VideoVista
-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-


SF, fantasy, horror, mystery website
illustrated SF and general satire
music reviews
action movie heroines
helicopters in movies and TV
VideoVista is published by PIGASUS Press

copyright © 2001 - 2005 VideoVista
 
 
October 2005 SITE MAP   SEARCH

Onibi - The Fire Within
cast: Yoshio Harada, Ko Kitamura, and Reiko Kataoka

director: Rukuro Mochizuki

102 minutes (15) 2004
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Artsmagic DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Noriyuki Kunihiro is a hitman who has just served 27 years in prison. Upon his release he discovers that the crime world he had known has changed, although his personal reputation remains high, and he accepts a job as chauffeur to the mob until something better is available. After an unexpected opportunity to show his old talents, Kunihiro meets a female piano player in a hostess bar and a bond develops between them. Soon she asks him to get her a gun, as she needs to revenge the treatment of her sister...

Director Rokuro Mochizuki started his career in the Japanese porno industry before making his name with some strikingly characteristic work in the 1990s, a success contemporary with other industry colleagues such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takashi Miike. Unlike these two however, Mochizuki has made less of an impact in recent years and, together with his Another Lonely Hitman (aka: Shin kanashiki hittoman, 1995). Onibi - The Fire Within is probably his best - or at least judged so from those seen so far in the west. As is frequently common practice in the conservative Nipponese film industry, where art house work is typically 'smuggled' to audiences in the guise of genre pieces, Mochizuki often works within the yakuza film, creating his own distinct style within the frequently considerably stretched boundaries of the gangster narrative. The 'fire within' of the title here refers to the flame of existence, something akin to essential essence, or the soul (and indeed at one point in the film there is reference to the ghost of a victim, materialising next to the killer immediately after an assassination - Kunihiro affirms its existence). But it more specifically refers to the hero's inner being, a special kind of strength that is recognised by those who befriend him upon his release: "You're just like a cultural asset," says his new boss, before Kunihiro's dry response: "and you want me to explode when necessary."

After so many years in prison he has had to rely upon this inner spirit to survive, a process that has become formalised through a love of classical music. He has also made the close acquaintance of Hideyuki Sakata (Ko Kitamura, in his only film) and the suggestion is that their relationship, at least while inside, is more than that of close friends. Refusing a large amount of money to welcome him back to the gang immediately upon his release, he has problems settling in, and there's a sense that he feels ill at ease with the gangsters of today. Instead of money from his new contacts, Kunihiro unexpectedly asks for a camera through which he captures elements of his new environment, as well as establishing his own presence and viewpoint within it. Initially unable to connect even on the most rudimentary physical level with the piano player Asako (Reiko Kataoka), the film sees Kunihiro seeking to re-enter society though a series of what might be called meditative vignettes, the success of which brings him closer to Asako and her plight. Just as in Another Lonely Hitman it takes a woman to draw the chief protagonist back into normal life, and with similarly disastrous results. Similar to the earlier film too is the importance of photography. It is only when Asako asks the hitman to help kill a man who has nude photographs of her that his re-assimilation begins in earnest, to the point that he later breaks into her house to retrieve her photo albums (which, ironically, she then refuses to look at). Some have seen the director's especial concern with cameras as a wider metaphor for his own interest in the nature of representation - Mochizuki was educated at Image Forum, an experimental film academy - an interpretation born out, perhaps by the final image of Kunhiro at the close, the most artificial shot in the film.

The Fire Within's source is from a story by a former lawyer of the Yamaguchi crime syndicate and presumably the original was based in brutal fact. Mochizuki brings a whole dimension of his own to the adaptation, in an exploration of outward image and real identity. Tom Mes, who provides his usual sympathetic and informed commentary to this Artsmagic DVD has no doubt as to the success of the result, calling Onibi "the best Japanese film of the last 15 years" - a judgement at which this viewer, at least, would hesitate. Mochizuki's film is an extremely subtle one but it has to be said that its calm surface is rather like a mirror, in which the more one stares in the hope of seeing, the more is reflected back - opportunities for this activity existing aplenty due to the slow, emphatic pacing throughout. Does Kunihiro distance himself from his fellow gangsters through an existential desire to be free for instance, or is he simply stunned and still trying to readjust to the new set of operations after 27 years? Chief actor Yoshio Harada (seen more recently in Azumi, 2003) and the also excellent 9 Souls, has had a long and distinguished film career. The depiction of Kunihiro was something of a change for him, as previously he had cultivated a macho action image on screen, "a long haired whirling dervish of controlled passion and anger," in such films as Fukusaku's Triple Cross (aka: Itsuka Giragirasuruhi, 1992), and on that basis had amassed a large following. In the present film he excels in showing a great spirit in repose rather than action, turning himself into a different kind of actor completely.

The casual viewer will find the trance-like elements of this film either distancing or profound, according to taste. Notable is a scene set in a swimming pool (shot under difficult conditions during an E. Coli outbreak in Osaka) where the camera spends long moments on the participants, finding its own rhythm and pleasure though the play of elegant instrumentals. Mochizuki's use of music like this, to bring out the inherent mood and raptness of scenes, reminded this viewer of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon - a very different film indeed, but one which also contained moments of stillness and poise, where the score too hinted at emotions laying below calm exteriors. Another director who springs to mind, if this time closer to home is Takeshi Kitano. He similarly places moments of Zen-like calm in his gangster films, including a fondness for water, only to interrupt such placid moments with abrupt violence. If Mochizuki is not quite as memorable as Kitano, his film is one which repays re-viewing for the patient fan, although those who seek their yakuza flicks with more up-front concerns will best advised to look elsewhere.

The DVD contains the aforementioned Tom Mes commentary as an excellent extra, plus an interview with the director in which he reflects on shooting the movie.
NEXT

Did you find this review helpful? Any comments are always welcome!
Please support VideoVista, buy stuff online using these links - Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com | Send it | W.H. Smith

copyright © 2001 - 2005 VideoVista