If Judge Joel Pearce wants a fire within, he'll cruise on over to Taco Bell and pick up a couple chalupas.
"If you have a true hitman, you need nothing else."
Well, it's time for yet another yakuza film about an aging killer released from prison, planning to change his life but sucked back into the world of organized crime. Does Onibi: The Fire Within have something new to offer, or is it yet another retread of the same old nonsense?
Facts of the Case
When Kunihiro (Yoshio Harada, 9 Souls) gets out of prison, he initially turns down the opportunity to get back into his old way of life. He wants to take an honest job instead, but soon discovers that it will take self-discipline and a degree of social responsibility that he has never developed. He finds himself driving for his old yakuza family, where his singular talent for violence places him in the spotlight once again.
Kunihiro's redemption may come in the form of Asako (Reiko Kataoka, Hush!), an attractive young piano player to whom he takes a liking. A romance begins between them, but dangerous events are put into motion when he offers to help her punish the man who abused her sister.
Let's start with the yakuza movie checklist:
1. Aging badass gangster returns after a prison sentence. Check.
2. Said badass finds a weakened family that has compromised the code by which he lives. Check.
3. Badass quickly realizes that he is in a position of power because he has a reputation as a badass and the new breed of gangsters are weak. Check.
4. Badass enjoys that position of power until he meets a girl who makes him want to change. Check.
5. Said change is feasible until a betrayal pulls the badass back into his old world of violence. Check.
6. Said re-entry into world of violence culminates in a violent, tragic end. Check.
I'm not sure if yakuza filmmakers are watching each other's movies too much or not enough. At times, I found myself rolling my eyes at the obvious plot developments throughout Onibi: The Fire Within. On one level, it doesn't matter how well the film is shot and how good the performances are, because it's the same story that's been told in so many other yakuza films. This isn't helped by the fact that director Rokuro Mochizuki, who cut his teeth on porn films, is far better at capturing moments than he is assembling a clear narrative.
Exacerbating the movie's narrative shortcomings, this DVD offers one of the most disappointing transfers I have seen from ArtsmagicDVD. Other companies are doing remarkable things with prints from Japan, but this one looks like it was left out in the sun too long, then dumped straight to DVD from a tape source. There is little detail, the colors are often washed out, and the image is windowboxed, leaving bars on all sides of the print. The film features some fine cinematography, but it's hard to tell with this DVD. The sound isn't exceptional either, with little surround use in the 5.1 track. The dialogue is clear, though, and the music has been mixed well.
The disc shines a little more when it comes to extra features. There is a commentary with critic/author Tom Mes. He discusses the film as though it were the only film of this kind ever made, but he does offer a number of cultural notes which help one understand the more subtle events in Onibi: The Fire Within. It is a worthwhile track, and highly recommended for people who want to know more about Mochizuki and his films. An extended interview with Mochizuki is also included on the disc, running nearly 30 minutes. It covers his inspirations for the film and almost every aspect of production. Both of these extras are recommended more for film buffs than casual viewers, but they do contain a lot of interesting information. The disc also has filmographies for the director and major cast members.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Had this been my first yakuza film, I would probably be singing a different tune. Even though Onibi: The Fire Within's narrative doesn't always press forward, there are many things it does well. Yoshio Harada puts in a fine performance in the lead role. Many of these kinds of movies focus on thugs who never learned how to live a different life. Since they grew up with violence, they only know how to respond with violence. Kunihiro is a more complex and fascinating character. He has both pride and shame in his violent past. He regrets that he will always be a killer and wishes he could change, but also enjoys the popularity that his reputation brings. He loves to tell stories of his two murders to anyone who will listen. Asako is a fascinating character as well, with a lot more depth than expected. The relationship between the two characters is complex, with both passion and tension as each struggles to deal with their past decisions.
In some films, violence is so pervasive that viewers have to wonder why anyone would be sucked into that life to begin with. This is another thing that Onibi: The Fire Within does well, and it works because of the relative lack of violence in the younger generation of the family. They make a lot of money in relative safety, and rarely see any real violence. When Kunihiro shows up on the scene, he is worth a lot more because he is an actual assassin. A man who's experienced in fighting and killing is worth ten guys who wave guns around trying to look cool. Killing is discussed more than shown in Onibi: The Fire Within, though memories of his past murders are always in the front of Kunihiro's mind. Once you become a killer, you can never truly become anything else.
For most viewers, Onibi: The Fire Within has little new to offer. The failed-redemption storyline has been done to death in yakuza films, and has always been more about style than substance, anyway. While this entry in the genre has some fascinating moments and a few stand-out elements, it is ultimately bogged down by its generic plot. If you haven't been exposed to the yakuza genre before, Onibi: The Fire Within wouldn't be a bad place to start. It is a drama, not an action film, but it is thoughtful and well-crafted.
Onibi: The Fire Within is not guilty on all charges, but it gets a slap on the wrist for being so pedestrian.
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