Directed by Rokuro Mochizuki, 1997, 101 min. Starring Yoshio Harada, Reiko Kataoka and Sho Aikawa.
The career ladder in Japanese cinema for directors can be weird sometimes. In the west, the accepted route is film school -> pop videos for unheard of bands -> pop videos for cool bands -> your first feature film. However, Rokuro Mochizuki started his career in pink films before building up to his first feature, following a path since trodden by the likes of Sono (Suicide Circle) Sion and Takahisa (Moonchild) Zeze. Sadly, unlike these two, in Onibi Mochizuki really hasn't shown that the change in genre from soft porn to (at best) Yakuza drama was fully justified.
The thing is, in porn you can get away with not having any well-constructed cinematography as, well, it really doesn't matter. No-one cares whether Tokyo looks beautiful bathed in the orange glow of a rather extraordinary dawn so long as the couple screwing in the apartment building are in the correct proportions and are making the right noises. In all other forms of cinema – with perhaps the exception of the gore movie – it's generally a prerequisite to have some sort of defining shot, something the director can show his artistic credentials with, even if the rest of the movie is about as interesting as a BBC2 documentary on Assyrian number systems. Even our favourite site turkeys have some of these – even A Frightful School Horror. Onibi, on the other hand, doesn't. Mochizuki's best stab at it is a rather bizarre piece of clearly non-spontaneous synchronised swimming, interspersed with plinky-plonky cocktail piano jazz. The film's so enormously uninspired that even the Osaka cityscapes fail to make any impression whatsoever. The only artistic device Mochizuki uses is framing characters in a door frame or a window, and he does that way too often. Onibi just lacks in imagination, and for once, I don't think you can put this down to budget restraints alone.
Noriyuki Kunihiro is a semi-failed Yakuza who's just been released from a long stretch in prison following a double killing. His old gangster mates are really pleased to see him, and try to entice him back into the fold – he was, by all accounts, an amazing Yakuza operative. He's not interested though, and prefers to sleep rough until he finds a job on a building site. With the cash he gets from that, he moves in with an old cell mate, the rampantly homosexual Sakata, still turning down offers of work and cash from old friend Naoto Tanigawa (a convincing as ever Sho Aikawa). Eventually Tanigawa's approaches wear Kunihiro down and he takes on a job as a driver – and a driver only – for the Myojin crew. A diligent driver, he annoys the other Yakuza gangs by driving in a very atypical Yakuza manner – stopping for kids at pedestrian crossings, for example.
On a trip to another Yakuza gang's HQ, things go wrong when the Myojin members are imprisoned, tortured and humiliated. Kunihiro, as the only available operative, is sent in to rescue them, and he soon reverts to type as one badass Gokudoh – albeit an extremely polite one.
Celebrating at a bar afterwards, Naoto tries to arrange a prostitute for Kunihiro. He's not interested, however, expressing a preference instead for the bar's piano player – and she negotiates a rate of a million Yen with Naoto (at current rates, around $9500). Even so, Kunihiro doesn't sleep with her, preferring instead to talk and regale her with Yakuza stories. She does have a pretext though – she wants her sister's former boyfriend killed for how he treated her. Kunihiro arranges a gun for her and teaches her to shoot...
What follows wants to be a tale of idolisation and redemption, of reclaimed honour and enhanced trust, of how Kunihiro slowly gains the confidence of Asako the piano player and vice versa. But to be honest, there's not a huge amount more to be said about this film. It's just there, like curtains or toenails, and there's really not very much you can do about it. The performances are solid but wholly unmemorable, but at times you're just left hanging about with the characters waiting for something to happen. And, really, nothing does happen until right at the end of the movie, and, when it does, it's inexplicable and out of character, and in all honesty far too late for you to really give a damn.
There's only one flash of what could have been, when Kunihiro, relegated to the role of chauffeur, storms a rival gang's hideout to rescue some of his colleagues. Maybe Mochizuki put the sequence in there to show what a badass Kunihiro could be when he put his mind to it, but sadly it merely shows what this movie could have been – taut and sadistic, rather than dull and turgid.
You could, perhaps, put Mochizuki on the evidence of this movie into the "non-visual directors" category, along with Joji Iida and Takashi Miike in his more low-budget moments. The thing is, while it's fine to be the sort of director that doesn't resort to visual gimmicks, you do need some sort of plot, or at least a movie with some pace, in order to be able to pull it off. The problem with Onibi is that it just meanders from scene to scene, with no tension, no involvement with the characters, and no real concern about what happens next.
There are so many better Yakuza movies on the market nowadays – indeed, many of them also released by Artsmagic – that I fail to see a reason why anyone would choose a rather limp drama about a failed, jailed Gokudoh trying to come to terms with his past over a kinetic and iconic movie like Ichi the Killer or Sonatine. The fire within? More of a half-assed splutter from a soggy firework.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this
Entertainment Value - 3/10 - relentlessly average at best
Sex – 5/10 - Mochizuki's porn background shows in an over-extended sex scene shot from a first-person perspective
Violence – ffftt/10
Yakuza badassness - 1/10
Visual Impact: 0/10
Stupid, irrelevant endings: 1
Kunihiro: for the sake of cinema, man, get back in the Yakuza!
Films in a Similar Style: dozens of Yakuza movies, but none plumbing the depths of this Yakuza drama-cum-soap opera.
*** Avoid unless you want to be bored rigid ***
This film is being released by Artsmagic in 2005. Screencaps were taken from a VHS transfer and are of significantly lower quality than the finished article.
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.artsmagicdvd.com/ and http://www.artsmagic.co.uk - Artsmagic very kindly provided this movie to us for review, and are due to release the DVD in 2005
http://www.jpreview.com/Reviews%20HTML/reviews/onibi.html - another excellent and insightful review as ever at JPReview
http://www.asianfilmnetwork.de/_articles/trailer.php?speed=n&key=29 - trailer available here
http://www.cityonfire.com/japanese/onibi.html - Maybe I'm wrong. This guy gives it 10/10
http://pears.lib.ohio-state.edu/Markus/Review/Films97/Fire.html - another positive review
http://www.supertoni.ch/71429/71996.html - another reviewer liked it
http://www.foutz.net/movies/onibi.shtml - as did Scott Foutz
http://print.google.com/print/doc?articleid=v2mA5KRyunB - a mixed review from Variety