"The best way to describe Onibi is a cross between a Takeshi Kitano and a Takashi Miike film."

- slaXor

Onibi (1997)

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.


SLAXOR'S 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.

Did Onibi live up to my expectations? Yes, and then some. The best way to describe Onibi is a cross between a Takeshi Kitano and a Takashi Miike film.

Yoshio Harada (Party 7/Azumi) the lead actor plays a character Kunihiro that is very similar to Beat Kitano's in his films. The main difference here is Yoshio actually puts in some acting effort beyond grimacing, giggling and trying to look cool the whole time. That last line may come off sounding like I don't like Beat's films or performances but in actuality I love them as much as the next fanboy. Just my observation.

The Takashi Miike part I associate it with due to the similar themes of suavely dressed yakuza parading around while one character is one of the last true yakuza in his ways. The director of Onibi actually gives some depth and explanation to this in a running theme throughout of yakuza nowadays always being greedy and avoiding conflict if it will save them money.

Well what's it about? The main character Kuni (Yoshio Harada) has been released from prison after a long stretch and shortly after is greeted by old yakuza buddy Tanigawa (Sho Aikawa). He is more then welcome back in to the yakuza by Tanigawa but would like to try to go straight. Of course we all know how this goes and by the end of the movie you will have literally wound up back were you started.

Sounds pretty generic? Indeed and Onibi's main strength much like Takashi Miike's films is to take a cookie-cutter generic paycheck of a movie and turn it in to something more.

The acting is the real strength of this film. Yoshio Harada just makes me a bigger and bigger fan with every new performance of his I see. Sho Aikawa is in his usual splendidly charismatic mode and gets a decent amount of screen time. The female lead does an especially superb job. Kazuki Kitamura (Azumi/Ley Lines) also has a nice little part as a blatant flaming homosexual that was Kuni's old cellmate.

It's a shame this movie doesn't have a decent subtitled release outside of a pretty good ebay version that pops up from time to time. If you manage to track it down, buy it!