the ancient Japanese Heian period are joined with fine-to-middling special effects in “Onmyoji.” Pic was fourth-best grossing homeland item in Japan in 2001 (with a sequel set for October release), posting nearly $24 million and cashing in on both the popularity of Baku Yumemakura’s book as well as manga and small-screen versions of the adventures of Abe no Seimei, a historical figure known for his magical powers. Distrib Pioneer Entertainment’s attempt to import the Seimei trend into the States — disposing of the English-lingo title, “The Yin-Yang Master” — should result in muted numbers, as pic will appeal to mostly hardcore buffs of fantasy and Nippon exotica. After limited April 25 release in L.A., New York, Chicago and San Francisco, vid sales should work a little magic.
“Onmyoji” is a departure from comedy for helmer Yojiro Takita, and preceded his period actioner, “When the Last Sward Is Drawn.” Given Takita’s background in comedy, it’s curious that pic feels least assured during ostensibly amusing asides. On the other hand, the most resonant aspects here are the other-worldly specters, the ancient tradition of extremely human ghosts and the interplay between mortals and immortals that recall Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu” and Kobayashi’s “Kwaidan.”
A rapid and dense prelude intros the unjust banishment of Prince Sawara (Masato Hagiwara), resulting in the 10th century imperial authorities moving the capital to Kyoto. Sawara’s wife, Lady Aone (Kyoko Koizumi), is forced to live as an immortal bound to guarding the new city against evil forces.
One hundred and fifty years later, despite prosperity, the Mikado, or emperor (Ittoku Kishibe), senses that the spirit world opposes his lineage. Onmyoji — masters of astronomy, exorcism, magic and yin-yang spiritualism — are recruited to battle the spirit onslaught.
In a manner that links it with mythologies the world over, the drama stems from the all-too-human conflicts and jealousies between Doson (Hiroyuki Sanada), the leading Onmyoji, and Seimei (Mansai Nomura), a wily upstart with extraordinary powers. For reasons that are never made clear, Doson aligns himself with the nasty Fujiwarano Mototake (Akira Emoto), father to the envious Sukehime (Yui Natsukawa), one of the Mikado’s two wives. Outraged that the other wife, Toko (Sachiko Kokubu), is the first to give birth to an heir, Mototake conspires with Doson to cast horrible spells on the infant.
Paralleling this intrigue is a teacher-pupil relationship between Seimei and the young, eager Hiromasa (Hideaki Ito), which seems designed to serve several purposes: One is to inject comic relief, but Ito’s repetitive expressions of open-mouthed astonishment at Seimei’s magic, to say nothing of Nomura’s arch, lordly manner, unfortunately are more irritating than humorous. Another ploy appears to be establishing a buddy-buddy combo as the basis for a hoped-for “Onmyoji” franchise.
Until he undermines the effect of his truly insane bad guy with incessant Snidely Whiplash-style chuckling, vet thesp Sanada (star of “The Ring” series) builds a nemesis of tremendous power who reaches full fruition in the second hour. With his plans to kill the baby prince thwarted by Seimei, Doson tries to kill the Mikado by inflicting his wife Sukehime with demons that turn her into a homicidal maniac. The intimate horror of this sequence is Takita’s best realized in the film. It is ultimately more unnerving than the CGI-heavy imagery of the final 30 minutes, in which Doson tries to turn Kyoto into his own version of hell.
The effects prove extremely uneven, with sub-par touches alongside astonishing and truly unforgettable shots. Both CGI and Hong Kong-inspired airborne fighting provide the final trap for Doson, as if Takita were using the tools of both Hollywood and HK to bring his epic to a reasonably satisfying end.
Whether or not the pairing Nomura and Ito will be enough for an “Onmyoji” series is a real question, but there’s no doubt that the overall production package needs an upgrade for worldwide theatrical breakout. Nonetheless, despite the effects problems, the overall visual design is a sumptuous display of rich primary colors, matched only in recent Japanese cinema by Seijun Suzuki’s dazzling “Pistol Opera.”