After serving 27 years for murder, Kunihuro (Yosio Harada) has difficulty going straight. With few prospects, the former hitman accepts work as a chauffeur to his old yakuza bosses. When his clients are held hostage over a dispute over debts, he reverts to his old form that earned him the nickname of ‘Ball of Fire’, and kills the offenders. Celebrating his return to form, a drunk Kunihuro pays piano player Asako (Reiko Kataoka) to sleep with him.
A troubled woman, Asako seeks revenge on the man who once ruined her and she convinces Kunihuro to secure her a gun. After practising in a grimy old warehouse, their relationship grows but the time soon comes to abduct the offending Fujima. When Fujima is spared in a remote trailer park, his gangster brother kills Kunihuro’s former landlord. Settling in his new home with Asako, Kunijuro cannot resist the snare of vengeance.
Created by Rokuro Mochizuki of ANOTHER LONELY HITMAN fame, ONIBI: THE FIRE WITHIN is a variation on the hitman-trying-to-go-straight theme, carried through in its director’s spare, poetic and compelling attitude to form. Shot in sombre tones of grey and blue, it nonetheless has a superbly varied image-track that alternates such mismatching sights as Kunihuro sleeping at night in an old wreck of a vehicle, who unexpectedly wakes on a sunny park bench. The contrasts on display – in terms of colour, texture and framing – emphasises the beauty of both. With strange dislocations – such as an image of Kunihuro stepping off a train, only for the camera to stay on the vehicle that pulls well away from its subject – the structure induces a contemplative mood in the viewer, allowing us to linger on both the beauty of its appearance and, most importantly, the inner dynamics of its characters.
Avoiding the pyrotechnics associated with the Yakuza genre, ONIBI is an understated work that manages to excite for that very reason. As in ANOTHER LONELY HITMAN, the gangster/whore (Asako is a pianist but she does accept money to sleep with Kunihuro) relationship is one that grows steadily after an unpromising start. When they first meet, Kunihuro wants to sleep with her in the most basic form, and has no interest in sex initially. A quiet, sullen man, he struggles to come to terms with the image that others have of him (the ‘Ball of Fire’, the gangster not to be crossed), and doesn’t take things to the next stage until he discovers Asako’s insecurities. That he can channel all his energies into helping her (i.e. to get a gun, to train her, to help her deal with her obsession) allows him to experience real purpose and sense of worth, and thus give more of himself physically. Hardly a contrived or gooey romance of the sort that permeates our screens, love is something earned in the tough world of Mochizuki.
With its doomed hero falling for a mysterious piano player, ONIBI clearly draws on the crime movies of Jean-Pierre Melville, particularly his cherished LE SAMOURAI (1967). Although indebted to the old master, Mochizuki’s approach never becomes slavish. Melville dared to strip his characters and situations bare – to create cops-and-robbers scenarios in which characters and actions are indivisible (i.e. you are what you do). Mochizuki, however, continually moves away from crime – indeed, there are few action sequences – in favour of the gloomy romance. ONIBI also marks an interesting contrast to the bulk of ever-complicated Yakuza category. So many such films put us through the most complex parades of double cross and allegiance that can be exhausting to follow. In ONIBI, we can see a reaction against this trend. When Kunihuro tries to settle a debt dispute, telling the man that he borrowed the cash and must pay it back, he begs the question “That’s not too complicated, is it?”
Directed by Rokuro Mochizuki
Japanese language with English subtitles
Japan / 1996 / Colour / 102 mins (region 2 PAL), 101 mins (region 1 NTSC)
SPECIAL DVD FEATURES:
An Artsmagic DVD release
Available in region 2 Pal & region 1 NTSC. 1.77:1 anamorphic. Dolby Digital 5.1.
ONIBI: THE FIRE WITHIN