Onmyoji II Review
If you never saw the first Onmyoji film then you don’t necessarily have to avoid this sequel, as the ties between the films are simply the recurring lead characters. Based on a series of novels that were later adapted into Manga form, the Onmyoji films have proved to be quite the hit with Japanese audiences and the possibility of a third release is pretty likely. An Onmyoji is the Japanese term for someone versed in fortune telling and astrology and the appeal of the films can be put down to the infamy of their titular character: Abe no Seimei. He’s the equivalent of our Merlin: a real person who had an official position a thousand years ago as one of the top Onmyoji in the land. Since his demise his legend has grown and grown, with numerous fantastical tales told of his mystical abilities and he has captured the hearts of the Japanese ever since.
The story is set during the Heian Era (which ran from 794 to 1185), when the Japanese believed that man and demon existed together. This spells bad news for the participants in our tale because a particularly bloodthirsty demon has been killing important officials within the nation’s capital. After each attack the victims are found with a different part of their body bitten off. Up until now the palace has held prayers and performed sealing rituals to try and conquer the demon, but to no avail, and when a fourth victim is claimed, they’re all in agreement that more drastic measures are needed. Their answer is to call upon the services of the legendary Onmyoji himself: Abe no Seimei; but they’re not the only ones who need his help. The Right Minister, Lord Yasamuro has a tomboyish daughter named Lady Himiko. She is suffering from bouts of sleepwalking, and they just so happen to coincide with the dates of the demon attacks, now there is growing concern that she could be linked to the demon killings. So together with Hiromasa; his naïve but trustworthy friend; Seimei begins his investigation into these strange events and quickly discovers that behind the attacks lurks a dark and bloody secret that is coming back to haunt the current regime.
Although I watched the first Onmyoji film only a few months before writing this review, my memory of it is pretty vague. It wasn’t too bad a film, just that aside from the slick production values and the central character of Abe no Seimei, nothing else particularly grabbed my attention. Ultimately, it passed the time but was beginning to drag severely by the time the credits rolled. To a certain point, Onmyoji 2 has the same problems. The opening sequences, complete with moody voice-over setting the scene, would have you believe you’re in for a dark tale full of tension and thrills, but this one of the major problems with the Onmyoji series - neither film is dark or edgy enough. The characters interact well and the performances are generally likeable, but the restrained, languid nature of Yojiro Takita’s direction never really establishes a tense atmosphere of suspense, danger or horror. This is in part thanks to over reliance on Special Effects - which fall into two categories: Impressive but soulless CGI or extremely dodgy prosthetics. There’s no real sense of connection to some of the film’s more extravagant set pieces and when the action kicks in heavily later on in the film, you are left with just a clichéd plot to fall back on. This brings me on to the biggest gripe with the film – the script. Shinto mysticism and mythology has been incorporated into the story very well, but scratch past this flashy surface and you are left with a totally hackneyed plot that lends itself more to a Miss Marple mystery than an action extravaganza.
Ok that’s most of the moaning away I promise, because there is still plenty to enjoy in Onmyoji 2. For a start the relationship between Seimei and Hiromasa is fully established this time round, so we get a lot more of their warm interplay and this is always entertaining. At heart the Onmyoji films are like Sherlock Holmes with Shinto knobs on, this doesn’t help the plotting of the movie but it does allow for some amusing interaction between the characters. Seimei and Hiromasa take up the roles of Holmes and Dr. Watson respectively and they mimic their relationship down to a tee, with the crafty, all-knowing Onmyoji constantly teaching the simple minded but kind hearted nobleman a thing or two about the underbelly of the high-society he lives in.
Another major aspect in the film’s favour is of course the Shinto mysticism, and lets face it, Onmyoji’s are pretty darn cool. Watching Seimei performing sealing techniques and fighting mystic forces is simply good clean fun and there’s certainly a few very imaginative set pieces scattered throughout the 113minute runtime. Neat little touches include the fancy way Seimei does his research using magic floating scrolls and there’s a tonne of cool sealing techniques used throughout. Also if you’re fond of a bit of camp then I’m sure the laughably poor prosthetics on the demon will prove a hoot. Looking more like a Klingon outcast than a big bad nasty, the “monster” of the piece spends most of his time grunting like a wild pig or panting like a dog in heat. It’s about as menacing as a marshmallow in bubble-wrap.
Finally Mansai Okamura is as entertaining as ever in the role of Abe no Seimei. He was born to play this role because his vulpine features capture the essence of a man, who legend has it, was really a fox taking on human form. Also his extensive background in traditional Japanese theatre means his movement is graceful and every subtle physical gesture made is always precisely defined. As ever he is backed up well by Hideaki Ito in the part of Hiromasa. Ito bounces off Mansai very well and emits a good blend of idiocy, naivety and clumsiness. Enough to endear the character anyway, but there’s just a tiny lack of charisma in Ito that results in his solo scenes just not having the same vitality to them. The Onmyoji films belong to one man only and when he isn’t on screen the pace always starts to drag. This is probably the reason why the sequel held my attention better than the original, because Hiromasa’s role has been downgraded and Seimei’s upgraded to full central character of the piece.
The leads do a good job then, but what about the villains? Well, I don’t think I’m spoiling too much about the film to say that Kiicihi Makai and Hayato Ichihara play the tragic antagonists. Kiichi may be most familiar to some viewers for his previous work with director Yojiro: When the Last Sword is Drawn, playing the central role of Yoshimura. That was a well-written (if heavily melodramatic) part, but in Onmyoji 2 he’s given little else to do bar look devious and spout reams and reams of expositional dialogue. The end result is a performance that doesn’t particularly stand out, he goes through half the movie looking either sombre or grinning like a demented Hyena – all depending on whether the character is in down trodden tragic figure or maniacal avenger mode. Hayato Ichihara manages to put in the single worst performance in the film, and his attempt at expressing the character’s animalistic instincts is completely devoid of intensity.
Oops, I’ve started to gripe again! Onmyoji 2 has its flaws, but if you enjoyed the first film then I’m sure you’ll find more of the same from this sequel. Likewise, if you’re new to these films and looking for some disposable entertainment that shouldn’t be taken very seriously, then it certainly fits the bill.
PresentationPresented anamorphically and progressively at 1.80:1, Onmyoji 2’s colour scheme is mainly full of browns and greys with smatterings of lush colourful environments throughout, and while the compression falters a tiny bit when dealing in the darker areas, I have to say the transfer copes with all this pretty well - for the most part colours are crisp and clean. The general look is very natural, with good brightness and contrast levels, although those not so familiar with Japanese films may consider it a tad low contrast, but I assure you, this is how this film should look, the same can be said about the film grain that creeps into certain scenes. The only real black mark I can hold against the video presentation is some excessive halos from Edge Enhancements that can be seen at times throughout the film, a real shame because the detail levels are generally fine.
Geneon have satisfied purists and casual Asian film watchers in the audio stakes with both Japanese and English DD5.1 soundtracks. For the purpose of this review I primarily listened to the original Japanese, and I’m pleased with the final result. Simple dialogue exchanges and gentle scoring dominates most of this film, so that doesn’t push the 5.1 but when the action kicks in the soundtrack springs to life with enough aggressiveness in the bass and effective use of the rears to help boost the action set pieces.
As for the English DD5.1 track, well it sounds just like the Japanese, with only the new dialogue proving any different.
Optional English subtitles are present.