Movie review: 'Onmyoji'

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

A film as mysterious as its title, "Onmyoji" is director Yojiro Takita's adaptation of a popular Japanese serial novel. The movie is rich with detail, characters and a specific historical context, even if its narrative is incoherent. But its cheap, gauzy veneer and primitive special effects are fun on their own terms.

Set in medieval Japan at the end of the first century, the movie combines various styles for a result that is part ghost story, part samurai action thriller. Also known by its English title, "The Yin-Yang Master," "Onmyoji" refers to the priest-like order that protects the emperor's court from unnatural phenomena.

The two dominant illusionists are Doson (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his skilled protege Seimei (Mansai Nomura). Their assignment is to crush the malevolent demons that lurk outside the forests. Seimei has surpassed his mentor, and the master's subsequent bids for power develop into bitter hatred and vindictiveness. The movie's other significant character, Lady Aone (Kyoko Koizumi), is a flesh-eating immortal who is another court guardian.

Framed against a series of Shakespearean power maneuvers, with two socially prominent families trying to consolidate their rule with the emperor, the proper story kicks in when Doson is overtaken by a nefarious evil spell. It transforms him into a power-mad avenger who seeks dominance over the emperor. It then becomes the responsibility of the skilled and daring Seimei to prevent his aggression.

"Onmyoji" is rarely solemn or dull, and Takita holds its disparate parts together fairly well. It has some perverse moments (in one, Doson pulls an arrow through his forehead and then kills his attacker with the same arrow), and without some familiarity with the period and culture, viewers will likely find it mystifying and impenetrable. What's more, "Onmyoji" never quite launches into pure thrill or excitement. The fantasy never fully takes hold, settling instead for diverting, disposable fun.

"Onmyoji"
Directed by Yojiro Takita, opens Friday at the Water Tower, 157 E. Chestnut St. In Japanese, with English subtitles. MPAA rating: R (violence, adult situations). Running time: 1:56.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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