Onibi: The Fire Within (1997)
Director: Rokuro Mochizuki
Writers: Toshiyuki Morioka
Starring: Yoshio Harada, Reiko Kataoka, Sho Aikawa, and Kazuki Kitamura

The Plot: Onibi: The Fire Within follows Noriyuki Kunihiro (Yoshio Harada), an old-school yakuza who is recently released from prison. He has a reputation for being a bit of a loose cannon, a general powder keg just waiting to explode at any moment. It seems that Kunihiro’s time in the joint has helped to relax his soul and now that he’s out, he wants nothing more than a peaceful existence in mainstream society. This new peaceful mentality, of course, does not last long. An old yakuza acquaintance, Naoto Tanigawa (Sho Aikawa), shows back up in Kunihiro’s life and asks him to come work for his gang. Kunihiro explains his desperation to keep away from that side of life, but having no real way of earning any money he is forced to eventually take a job as a driver for this gang. During one of Kunihiro’s driving jobs, a few of Tanigawa’s goons get their heads bashed around while trying to collect money from the wrong group of people. When this happens, Kunihiro is forced to step in and do what he does best: lay a beating. Thus begins Kunihiro’s slide back into the lifestyle that he tried so hard to escape. Ultimately, as he gets more and more involved in the criminal lifestyle, his own nature will prove to be his greatest enemy.

The Review
When I first watched Onibi: The Fire Within, it marked one of my first forays into the work of Rokuro Mochizuki. Not a director with a vast following here in the west, I had originally hoped that the Artsmagic DVD releases of this film, Another Lonely Hitman, Mobster’s Confessions, and A Yakuza in Love would help to change that. Unfortunately, that did not turn out to be the case. However, my thinking was solid at the time. I mean, if Sabu (director of Drive, Unlucky Monkey, and Monday) could develop cult status in the world-cinema market, then sure Mochizuki deserves a spot! Mochizuki’s films are deliberately paced, but can feature very familiar genre settings. This of course makes his work seem very similar to that of Takeshi Kitano, but he is an artist who definitely has his own voice. Some directors choose to ignore genre archetypes and build their own formulas in cinema, while some decide to stick to the pre-existing groundwork that has already been laid, but Mochizuki almost destroys it all from the inside out. He keeps the structure of a generic crime film, but fills it with texture, angst and depth. Onibi is perhaps the most obtuse work that I have seen from Mochizuki, filled with ideals based around sexuality and isolationism, yet it’s all there for an attentive audience members who cares to search for it.

It’s hard for me to get my head around just what Mochizuki does to formula within the previously mentioned films, but he creates something truly very unusual with his style. As an outsider looking in, I imagine he made these films for budgetary/demand issues, but these are movies that are very well written and contain much more than your average Riki Takeuchi picture. There’s a feeling of complete control within Mochizuki’s work. A solemn hand holds the film, even when the plot delves heavily into violent mayhem. Yet, despite the violence, Onibi also delivers a high level of comedy throughout the course of the film. Unlike Another Lonely Hitman, which I’ll have to review soon enough, Onibi isn’t afraid to keep a level head with the drama and provide us something to take away from its darker moments. This isn’t comedy in the vein of Kitano though (Mochizuki sets himself apart from the grand Yakuza-director/comedian), the humor isn’t as broad and doesn’t rely on the childish acts of grown men. Rather, it focuses on a more subtle character driven sense of humor. Like seeing Kunihiro walk into a yakuza office, as the great hitman we hear so much about, only to shrink away when a gun is pointed at him – but what really makes the scene comedic is that moments later he is pointing the very same gun at the boss of the establishment. It’s a heroic moment, but Kunihiro just doesn’t fit that mold. The moments between he and his girlfriend are also usually filled with comedic pieces here and there, but Kunihiro himself has a very nice comic edge throughout at least the first half of the film. The mix of the comedic and drama is spread very well together through clever editing and it’s hard to notice exactly when the film finally becomes a full drama.

Although the Artsmagic DVD mutes much of the color in the film, the cinematography is still obviously outstanding. It isn’t the sort of film, with it’s relaxed pace and lack of skirmishes, to really demand a lot of kinetic visual imagery, but there is certainly a dreamlike and slightly surreal quality to the movie. One of my favorite moments, and I shall try not to spoil things too much, is a cut between one magnificent shot of Kunihiro and his girlfriend walking towards the camera (away from a burning vehicle) to a love scene which mostly consists of a POV shot from Kunihiro’s perspective. The love scene is very passionate, and Mochizuki’s romanticism is perfectly capture in this stand-out sequence. The writer credited for the film is Toshiyuki Morioka (Blues Harp, Fudoh: The New Generation, Chinpira, etc.) who has a great pedigree behind his name. Blues Harp, the Takashi Miike film, shares a very similar sense of pacing with Onibi. So, combining both Mochizuki and Morioka’s sensibilities seems to have been a rather easy fit. The cast of course is a fairly prominent one, centering around the genre-staple and always interesting Yoshio Harada, who has really taken on some interesting roles this past decade. He gives a very strong performance as Kunihiro, who is quite complex despite his ruggedness. Harada creates a character that is more quirky than he is fearsome, and who seems more introverted than deadly. Yet, his past always remains believable because there’s something underneath the character. It’s not a tangible quality, but there’s a mystery that surrounds this character that leaves the audience questioning him at all times. Then there’s the other big name, the one that probably sold the US distribution rights, Sho Aikawa. Sho plays a small part really, as Kunihiro’s go-to man, but he still manages to craft a poetic character that by the end of the film has fleshed himself out into something totally unexpected. Although his screen time isn’t nearly the size of the main stars, it’s hard not to enjoy the charisma of Aikawa. Very few performances ever feel forced, and although nearly everything about the movie seems nuanced, these characters do manage to feel real.

I cannot sing Rokuro Mochizuki’s praises high enough. He’s a filmmaker who deserves far more acclaim in the West than he ever received, but I still hold out hope that he will one day find his place in the sun. If there are any problems with Onibi in particular, it might be in its pacing. The words subtle, nuanced, and deliberately paced have already been used in this review, and if that doesn’t tell you what kind of movie this is, nothing will. Some audiences will likely find the movie to be a bit too soft for what they are looking for in a yakuza tale. This isn’t Takashi Miike or Kinji Fukasaku, it’s not even Takeshi Kitano. Mochizuki creates his own living space in the yakuza genre. Although he uses a frame based upon the most base genre conventions, this is a movie that is very concerned with characters and a universal view of what binds human beings. A romantic arthouse crime film that sticks to genre conventions, Onibi: The Fire Within remains unique despite what it borrows from genre.

The Conclusion
There’s so much bravery, style and pure creativity put on screen throughout Onibi, I feel thankful that I was introduced to it when I first was. Although it is far from perfect, it is a movie that deserves to have more eyes focused on it. Certainly track it down if you get the chance.