Heizo Hasegawa, the chief of Arson Theft Control for the Edo Police, is charged with keeping the city safe from thieves. When he catches a thief named Kumehachi one moonlit night his actions set the gears of fate in motion. A thief and murderer named Tanbei of Chigashira is on the loose and his new prisoner just so happens to have ties to that man. Convinced of his former benefactor’s innocence, Kumehachi agrees to hunt down the real criminal, but in doing so receives a shock that could change the direction of his life from that day forward.
Historical drama is one of my favourite genres, so I was very pleased with this first episode of Onihei. If you’re a fan of shows like Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, Joker Game, Basilisk or 91 Days then this is definitely worth checking out.
One thing that immediately got my attention was the soundtrack. A lot of the tracks are more jazz-oriented which is a more uncommon sound in anime – this choice really makes the music stand out from the crowd. The opening song used here was an instrumental which I think worked well because it allows the viewer to focus on the interesting visuals. In each scene the soundtrack complements the mood really well – one scene that springs to mind is the torture/interrogation scene between Hasegawa and Kumehachi at the beginning of the episode: the piece used here does a great job of creating a tense, foreboding atmosphere.
The visuals are beautiful. Colour is used to great effect in Onihei to create mood and atmosphere. For example, in the scene where the police find Tanbei’s calling card the crime scene is shown entirely in shades of red: one of the connotations of red is that it is violent and brutal – it evokes the image of blood, which is only too relevant considering the mass murder that has taken place there. The lighting in many scenes was dramatic, creating tension and intrigue. Although in some scenes the character animation can look somewhat stiff, towards the end of the episode there is an incredibly fluid and dynamic fight scene which makes the less polished animation elsewhere worth it.
Part of what draws me to the characters is their dubious morality. Hasegawa, the police chief, is doing his best to keep the citizens safe and clearly has a soft side judging by how he adopted the daughter of one of the thieves he put away; however, it’s also made clear that he will resort to torture to get the information he needs and the name Onihei, or Hei the Demon, is further proof that he has a dark side. Kasegawa on the other hand is a thief who refuses to bring harm to others or steal from the poor. However, we learn that in his past he also attempted rape and in his future endeavors as a spy he may have to make some very difficult decisions. I hope that they take time to build upon the complexity of the characters in the future because I find both intriguing and want to see how they build on these foundations.
I loved how the show handled the relationship between Kumehachi and Tanbei. Because of Kumehachi’s tragic childhood Tanbei was the closest thing he had to a father figure and instilled in him the core values that he treasures to this day. After being excommunicated for breaking one of the three articles of a thief the two were estranged for a long time but despite that Kumehachi still believes in Tanbei’s fundamental goodness and is unable to believe that he would be behind the recent pillages. In two of my favourite scenes of the episode, Kumehachi comes face to face with the fact that Tanbei is not the man he once knew. When they’re sharing a drink we rarely see Kumehachi’s face, but we see his hands shake which is enough to convey the disbelief he’s feeling. When they confront each other on the bridge, Kumehachi still tries to believe in Tanbei’s innocence: “You are an imposter,” he repeats to himself over and over, his tears mingling with the rain, as he tries to believe in a lie that he can no longer reasonably deny. This crisis of faith will surely have some fascinating repercussions in the future.
One caveat: if you’re uncomfortable with blood, violence or other graphic imagery then you may want to stay clear of this series. The torture scene at the beginning doesn’t shy away from showing you the details – you will see a guy getting a nail hammered into his foot, there’s a lot of blood and little censorship. I can’t imagine that the series will tone these scenes down as it progresses. Be warned.
Overall, Onihei’s premiere really worked for me. Shows like this are a rare breed – you don’t see that many historical crime dramas, much to my disappointment. Because it’s based off a popular novel series rather than a manga or light novel I have high hopes for the plot going forward. However, even if the overarching plot doesn’t end up blowing me away then I still have high hopes due to the potential for interesting character drama and the high level of technical flair.