Out of the shallow end and it’s adult swim time again…
I can already imagine the crickets when this series goes on sale on disc, and I don’t think there a going to be a lot of Onihei tables at Comiket 92. But that fits with the notion that this series is the first series from M2, yet another studio startup from anime titan Maruyama Masao (Madhouse and MAPPA founder). Occam’s Razor seems to suggest that Maruyama (who’s been quoted as saying he expects to live only a few more years) is on an increasingly unlikely quest to make anime with little production committee interference or involvement – to make the stuff he wants to make without worrying about commercial interests. As first Madhouse and then MAPPA got too successful commercially that became impossible, so we have M2 – and there are a lot of borrowed hands from those studios at work on Onihei.
I wish Maruyama success – he’s one of the greatest champions of creative ambition in the history of anime, and I think he’s right that the production committee system is slowly destroying it. In the the end though, Onihei has of course to stand up on its own two artistic legs. Does it? I would say yes – this premiere isn’t brilliant but it’s quite engaging. And while the modest budget is apparent, veteran director Miya Shigeyuki (Blood Lad, Kawaisou) and his team do a good job of delivering something stylish and eye-catching. Doing that without a lot of budget is an art, and the first impression of M2 production-wise is sort of Trigger if it were staffed by adults.
Onihei is an adaptation of a series of novels by Ikenami Shoutrou, Onihei Hankachou. It’s already received a manga and several J-dramas, and the first episode in fact plays very much like a classic jidaigeki. That extends right down to the music and the quite theatrical narrative style and acting – which I suspect will not appeal to all anime fans. Onihei is the story of a group of police in the Edo Period called “Theft Arson Squad” (Hitsuke Touzoku Aratamekata). Their leader is the charismatic Hasegawa Heizou (Horiuchi Kenyuu), nicknamed “Onihei” (Heizou the Demon) for his persistence and ruthlessness.
Onihei literally hits the ground running, as we see fugitive Kumehachi (Hosoya Yoshimasa) being pursued by Hanzou and his men. Once captured we’re rather graphically treated to Kumehachi being tortured by the squad, including Hanzou driving spikes through his hands and feet and pouring boiling oil on the wounds. No, Hanzou is no saint – though he does have a young daughter he’s adopted from one of the thieves he’s captured (presumably after torturing him to death). Meanwhile a stream of especially brutal robberies is plaguing Edo, with the victims being killed to the last woman and child.
The thieves leave the calling card of Kumehachi’s old boss (Unshou Ishizuka), though Kumehachi believes that’s impossible because his boss (who took him in as an orphaned child) always preached the three laws of thievery – never rape women, never steal from the poor, never kill. In fact Kumehachi was excommunicated because he tried to rape a woman during a robbery. He begs Hasegawa to allow him to hunt down the man impersonating his old mentor, and the Onihei agrees – but in the end, this is not the sort of imposter that Kumehachi had in mind…
The notion of “honor among thieves” was a very real thing in this time period, and it seems as if Onihei is going to be very much a series of moral shades of grey. In addition to the period drama there’s a lot of Manglobe vibe to this show (with all that implies in commercial terms). It’s too early to tell if Hasegawa (who has a son played by Namikawa Daisuke) or any of the other cast members are going to prove compelling characters, but based on one episode Onihei looks to be a pretty well-executed period piece – and one that’s totally different from anything else on the schedule. That’s what M2 wants at this point in his life, clearly, and I wish him all the luck in the world in continuing to go his own way. Anime could use a few more like him.