Onibi – The Fire Within – Review

dvd-onibi200Onibi: The Fire Within

with Yoshio Harada, Reiko Kataoka, Show Aikawa
Directed by Rokuro Mochizuki
Written by Toshiyuki Morioka
by Chad Van Wagner

Director Rokuro Mochizuki is getting some pretty hefty kudos in the States for Onibi: The Fire Within (critic Tom Mes calls it the best Japanese film in a decade and a half. He also does commentary on this DVD). While Onibi is certainly a fine film, I stop well short of agreeing with that statement (I’d put Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse above it, but even then I’d balk at as weighty a compliment).

Hyperbole aside, Onibi has much to recommend it, although (like a small handful of other Arts Magic releases) it’s not for thrill-seekers. No, this is an altogether more contemplative beast, a film that derives its considerable power from what it doesn’t do, more than what it does. Yoshio Harada plays Kunihiro, a former Yakuza, who’s released from prison and takes up photography as a way to avoid falling back into his old, criminal habits. It doesn’t work, but that’s a given. The tale is in the resistance, how Kunihiro reacts to a world which he has no real connection with (even a dalliance with a prostitute involves no sex, although, ironically, it results in one of the stronger connection he finds). He gets involved with a beautiful piano player (Reiko Kataoka) who, as per the genre’s demands, has a little favor she wants to ask of our hero.

Onibi reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (and after a bit of Internet research, I see I’m not alone in that). The surface of the film is nearly inert, with emotion implied instead of stated. I, much to the chagrin of many of my friends, am not particularly fond of Barry Lyndon, although I did enjoy Onibi quite a bit. Maybe it’s my rabid Japanophelia, maybe it’s the Japanese cinematic tradition of stoic bad-asses makes this more palatable, or maybe it’s just the can of beer I had before popping this one into the player, but the stillness drew me in. Kunihiro is damn near inscrutable, and since the film never truly lets us in on his mind, he’s an icon, a towering, silent ball of repressed bad-ass.

Emphasis on “repressed,” although he does get a good one in towards the end. As stated before, Onibi is not for action fans, but for people who are looking for a film to quietly stick in their minds. Solid stuff.