The Winter 2017 Anime Preview Guide ONIHEI
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
In the late Edo period, a man named Heizo Hasegawa runs the Arson Theft Control section of the Edo Police. Known as OniHei, or Hei the Demon, he is unstinting in his pursuit of criminals, not above using torture when he feels it's necessary. However, he also adopted Ojun, a little girl who was the child of a convicted criminal, and when he catches a thief named Kumehachi, he realizes that the man may have something more to offer him as well. Kumehachi once worked for a famous thief named Tanbei of Chigashira, and he's very familiar with this legend's ways. Now that a new sweep of violent crimes is being attributed to his old master, Kumehachi is certain that they must be the work of an imposter. Heizo agrees to let Kumehachi out of prison to help him catch the criminals – but Kumehachi may find that his memory is rosier than reality. ONIHEI is based on a novel and can be found streaming on Amazon's Anime Strike on Mondays.
How was the first episode?
The source material for this Edo period piece traces back to the 1960s, which I'm guessing is part of the reason why this anime version is styled very much like a '60s crime drama. It even uses a jazzy opener and a musical score which is mostly composed of light jazz occasionally punctuated by traditional Japanese instrumentation. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if at some point protagonist Heizo Hasegawa didn't end up in a smoky inn with a lounge singer, anachronistic or not.
All kidding aside, just about everything about the production evokes the impression of a Western crime drama transplanted into late Edo period Japan. The main character is essentially a police chief, he smokes, and he's not shy about getting his hands dirty even though he has a soft side. The torture scenes for the captured thief are gruesome enough that parts look to have been censored by overly darkening them, but even that is really just another version of taking a beating via fisticuffs in an interrogation room. The play-out of the plot is a simple but classic one: a thief who firmly lives by a code of honor established by a former master overhears that someone is acting rapaciously in the name of his former master. Incensed, he requests the right to take down the person dishonoring his master's name, only to learn that it actually is his master and he's had a change of heart for the worse over the years. And what does any wise police chief do with a principled villain under his authority? Turn him into an informant, of course! Because, you know, Heizo is just that cool.
Some of this all can definitely approach an eye-rolling level, but it's hard to hate the spirit which it embodies and style with which it's told. Samurai are a natural fit for a crime drama, too, and the first episode doesn't shirk on giving them opportunities to go into action. While I wouldn't classify it among the best-looking titles this season (some of the character designs in particular are turn-offs), it has an overall favorable look with no stylistic deviations to cater to typical anime style points and decent animation. But boy, it's just a little too dark in many shots, even when it isn't censoring itself.
Live-action TV and stage productions of the original novel have been around at least since the early '70s, so this series definitely caters to a much older audience. It should, however, still be accessible to younger ones as well.
ONIHEI looks to be presenting us with a good old-fashioned crime procedural, the kind of show you tend to see a lot more of in live-action television. Centering on chief Heizo Hasegawa, this first episode tells an episodic story concerning the thief Kumehachi and his former mentor, as Hasegawa attempts to find the killers behind a series of massacres around town.
Story-wise, this was a pretty routine introductory episode. Hasegawa seems to be one of those super-cops who are loved by all and always find their man, winning over even the thief he tortures in this episode's introduction. Characters like that don't make for compelling character dramas, but they can be fun to follow in action-packed whodunits like this one. Hasegawa will likely stand as a pillar of peace and nobility, and if this first episode is anything to go by, it seems like the show will strike a reasonable balance between his presence and the substories of individual cases. ONIHEI's writing isn't exceptional, but it's competent genre fare in a genre that's actually somewhat underserved by anime.
ONIHEI's visuals are a bit more interesting. I'm a fan of the show's intricate character designs, but the show seems to heavily favor complexity of character art over smoothness of animation. The characters felt noticeably stiff through most of this episode, and also divorced from their background. A combination of heavy color filtering and the unmoving characters made ONIHEI rarely feel like a cohesive visual whole, and more often like a collection of different planes awkwardly placed together. The background art is a similarly mixed bag - there are some nice shots of building exteriors, but most of the interior shots rely on digitally constructed rooms that feel too geometrically perfect and texturally bland to match the characters. The show's one real visual setpiece came at the end, where we finally got a smoothly animated and dynamically directed swordfight. But I'd prefer a generally cohesive visual aesthetic over a lot of subpar scenes and then one excellent highlight.
Overall, ONIHEI is essentially just a competent execution of a classic live-action genre. If you like police dramas or historical fiction and aren't put off by its awkward visual choices, it seems like a solid bet.
I'm always interested when an anime adaptation is made of an actual novel rather than a light novel or a manga. OniHei is one of those rare beasts, and it's based on a popular historical mystery series by Shotaro Ikenami begun in 1967, and it's had multiple TV and film adaptations. Although there's been a manga series based on it, this is its first anime, and so far it looks like it could be pretty good. One thing's for certain: if you're looking for something a little more adult this season, OniHei is likely to be your best bet.
The story of a police commander in late Edo-period Tokyo feels like a combination of police procedural and violent drama. The opening scenes of the episode involve Heizo watching dispassionately as his men capture a thief named Kumehachi and proceed to beat and torture him. This involves both tying him to a post and whipping him, but also driving a nail through his foot and then pouring hot wax on the wound. It's pretty grim, and while it is the most violent aspect of the show, this is definitely not for the faint of heart. Later scenes involve a well-choreographed sword fight and several scenes of female bodies lying in pools of blood with the strong implication that they were also raped. There's also a scene of near-rape in Kumehachi's flashback; while the practice is universally denigrated by the main characters, it's also clearly going to be fairly prevalent in the story, which may make it a no-go for a lot of viewers.
If you can get past that, the story itself offers some interesting commentary about what you see and what you expect. The first real hint is when a little girl comes chasing her brightly colored ball into the prison. When the imprisoned Kumehachi asks the guard who she is, he tells him she's the adopted daughter of Heizo, the natural child of a criminal he is raising as his own. This touches Kumehachi who had a similar situation with the thief Tanbei of Chigashira. Tanbei taught Kumehachi the three rules of a “true thief”: don't kill, don't steal from the poor, and don't rape. Because of this, Kumehachi can't believe that the perpetrator behind the recent spate of violent crimes could possibly be his erstwhile adoptive father. Needless to say, Kumehachi is in for an unpleasant surprise when Heizo agrees to let him act the spy; how he copes with it is as telling as Heizo's adoption of Ojun.
There's a lot to process in this episode, and if you can get past the grimmer parts, this could be an interesting historical mystery. The dark colors and more realistic character designs make it stand out, and there's some nice fluidity to the animation, particularly during fights. Not being a fan of anachronistic music, I'm not sure how I feel about the jazzy soundtrack, but it does always work with the scenes it's backing. Basically this is the grittiest-feeling show this season, and while it stands to be a breath of fresh, monster-girl-free air, it also has enough violence and implied rape to give some viewers pause.
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