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Rated 2.96 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Real Yakuza Deal
by Donald Levit

U.S. premièring Onibi: The Fire Within is “a little outdated but one of the best on yakuza I’ve seen,” according to Tokyo-based American reporter, crime expert and author Jake Adelstein preceding the screening. One of two 1997 Rokuro Mochizuki films of fifteen in Japan Society’s Hardest Men in Town: Yakuza Chronicles of Sin, Sex & Violence, it unsentimentally contrasts the old-line honor code of henchmen, honchos and cooperative cops with a newer, less scrupulous world of money, Internet, trafficking, politics, debt and PR.

Popular since the ‘60s, this Japanese brand of noir bears comparison with the simultaneously popular samurai-ronin-rootless gambler genre and with the American Western. In Onibi, it is the retired enforcer -- our gunslinger -- who serves twenty-seven years for a twin killing and on release decides his body and code are too old for this kind of thing and distances himself, even to working low-scale construction and as a printer (his résumé for the latter is double-entendre funny).

The deliberately paced script derives from an account by an ex-syndicate lawyer but is toned down from the brutal yakuza depictions audiences expect. No ritual fingers are chopped, nor do gunmen utter conventional insults before offing their prey. Though Mochizuki cut his teeth in Japan’s adult-film industry prior to branching out in the ‘90s, there is little sex, either, the one tasteful coupling long delayed. 

Yoshio Harada is Noriyuki Kunihiro, his long sentence served and heading for the Osaka house of released cellmate Hideyuki Sakata (Ko Kitamura). The latter is gay, and although an encounter in the home gym is ambiguous, “Kuni” sleeps alone and there is no indication of a physical relationship during their shared incarceration, only wistful sighs from Sakata.

Even in a house of pleasure, the drunk hero ignores girls offered him to instead choose plain piano player Asako Hino (Reiko Kataoka), who has lived fewer years on earth than he in prison and is surprised that he wants no more of her than to sleep by his side. The high price Asako asks is paid without blinking by Naoto Tanigawa (Shô Aikawa), Kuni’s former associate in crime and his admiring champion.

Tanigawa, as a matter of fact, hunts up the just-released man, resting with his shoes off in a park, to give him clothing and offer a stack of yen and a job with his current underworld chief Myojin (Eiji Okuda). The offers are politely turned down in favor of a small camera, with which to record this world that is new to him, though soon the ex-con accepts work as the boss’ chauffeur (and, if necessary, small-time muscle).

The story is in large measure a character study of Kuni, so laid-back in middle age that two momentary outbursts catch us by surprise from one who likes animals and soft music and favors tank tops and baggy shorts to others’ sartorial flash.


A born teacher, he employs subtle example rather than preachment to dissuade Asako from an act which might destroy her. Using the fabrication of a sister dishonored and driven insane by married-with-children playboy Satoshi Fujima (Hiroyuki Tsunekawa), she had asked for a pistol to avenge the imaginary sibling. The would-be ex-yakuza is intelligent in steering her from folly, even if his better revenge of humiliation goes fatally sour.

Kuni and Asako grow into couplehood and rent a house where she cleans on her knees and pictures a sunlit piano. She becomes his much younger woman emotionally and, finally, physically when he relaxes and reintegrates into normal life. Still, some interludes are puzzling, such as his humorous errant-baseball break-in to her upscale house to steal school photos which she refuses to look at, and a longish balletic idyll in a deserted pool after she plays his favorite piece on a piano in the gym. Perhaps the water parallels the river in which a bullet-riddled body floats, or else it is the Zen metaphor for the film’s and the hero’s surface calm cloaking the fire within. In any case, score and rhythm are at odds with the hard reality of emerging yakuza amorality.

Having once been in, there is no way out. Girl and dog frolic in nature, but at what price? Sooner or later, wordlessly, someone trips the triggers and loaded squad cars drive off with their unrepentant captive. 

(Released by Arts Magic; not rated by MPAA.)

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