Genre: Battle Of White and Black Onmyoji Magic over Tokyo's Urban Development [Taisho Era 1912-1926]
review in one breath
This incredibly ambitious and well-cast film depicts a spiritualized version of Japan's gradual turn away from its ancestral religion and toward modernity starting in the early Taisho Era and ending in the Showa Era. Whereas actual secular history accounts for the great earthquake of 1923 and the subsequent rebuilding of Tokyo using modernized architecture and technology (such as a subway system), here we are told of both evil and benevolent spiritual forces at work behind all these events. Available now in subtitled Region 1 DVD and running at slightly over 2 hours, this is a highly involved and sometimes confusing tale of Japan's irrevocable turn toward modernity.
First off I'll have to admit that this was a very difficult/confusing film to review for reasons I will mention soon. To compound this, I am here reviewing the unsubtitled version (as I only now became aware of the existence of the subtitled Region 1 DVD). But despite the incredible number of noble, proclamative speeches and the sheer volume of dialogue herein, it was not the language which is confusing, but rather the HUGE amount of background content which is frequently referred to but hardly ever explained.
Easily two-thirds of this film has explicitly to do with Onmyoji magic which in itself is a bewildering and esoteric mix of Chinese Taoist magic fused with Japanese Shinto/animism. Without doubt the references to Onmyoji magic are nothing short of mysterious to Japanese audiences let alone slightly intoxicated Western reviewers such as myself. Thus the primary dynamic fueling the plot was nigh conceptually inaccessible to me. I will certainly be watching the subtitled version soon to see whether the subtitles attempt to add any explanation of these things or whether they too merely assume audiences' vague familiarity with the concepts.
In essence this is a tale of Japan's move toward modernity at the expense of its traditional spiritual sensibilities. This theme permeates countless Japanese films and anime such as Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke and Pom Poko or (recently reviewed) films such as Kibakichi (2003) and Hakuchi (1999). In the current film, there are three main factions amongst which the plot develops:
- The secular modernists led by character Shibusawa (played by classic Zatoichi's Shintaro Katsu) whose primary goal is to move Tokyo into a modern and architecturally sound era.
- The traditional Onmyoji artisans who use ancestral magic to protect the populus and thwart evil. These work in concord with the modernists realizing the inevitable progress of humanity.
- The Evil Onmyoji magicians led by character Kato whose demented ambition involves the collapse of technological advance and the destructive resurrection of malignant spiritual forces.
In other words, while human architects and physicists plod along with their ambitious and optimistic reconstruction of Tokyo, beneath them burns a fiery ancestral battle whose outcome alone will determine the spiritual and material future of Japan.
In 1912, the major financier and reconstructive mastermind Shibusawa leads the Tokyo Improvement Project and culls leading Japanese intellects for ideas to design a safer and more modern Tokyo. One such idea which is adopted is to construct an underground subway modeled after that of London. As plans for the subway and urban development are drawn, little consideration is given to ancient/ancestral notions of "holy places" or "zones" of bad fortune. Thus when the subway excavation hits a pocket wherein the construction workers are mauled by what can only be described as goblins, those inclined to believe in the ancestral ways take notice.
It is soon realized that a formidable Black Onmyoji wizard named Kato is diligently and effectively working toward the city's demise. Through his efforts to summon the demonic spirit of Masakado Taira, who a millennia prior had attempted to overthrow the city, Kato releases a powerful malevolence upon Tokyo resulting in various pestilences such as the Great Earthquake of 1923.
Finding themselves utterly helpless at the hands of Kato's Black Onmyoji magic, otherwise scientifically minded souls must turn to artisans of White Onmyoji magic to fight on their behalf.
The narrative description I provide above is thoroughly accurate, but believe me when I say the film seems anything but that concise.
The sets on this film are wonderfully constructed and give an excellent glimpse into Taisho Era Tokyo as well as the architecture of Shinto shrines and (Shinto/Onmyoji) rituals. This was undoubtedly a very high-budget film for its time and the cast is literally chocked full with top names of the day. Thus the scenery and acting are all simply superb.
Now if only I could figure out this plot in all its details...
The visual effects here seem slightly dated, comprised in many scenes of stop-motion clay-mation reminiscent of those old Sinbad movies which played on Saturday afternoon TV when I was young.
The overall effect when everything is taken in account, however, results in a rather impressive film both visually and narratively. (if only I could figure out this plot in all its details...).
Version reviewed: Unsubtitled VHS. [BUT this is now available in subtitled Region 1 DVD via mainstream US venues.]
|Beautiful and detailed depiction of Taisho Era history and religion.||Minimal dramatized violence.||Nada.||Brimming with Onmyoji magic of the Good and Evil varieties.|