by Rebecca Silverman,
How would you rate episode 10 of
“There are many kinds of thieves,” Heizo tells Ojun before beginning the world's least appropriate bedtime story. Yes, I thought, and you seem to meet all of them. Thieves certainly are the staple crooks in Onihei, with the majority of the crimes Heizo tackles relating to theft in one way or another. While it does make the show less gruesome than if it was mostly about murderers, it does run the risk of imbuing the series with a sense of sameness as our hero meets thief after thief after thief. On the other hand, theft is easier to forgive than many of the other crimes Heizo could be encountering, which allows for a more nuanced look at his policing style.
This episode definitely aims for “nuanced,” and for the most part, it succeeds. Framed by Heizo telling Ojun a story, it recounts the tale of a retired elderly thief who was a very specific kind of carpenter – the kind who builds trap doors and other Scooby Doo-esque mechanisms in order to go back and rob the house he's helped to build with a minimum of fuss. Nineteen years ago, the man's wife passed away while he was working in Edo. Feeling unable to be a good father, he gave his son Isotaro over to the care of his friends. Now he's retired and returned, pleased to see that Isotaro seems to be doing well – he's got a good job at a paper shop, where he's already an assistant manager. Of course, because this is Onihei, there's definitely more going on beneath the surface: Isotaro is actually being bullied by the new master of the shop, something he doesn't want to tell his parents about. Ultimately, the master successfully frames Isotaro for theft, and the boy kills himself. This sets off a horrible chain of events that ends with his adoptive parents dead, his actual father implied to have died of a heart attack while carrying out his revenge, and the folding of the paper shop.
On paper, this just looks really depressing, guaranteed to give Ojun nightmares. The strength of this episode comes from how it plays out. There's a realism to the way that Isotaro hides being harassed from his parents, either out of a need to hide the fact that he's not the success they think he is or the feeling that he somehow deserves the treatment he's getting. His decision to kill himself at the shop may be the only way he's ever stood up to his tormenter; not only is he more likely to haunt the place, but he's also tainted its reputation with his death on the premises. It also kindles the need for revenge in his biological father, who had originally built the place to be easily broken into, allowing him to lead a gang of thieves in to finish the destruction that his son's death began. Seen this way, the cruel master of the shop brought his own doom upon himself by pushing Isotaro to the point of no return. What's especially interesting is how all of the major action takes place without any dialogue pointing to the upcoming events. There's never a discussion about robbing the paper shop, Isotaro's adoptive parents don't speak of their intentions to drown themselves in the river, and Heizo never specifically says that he feels more sympathy for the thief than his mark. Everything simply unfolds with the horrible inevitability of an avalanche, as Heizo bears witness to it all.
The visuals are particularly impressive this week as well. Although there is a noticeable increase in CG townsfolk walking around, the use of different artistic styles for different scenes helps convey the sad timelessness of the story. Isotaro's funeral scene (see screencap) mimics Edo-era scrolls, followed by lush rainstorm imagery that highlights the starkness of grief and the reality that the uncaring world moves on. A slow pan to the bodies of Isotaro's parents in the river prolongs the sad inevitability of what we know is there, and the pastel cartoonishness of the master who sent Isotaro to his death shows us the shallowness of his character. But perhaps the most impressive part is when the thieves, in an effort to speed up their boat, dump all of the gold they've stolen overboard. As each chest hits the river bottom, it bursts open, spilling its contents. The boat moves forward on a river of shining gold as Isotaro's father shreds paper contracts in his last moment, sprinkling the world with “snow.” It's a scene out of an old folktale, with the same visceral power as a swan song for those who have lost everything.
Without these visuals, this episode would have been good in a sad way, but it wouldn't have made nearly the same impact. After all, Onihei has spent an awful lot of its story on tales of thieves of one stripe or another. But each story has also borrowed from its characters' pasts, reflecting on what made Heizo and his subordinates into who they are today. I commented in earlier episode reviews that there seemed to be a theme of the dangers of glamorizing the past, and over the course of things, that seems to have amended itself. The past, Onihei suggests, is always with us. It's how we choose to use it that matters.
ONIHEI is currently streaming on Amazon's Anime Strike.
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