Rokuro Mochizuki’s Onibi: The Fire Within comes from the same director as Another Lonely Hitman, and is a refinement of that earlier film in many senses of the word. The similarities between the two movies are no accident: Onibi was conceived as a sequel-of-sorts by its producers, with Mochizuki using details gleaned from the life of a real hitman to inspire this outing. Onibi follows the same basic story—a yakuza thug fresh out of prison tries to redeem himself—but to very different ends, and the resulting movie is better in every way than its predecessor.
The film stars gangster- and samurai-movie staple Yoshio Harada (Ronin-gai, and the lamentable The Hunted) as Kunihiro, a hitman who has spent more time in prison than out of it, and who as the film opens has been released from a fifteen-year stint for killing another man. His comrades, like Tanigawa (Sho Aikawa, of the Dead or Alive series and Gozu), still think highly of him, and do not understand that he no longer thinks very highly of himself. It took prison to remind him that there were other things in life besides murder and money—like classical music, or photography. Most poignant is when he takes a renewed interest in those books he read in high school that he thought were boring then but which he now realizes are in fact fascinating.
Tanigawa fixes Kunihiro up with a job as a chauffeur for other mob figures. The world around them seems littered with the debris of former gangsters: when he goes for his road test (he has no driver’s license), Kunihiro realizes with a shock that his proctor is in fact an ex-yakuza himself. There was never much of a life in “the life” anyway, and now here he is, fiftyish, driving someone else’s car and falling asleep in the front seat. Even getting drunk and reminiscing about old hits doesn’t have the same magic to it anymore. One night while in a bar, babbling off to the girls there, Kunihiro takes a shine to the piano player: he, of all the people there, may be the only one who knows that she’s playing Mendelssohn’s “Venetian Gondolier.”
The piano player, Asako (Reiko Kataoka, of Mochizuki’s earlier Chinpira), serves something of the same function to Kunihiro that the junkie prostitute did for the protagonist of Another Lonely Hitman. This time, however, she hardly needs to be rescued; Kunihiro is drawn to her precisely because she’s a happy, functional person. He needs more people around him like that, although sometimes he’s willing to settle for less—like his perpetual yakuza comrade-in-arms Tanigawa. There’s also his gay roommate, who while not tangled up with the underworld is still no substitute for someone like Asako.
Asako’s interest in him turns out to have an ugly hidden dimension. She wants Kunihiro to supply her with a gun, so she can take revenge on a sleaze that victimized her sister. Kunihiro does indeed find a gun for her, but quite correctly determines that she will not be able to use it to kill. Most movies of this kind would have him toughening her up, or abandoning her because she doesn’t live up to his macho ideals, etc. Here, the fact that both of them really don’t want to do this sort of thing is what draws them closer together. In fact, Asako is as important a character in the movie as Kunihiro is: she abandoned her parents for reasons that Kunihiro attempts to divine (in his own frankly hilarious way), and sticks with him at least as much out of loneliness as she does devotion.
There are, of course, other plot machinations, but none of them are as overbearing or knotty as they typically are in a yakuza movie. In fact, the yakuza stuff is little more than local color here; it all takes a backseat to the movie’s sad lyricism. Two scenes stand out: in one, Kunihiro prepares a savory-looking meal for Asako while his voice recites his prison confession on the soundtrack. In the other, they sneak into a high school gym; she plays the piano, and he sits on the floor and looks deeply forlorn. Throughout the movie, Kunihiro snaps pictures of the world around him (with Tanigawa’s camera), as if he’s afraid it’ll slip through his fingers if he doesn’t capture it first.
The whole reason Onibi is able to suggest all of this is partly through Mochizuki’s quiet, studying style, but mostly because of Yoshio Harada. After seeing him play so many lean-eyed samurai, it’s more than a little startling to see him so forlorn now. In a way, the role works best only when you’ve s een Harada’s other performances, but on its own it’s still quite effective. The same could be said of Onibi itself, which on its own has a lot of power but only really makes sense in the context of Hitman.
The last scenes in the film are as inevitable as a movie like this demands. They are more or less what you’d expect: Kunihiro goes off to do one last hit, this one for his own reasons. But it is less out of love, or even honor, than a sense that no matter what he does he will always be a has-been, an irrelevancy. Early in the film we see that a mere one day’s work on a construction site leaves him an aching pulp, and we can see the hopelessness in his face when he studies his driver’s education books. If Another Lonely Hitman was about a gangster who comes back to discover he’s outgrown gangsterdom, Onibi is about someone who realizes he blew his only chances to be a man a long time ago. He’s just now playing catch-up.
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