Japanese history is organized into eras. You can loosely describe the Edo-jidai (1600-1868) as the Era of the Bureaucrat and the Sengoku-jidai ( 1467 – 1568) as the Era of the Warrior. Following this logic, the Heian-jidai is undoubtedly the Era of the Aristocrat.
Though spanning 150 years of history, the core story of the 2001 film Onmyoji is set in the 10th century. The Emperor’s (or mikado) romantic entanglements have resulted in destabilizing the balance of power and two aristocratic families (the Fujiwara and Minamoto families) are vying for supremacy within the court. Fujiwara no Motokata enlists the help of Doson, the head of the Onmyoji, in securing his family’s position of power. Together, they hatch a scheme to eliminate the newborn son of the Emperor (whose mother is not a part of the Fujiwara) and place Motokata’s daughter back into a position of favor with the Emperor. However, these actions soon bring the co-conspirators into conflict with Minamoto no Tadamasa, a court noble, and Abe no Seimei, an enigmatic and talented Onmyoji. The story also includes the vengeful spirit of a prince, an immortal guardian, an animatronic crow with a mohawk, a moonlit love affair between Tadamasa and a mysterious woman, and lots of flute playing.
Does this sound complicated? Well, as a story based in the Heian era, it should.
Let me explain a little bit about the Heian era. It lasted from 794 to 1185 and was when Buddhism, Taoism, and the power of the Imperial Court were at their height. It was before the samurai or ‘bushi’ class rose to prominence as warlords. Power was won and lost via complex and tedious political jockeying in the capital (at this time, Kyoto). One of the most common ways families secured positions of respect and influence was by marrying their daughters into the Imperial family and hoping that they would give birth to the next Emperor. It was through this method that the Fujiwara family maintained its influence through most of the period.
This was also considered one of the high points of Japanese culture. For people who know a bit about Japanese literature – the Heian era is the era of The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu and The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon as well as poetry, art, and music. If these depictions are to be trusted at all, the Heian period was a time of drinking parties under the cherry blossoms, poetry composing competitions, romantic entanglements, and a lot of weeping at the beauty of the moon. For the noble class, that is. For regular people is was a period of constant hardship, famines, epidemics, and natural disasters. Things also caught on fire a lot because everything was made of freaking wood and paper.
And remember how I mentioned that Buddhism and Taoism were at the peak of their influence? Well, this is where the heart of Onmyoji picks up. Onmyodo – or the ‘Way of Yin and Yang’ which sounds utterly stupid when translated into English – is an esoteric form of cosmology, occultism, and fortune-telling and draws influence from Buddhism, Taoism, and Shinto. Onmyoji is the term used for court servants who practice Onmyodo. Their responsibilities included keeping track of the calendar, divination, and protecting the capital from evil spirits. They performed exorcisms and wrote charms and talisman to protect nobles from a variety of mystical dangers. If this all sounds pretty tedious and silly, trust me, it was. The Tale of Genji, for example, is full of passages like ‘My mystical advisor so-and-so told me that for the next month, East is an in-fortuitous direction to travel in, therefore, I need to travel in a roundabout way to Lord So-and-So’s residence to view his early blooming plum tree.’ In many ways, the end of the Heian era represents the height of aristocratic frivolity, so it’s no surprise that the military class rose to power and took over the country.
This is also perhaps the best thing about the film Onmyoji. The movie itself is a rather silly fantasy-based look at Japanese mysticism, but it also provides a really great introduction into the mechanics of the Heian period…and it in a way that isn’t TOO confusing. (I mean, who can keep all of this stuff straight? Who is the Minister of the Left again? Who is the Minister of the Right? Why doesn’t the Minister of the Right SIT to the right of the Emperor…these are all profound mysteries.)
And while Onmyoji IS rather straight-forward fantasy fare, the film also benefits from rather strong performances by the cast. Abe no Seimei is played by the masterful Nomura Mansai – who is a very well-respected Japanese actor and had the privilege of working with Kurosawa Akira in Ran. Ade no Seimei (a real historical figure) was rumored to be the child of a fox and Nomura’s facial features definitely showcase this. Nomura’s depiction of Seimei is very very good and he captures the sly, humorous aspects of the character very well. The role of villain falls on the shoulders of Sanada Hiroyuki, who has been nicknamed the ‘Tom Cruise of Japan,’ has won 5 Japanese Academy Awards, and was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. You can see him in films like Rush Hour 3, The Twilight Samurai, Sunshine and The Wolverine. Minamoto no Tadamasa is played by Ito Hideaki, who fulfills his role of the handsome, likeable and slightly buffonish court noble.
There are several female characters as well, though their purpose within the film is to serve as tools to move the plot line forward. There aren’t any particularly strong or interesting women in this movie, the female characters are defined by their relationship to men and their unfortunate romantic choices.
Overall, Onmyoji is a strong entry into the genre of ‘new’ jidai-geki (period films) and has excellent cinematography, set and costume design, acting, and music. The practical and computer effects falter a little bit (dear god, how I hate the crow that looks like it was stolen from the set of David Bowie’s Labyrinth) but don’t detract from the overall experience.
I’d recommend this film to viewers who have a strong interest in Japanese period films and are curious for a bit of a glimpse into Heian-era Japan.