Winter 2017 First Impressions – Onihei

In the late Edo Period of Tokugawa Shogunate, hatamoto samurai and law enforcement officer Hasegawa Heizō Nobutame (1745-1795) supervised crackdown on arsonists and organized robbers. He was both highly skilled and merciless against criminals, who called him “Oni no Heizō” (“Demonic Heizō”) a.k.a. “Onihei.”ANN

Streaming at: Amazon Video (with an “Anime Strike” channel membership)

Number of Episodes: 13

Source: Novels/Historical Dramas

Summary of Episode 1: The thief Tanbei of Chigashira has been assumed responsible for a rash of violent robberies around Edo as of late. Law enforcement officer Hasegawa Heizo employs the help of recently-apprehended thief Kumehachi to infiltrate the thieves, as Kumehachi is certain that an impostor must be behind the crimes. The “real” Tanbei, he claims, kept to a very strict thieving code prohibiting murder, rape, and stealing from the poor. Thus, the string of dead bodies in his wake must be the fault of someone more sinister. It is to Kumehachi’s horror to learn that Tanbei, now older, fatter, and looser with his morals, gladly takes responsibility and even welcomes Kumehachi back into the fold. All Kumehachi can do is help to bring his fallen master to justice.

Impressions: Content Warning for images of sword violence, blood, dead bodies, and the suggestion of rape happening mostly off screen/obscured.

I was looking for a bit of a departure from some of the cuter, lighter stuff I’d been watching thus far, and boy did this satisfy that itch. Onihei is unapologetically dark, humorless, and presented with an adult air that I suspect most people would find off-putting. I myself am actually at a bit of a loss as watching this dredges up some memories for me that I’m not quite sure how to think about.

This intro episode reminds me of the type of anime fan that I was eight or nine years ago. I was very much anti-moe and anything that walked the line of being too cutesy or cloying was likely to find itself in the garbage bin before too long. I considered myself to have very “grown-up,” serious tastes and sought out anime that distinctly seemed to be aimed at adult viewers. I surrounded myself with like-minded people, too, which kept me in the safety of an echo chamber. It was probably around the time of Madoka Magica (six years ago now, wow!) that I started to open up a bit more to the ways in which cute visuals and concepts are often used in creative ways. And heck, I now fully believe that sometimes cute is fine just for cute’s sake. I’m no longer that infatuated with anime series that stake their claim on being grim and gritty, and while I ended up having sort of a falling-out with some members of that previous group for various reasons (differences of opinion regarding media being but a small factor) I’m pretty happy with the type of fan that I’ve become in the meantime. One can be critical and discerning while still enjoying things that exist just to be fun, after all.

I wanted to spend the time providing that context, because I admittedly had some immediate negative feelings towards this show that were influenced by my own fandom experiences. The tone of this show is immediately darker and more serious than the majority of anime that’s produced nowadays, which makes it very unique; to me, though, it is also singular in how it reminds me of my relationships of a certain time and place, and of certain people who I know would enjoy the show for its atmosphere and combination of noir and samurai storytelling styles. Having said that, though, I’ll try to move past it and focus on the episode’s actual merits.

In the past few years, for reasons unknown, I’ve gotten really queasy about seeing acts of violence depicted on screen, whether in live-action programming or in animation. It’s funny, because years and years ago I would seek out gore and play a lot of overly-violent video games. Now I can barely keep my eyes on the screen when characters are getting hacked apart, especially so if there’s a lot of suggestive lead-in. This episode isn’t quite as bad as some for all the violence in it, because to be honest the gore isn’t really all that realistic. There are a couple of scenes that depict the aftermath of a robbery with dead bodies strewn about in pools of blood, and there’s also a sword fight featured in the second half of the episode that depicts some stylized violent sword-slashing action, but for a lot of the episode the most objectionable parts are obscured through darkness or come across as too over-the-top for me to be affected by them. There’s the benefit to me of being able to keep watching, but for a series that seems to be banking on its grittiness and basis in history, I think that might be a net loss.

