Episodes 1-2

by Rebecca Silverman,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Onihei ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Onihei ?

First, a brief rant: Amazon's subtitles are not working for me. Not because they aren't reasonably accurate – it's the way that they're placed on a dark grey background so that they obscure a (small) part of the image and stand out more than necessary that's irking me. They're subtitles, not closed-captions. Let's do away with the background. Please?

If there's anything more dangerous than our own memories of better times, OniHei isn't sure what that is. Both of these introductory episodes to the world of Edo-era policeman Heizo Hasegawa rely on their protagonists' memories to drive their plotlines, with both reminding us that things rarely stay the way that we like to recall them, and that blind devotion to the past doesn't really help anyone. The second episode is definitely the stronger in this respect, but both are done well in a classic TV mystery kind of way. It's like watching Matlock set in Edo Japan in terms of the ways characters interact and the action progresses.

Of course, Matlock and his ilk were never quite as gritty as OniHei starts out. The fact that most of the artwork leans towards the brown and grey end of the spectrum certainly helps, as do the far more realistic character designs. But mostly what makes Onihei feel darker is how its stories are told. The plots themselves are very basic: in episode one, a former thief has added rape and murder to his repertoire, and in episode two, a corrupt vassal is killing, stealing, and extorting money from locals. It's the focus of these stories that makes them feel darker and more unusual than they are, and it's the juxtaposition of a dark present with a bright past that makes it work so well.

On that front, episode two is much stronger than episode one. That's probably in part because Heizo himself is the protagonist; in episode one he's seen through the eyes of Kumehachi, a thief he tortures before tossing him in jail. He's truly the oni (demon) of the title to Kumehachi, until he learns that the man has adopted the daughter of a convicted criminal as his own. Sadly, this does not cause Kumehachi to question other outward appearances, leading to the tragic realization that his childhood hero is no longer the good man he once was, much in the same way that Heizo is not the evil man he appears to be. Of course, we could argue that Heizo observes Kumehachi's lesson and is then able to apply it to his situation in episode two, where his first love, Ofusa, is no longer the innocent woman he and his friend Samanosuke once yearned for. Heizo is surprised and saddened, but he isn't crippled by the realization, which is more the case for Samanosuke and Kumehachi when their illusions are shattered.

Obviously, both of these plots are pretty well-tread storytelling ground: purity corrupted and goodness gone wrong. In part, that's because the stories themselves have been around since 1967, which is when Shotaro Ikenami started publishing his Heizo tales. (Two volumes containing a selection of the original 137 stories are available in English. I've got them ordered from the library.) From 1970 up to today, the stories have been adapted into films, live action TV shows, and manga, so this is arguably one of Japan's more popular fictional worlds. The fact that the anime has such a flavor of the 1960s and 70s in its background music, color choices, and basic plots should indicate the level of love for this franchise – there's definitely an “if it ain't broke, don't fix it” feel to the way the show is presented.

The fact that it originates in the 1960s also may explain some of the attitudes towards women. Women are either virtuous wives or maidens or sexy vixens – thus far there is no in-between. Of course, it is early days yet, and the second episode does attempt to explain Ofusa's transformation as being due to her lack of power as a woman in the Edo period. Heizo comments to the heartbroken Samanosuke (who never got over Ofusa to the point where he never married) that women live only in the present, implying that they don't have the luxury of dwelling on the past or looking to the future. Their lives are utterly ruled by men: Ofusa could only marry who her father dictated, and when her husband died and her brother-in-law tossed her out, she had to rely upon the first man who offered to take care of her. It draws a parallel between her and Ojun, Heizo's adopted daughter – if he hadn't taken her in, she would have been in a similar position.

Visually, Ofuda's transformation is probably the most interesting trick between these two episodes. It doesn't have the visceral quality of watching a nail get driven through Kumehachi's foot (and then topped off with hot wax), but the shift from innocent to despoiled is subtly done. As a girl in her long-sleeved kimono (indicating her unmarried status), she's the color of sakura blossoms. Her most alluring feature is the nape of her neck; even when we see that her legs and buttocks are clearly delineated through her kimono, it is the neck that captivates. As a worn-down woman, she wears garish mauve patterned with orange-yellow butterflies; her hair now obscures her nape and her kimono gapes over her breasts, making them the visual focus and giving her a tawdry feel. She's world-weary and tired, and it is her lack of control over her own life that has made her this way.

The idea of transformation, which we also see in how Heizo has changed since his younger days, seems like it will be as much a theme as the folly of memory going forward. Heizo's son Tatsuzo is hanging around with a bad crowd, and his parents are worried. It looks like next week's episode may start to touch on that, so we'll be able to see how thematically linked the show's stories will be. In the meantime, ONIHEI is off to a slightly melancholic, vaguely melodramatic start. If you're hankering for a period drama that doesn't skimp on blood and the consequences of foolishness, OniHei's first two episodes are setting it up to be a good one.

Rating: B

ONIHEI is currently streaming on Amazon's Anime Strike.

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