The story of Onmyoji spans over 150 years worth of history, with the meat taking place in the Heian era of Japan’s history. During this time, humans are depicted as living together with fantastical creatures. Some were Yokai, but the majority were oni, creatures often interpreted as demons. To rid human existence of oni were the Onmyoji, civil servants that worked for the central government. Not only were they tasked with exorcising the oni, but they also predicted future events using tools like the lo pan and the I, Ching (The Book of Changes). They predicted coming occurrences by observing the affairs of men and also observing changes in the cosmos.
In the year 794 AD, the Onmyoji claimed that the guardian of the city of Heian was about to appear, essentially portending ill fortune. One hundred and fifty years earlier, the authorities assassinated Prince Sawara under false accusations. His vengeful spirit could not be calmed until a mound was built, Shogun’s Mound. To make sure the mound was never destroyed, a certain woman, Lady Anoe, was made immortal and appointed guardian of the site.
Back in the "present", unrest builds within the central government. The instability caused by the result of the Mikado's romantic entanglements tips the balance of power, and the head of the Onmyoji, Doson, decides to help Fujiwara no Motokata, the Minister of the Right in the Mikado’s court, who was affected by the shift. His grand design is to create a sense of turmoil to further his brewing scheme of conquest, and resurrecting Prince Sawara is the key to his plan. The one in charge of bringing order out of all this chaos is Minamoto No Tadamasa, a samurai for the court. He teams up with an Onmyoji who, from an hierarchical standpoint, is under Doson. Nevertheless, this Onmyoji proves to be more skilled and powerful. His name is Abe No Seimei...
The direction of the film by Yujiro Takita pursues no other course than that of drama. Each scene is brought to life in a way that utilizes a dramatic cue in the right place at the right time. There is tension developed between the two protagonists Seimei and Hiromasa, and there is tension between the court officials; that is what a story of this nature thrives on, and Takita makes sure that we see the emotions that are racing through this intricately woven tale. There are also visual shots that are incorporated in such a way as to portray the traditionally perceived beauty of the of Heian era of Japan. This is not to say that Takita is one of the best directors around. Admittedly, none of these shots hold any metaphoric value. The tale is told with simplicity through and through. However, the cinematography is keen, with sets detailed to an exquisite degree.
The most interesting part of the film is how it interprets women (the underplayed sex of Japan’s culture from that era) as the movers and shakers of events. The film makes the point that women should not be purely used for political and/or personal gain. Lady Anoe was, and still is, in love with Prince Sawara. It is the presence of the Mikado’s new baby that causes turmoil within the court. His old mistress, Sukehime, is pressured for not being "good enough" or "beautiful" enough to keep the Mikado’s fancy, and yet she is still used... transformed into a Namanari in an attempt to kill the Mikado. There is no fury quite like a woman’s scorn, but it is even more dangerous when one is able to manipulate that age old chestnut for personal gain.
Nomura plays Seimei excellently. It is mentioned that Seimei was rumored to have been born from a fox, and Mansai’s facial features definitely show off this side of Seimei’s personality. Seimei is a unique character, often a little alienating to the people around him, particularly towards Hiromasa. However, this is a character who does show laughter, worry, a sense of urgency, and deep contemplation. Mansai covers all the emotional bases very well. The viewer may be taken out of the film by his performance only when Mansai is directed to cry. It is a hit or miss for viewers, but for this reviewer at least, it was a miss. Other than that, he excels, especially when he has to do rituals that involve certain dances.
Sanada plays a classic villain. A manipulative villain who has a quiet class and reserve about him. Only during the last third of the film does he really show an "end of the ropes - anything goes" attitude. This is something to be expected from the actor, whose villainous characters have become more and more numerous since this movie (e.g. Rush Hour 3). There really aren't any idiosyncrasies in his performance that are strong enough to pull the viewer out of the experience.
The rest of the actors and actresses do their duty to one degree or another. Hideaki Ito, who plays Hiromasa, pulls off the comic relief, hamming it up with aplomb. Kyoko Koizumi is the shining star of the female troupe, playing Lady Anoe, a woman who is immortal and carries around the usual baggage. She helps to bring a solid layer of drama to the film. Yui Natsukawa, the Lady of the Full Moon, is the woman who suffers most of the torture that arises from the Seimei-Doson conflict. She doubles not only as a melancholy-laden mistress but also as the oni/vampire-esque Namanari. Playing Mitsumushi is Eriko Imai, whose character is somewhat superfluous, except to add dramatic force to a few scenes (which require her to go into her butterfly form).
The score for the film is masterfully composed by Shigeru Umebayashi. Although the orchestra isn’t as full as it would be in the sequel, it still proves to be more than functional and helps to cradle (and even magnify) the feeling and emotion in several scenes. The best thing about the music is that it has a distinctly Japanese flavor. Not only does the style reflect this aurally pleasing aspect of the film, but also the choices of instruments lend to the atmosphere. The best example is the theme that plays over the end credits. The use of Japanese woodwind, string, and percussive fair really accents everything nicely, not to mention the occasional (and welcome) vocals.
For kaiju fans put off by the mystical elements of films such as Gamera 3: Incomplete Struggle (1999), Onmyoji is a nice place to start when gathering some cultural insight. While not a full history class on Japan, it does provide a solid starting ground on understanding Japanese mysticism and how it may have affected peoples' lives long ago in classical Japan. Careful directing, competent writing, shining performances, and a sound musical score (with a slightly addicting nature) make this film a winner. It may not be Kurosawa, but Onmyoji certainly stands tall on its own two legs.