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The reason i linked that review with this one, besides the facts that i saw both movies within a few days of each other, that they are both Japanese, and that i have another set of images to show you at the end of this column, is that both films pretty much deal with the same subject, although using very different styles and a different storyline. Both films deal with supernatural forces, ghosts full of resentment, and exorcisms. As i explained in the previous review, Asians do not see an Exorcism so much as a fight against evil, but more as an empathic exercise to understand what unresolved issues keep a ghost messing around with our world of the living. For Asians, ghosts are people who never crossed into the other side because of resentment and unresolved issues that keep them tied to this world: figure out what those issues are, and the ghost is set free. It's an investigation.
The comparison stops there though. Although One Missed Call was a contemporary film that rehashed current popular Japanese horror films without much aftertaste, Onmyoji is a strikingly beautiful traditional Japanese period piece, with exquisite costumes and sets, and dreamy sequences. Even though the material is somewhat standard for this genre in Japanese cinema, it is treated with a thoroughly modern and dynamic touch, with great visuals, fast-paced editing, and with a layered story of relationships between several characters. It is enigmatic and full of innuendos that prompt you to think about what's going on between the characters beyond what you get to see on screen. The movie was the second highest grossing movie in 2001 in Japan, after the mega-hit Spirited Away (still to this day, the highest grossing movie of all times in Japan).
During the Heian period, the last division of classical Japanese history that runs from 794 to 1185, emperors relied upon the imperial order of the Onmyoji to protect the kingdom from demons and ghosts that were living among humans. The Heian period is considered the peak of the Japanese imperial court (see the Wikipedia entry for more details). The film follows a rising superstar of the Onmyoji order, Abe no Seimei, who is called on by the court official Minamoto no Hiromasa to help when troubling supernatural events arise surrounding the birth of the Emperor Mikado's heir. Political intrigue and jealousy will lead to the unraveling of a conspiracy headed by Doson, the leader of the Onmyoji order, and Seimei's master. Black magic and betrayal are lurking, and during the investigation, Seimei and the self-effacing Hiromasa develop a true long lasting friendship based on mutual respect and appreciation.
This movie wowed me pretty much from the first frame all the way to the last frame. I love this type of Japanese story, mixing history and the supernatural. And Japanese history is most prone to weaving in the supernatural around real events. The supernatural was simply a normal part of the belief system, as much as religion, saints, and miracles (think Joan of Arc) were part of the social and political life in Europe. The story is fantastic in how many details it presents to the viewer, the details of the various mystical symbols and methods used to fight demons and ghosts. But the film is also very character driven, and many of them are memorable. The richness of those characters, the often understated, yet powerful relationships between all the protagonists, be it unrealized love, betrayal, respect, thirst for power, or revenge, create a palatable fabric that transports the movie for 2 hours. The visual quality of this movie is also simply astonishing. The details of the fabrics used for the costumes are laid out in front of the camera for all to see. I was amazed by the colors, patterns and shapes of all those period costumes all actors were adorned with.
And what actors... Mansai Nomura, in the main role of Abe no Seimei, projects an eerie feeling of mystery, powerful confidence and skills. He is hypnotic throughout the movie thanks to his facial expressions and his movements. Although not a martial artists, he possesses a certain grace even when all he does is stand there in the middle of a crowd. Hideaki Ito plays the role of Minamoto no Hiromasa, the court official who seeks Seimei's help to weed out the evil spells roaming around. Mr. Ito is extremely charming in conveying his deep sense of goodness, but also of powerlessness when thrown into the world of the Onmyoji sorcerers. He can do nothing but be there and try to help, but he is clearly overwhelmed by the evil powers that try to destroy the emperor, and in awe at the strength of Seimei's skills. Hiroyuki Sanada (seen in the Japanese Ring 1 and Ring 2 movies mentioned above) plays the role of Doson, the scheming Onmyoji who wishes to take over the Emperor and rule the land, thanks to his supernatural powers. Mr. Sanada won four Japanese Academy Awards and is a well-known stage actor. Although i believe his role does not give him the opportunity to show the measure of his talent, he is nevertheless very adequate here. Finally, the gorgeous Kyoko Kiozumi plays the role of Lady Aone, a powerful ghost, a protector of the Imperial city, working hand in hand with Seimei and Hiromasa to uncover the conspiracy.
Onmyoji was a complete surprise for me. I picked the DVD in the bargain bin of a local DVD store (not even in Chinatown) not knowing at all what it was (it was just so cheap that i could not resist taking a chance). It sat on my shelves for several weeks before i finally popped in my DVD player. From the first few minutes, before even the opening credits, i was completely hooked. The intricate nature of the story, gorgeous visuals, good performances and overall richness of characters and the interactions between each of them, won me over. Granted, if you are not a fan of Japanese history or supernatural material, this movie might not do much for you, but the visuals alone and the actors should be enough to keep you interested.
And finally, for the second time in as many days, we make use of our new feature to present you with a simple selection of images from the film. Although this feature makes the review page slower to load, we believe it will provide you with visuals to accompany the review, to hopefully make you want to see the movie even more. According to our tests, most of you access us through broadband connections, so it should be OK. Please, give us feedback here.
- Laurent Hasson