Onmyoji: a film review

Recently one night after Baby was sleeping soundly, I cracked open an old DVD I hadn’t watched in a long time: Onmyoji. This is a Japanese film my wife bought in the US years ago when we were still dating, and I didn’t think the movie was interesting because I couldn’t understand the cultural references. The subtitles were fine; I just couldn’t connect with the movie.

I found the movie recently in a box of DVDs we had packed away while in Ireland, and I wanted to see if I could understand the Japanese more easily. To my surprise I found the movie a lot more engaging this time around, and enjoyed it a lot.

I think the big difference is that between this time and last I studied a lot more about Japan and the Heian era. Books like Lady Murasaki’s Diary, the Pillow Book and reading about Sugawara no Michizane really helped to put things in perspective. So when they show scenes of life in the Heian Court, the history nerd in me gets excited. But also, a big theme in the movie is the constant need to defend the capitol from evil spirits, which as Lady Murasaki’s Diary shows, wasn’t just myth but a tangible treat people feared. Some scenes were scary in a silly, hokey way, some were more creepy like the woman with candles on her head.

Also, I now recognize the main actor, Nomura Mansai, whereas before I didn’t. Nomura Mansai of course is one of the actors in children’s TV show on NHK, Nihongo de Asobo, and plays many roles I enjoy watching. So seeing him in a movie is more fun now and makes the experience better.

With that said I think the movie loses focus at the end somewhat and the fight scenes drag out too long, and I think the archvillan, Sanada Hiroyuki was miscast,1 but I still enjoyed the movie as a whole. I am curious to see Onmyoji 2, so I might try to get when possible, possibly as a used-DVD purchase.

It’s funny though that Onmyoji, as an art has gained a small revival in recent decades, since people in the Heian Court found them more of a necessary nuisance, as Sei Shonagon writes in the Pillow Book about female shamans who put on airs while praying for someone’s unborn child:

[240] People who are smug and cocky – … The woman who’s brought in to pray for a child’s health or to massage someone’s painful belly. [While making a paper/bamboo wand for the ritual] she splits open a length of bamboo with some toothed object, attaches the paper strips to it with a deeply reverent air and proceeds to wave this about and pray – altogether a fine show of being knowing and smug. Throughout all this, she keep up her chatter … “The little master of so-and-so residence, was taken fearfully ill, but I managed to root it out and rid him of he problem completely, and they gave me a fine reward for the job. They’d called in this person and that person, but they’d had no success…” and so forth with such an unpleasant expression on her face.

While Abe no Seimei, the lead character and legendary Onmyoji, might have been achieved great fame and accomplishments, it seems that not all shamans and such were a credit to their profession. ;p

1 When you see a movie like Twilight Samurai, you’ll know why.

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