O: Onmyoji: The Yin Yang Master (2001)

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220px-onmyoji-2001-film-posterOne of the best things about casting the nets wider for this year’s Hubrisween offerings is finding that occasional gem you had no idea existed and being dazzled and deeply satisfied by it. And such a gem is Onmyoji.

An onmyoji is a practitioner of onmyodo, “a traditional Japanese esoteric cosmology, a mixture of natural science and occultism” according to Wikipedia. The article goes on to point out that in the Heian period (roughly 794-1185), the onmyoji had real political clout.

The movie begins in a fairly enigmatic fashion, with a ritual sealing of Shogun’s Mound, a tomb to trap the wrathful spirit of the wrongly persecuted Prince Sawara; he had cursed the former capitol city, so the new capitol – which will come to be known as Kyoto – is built over the tomb.

150 years later, the city has grown, and is quite prosperous under its current Mikado. The leader of the Court Onmyoji, Doson (Hiroyuki Sanada) is craftily playing the powerful Minister of the Left against the Minister of the Right to cause chaos in the palace, to what end, we shall just have to let the plot develop and see.

We are introduced to our actual title character, Abe no Seimei (Mansai Nomura), an extremely powerful magician. One of the more venal lords demands he prove his power by killing a butterfly without touching it; when a leaf blown by Seimei slices the butterfly in half, the lord flees in terror. Also witnessing this is Hiromasa (Hideaki Itô), a minor lord who is further discomfited when the master of his house sends him to Seimei to beg him to investigate supernatural goings-on.

vlcsnap-2017-01-04-13h02m47s51Hiromasa protested when the lord demanded Seimei kill the butterfly, and he is honestly delighted to find that the death was an illusion, and in fact the pretty girl who greeted him at Seimei’s gate is the butterfly in human form (Eriko Imai). These two things cause the normally cool Seimei to warm toward Hiromasa, and they are going to become close companions in the course of the story.

The Japan of this period, we are told, is a time when demons walk the land, and it is the onmyoji who protect mankind from them and their curses. Doson’s power games in the palace are going to require Seimei’s intervention more than once, until the wizard’s master plan is revealed: unleashing the spirit of Prince Sawara, and binding it to himself for ultimate power.

"Oh my! You ARE sick!"

“Oh my! You ARE sick!”

I’m going to enjoy any movie involving magic that’s done well, and Onmyoji is certainly that; Abe no Seimei is a freaking 10th century Doctor Strange, and the revelations of his power are continually surprising and delightful. Hiromasa is a fine Dr. Watson character, providing someone to whom Seimei can explain things (and thereby explain them to us), and a humanizing counterbalance to Seimei’s otherworldly aloofness. In a reversal of one aspect of the Holmes/Watson dichotomy, Hiromasa is the musician of the two, and his masterful ability on the flute is pertinent to the story, as is his continually doomed love life (more on those in the sequel, which we’ll get to eventually).

The intriguing characters don’t stop with our heroes. There is the enigmatic Lady Aone (Kyôko Koizumi), apparently immortal. And Dosun’s familiar, possibly the most metal crow ever committed to film.


“O soundless, invisible God of woe – may you reap all you have sown.”

Onmyoji is based on a series of novels by Baku Yumemakura, popular enough to be adapted to both manga and television. And after finding all this out, this gaijin was surprised to discover that Abe no Seimei is an actual, historical person. Was he truly a combination of Doctor Who and Harry Potter? We will never know, but it’s nice to think that he was.

As I said, I found this movie tremendously entertaining. I am alternately thrilled that there is a sequel and saddened that there is only one sequel. We will get to that one later. Like in ten letters later.

Buy Onmyoji on Amazon

1 Comment

  1. Oh, good. I’d heard of this a long time back, but never got around to seeing it, so one more for the list (thanks!)

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