The Fire Within

Saturday, April 19, 1997

Author: Gerow, Aaron
Japanase Title: Onibi
Director: Mochizuki Rokuro
Release Date: April 19, 1997


  • Production Company: Gaga Productions
  • Release: 19 April 1997
  • Length: 101 min.
  • Format: 35 mm; 1:1.85
  • Color: Color


  • Director: Mochizuki Rokuro
  • Screenplay: Morioka Toshiyuki
  • Original Story: Yamanouchi Yukio
  • Music: Kamio Ken’ichi
  • Editor: Shimamura Yasushi


  • Kunihiro: Harada Yoshio
  • Hino Asako: Kataoka Reiko
  • Tanikawa Naoto: Aikawa Sho
  • Sakata Hideyuki: Kitamura Yasushi
  • Myojin: Okuda Eiji

Gangster Scorched by Underworld Changes

At first glance, Mochizuki Rokuro’s films may look like the run-of-the-mill hard-boiled fare, featuring lone wolves on the edge reveling in the de rigeur sex and violence. Yet certain peculiarities always lift them above the crowd.

Storywise, his Another Lonely Hitman (“Shin kanashiki hittoman,” 1995) differed little from the anti-heroic tales that dominated seventies cinema, but when the killer hero rebelliously storms his gang’s office, he takes with him not the requisite short sword, but a video camera, as if it is the better weapon in his struggle to justify himself.

From the very start of Mochizuki’s new film, The Fire Within, the lead character also takes camera in hand. Kunihiro (Harada Yoshio), a professional hitman just out of the joint, meets with an old rival, Tanikawa (Aikawa Sho), but refuses his offers of employment and money, asking instead for only one thing: Tanikawa’s camera. Soon Kunihiro, too, is snapping shots of everything around him.

Seemingly an innocuous detail, the photo hobby lends complexity to a protagonist who doesn’t fit the standard B-movie mold. Despite being one of the best killers around, Kunihiro distances himself from the gangster life, not from any sense of morality, but from a more existential desire to remain free. When he does finally join Tanikawa’s gang, it is as a driver who spends his days reading Kenji Miyazawa and listening to classical music.

The latter interest draws him into a relationship with a club piano player named Asako (Kataoka Reiko), but even there he remains a perfect gentleman. It is only when Asako asks him to help kill a man who has nude photos of her that Kunihiro’s exceptional exterior begins to give way to more common emotions within.

In pursuing their relationship, the film importantly draws a distinction between their attitudes towards photographs. Kunihiro goes so far as to break into Asako’s parent’s house to steal her photo albums, but Asako refuses to look at them, treating snapshots as traces of memories meant to be destroyed.

Kunihiro values these images not merely as keepsakes, but as means of verifying his place in the world. Not only is the mere act of taking them a celebration of freedom, it confirms his position as an observer, coolly witnessing events and recording their passing.

It is seemingly when picture-taking turns sour, when the ugliness of Asako’s porn shots begin to invade his perception of her, that he decides to pick up a gun and do what will definitely send him away for life. He does this less for love or revenge than to erase himself from a world in which he has come to recognize he does not fit.

In a beautiful evocation of his disappearance from the frame, Mochizuki shoots him slowly receding into the distance, riding in the backseat of the patrol car, with a black and white video image similar to that captured by the hero of Another Lonely Hitman as he himself disappeared from this world.

One can speculate that Mochizuki’s peculiar concern for cameras and video images stems from his education at Image Forum, the experimental film academy. While The Fire Within’s script owes some of its power to the realism of its source–a story by Yamanouchi Yukio, former lawyer for the Yamaguchi crime syndicate–Mochizuki turns it into what is equally a compelling exploration of cinema and identity.

Kunihiro is in many ways a metaphor for the film camera and his personality an embodiment of Mochizuki’s directorial style.

Harada himself was the long-haired whirling dervish of uncontrolled passion and anger who dominated 1970s cinema. But here he appears with locks shorn, masterfully confining himself to the role of Kunihiro, a symbol of repressed internal turmoil.

His coolness and objectivity symbolize Mochizuki’s. Although The Fire Within features many potentially melodramatic moments, the director refuses to milk them, maintaining a rigidly distanced stance that keeps a lid on the explosive tensions building throughout.

Yet one can say that Mochizuki is not Harada’s equal. While the former often surpasses the latter in his control of the situation, he cannot match Harada’s genius at evoking the passions seething underneath. The farewell sequence of Kunihiro and Asako in the gym, for instance, is too long and distanced to underline the crucial role it plays in the story.

Mochizuki is rightly gaining attention at home and abroad, but he has not reached the point where his peculiarities have been forged into a personal worldview.

Reviewed by Aaron Gerow

Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 24 April 1997, p. 8.

Copyright 1997: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow