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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Onmyoji
Onmyoji
Pioneer // R // August 12, 2003
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted August 19, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie

Onmyoji has pretty much everything going for it. Set during the medieval Heian period of Japanese history (roughly between 800 and 1200 A.D.), Onmyoji has all the trappings of a great Asian fantasy movie. The film depicts a world inhabited by demons and angry spirits, where magic is commonplace, mythical creatures run freely, and eating the flesh of a merman will give you immortality. These supernatural beings are real and tangible, taunting and tormenting those in the world of the living. Ghosts appear and disappear, terrifying the populace. Demonic hands appear out of nowhere, jutting out from gates as if beckoning the living to join them in the Netherworld. Curses, possessions, exorcisms, and transfigurations exist as freely and as naturally as acts of walking and breathing. Magic is real, both in positive and negative quantities; a cosmic balance in which forces of good and evil are constantly in conflict.

Keeping the power and terror of the evil spirits in check are the famed onmyoji, the powerful order of sorcerers or "yin-yang masters" whose skills were legendary throughout Japan. The Emperor or Mikado rules supreme, but his rule is coveted by Doson, an evil onmyoji who wields incredible power over the forces of magic and sorcery. Working behind-the-scenes within the imperial court, Doson engineers demonic possessions, mind control, and implements plans-within-plans in order to seize the royal throne. Standing in his way is the powerful onmyoji Abe no Seimei, a Japanese folk legend whose skill and magical prowess has been renown for generations. Semei is cryptic and jovial, always dealing with every situation with a twinkle in his eye and a mysterious laugh, as if he were one step of ahead of everyone, always knowing the punch line long before the joke has begun to be told. Assisting him is the mysterious Lady Aone, an immortal beauty who has been charged with the eternal task of guarding the world against the raging evil of a vengeful spirit, as well as Minamoto no Hiromaki, a young hero loyal to the mikado, and a beautiful, giggling young spirit who can transform herself into a butterfly at will.

So why does the whole affair seem so campy and cheap? Onmyoji is a fable, a broad fantasy full of magic and spirits, beautiful sets and costumes, and a very willing (if sometimes hammy) cast. But the film is too long and poorly edited; Onmyoji is a two-hour movie that probably could have benefited from twenty to thirty minutes of judicious editing. The special effects range from rather impressive to very laughable, while the direction of the film seems overbearing and unfocused. Is the movie a campy, rollicking, magical fantasy? Is it trying to be a serious, bone-chilling ghost story? Is it, underneath it all, a romantic film, or a Shakespearean tale of love, power, magic and betrayal? Onmyoji tries to be many things, but in and of itself fails to be anything terribly compelling. It's a slight and fun movie, but it should have been awe-inspiring and fantastic.

The DVD

Video:
Onmyoji
is the type of film that has to dazzle you out of the gate. It depicts spirits and demons of many colors, with backgrounds consisting of medieval Japanese life and dozens of characters garbed in various period costumes. The overall quality of the video is good, but with some reservation. Onmyoji is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and the presentation is anamorphically enhanced for your widescreen viewing wonderment. Colors are solid and pleasant if mildly subdued. I expected the film to "jump off the screen" a little bit better than it did. Contrast levels are slightly off-normal, rendering the picture stable if sporting middling brightness levels. Compression noise and pixellation is visible in several scenes. Black levels are acceptable if not impressively deep, while shadow detail seems lacking throughout the picture. Sharpness and image detail is pleasant and reasonably presented.

Audio:
Onmyoji
comes complete with two separate audio presentations: one in its original soundtrack language of Japanese and another in English (English subtitles are present.) The English dub is pretty much one of the worst I have ever heard, and I have heard a lot. This dub is worse than anything you have ever heard on Cartoon Network's Toonami, and that's saying quite a bit. If you ever have unwanted guests in your home that you want to drop faster than Gigli's box office returns, turn this dub on and watch the vapor trails form. It's just that easy!

Where were we? Oh yes: audio. Both soundtracks are presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, and are fairly lively affairs. Dialog reproduction is solid across the board, with a clear delivery that lacks any discernable noise, hiss, or distortion. The soundstage occasionally feels somewhat boxy and confined, with limited but distinct surround activity that springs to life that succinctly highlights and accentuates much of the film's supernatural activity (a sudden rush a wind, growls or laughter from spirits, rise in ambient or background noise.) Directionality and depth of fidelity are both strong and well rendered. There is a solid and appropriate amount of LFE activity. While the mix isn't as immersive as one would hope, it is nonetheless effective in generating the kind of spookiness that this movie requires.

Extras:

Extras are pretty slim on this package. The film's Theatrical Trailer and a short Filmography are included, but that is pretty much it.

Final Thoughts

I wanted so much out of Onmyoji that I couldn't help but feel slightly disappointed by the final product. That isn't to say that Onmyoji is terribly bad, either. How can you not love a movie that enthusiastically depicts magical battles between two powerful sorcerers, beautiful girls who transform themselves into butterflies, demonically-possessed babies that suddenly resemble that thing on the guy's chest in Total Recall, all the while surrounded by samurais, emperors, and all the Japanese film trappings we have come to enjoy over the years? Onmyoji may not succeed on every level -- some scenes are just downright laughably bad -- but at the very least it is never boring and manages to hold on to your attention throughout its running time. Onmyoji might run too long and too silly, but you can never dismiss for lack of enthusiasm.

 

A Special Edition of Onmyoji also exists, containing staff interviews, TV spots, and an alternate ending, so fans of the film may want to seek out that version of DVD instead. For the casual or the curious, I would recommend a strong rental first and foremost.

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