To say that Onihei has markedly improved over the last couple of episodes is true on more than one level. I’m not sure I can remember another anime that ramped up so much in terms of production values after a premiere – the last two eps have been lights years ahead of the first, and that’s unusual to say the least. But the series has also improved on the storytelling front – settled into a nice rhythm and slips on the clothes of its setting far more comfortably than it did in the premiere.
For a period piece, world building is critical, and Onihei has done a masterful job of conjuring the look and feel of old Edo – or at least, old Edo as we see it in J-Dramas and the movies (which, I have to say, looks a lot like the snapshots of the Meiji Era which survive today). Context is everything, and in the late Edo Period when Onihei is set, the samurai era is coming to an end. That end is still many decades away, but the fissures are already becoming visible (and will become even more so in the time of Rurouni Kenshin and its peers). And if the samurai era died slowly, it didn’t go peacefully – it was ungainly and often ugly and Japan to an extent still wrestles with this transition culturally even now.
This is a true serial, it seems, a string of loosely connected stories tied together by the title character. This time around the focus is a ronin named Kaneko Hanshirou (Seki Tomokazu). While his father was a samurai, he died in a drunken fight with another over a gambling dispute (not an uncommon end for samurai in this time period). For Kaneko this means a life of seeking to avenge his father’s death – that’s the bushido code, after all – which in his case means becoming an assassin. And Kaneko is a damn good one – he’s never failed to take out a target, though he’s never had a target as Heizou.
This is an interesting tale. Hanshirou has no gripe with Heizou, but a job is a job – and Hanshirou is a man who’s clearly become very used to killing. But he wears a perfume called Hakubaiko to mask the smell of blood, which torments him – revealing that the way of the assassin is not his true nature after all. Kaneko makes several attempts on Heizou’s life, managing to wound him in the first, but failing each time. And the scent of Hakubaiko will be his undoing, thanks to Heizou’s long reach and extensive network of friends and allies.
As befits its nature, the stories in Onihei are not all that subtle – they’re dramas with a capital “D”, morality plays whose end is easy to predict but nonetheless makes an impact when it comes. So far all three have been tales of good people driven to do bad things, and for a man who believes on torture, Heizou seems oddly sympathetic towards these ill-fated enemies. In the case of Hanshirou, he refuses to put himself out of harm’s way, for the simple reason that in doing so he fears he will subject other people to danger as his assassin is forced to move onto other (easier) targets).
It’s the love of a woman that finally brings Kaneko to his end – though it’s certainly not her fault. The irony is (again) not subtle here – he’s finally been given a reason to live, but Kaneko dies trying to earn the money to run away with the woman he loves. In the end it’s not Heizou who kills him, but Mori-san, the man who killed his father – now working as an innkeeper, and an ally of Heizou’s. The interesting question here is whether or not Heizou would have killed Hanshirou himself if Mori-san hadn’t – and I suspect the answer is no, though of course that answer died with Kaneko…