Today’s selection: Onmyoji and Onmyoji 2 (2001 and 2003, dir. Yojiro Takita)
Subgenre: Historical Fantasy
Available from: Geneon
Onmyoji is based on Baku Yumemakura’s 1988 novel, the first of over a dozen in that novel series. It’s part of the same yin-yang master boom as Teito Monogatari, and in fact the protagonist of Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis is descended from the historical figure that stars in the Onmyoji series: the Heian-period exorcist Abe no Seimei.
In both the Onmyoji films, the exorcist Seimei might be the attraction, but the arguable protagonist/ audience entry character is the often-flabbergasted court official Hiromasa, who spends the bulk of his time marveling at all of the cool stuff the habitually inscrutable Seimei does (it’s very Watson and Holmes). Both installments in the franchise present a mystery/conspiracy to unravel, show Seimei performing a handful of miracles, and culminate in battles against rival mystics.
The movies are more dramatic than action-packed, but there’s still no shortage of fantastic elements: oni, gods, yokai, mermaids, shikigami, and naturally onmyo magic; even Seimei himself is mentioned to be half fox spirit. The high production values and fine performances, combined with ritualistic ceremonies, subdued depictions of the supernatural (compared to, say, Kibakichi), and period setting might make these a classy option for audiences shy of tokusatsu’s campier side (Takita’s Academy Award for Departures might also help sell the Onmyoji movies to the higher-brow crowd). The first of the two films is generally considered the stronger entry, but I think that the drop in quality between them tends to be exaggerated; it’s sort of a shame that there weren’t more sequels on a regular basis.
Fun fact: It seems that there were also television series based on the novels in 2001 and 2004. I haven’t seen either, but they appear have no ties to movie continuity. Please correct me on this if I’m wrong!