The Yin Yang Master 0

European Premiere | In Competition


Onmyoji were practitioners of divination, sorcery, exorcism and other arts who reached the height of their power and influence in the Imperial court of the Heian Era (794- 1185). As concisely explained in the opening of Sato Shimako’s mind-expanding and eye-popping The Yin Yang Master 0, they had their own school for apprentices taught by specialists in various subject areas, including spells and curses, and presided over by a mysterious Grandmaster (Kobayashi Kaoru). Think of an ancient Japanese Hogwarts with adults as students.

Based on Sato’s original script, which was inspired by Yumemakura Baku’s novel series, the film is not the first on its esoteric subject. In the early 2000s Takita Yojiro directed two films derived from Yumemakura’s novels, starring Nomura Mansai as Abe no Seimei, a real-life Onmyoji who was known in his lifetime for his divination skills and, after his death in 1005 CE, became a figure of folklore, much like Merlin in the Arthurian legends.

In Sato’s film, however, Seimei is still an apprentice, if one with a fierce intelligence, cool temperament and self-confidence bordering on arrogance. Unlike his fellow apprentices, including the dour Sadafumi (Ando Masanobu), he has no ambition to rise in the onmyoji hierarchy. Instead, he wants payback for the murders of his mother and onmyoji father.

The story centers around this quest, though first Seimei demonstrates his formidable powers to Lord Hiromasa (Sometani Shota), a noble who is the official musician to the Emperor, and Princess Yoshiko (the single-named Nao), who is secretly in love with Hiromasa.

Astonished by Seimei’s sleight-of-hand tricks, such as turning a live rat into a harmless beanbag, the goofy, good-natured Hiromasa becomes his pal and side-kick, despite being of far higher rank. In an even more impressive VFX sequence, Seimei saves Yoshiko from an airborne fiery dragon by sucking it into a bottle with a spell.

The plot kicks into gear when an Artificer – a holder of the first onmyoji rank beyond Apprentice – is found dead in a well. On investigating, Seimei concludes that the victim was poisoned, then pushed. Sadafumi, however, produces specious evidence that Seimei was the murderer and his instructors and fellow apprentices turn on him, but Seimei fights them off in a swirling and spectacular martial arts sequence and, with Hiromasa’s help, makes his escape.

So far, the film is a familiar enough period mystery-slash-actioner, with dollops of magic, mysticism and philosophizing tossed in. (“Everyone has their own truth” intones Seimei.) But from this point it becomes a supernatural psychodrama, with Seimei and Hiromasa entering a fantastic realm that Seimei intuits is generated by their collective unconsciousness. Meanwhile a masked dancer seems to be orchestrating their destruction, as their pursuers close in.

In creating this folktale-like entertainment, Sato displays an unbridled imagination and dazzling visual flair that lifts The Yin Yang Master 0 above the genre standard, just as husband Yamazaki Takashi gave the venerable Godzilla franchise a fresh impact with his 2023 smash hit Godzilla Minus One.

Given their common mathematical titles, one wonders whether the couple collaborated on their respective films. In any case, Sato conclusively demonstrates not only that a female director can handle a project of major scope – something the hidebound Japanese film industry has been slow to acknowledge – but also infuse it with her unique vision.

Somehow, I think J.K. Rowling would approve.

Mark Schilling
Film director: SATO Shimako
Year: 2024
Running time: 113'
Country: Japan
30/04 - 2:30 PM
Teatro Nuovo Giovanni da Udine
30-04-2024 14:30 30-04-2024 16:23Europe/Rome The Yin Yang Master 0 Far East Film Festival Teatro Nuovo Giovanni da UdineCEC Udine