ONIHEI
Episode 4

by Rebecca Silverman,

How would you rate episode 4 of
Onihei ?

If Onihei isn't using the same music from its mid-to-late 20th-century TV shows, it's doing a damn fine job of matching it. This episode in particular features background songs that could have come from any 1970s drama, with a sound that lands somewhere between “jazz” and “elevator music.” Somewhat surprisingly, this really works for the show's sense of dark, gritty masculinity. That doesn't mean that Onihei is a show strictly for men, just that it has the feel of the sort of literature and television that is typically marketed to that demographic.

Onihei does, as this episode shows, still have some problems with its female characters. This week, the featured player is Omasa, who Heizo knew back in his ne'er-do-well days. Her father was a thief who ran an izakaya that Heizo frequented. The then ten-year-old Omasa was a feisty, thoughtful child. Now, twenty years later, she's gotten involved in a criminal group that refuses to follow the old ways of the honorable thief: no killing, no raping, no stealing from the poor. When they prove just how old-fashioned they find these guidelines by killing a girl Omasa had taken under her wing at the latest job (she seems to be the mole, inveigling her way into each target and passing information along), she realizes that she really needs to get out and fast. Since Heizo's new position is fairly well-known, she decides to throw herself at his mercy.

As we've seen before, Heizo is generally up for helping people, especially if they can be brought over to his side to help him, and there's a clear similarity between Kumehachi and Omasa. Both worked for criminal groups that eschewed the old honorable ways and got into trouble because of it, and both were offered spy/informant positions by Heizo. The difference here is that Omasa stands to get into a very different kind of trouble than Kumehachi simply because she is a woman, and this episode does not hesitate to go there: Omasa is found out, kidnapped, and raped.

In all fairness, she may not have actually been sexually assaulted, and Heizo may have gotten there in time to prevent that specific level of attack. However, when Heizo finds her, she's naked, tied up in a room with only her upper body bound, and a man in his loincloth ready to assault her. His wording is such that we could infer that he's either the last assailant before they kill her, or that this is just the next step in the gang's torture of Omasa. Regardless, it is troubling that Omasa, unlike Kumehachi, fails enough in her spy activities to be put in this position, especially since she presumably has more experience as a spy – we know this is essentially what she did for her gang, while Kumehachi had been working alone for years. Omasa also appears to be another potential strain on Heizo's wife, who has spent the series thus far looking long-suffering and simply trying to live around her husband's career and actions. Now with the clear possibility of Omasa moving in with the family, her actions and expressions are a bit hard to read. She looks more than a bit resigned, but there's also a little smile on her face as she turns to walk away, perhaps recognizing that Heizo isn't likely to turn anyone away. Any real feelings she has on the subject, she keeps to herself, the model of old-fashioned female virtue.

A lot of these more troubling aspects are due to both the time in which the tale is set and when it was originally written. There's no denying that there's been a lot of change since the 1970s, never mind the late Edo period. In that sense, it's hard to fault the series for faithfulness to its literary and historic roots. But more sensitive viewers may find themselves feeling wary this week's episode, no matter how well orchestrated the music or beautiful the imagery.

Rating: B-

ONIHEI is currently streaming on Amazon's Anime Strike.


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