Onihei- The Man, the Legend

The first day of the new season 3 months ago had me looking around a streaming site to see if any of the promotional images would grab my attention. Sure enough, I find one series I never heard about with a really distinct style to it. I Googled Onihei and was surprised to learn that this was the official anime adaptation of long running series of novels and live-action dramas that has been a part of Japan’s libraries since the 1960’s and its TV programming since 2005. I was already brought in with its distinctive style but learning of how this was the first attempts to officially animate the franchise really interested me because for how big it is, I never heard it before I watched the adaptation.

To any of you who stuck around, my feelings for this series should clear as day.

The Setting

Onihei takes place in the Edo period and features the cases that involved the investigations by the Arson Theft Control led by Hasegawa Heizo, more famously known as the titular Onihei. Crime has nearly all but been cracked down on under Heizo’s watchful eye and leadership, and the few prolific criminals that dare to play in Heizo’s game more often than not end up failing due to the help of his many spies. The series focuses on one case per episode and aside from the episodes that introduces a new character that is added to the team, the episodes can mostly be watched in any order. From dealing with kidnappings, rooting out criminals both transient and homegrown, and even partaking in thievery himself, Heizo’s escapades in taking down criminals are various and touch upon both the lowest points of man and the chances at redemption with his abnormally magnanimous heart.

The first thing that reeled me in about Onihei is a very simple fact that it’s a very straight-laced jidaigeki that doesn’t really spare room for the tropes of anime based on this era. I thought to myself that it would be an entertaining samurai drama show and realized that I hadn’t watched a samurai drama show in many years and as I kept watching, I couldn’t helped but be enamored by it’s main character. It’s a simple setting with simple execution to show the problems of the time the characters find themselves in.

The Characters

Hasegawa Heizo is probably one of the most entertaining and lovable main characters I’ve experienced in a while. This fact wasn’t at all obvious at first because the very first episode introduced and focused on Kumehachi while Heizo was the guy who administered his rather brutal torture session. Aside from that, a majority of the episodes feature Heizo as the primary protagonist where we more often than not learn a thing or two about his past that made him the admirable man he is today. The most important aspect of his character is easily his very own experiences of hardship and neglect that allows him to connect with the people who have known their lowest points, it was proper guidance that led Heizo to reach a better stature in life and he acts in a similar kind to guide others onto better futures. While his introduction couldn’t have painted him in a more brutal fashion, watching Heizo slowly be revealed to be a man who endured so many struggles made him an absolute joy to watch. We also have Heizo’s current family along for the ride with his wife Hisae, son Tatsuzo, and adopted daughter Ojun. Hisae was someone I initially thought would just be someone Heizo was given to live his now semi-luxurious life with his new position but her situation and story with him turned out to be a lot more touching that I ever expected. Ojun’s story is never fully fleshed out but the most important interactions with Heizo treasuring her like one of his own really came together in Otomatsu’s episode. Tatsuzo barely got anything with him on his own but serves to reinforce the message that being young and stupid is fine so as long as you mind yourself for the future.

In our police squad we have four named officers Sakai, Sajima, Koyanagi, and Chugo, with only the latter half being given story arcs. Koyanagi is characterized as a man who means well but is a bit inelegant in his duties and decision making. Chugo’s looks might not be the most adequate but some meat on the bones did imply a degree of wealth so he apparently is popular with the girls in the red light districts. The other half of the covered members of the squad are the recruited spies that operate around the town. First is Kumehachi who we see from the first episode who is an idealistic thief now spy who was betrayed by the ideals he followed. Omasa, the daughter of a restaurant owner who Heizo had known for a long while who becomes a spy after the thieves she ran with began to crossing too many lines. Lastly is Hikojyu, an aged but friendly old man who knows his way around town and is regularly acquainted with many denizens, both innocent and guilty, around the area. Samanosuke isn’t really a “member” of the Arson Theft Control but shows up frequently and helps Heizo but mostly retains his duty as a friend and helps Heizo relax when they drink together. Omasa didn’t really get an episode past her introductory arc like Kumehachi and Hikojyu until the very end so she was definitely the weakest among the three. I’m an enormous fan of Hosoya but aside from my bias, Kume’s loyalty to Heizo was also really nice since Heizo’s outlook on life makes him a great inspiration to look towards. I always thought Kume and Tatsuzo might be conflicted since the former might have been the ideal son for Heizo but it seems like even Heizo knows where to place his emotional investments even better than I thought.

