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Something In the Way He Moves: The Magic of Mansai Nomura

Posted by Kelly S. Osato, March 30, 2011 07:01pm | Post a Comment
onmyoji nomura mansai candle head oni
When there's something strange in the imperial court, who you gonna call? During Japan's Heian period, an era of classical Japanese history spanning from 784 to 1185, most folks relied on powerful ghostbusters called onmyoji, wizard-like masters of yin and yang, to ease the energies of vengeful spirits (most famously that of Prince Sawara) who'd stir up all kinds of trouble from plagues and famine to earthquakes and typhoons and other natural disasters mistaken as superstitious punishment. As we have witnessed in recent weeks, perceiving catastrophe as divine comeuppance has changed little over the centuries thanks to Shintaro Ishihara and Glenn Beck, among others, for their knuckleheaded remarks --- no "that was then, this is now" about nomura mansai abe no seimei onmyoji kyogen japanese actor traditional theater heian period era kyotoit. But this is not about jabbing trashy speculation at fresh wounds, this is about a cheesy, historic fantasy movie that I recently caught in my Heian Culture class called Onmyoji (2001, Yojiro Takita) starring Mansai Nomura as Abe no Seimei, a person of historic origin, legendary in Japanese folklore, who was in fact the Merlin of his time and place. Being one of those so-called "super seniors," it's a small miracle I didn't skip said scheduled movie day, I might add.

When it comes to guilty pleasure-esque cinema, for me, seeing Onmyoji fits right in there between Excalibur and Labyrinth, the only big difference being the sometimes-dazzling-yet-mostly-delightfully-laughable CG effects the likes of which predate the aforementioned films. However, Onmyoji doesn't rest on technical SFX innovation. There are actual puppets, impressive feats of make-up, hypnotic costuming and set design that set the stage for this well-known tale concerning the legendary Heian capitol city (now modern day Kyoto), her court drama, her heroes and enemies and, of course, her imperial ghostbuster #1 Abe no Seimei (if you're ever in Kyoto you may want to check out his shrine). All in all I give Onmyoji a solid A for pulling off history-buffing fantasy film excellence amid what could have been a potential "rotten tomatoes" recipe for disaster in terms of what feats and imagery the legend behind mansai nomura onmyoji japanese actor kyogen traditional theaterthe story dictated. Besides, I have a feeling that seeing this flick will have proved helpful when it comes time for final exams. I mean, you try saying the name Sakanoue no Tamuramaro three times in a row without gagging on your tongue --- that's how difficult it is to keep facts straight in this class.

Anyway, on to the real subject of this post; casting noted kyogen stage actor Mansai Nomura for the lead role was a genius move as far as I'm concerned, as his eccentric performance carries the story and, much like Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow, makes one want to watch the sequel if for no other reason than to enjoy a broader scope of Nomura's skills in motion (Onmyoji II is arguably less fully realized than the first film, but I'm sure more is more as far as Nomura fans are concerned). No doubt foxy Nomura was in part considered for the role due to the legend that Abe no Seimei was born of a curious union between man and fox-wife, but it is the actor's honed movements, gracefully balletic yet arresting at times in their precision, that truly cast a spell and sell his performance as an unparalleled magic-maker. This evidence of his background in traditional theater arts showcased by way of fantasy entertainment brings to mind yet another comparison: get this guy in a Star Trek spacesuit and let's see if he can give Patrick Stewart's Captain Jean-Luc Picard a run for the neutral zone. Though most of what makes Nomura's presence in this film memorable to me is sadly lost in the trailer for Onmyoji, I feel I should post it below nonetheless as there are other people in this movie (I guess).
 

Here's a bonus look at Mansai Nomura as he appeared (with actress Kayoko Shiraishi) in a stage play he directed called Kuninusubito, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard III. It looks like it was probably an absolutely amazing production!
mansai nomura stage actor japanese kyogen theater richard iii shakespeare kuninusubito

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Traditional (1), Kyogen (1), Fantasy (23), Cinema (7), Film (80), Heian (1), History (52), Japan (37), Onmyoji (1), Mansai Nomura (1), Theater (6)