Set in the Heian dynasty at the end of the tenth century, Onmyoji: The Yin-Yang Master concerns two magicians and warriors, dueling opposites who face off for the control of the emperor's court in Kyoto. On top of its labyrinthine political intrigues, the plot features spells, ghosts, demons, transformations, poetry by moonlight, tender flute solos, unrequited love, abandoned mistresses, and frequent discourses on faith, loyalty and other weighty issues. What's missing is conviction, a sense that these are real people instead of actors in ornate costumes stepping gingerly through antique sets.

The emperor is anxious for an heir. Toko (Sachiko Kokubu), the daughter of liberal minister Morosuke (Kenichi Yajima), is the first of his three wives to give birth to a son. This angers rival minister Motokata (Akira Emoto), whose daughter Sukehime (Yui Natsukawa) now feels neglected by the emperor. Motokata turns to Doson (Hiroyuki Sanada), the head of the Yin-Yang masters who protect the court, for help. Doson casts a spell on the infant, turning it into a deformed monster.

The only Yin-Yang master stronger than Doson is Seimei (Mansai Nomura), a mysterious sorcerer whose mother is rumored to have been a magic fox. Morosuke asks Hiromasa (Hideaki Ito), a brave but naive swordsman and flutist, to appeal to Seimei for help. Seimei defeats the spell, drawing Hiromasa into his world of magic.

Hiromasa meets Aone (Kyoko Koizumi), a beautiful immortal who was once married to Prince Sawara (Masato Hagiwara), the brother of the emperor 150 years earlier. Sawara became a dangerous demon after he was exiled by his brother; Aone now guards his tomb to make sure he won't wreak havoc on the current court. But, determined to destroy the emperor and assume power over the country, Doson summons Sawara, setting off a deadly battle with Seimei.

Onmyoji is best when examining the small details of daily life in the Heian dynasty--costumes, rituals, precisely modulated gestures of deference. Director Yojiro Takita prefers stately tableaus over more organic storytelling strategies, and draws broad, incantatory performances similar to those found in Beijing opera.

Unfortunately, the story itself is as nonsensical as the colored balls of light that shoot forth from the fingertips of the sorcerers. Unlike the best Hong Kong examples of the genre, like the Chinese Ghost Story and Swordsman trilogies, Onmyoji lacks compelling characters, delirious action sequences and, crucially, a sense of humor. Japanese audiences familiar with the novels, television series and comic books devoted to these characters may be able to find more to appreciate in the film. Others will find it a listless display of fantasy clichs.

--Daniel Eagan