Awell-mounted retread of the helmer’s last pic, “Another Lonely Hitman,” this moody yakuza drama doesn’t cut quite enough of an individual profile to stand on its own. While “Onibi” represents an advance in style for Rokuro Mochizuki, he’s starting to look like a one-trick pony. Pic is solid for fest and cassette play, but unlikely for theatrical exposure internationally.
Helmer, a former porn-maker, had a breakthrough in 1987 with “Skinless Nights ,” a funny, poetic look at that industry. Since then, though, he’s been almost exclusively concerned with underworld stories, and here he uses almost all the same elements as 1995’s “Hitman,” which was likewise based on a book by mob lawyer Yukio Yamanouchi. (The key crew people are also the same.)
This time around, the hit man who’s trying to retire is Kunihiro (Yoshio Harada), a pushing-50 jailbird who just wants to go straight. As usual, though, events conspire to draw him back into the yakuza life. In this case, a loyal lieutenant (Sho Aikawa) from the bad old days talks Kuni into taking a soft driving job for the mob. Of course, things don’t stay that simple, and the super-competent Kuni ends up solving problems for the new breed, who are falling all over themselves from greed and corruption.
This gives the tough protag, and the helmer, plenty of opportunity to bemoan the loss of honor among thieves — an overly romanticized theme common in yakuza stories today — although Mochizuki is a little too original to let things sit there. His hero, formerly nicknamed Ball of Fire (although the title translates more directly as “Ghost of Fire”), now has a Zen-samurai view of people and life, leading the tale into offbeat territory. Kuni ends up crashing with best pal from prison, Sakata (Yasushi Kitamura); the younger man is obviously attracted to him, but the semi-gangster uses this as a pretext for a lot of kidding around (at least by hit-man standards).
For his part, the ex-con is keen on Asako (Reiko Kataoka), a young pianist who entertains at a local nightclub/brothel. The pretty, seemingly docile Asako has demons of her own, however, and her particular demands are what pull him, almost accidentally, into internecine conflicts that will have catastrophic effects on everyone involved.
Trouble is, these events are essentially predetermined by the melancholy genre, which demands certain tragic and sentimental conclusions. Helmer’s distinction is in his staging, which features unusual locations and off-kilter rhythms — he doesn’t hesitate to stop the action for a prolonged underwater sequence — and often breathtaking lensing. His adult-video background surfaces in the glossy sex scenes, which run from the genuinely erotic to the slightly cheesy, but everything is elevated by a classy score, which leans heavily on cello and acoustic piano, as well as by Harada’s compelling gravitas (he easily recalls Toshiro Mifune in his mature prime).