I mostly thought this series would follow a single episodic formula were an unassuming villain or thief made relevant by an episodically exclusive character who has a relationship with the former would bring their actions to light, prompting Heizo and co. to storm the enemies’ hideout and bust them. Thankfully, a good amount of the episodes didn’t follow this formula while some did, and I thoroughly enjoyed each episode, especially where Heizo is the one who goes thieving for a good cause.

The Presentation

Studio M2’s debut series shows both their passion and dedication to the franchise but also its unfortunate low-end resources. Don’t get me wrong, some of the shots are beautiful and the characters have vibrant emotions and reactions but I don’t think anyone will say anything decent about the CG crowd existing at all. Some of the animations are also lackluster and the usage of camera tricks attempt to mitigate some of these but I was more on board for what the story of a given episode was telling than a fight. Honestly, other than the CG crowd, I barely had any problems with its visual presentations, some of them being outright beautiful to look at. Of course, like any seasonal anime series, the visual quality begins to dip around its final episodes but I still found the series worth praising for what it did right.

One of the most surprising things to me about the series was its jazzy soundtrack. Right from the beginning of episode 1 where Kumehachi was chased to the bridge and the opening kicks in, I was blown away with the instrumental work of the series. The renditions of the opening theme also made many of its high-tension moments exciting while the low-key songs complimented the casual and relaxing scenes. The somber tracks accompanying the numerous tragedies that take place also was able to induce some tears, especially in Otomatsu’s episode. I’m confident when I say the OST was an enormous factor in how much I enjoyed the series, much like how Hero Academia’s music made the experience that much more stand-out.

Lastly, there’s the pacing and because this Onihei follows an episodic format, there’s not too many things to address aside from the issues of providing a satisfying conclusion for each episode. The procedural style of the series with its “police work” usually equating to Heizo getting acquainted with the crime and dealing with it accordingly, unless the episode had one of the police squadmember’s in the spotlight. Some of the cases, or the entire series could have been better fleshed out and developed properly if episodes were 10 or 15 minutes longer so some of the resolutions feel a bit rushed and lose some of the impact. Even then, I think many of the episodes thankfully feel conclusive in a satisfying fashion. I’d also say a chunk of episodes can be watched out of order while a handful of episodes should be watched first as they introduce some of the cast members like Kumehachi, Omasa, Samanosuke, and Hikojyu who become regulars throughout the series.

One of the other issues with the overall pacing is how jarring the passage of time is between episodes. I think there were two occasions were there a time-skip of 6 months occurred where someone was held in jail before they’re addressed again while it’s been mentioned that it’s been at least a year’s time since the events of the first episode took place. This fact wouldn’t have been evident other than the 6 months bit since both characters subjected to imprisonment grow some impressive beards while the whole 1-year-passed part doesn’t become evident unless mentioned since no one really seems to noticeably age or change appearances to suggest it.

The Verdict

Onihei struck a chord with me in nearly every possible way and it felt so right to me when I started watching. You can definitely consider me biased when I say that it’s the fact that I haven’t been able to enjoy something in its genre in a long while a factor in why I enjoyed it as much as I did. That being said, I can’t fully say that being enamored with something relatively fresh is the only merit Onihei brings to the table. It’s presentation, aside from those CG crowds, the voice acting, and the stories it tell still manage to weave a simple yet effective tale of changing times and hardships. It definitely isn’t going to wow too many people with its choices in its OST Style or its rather foreseeable plotlines but it’s definitely an experience to see it all work out. If season 2 were to ever happen, and there’s apparently around 25 years worth of content from the entire original publication, I’d love to see it. However, the anime’s relative obscurity due to its Amazon distribution (which a lot of shows from the new season are adopting for some reason) will probably make season 2 a distant dream. One can only hope that Season 2 miraculously happens or the actual TV series gets subbed. There’s also an OVA that was released back in February but I haven’t seen anything of it.

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