Onihei is another winter 2017 anime that I almost skipped over in my seasonal selection, but thanks to the recommendation of a reader, I tried it out and added the anime to my weekly viewing. The period drama has roots in a late 1960s novel by Shoutarou Ikenami, and has been adapted into various mediums, including theater, television, manga, and even an arcade game. Despite the stories taking place during the Edo period, they impart messages and emotions that resonate to this day.
The anime takes an episodic format, with each week providing a new case for “Demon Heizou” (“Onihei”), leader of the Arson Theft Control. While there are some recurring characters, each week presents new faces. Episodes usually start with the conflict of the introduced character, such as a noble thief running from Arson Theft Control, then getting caught by Onihei. Next comes Heizou’s investigation into the matter, and later his confrontation and resolution of the main conflict. While each of these episodes thus far has wrapped neatly into almost perfect packages, they also support a belief in the gray zone. No story has just one method of telling, and not all acts can be categorized as white or black. There is always another point of view to hear, and oftentimes an act for good results in evil. This plurality also defines Onihei, who at times plays the hero, and at other times the villain.
Hasegawa Heizou uses unconventional methods to protect the streets of Edo. Unlike many of his peers in the surrounding districts, he demonstrates an understanding for people of all social classes, be they nobles, commoners, or peasants. We see him repeatedly rely on citizens for intelligence and protection, and they in turn trust him and his men. Heizou also reveals an uncanny knowledge of the underground world and its uncharacteristic chivalry of thieves. Though he does not excuse their crimes, he does sympathize with the circumstances that drive them to their lifestyles.
In the very first episode, we see him confront a young man caught mid-theft and torture him for information. At this point, we do not know anything about Heizou, and the nickname of “Onihei” immediately seems appropriate. No matter the reasoning, I disapprove of torture and doubt its effectiveness in extracting the truth. Later on, we find that same thief recovering in a cell. When the thief, Kumehachi, learns that the child playing outside is the daughter of another criminal caught by Heizou and now raised by him, he becomes curious of the man. The two connect as Kumehachi relates his history and reason for being. Here enters the first mention of the thieves’ code of honor: never kill, never rape, and never steal from the poor. The code arises multiple times, later with a woman called Omasa, and again with an elderly thief by the name of Zenpachi. Most of us know the story of Robin Hood and his flawed execution of a similar belief–stealing from the rich results in the harsh punishment of the poor. While Robin may have given the fruits of his labor to the people, he could never return to them their dead.
Similarly, we see the thieves in Onihei try to uphold their code to varying levels of success. The first example with Kumehachi defending a former teacher gives us a man who fell from grace and now slaughters victims, seemingly without hesitation or remorse. Our young thief, however, holds true to his lessons and ends up working undercover for Onihei when called upon. Later we meet Zenpachi, an elderly man with a long and successful history as a thief. He, too, maintains the code despite his many years and or sign of inconvenience to a particular job. His is almost a story of how to succeed as a noble villain, though Onihei’s assistance undermines what would have otherwise been a solitary accomplishment.
While in the first example Onihei was more of an observer to the events that unfolded around Kumehachi, Heizou took direct action in Zenpachi’s aims to rob a corrupt official. By keeping his identity a secret, he is able to gain the older man’s trust and even affection. Zenpachi goes as far as to name Onihei his successor. The irony of the title and their friendship is not so stark when taking into account Heizou’s history and life outlook. People of principle like Kumehachi, Omasa, Zenpachi, and Heizou stand on the opposite spectrum from the other types of criminals present in Onihei, those who steal and kill out of greed or revenge. Circumstances have led Ofusa and Hanshiro to view life as either black or white. While they are able to successfully conduct their violence for a period of time, they inevitably come to justice.
Critics of the anime may fault the series for demonizing a woman whose manner of living is a result of other evils visited upon her, or unrealistically defeating the “bad guy” every single time, but I view these confrontations as intentional lessons for the viewer. Narrow-minded vision will lead to downfall, whether they are on the side of the villain or the hero. Not even Heizou is innocent of this weakness. At times, he persists in doing what he believes is good only to have the opposite come to fruition. As both he and Shugoro of Hakabi muse, “Humans, we can engage in evil while doing good. At times, we engage in the good while doing evil without intending to. Such is life.” Understanding this is one step in the correct direction of widening your view.
At the time of this post, we are seven weeks into the winter season. I have not seen too much discussion on Onihei and would like to see more people give it a chance. Even if you do not like period drama or crime investigations, you might find interest in the human interactions that transcend time and cultures. Everyone struggles with balancing the lighter and darker aspects of their desires, and no one is without either. We are a colorful spectrum of emotions that defy monotony.