I think it's better than the original, actually. The acting's better and the story has more emotional weight.
Our heroes are much as they were last time. Seimei and Hiromasa can still be thought of as a 10th century Japanese Holmes and Watson. Seimei (Holmes) is a half-human onmyoji, i.e. a magical master of onmyodo, who's also a smiling, oily, imperturbable hero in the eternal fight against evil. He's not even bothered by Hiromasa's heterosexuality. Oh, and he also has the unusual habit of fighting duels against mass-murdering magical villains, in which Seimei goes unarmed even though his opponent has a sword and is a master at using it.
Seimei's again being played by Mansai Nomura, with a camp serenity that's almost mesmerising. It's basically the same as last time, though. Nomura nailed it in the first film and here he's just continuing the good work.
Hiromasa, though, is a revelation. They've worked out what to do with him. I don't really see as Seimei as Sherlock Holmes, to be honest, but Hideaki Ito's Hiromasa is Nigel Bruce's Dr Watson from the Basil Rathbone films. This is glorious and a big step forward from the first film. He's a simple-minded innocent. He's astonished by the simplest things. He's got the loveliest big idiot smile and he's also very funny, especially when being teased by Seimei about having fallen in love with a girl again. He's also, arguably, more important to this story than Seimei. Seimei is superintelligent and can do magic, but Hiromasa has the same kind of innocence as the film's two key victims, Himiko and Susa.
Instead of fighting, he plays his flute. This is a big deal in this film. The villain wants vengeance and chaos, but our heroes are opposing him with gentleness. It's almost as if he who picks up a sword has proved his lack of understanding and hence has already lost.
As for the storyline, it's about an unusual triangle that's not really connected with Seimei and Hiromasa. (It's less their film than the last one was.) We have a father and two children. The former is an abomination of a dad, but you can understand his motives when you see his backstory. The children have grown up, but they somehow still seem like children, even when they're biting out people's eyes. They're moved by music. They can be moved to tears by Hiromasa's flute and one of them is a master on the biwa. They're also named after figures from Japanese mythology (Susanoo, Amaterasu, Tsukuyomi).
All this I liked a lot. The only thing that's a shame is Kiichi Nakai in cackling villain mode. As with Hiroyuki Sanada in the first film, he's an excellent actor who's basically giving a strong performance, but all that subtlety goes out of the window when he's just being directed to walk through scenes and laugh evilly.
Forget all that, though. That's just the emotional core of the film. What about the gay subtext with Seimei and Hiromasa?
Well, for starters, Hiromasa's completely straight, not to mention naive and a hopeless romantic. None of those words describes Seimei, but he seems happy enough with their platonic relationship. Most of this film doesn't even hint at the possibility of homosexual content, but there are a couple of scenes that practically scream it out. Firstly, look at Seimei's non-reaction to a topless woman. You'd think she was a sack of potatoes. The only thing he's interested in is a tattoo on her arm, although that admittedly his magical exorcism rite will have a near-orgasmic effect on her. (We don't see naughty bits, by the way. This is a family film. Kyoko Fukada keeps her back to the camera.)
The other interesting scene is the one where Seimei and Hiromasa declare their manly love for each other. That's impressive enough, but after that Seimei does a languid dance in what to my barbarian 21st century Western eyes looked like women's clothes. He takes off that amazing 10th century hat, unleashing hair long enough to flow halfway down his back. He puts on lipstick. His white top and red pantaloons make him look like a miko (Shinto shrine maiden). He has what I thought were flowers in his hair, until the light changed and I saw something more like a laurel wreath.
I can't remember offhand why Seimei was dancing in drag, but I'm pretty sure there was a good reason. Curiously, Mansai Nomura's an ordinary-looking bloke in the DVD extras, but as Seimei he's pretty.
The special effects have also improved, by the way. They don't scream "CGI" at you in the same way and they're not in your face all the time. The first film, these days, looks cheap.
This is a gentler and, I think, more thoughtful film than its predecessor. It's perhaps less exciting for a casual audience, mind you. There's less eye candy, both in terms of sword fights and of pseudo-horror based in Japanese mythology. However I think its story resonates in ways that the first film's didn't, while its horrors work on the imagination rather than the eyeballs. One of the most appalling things in this film, for me, is the reason for what happened to that village eighteen years ago.
It's not perfect. The villain's evil laughter makes one key scene almost offensively shallow, since I felt that the film needed a more profound reaction to what he'd just witnessed. However that's just one moment in a film that's otherwise solid in its performances, whereas the first film's actors had quite a few amateur-level glitches. Nomura's still fascinating as Seimei, while I'm suddenly a huge fan of Hideaki Ito's Hiromasa. Not bad at all.