Posted: 02/05/2005


The Fire Within [Onibi]


by Del Harvey

This DVD is available for purchase at

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On the surface, Director Mochizuki Rokuro’s The Fire Within (Japanese title: Onibi) would appear to be just another gangster saga centered around the downward lifestyle of a lone wolf Yakuza (Harada Yoshio). But stirring just beneath the surface is a deeper meaning, a symbolic grace, a philosophy of inevitability—“this is the law of the jungle” told with lyric beauty.

Rokuro tries to give the world a glimpse of the view from his character’s perspective; among the earliest shots we view the world from Kuni’s (Yoshio’s) point of view, and view Kuni in that world. His isolation is epic. The truth of the world has been harsh, in his experience, and we feel that harshness as an extension of him. But Kuni has been fortunate, for a Yakuza. He has killed with his boss’ blessing, and he has served his time quietly and admirably. Now he works as a laborer, at least until his old gang buddy Tanikawa (Aikawa Sho) comes along and offers him a job driving for the boss. He soon must bail out his tough-guy charges and not only save their skins but also stand up to a rival boss’ crew and retrieve money owed his own boss. This puts him back into the gang.

But his joy is true to the yin-yang spirit of fate, and the very night his new boss celebrates Kuni’s good work and loyalty, Juni meets up with Asako (Kataoka Reiko), a beautiful young girl who was hired to play piano for their celebration. When the hostess asks which young lady Kuni would like to spend the evening with, he of course insists upon Asako. They are kindred spirits, and are soon inseparable. Kuni is the gentle older lover to this young lady who asks only one thing of him; help her get revenge on a man who put her sister in a mental institution.

Ever since being released from prison, Kuni’s one desire was to be free. He never expected to return to the old gang, never wanted to return to that life, never expected to find someone who would love him. Suddenly he has good and loyal friends, a loving partner, and responsibilities. A man true to his world and accepting of his fate, Kuni does what he must, even if he looks resigned and all too knowing of the outcome of his actions.

Rokuro takes us beyond the mere action and gunplay film into a world of complex individuals with a knowledge that their acts and lifestyles have repercussions, their aftermath often difficult to live with. This deepening of the action genre is what elevates Rokuro’s seemingly mainstream films into minor gems. And Harada’s smooth acting style evokes internal joy and rage in subtle nuance that are a sheer delight to watch. The Fire Within is a rare treat among the Japanese cinema of the late ’90s.

Del Harvey is a writer and screenwriting teacher living in Chicago.

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