Onibi: The Fire Within is a slow paced Japanese gangster love story. An ex-hitman struggles to redeem himself through the love of a gifted young pianist. Interesting direction and nice acting combine well with this fresh approach to a cliche ridden genre but at times the simple plot is clouded by style over substance.
Kunihiro is a hitman fresh out of jail after 27 years and determined to go straight. Despite his fearsome reputation he wants to leave his Yakuza ways behind but his old friends soon persuade him otherwise. Kuni is unable to find another job he likes; he stays with an old cell mate, the camp Sakata and tries to resist his old friend Tanigawa´s offers of employment. Eventually Kuni relents and takes a job as a driver for the Myojin gang. It doesn´t take long for this to lead to trouble and Kuni proves he has not lost his touch.
At the celebration later Kuni meets a young pianist called Asoka and his friend Tanigawa obligingly pays for Asoka to go home with Kuni. They gradually develop a friendship and then more, Kuni is deeply affected by Asoka´s attention and begins to unravel. As their romance develops things take a violent turn and spiral off towards a confusing ending.
The director here is Rokuro Mochizuki and he graduated into Yakuza movies via the porn industry with some success. He certainly brings something fresh to the genre, his shot set-ups, use of light and framing are beautifully done but some of the sequences don´t work too well with the result appearing somewhat cheap and poor quality. The slow pace of the film drags in places and if you don´t read things into the actions of the muted characters at play you may begin to get bored.
The acting here is excellent and the performances of Yoshio Harada as Kuni and Sho Aikawa as Tanigawa lend the production some authenticity. Their performances are completely convincing and Harada is able to communicate a great deal about his character despite a sparse script. Reiko Kataoka plays Asoka, an unhappy girl who has fled her home and run into some trouble. She seems very vulnerable and weak and the character fails to really come to life for me.
The brief glimpses of gangster action which appear here are very well handled and quite explosive when set against the dull lingering backdrop which leads to them. The violence is quite extreme and graphic but there is no glamour about it, simply a workmanlike inevitability. This an attempt at a realistic portrayal of a yakuza and would be better described as heavy drama than anything else.
The film features an interesting soundtrack composed entirely of classical music which Kuni finds soothing and relaxing. His nickname Fireball hints at his explosive temper and we can see the anger build within him as the film progresses, a hateful negative regret which prevents him from escaping his violent criminal life.
Onibi: The Fire Within is a brooding, relentless film which lasts around 100 minutes. Director Mochizuki is obviously talented and the cast are very watchable but the straightforward plot tends to drag and the drama can become overbearing. This is very familiar material and yet the film feels fresh and inventive, if a little cheap at times. If you are into Yakuza films you may want to give this a try. Don´t expect an action flick though, rather a tale of human emotion and subtleties in relationships as the central character seeks some kind of peace.