"The best way to describe Onibi is a cross between a Takeshi Kitano and a Takashi Miike film."
AKA: The Fire Within
Director: Rokuro Mochizuki
Writer: Toshiyuki Morioka
Producers: Yoshinori Chiba, Toshiki Kimura, Masashi Minami, Hiroshi Yamji
Cast: Yoshio Harada, Reiko Kataoka, Sho Aikawa, Ko Kitamura, Ry*ji Mizukami, Hiroyuki Tsunekawa, Ry*ji Yamamoto, Yoshiaki Fujita, Ei Kawakami, Toshihiro Kinomoto, Seiroku Nakazawa, Masai Ikenaga, Eiji Minakata, Hajime Yamazaki, Yukio Yamanouchi, Noriko Hayami, Eiji Okuda
Running Time: 101 min.
Plot: See reviews below.
RAGING GAIJIN'S REVIEW: In the past few years of my life, I've seen many a Yakuza flick; from the seminal classics, like Seijun Suzuki's "Branded to Kill", to the modern direct-to-video fare that Riki Takeuchi typically stars in ("Yakuza Demon"). Personal favorites include Takashi Miike's "Rainy Dog", Seijun Suzuki's "Tokyo Drifter", Takeshi Kitano's "Sonatine", and Takashi Ishii's "Gonin". After watching "Onibi: The Fire Within", I can confidently add it to the list as well. With "Onibi", Director Rokuro Mochizuki presents a visually stunning and emotionally arresting look into the lives of Japanese gangsters and the women they love. It's a movie about loyalty, honor, and passion; and it's nothing short of a crime film masterpiece.
The plot should be familiar to anyone who has seen enough gangster movies: a hardened criminal is released from prison after decades of hard time. Back in society, he has committed himself to going straight – but his past haunts him at every turn and threatens to pull him back into a life of crime. So what makes "Onibi" different from "Carlito's Way" and the countless other films that feature the same story? Everything.
More specifically, it is Rokuro Mochizuki's structure and technique that makes the film stand on its own. Despite containing the familiar trappings of a gangster flick, "Onibi" often feels more influenced by the French New Wave than Scorsese. The pace is leisurely, the music is comprised of haunting classical pieces, and the camera usually remains as unobtrusive as possible, lingering upon the actors in an almost documentary-like fashion. The focus is on the characters and their relationships; the love or compassion they feel for one another – not the business or criminal processes of the Yakuza. And the movie is all the better for it.
Another thing that separates "Onibi" from other movies of its kind is the acting talent. Headlining the cast is Yoshio Harada, who gives an outstanding performance. He completely becomes his character, and drives home the forlornness and melancholy inherent in the role. After 27 years in prison, he finds himself a relic of the Yakuza simply because he still believes in concepts like loyalty and honor. He has no choice but to take up a job as lowly chauffeur and watch as young punks rise up in ranks due to their love of violence and money. Sho Aikawa, simply one of the coolest actors alive, plays his best friend and closest alley. The relationship between these two men is one of the strongest aspects of the film; it is understated and subtle, but deeply felt. "Onibi" is also the rare Yakuza film that doesn't overlook a love interest; Reiko Kataoka does a fine job in that role. Kazuki Kitamura (who was so good in "Azumi") takes a small supporting role and makes it memorable, thanks to his flamboyant body language.
At times the film's slow pace can work against it. There are moments when very little happens onscreen. Fortunately, most of these scenes are meant to communicate a feeling or mood, whether it is isolation or sadness; many, like the scene of Yoshio Harada and his lover swimming in a YMCA pool, are lyrical and poetic. Still, more impatient viewers may find themselves reaching for the fast forward button. Yakuza movie junkies may be disappointed by the lack of violence as well.
But "Onibi" isn't a film about action or suspense. It doesn't even follow the typical adage of Yakuza flicks (live by the sword, die by the sword). Rokuro Mochizuki has made a film about regret and loneliness, and merely dressed it in the trappings of a crime picture. The strain of a life filled with disappointment is right there in every scene, written across Yoshio Harada's tired face. "Onibi" is an emotionally driven (but not sentimental) drama where the characters just so happen to belong to the Yakuza. And guess what? Coincidentally, it's one of the best Yakuza films ever made. "Onibi: The Fire Within" is a must see for anyone with an appreciation for Japanese cinema.
RAGING GAIJIN'S RATING: 8.5/10
REVIEW: What first drew me to Onibi was two things. One, the presence
of one of my favorite Japanese actors Sho Aikawa. Two, a comment by a reviewer
that Onibi was one of the best Japanese films of the 90's.
SLAXOR'S RATING: 10/10