Running time: 101 min.
Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr
With "Onibi: The Fire Within," Rokuro Mochizuki uses the template of a genre film only to examine much deeper territory. This strategy can be seen in the work of some of his contemporaries – most notable among them Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takeshi Kitano, who have used, respectively, J-horror and yakuza film elements to help build their distinctive voices. Similarly, the premise of Onibi feels familiar, yet the film itself offers an experience very different from the standard crime film implied by the DVD cover.
Yoshio Harada anchors the narrative as Kunihiro, a former hit man who is freed after completing a lengthy prison sentence. Barely any time passes before he is reunited with his old friend Tanigawa (Sho Aikawa), who hopes to keep him handy for his gang and soon helps him get a job as a chauffeur for other yakuza. He encounters Asako (Reiko Kataoka), an alluring young pianist who asks him for help in taking revenge against a man for her abused sister. Wavering between a new, “clean” life and the lingering remnants of his criminal experiences, Kuni considers his true nature and whether he can successfully change it in favor of happiness.
What is truly surprising about "Onibi" once you are a few scenes in is the relaxed, eloquent way in which its story unravels. The opening shot is quite indicative of the tone of the film beyond it: a lush green rice field through which Kuni calmly walks. He starts his new life outside of prison working at a construction site and shares an apartment with a flamboyant gay man named Sakata (Ko Kitamura). Very often, Kuni is framed in long shots that make him seem very small within the urban environment around him. As he makes his way through his day-to-day life going to work, walking Sakata’s dog and taking pictures with a camera borrowed from Tanigawa, he increasingly shows potential for adapting and leaving behind his criminal past.
However, that past is not easily forgotten. Multiple times, Kuni speaks of the murders he has committed in a relaxed, straightforward way. He shows that he has a realistic perspective of himself, and expresses it in a manner that makes him likeable and human. Yoshio Karada portrays the former gangster with a surprising amount of sensitivity and humor (yet also with appropriate gruffness and menace), making him a compelling subject. With his characteristically nonchalant manner, Sho Aikawa is solid as Kuni’s friend, yet the most intriguing relationship is the one between the ex-con and the piano player. When Asako asks Kuni to help her get a gun so that she can kill her sister’s tormentor, he takes the opportunity to make her understand the seriousness of taking a human life – something he has had many years to think about. Their affection for one another is honest and sweet, culminating in a nice scene in an empty gymnasium and a subsequent one in a blue-lit swimming pool.
There are some moments of violence in "Onibi: The Fire Within," but they are sparse and strategically used. Throughout the film, the camera seems to savor the rare, long-awaited moments Kuni spends as a free man, resulting in a fascinating, carefully composed character study. At times, it feels like just a little more plot development would aid the film, but as it is, it still manages to deliver a thoughtful and mature meditation on a lifestyle of violence.
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