Episode 3

by Rebecca Silverman,

How would you rate episode 3 of
Onihei ?

If there's one phrase that I could use to sum up Onihei's third episode, it would have to be “death flags.” If you've watched enough anime, you'll be familiar with the concept: someone with a shady, usually blood-soaked past decides to get out of the life, finds a nice person to run away with, pictures their rosy future, then dies in a pool of their own blood because they have to complete one last job. It's about as by-the-book as you can get, and this show is not above playing into all the tropes of the almighty Death Flag. You can almost see it coming from the moment Heizo comments that his mysterious attacker smells of white plum blossom perfume – the flowers of fruit-bearing trees have a long association with ephemerality and the beauty of an early demise.

This time, the plot focuses on an assassin hired to take out Heizo himself. Ronin Kaneko is desultorily pursuing the man who killed his father in a drunken argument while making a living as an assassin, and if he successfully kills Heizo, he'll get 300 ryo, which is a very tidy sum. While he's working in the Edo area, he boards with an older couple who are generally unpleasant to Kaneko and downright abusive to their timid servant Osaki. Osaki is as sweet as she can be, taking care of Kaneko when he's injured or ill, so when he spots the master and mistress haranguing her, he kills them. Of course, this is the moment when the ol' death flags start waving madly – he tells Osaki to meet him in the early morning on the bridge; as soon as he takes care of killing Heizo, they'll have enough money to live a quiet life somewhere where no one knows them.

Yep. You can see how this turns out.

More interesting than the episode's actual plot is the way Kaneko is treated by Heizo and the rest of the cast. Even when Heizo learns of his past, there's no sympathy – Kaneko is an assassin and needs to be taken out. When Kaneko flees after failing to kill Heizo at the last second, Heizo pursues him, giving the distinct impression that if the elderly proprietor of the inn where the final showdown takes place hadn't killed him, Heizo would have, because motivations and pasts don't matter – getting rid of Kaneko is his job. We do have to wonder if this is in part because Kaneko was trying to kill him, because it stands in opposition to Heizo's treatment of Kumehachi in the first episode, and we see that the former thief has definitively opted to work for him this week. However, it's more likely that Kaneko's death at the hands of the man who killed his father (because melodrama relies on cosmic coincidence) is intended to return us to the theme of being trapped by the past. This time, however, both Kaneko and his killer are stuck in a gruesome past rather than the rosy nostalgia that haunts Kumehachi and Samanosuke in the previous episodes. The old man is so certain that Kaneko will kill him for revenge that he strikes first, even though Kaneko was explicitly at the inn only in an effort to run away. The old man kills the possibility of escape from his father's past for Kaneko, effectively destroying his future because he cannot forget his own past crimes.

This episode feels like it owes a lot to another one of the author's series, his tales of Baian the master assassin. Two of these books are available in English translation, and having read the first one, called simply Master Assassin, the fact that Kaneko uses a go-between for his assassination work is very much the way the system worked in the late Edo period; Baian rarely knows who has hired him to kill. There's also a distinct similarity in the way women are treated in both series, sticking to the basic good woman/bad woman set-up we've seen thus far; I'm hoping that next week's episode about Omasa, a woman who works as one of Heizo's informants, changes this some. As of right now, Heizo's wife is treated with a metaphorical pat on the head when she worries about her husband's life, while Osaki and the old woman simply perform the same good/bad woman roles we've seen before. This is driven home when Osaki waits on the bridge for a man who will never come, with a smile on her face as the man who killed him walks by with his wife, who says that she doesn't mind following him out of town because he's her husband. The implication, of course, is that Osaki would have made Haneko just such a virtuous and devoted companion.

This episode seems to cement Onihei's dedication to old-fashioned melodrama as its preferred style of storytelling. There's nothing wrong with that, and it's very much in keeping with both the time in which these original stories were written and the author's own works, to say nothing of the fact that melodrama has been popular for centuries all over the world. It may be more of a turn-off for modern audiences though, and this episode feels like a good enough example of the genre that it should give viewers an idea of what they're in for in the long run.

Rating: B-

ONIHEI is currently streaming on Amazon's Anime Strike.

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