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Onibi - The Fire Within (Mochizuki Rokuro 1997)


[The Fire Within]

Genre: Yakuza Drifter tale par excellance

review in one breath

A classic theme in traditional Japanese film is that of the nagaremono, a yakuza soldier set adrift following the demise of leaders to whom he had pledged his utmost loyalty. In many respects such nagaremono are a contemporary version of the more traditionally beloved ronin tales of masterless samurai who despite thorough and terrifying training in the disciplined ways of bushido nevertheless wander, almost as vagabonds, once their traditional hierarchy is suddenly, often violently, taken away.

One aspect of such nagaremono tales is that these drifters inevitably find that the old-school values they had sworn to uphold are completely ignored by a younger emerging leadership. In situations once dealt with through mutual respect between enemies there is now only deceit and treachery, instead of bravery and nobility only weakness and cowardice. Thus these drifters find themselves the final remnants of an older, more disciplined world view and must inevitably come to terms with the changing, modernized reality. A second aspect of such nagaremono tales often involves a violent retribution upon those responsible for the overthrow of his superiors. This clash often amounts to impressive demonstrations of the drifter's old-school skills versus the naive optimism of the new leadership.

In these regards Onibi is an excellent yakuza drifter tale and thoroughly explores both the disciplined philosophy and violent skill of a lone yakuza soldier. In a tale which is as sad and contemplative as it is violent and action-packed, Onibi truly sees the world through the bushido-trained drifter eyes of the main character, Kunihiro (Harada Yoshio). Indeed, this film's true wealth of value lies in its full focus upon the struggles of Kunihiro as his traditional values increasingly clash with the pathetic world around him.

This film's title Onibi has been rendered into English as The Fire Within, a phrase which only begins to conceptually convey the situation of Kunihiro in this narrative. The literal translation of the Japanese title "Onibi" is Demon[ic] Fire which I believe much more accurately hints at the destructive clash of world views explored in this story.


After what amounts to a total of 27 years in prison for murder, Kuni[hiro] finds he has lived longer than the yakuza bosses he loyally went to jail for. With neither shelter nor resource, Kuni wanders back alleys finding shelter and food wherever possible, until he is discovered by Tanigawa (Aikawa Sho) who was once a lower ranking yakuza under Kuni but who now through new affiliations holds a far more affluent position. Through Tanigawa's loyalty and recognition of Kuni's (true yet unrecognized) superior rank, Tanigawa introduces him to the new leadership, the Myojin family.

Despite his formidable and well-known reputation, the Myojin leadership offer him only the lowliest position of chauffeur. And this he does exceedingly well, being suddenly called to intervene into potentially desperate situations involving his passengers. And here audiences are left with absolutely NO doubt as to how much Kuni can really kick butt!

Kuni's loyalty to friends and his gradual disdain for the flippancy with which the newer leadership wield their power eventually push Kuni into a very tight corner, until the Demonic Fire can be held back no longer.


I really enjoyed this movie. Harada Yoshio, who plays Kuni is a thoroughly skilled actor (but I doubt you'll recognize him as Gessai in Azumi!). Harada brings a thoroughly convincing humanitarianism to this film which is so very reminiscent of the wonderfully beloved depiction of Zatoichi by Katsu Shintaro. In both Katsu's Zatoichi and Harada's Onibi there is plenty of fully gratifying violence and action. But such violence is only a small narrative portion of both these characters and indeed through skillful direction and narration audiences find themselves far more interested in these characters than in mere plot resolution or thrill moments.

I wholly recommend Onibi as a refreshingly humanitarian and philosophical view of the traditional yakuza mind set. Ideal as it may be, here our traditional yakuza henchman helps the poor, brings justice to the weak, avenges crimes against friends, and HANGS OUT IN USED BOOK SHOPS READING PHILOSOPHY! Enough said. If you are still not yet in love with Kuni you probably deserve to be visited late at night by a shadowy figure clad in leather barely making a sound...

Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Memorable and moving depiction of yakuza loyalty and loss of tradition. Plenty of gun violence and verbal abuse. Despite a VERY long, perhaps questionable time behind bars with testosterone-challenged Sakata, Kuni quickly (and thankfully) finds a pretty girl who lounges around in her underwear! Don't let his sissy roommate fool you! This old-school yakuza hitman can quote philosophy and poetry while kicking your puny butt!

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