Also worth mentioning, for those who prefer to be forewarned about it, is that there’s a flashback scene partway through the episode during which there’s either an attempted rape, or the aftermath of a completed one (it’s difficult to tell from the short time it’s on screen whether the attacker was successful or not). Shown in the scene is a visibly distressed woman with the front of her clothing torn open, though her nude chest is obscured by other characters and the darkness of the scene. As with most of these types of depictions, it’s only purpose is to add “flavor” to the scene using it as shorthand for depravity and departure from expected cultural norms. In short, lazy and unnecessary given even a slight modicum of creativity.

There seem to have been a few other somewhat bizarre visual choices made in the production of this series. Most people will immediately recognize the extensive use of CG for the background setting and many of the crowd scenes. I’ve softened on my opinion on the use of CG in otherwise 2D anime (thanks, Shirobako!) but that opinion rides on the fact that, when used well, CG generally melds well-enough with traditionally-drawn elements to remain unobtrusive and supportive to the important elements of the scene. This series seems to have taken a different approach, and I’m not entirely sure whether it was a purposeful choice or not. The background elements are conspicuously lacking in the kind of fine detail (texturing, colorization, etc.) that would help them to blend in well. The crowd characters in particular stand out like several hands’ worth of sore thumbs, especially when there are something like twenty CG characters in a scene with two or three hand-drawn main characters. Again, the realities of anime production are what they are, and I suspect a show like this which is now considerably outside the mainstream just doesn’t have the resources to devote to top-tier CG work. But dang would I much rather have looked at static background characters and dull settings than the strange type of poly-chromatic tomfoolery they went with.

That leads me to another of the series’ strange visual choices – the use of color. There’s heavy color filtering going on in many of the scenes, giving each of them a distinct look. Scenes in the jail have a dark blue hue, while those that take place in the town are tinted pink or red. It’s not exactly a bad thing in and of itself, and I’ve seen this kind of mood coloration work well in other stylized contexts. Again, though, the accompanying story of crime is not only gritty, but straightforward and classic; dressing it up with modern-day visual sensibilities would have to be done very well in order to project a sense of style without being overly-conspicuous, and I feel like the techniques cross the line into gaudiness more often than not.

I will say, though, that the very classic sort of story presented in this episode (and likely throughout the series), appeals to me on a certain level. I haven’t had much exposure to jidaigeki serials aside from having learned that they’re a thing that exists in the world, so to get a taste of that style of characterization and episodic historical storytelling via a medium that I can follow is an opportunity that I kind of would like to stay on top of.

That said, there’s but one legal method of watching this series in the United States, and it’s kind of irritating me right now. Amazon has been licensing a couple of anime each season for streaming, though last season they kind of dropped the ball with The Great Passage, a very excellent series about a dictionary editor (what? of course I would love an anime series about something goofy like that!). That and a couple of other anime are available now, though it appears that Amazon has posted them under some new anime-specific streaming service called “Anime Strike” which is a channel that you must pay for in addition to your existing Amazon Prime membership. I already pay for several different streaming services, so you can imagine that I’m a little bit salty about the prospect of paying even more money to keep up with the shows I want to watch (even if it’s only $4.99 a month… I already pay for Amazon Prime, darn it!). It remains to be seen whether this will turn out to be a successful venture for them. As long as they have exclusive rights to the noitaminA stuff, I’ll probably just have to bite the bullet.

I may have to stew over this one a little bit, since I’m extremely torn. I like to see a broad variety of tones and tastes represented each anime season, and this type of show is pretty rare nowadays (especially in animated form). I have to give a few kudos for going against the grain and giving us something that’s not cutesy in any way shape or form, and the idea of a historical police procedural type series is definitely intriguing. But it’s a near-complete sausage festival where the majority of the women are either dead bodies, background characters, or rape victims, so it’s difficult for me to connect with it on more than a very shallow level. It’s also quite violent in addition to that, which can be hard for me to take, depending on the day. Sometimes the media we love is just complicated, don’t you think?

Pros: The tone differs quite a bit from what’s popular nowadays. The “history” plus “police procedural” is a genre combo that we don’t get very often in anime.

Cons: There’s violence and rape. Some of the visual choices are questionable.

Grade: C

This article has 2 comments

    • I think this show is based on previously-published stories and there have also been television versions. The way this episode’s plot plays out seems very standard for this type of entertainment (the kind of classic redemption story, I mean).

      Reply

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