Onihei has developed into a pretty good little series. This episode certainly wasn’t as strong as the last one – the story was a little less compelling, and the animation and backgrounds came back down to Earth. But it continues a solid run for a show that clearly knows exactly what it’s trying to be and doesn’t worry about anyone or anything else. It’s certainly enough to whet one’s appetite for what M2 might be able to do in the future (Pluto adaptation when?), though you wonder for how long they’ll be able to ignore commercial considerations the way they’re clearly doing here.
The catalyst for this week’s events is a brief appearance by Heizou’s almost-forgotten son, Tatsuzou – though he’s only the catalyst for a trip own memory lane into his father’s past. The younger Hasegawa is going through an enthusiastic phase in his sword training – training which his father clearly hopes will have the same disciplining effect it had on him. We’ve already had some indication that Heizou’s youth was a rather rowdy and even unsavory one, but the big revelation here is that he was an illegitimate child – the child of his well-off (and well-meaning) father and a courtesan. Needless to say, his shrew of a stepmother (who has no children of her own) is none too pleased with this, and has effectively kicked Heizou out of the house.
There’s almost always some kind of morality play at work in an Onihei serial, even if the morality itself is rather shaded in grey. This one is a rather jaundiced look at youth – an “unsettled and dissolute” period in a man’s life, at least the men in concern here. Heizou is a brilliant sword student but an unruly one, lacking discipline and a slave to his temper. That’s one of the reason his father sent him to the dojo of Takasugi-sensei (Fujiwara Takahiro), who trained the wildness out of him. But it’s not until the arrival of Matsuoka Jubei (Masaki Terasoma) that Heizou really begins to grow up.
At first, Heizou is galled by Matsuoka’s imperious confidence – but he soon comes to respect the older man’s brilliance with the sword, and see him as a mentor. Perhaps he sees something of himself in Matsuoka, because the latter turns out to be a thief (and a bastard) himself – a fact which Heizou learns after agreeing to drive the getaway boat for a visiting master thief for 50 Ryo. Matusoka has told Heizou that while it’s fine to be unsettled and dissolute, he should never do anything to shame his master – in other words, “never be like me”. I like the rather philosophical approach this episode takes – as when the owner of the thieves’ hangout tells Heizou (who’s sadly fallen asleep) that there’s nothing worse than an honest man turning to thievery, for he’ll commit even worse crimes in order to try and purge the shame he feels over thieving.
Is Heizou an honest man? I think that’s the interesting question that rather underlies Onihei, actually. I suppose it depends on how you define “honest”, because Heizou certainly isn’t entirely devoted to lawfulness. But we’ve seen plenty of evidence of dishonest lawmen and seemingly honorable thieves in this story, and it’s not entirely clear with which trade Heizou’s sympathy ultimately lies. That’s what makes him such an interesting character I suppose.