Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Onmyoji Fascination

Silly hats: all part of the charm!
In 2001, when I was living in Japan, I happened to catch a preview for a movie that looked intriguing.  Heian period clothing, magic, folklore - right up my alley, in fact.  I had no idea what an Onmyoji was, but I thought the movie might be a good, possibly cheesy, diversion for an afternoon.  And indeed, it was (both good and cheesy).  It also rapidly became one of my favorite movies.  It's not a paragon of film making by any stretch, but the story is a great example of Japanese historical sci fi.

So, what's the big deal?  They took their vengeful spirits very seriously in the Heian period, and the magic of onmyodo was a part of courtly life (in fact, there was a bureau that oversaw the practice and regulation of onmyodo...too bad that doesn't still exist!).  The movie is about a Merlin-like character named Abe no Seimei, who is one of a number of court magicians/spirit exorcists, and the unlikely friendship he forms with Minamoto no Hiromasa, an affable and somewhat bumbling nobleman.  They have a Sherlock Holmes/Watson dynamic, and Hiromasa helpfully provides the audience with  the layperson's view into the dynamics of courtly intrigue and Abe no Seimei's magic.

"Hiromasa, dude....pretty sure you're not supposed to touch that."
The capital has started to become overrun with demons, vengeful spirits, and other badness, and the Imperial family in particular sees the worst of these occurrences.  Seimei and Hiromasa track down the source of these disturbances...and wacky hijinks ensue.  Both of these characters actually existed in history, although it's questionable whether or not they were friends.  

The movie itself is based on the novel of the same name, by Japanese sci fi writer Baku Yumemakura.  Having loved the movie (and the sequel), I wanted to track down the book.  Unfortunately, an English translation doesn't exist (that I know about).  My Japanese is pretty rusty, but I'm hoping to try translating this thing.  It's going to be a fairly slow process, but a fun project.  I'm thinking about posting the progress on twitter as an ongoing saga that gets updated one or two sentences a day.  If I manage to be able to make any sense of the translation, I'll post the link to the twitter account here.


  1. Abe no Seimei - the Sausage King of Chicago?

  2. Close! More like the Spirit King of Kyoto, and Abe Froman's long lost cousin.

  3. This sounds very cool! I'm going to have to look for a copy (one I get a few more hitpoints back).