Kunihiro is a tough Yakuza mobster who has spent much of his life in prison. Upon his latest release from jail, he decides to go straight – or as straight has his past associates will allow – and takes a job as a chauffeur to his former gang bosses. But inevitably he finds himself drawn back into his old lifestyle when he meets a young piano player who has a few scores she wants settling.
Onibi is a Japanese gangster drama that very much follows the conventions of the genre – Yakuza hitman released from jail, a beautiful young innocent drawn to him, doomed attempt to go straight, and a tragic, bloody climax. But director Rokuro Mochizuki (a former porn director making a move into more serious subject matter) makes a strong impression by downplaying the more sensationalist aspects of his film and turning in a sombre character-based drama.
Yoshio Harada makes a suitably gruff leading man – this veteran of Japanese crime cinema ably conveys the troubled, resigned sense of a man largely beaten by the life he has chosen, and by the 27 years he has spent inside. Almost as soon as Kunihiro is out of jail, he is approached by former associate Naoto Tanigawa (Takashi Miike regular Sho Aikawa), who is eager to get him back on board. Kunihiro knows that another run-in with the law will return him to prison for life but takes on the chauffeuring job with his old gang so as not to offend them. But circumstance seems to conspire against him. He is forced to revert to his own ways when a meeting with a rival gang goes awry; and even more crucially, a blossoming relationship with pretty young piano player Asako (Reiko Kataoka) starts a chain of tragic events when she asks him to get her a gun so that she can kill a man called Fujima, who humiliated her and caused her sister to have a breakdown.
Onibi’s main strength is the way it subverts viewer expectation in both the characters and plot developments. Kunihiro is a serious tough guy, sure, but he no longer has any taste for crime and perhaps seeks a relationship with Asako to inject some normality into his life. Similarly, the last thing you’d expect this quiet, shy woman to desire is a revenge-motivated killing. Kunihiro doesn’t refuse her request to get her a gun and helps her confront Fujima, but manages to persuade her to let the terrified man live. Unfortunately, Fujima turns out to be the brother of a high-level Yakuza, and he isn’t about to forget his treatment at Kunihiro’s hands.
Equally interesting is Kunihiro’s friendship with Sakata (Kazuki Kitamura), who owns the apartment in which he lives. This is a flamboyant gay man, highly unusual for this so-very-macho genre, especially since he is portrayed in a sympathetic, non-homophobic light. When Sakata is shot in his own bed as part of Fujima’s revenge, it devastates Kunihiro and finally confirms that there is no way he could ever leave the criminal life behind. Despite knowing it will destroy the happy world he and Asako are slowly building together, Kunihiro is forced once again to pick up his gun.
Onibi is a bit too serious – it lacks the dark humour that Miike or Takeshi Kitano bring to their films – and the pace is slow, too slow at times. But Rokuro Mochizuki is a director of some style, creating striking imagery that includes a dreamlike sequence in a swimming pool, and a lengthy, haunting shot as the camera slowly backs away from Kunihiro and Asako as she plays piano in a darkened room, the whole scene heavy with an inevitable dread. Onibi is too subtle and understated to have ever made a huge impact on the genre, but this is nevertheless a quietly compelling film.
[Artsmagic’s DVD comes with a 30-minute interview with director Mochizuki, an audio commentary by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes, plus cast and crew biographies.]