Onihei is anime’s answer to a seniors’ activity center.
At this point there can be no question about it. Despite the fact that it’s a series about a legendary lawman, the real heroes of Onihei are the outlaws. And what’s more, they’re the protagonist’s heroes too. There’s no question on which side Onihei comes down because there’s no question on which side Heizou comes down. Justice is justice, evil is evil, and it doesn’t matter what color hat anyone is wearing. That makes this series interesting – and Heizou, too.
Another thing I like about Onihei is that it’s a platform for actors who almost never work these days – the whole run has been full of them. This time around it’s 82 year-old Hazumi Jun, who plays a legendary “Musumi-zaikou” named Wasuke of Dojo. A Musumi-zaikou is a specialist in “theft-workings” – a builder/carpenter who incorporates weaknesses he can later exploit to enter noiselessly and steal the contents of a building (sort of like a shady programmer who writes back doors into his code). Part of it is Maruyama wanting to work with all these old running mates, I’m sure – but mostly I think it’s the fact that anime hardly ever has major roles for characters this age anymore.
Wasuke’s tale is a dark and tragic one, like so many of the serials in Onihei the chronicle of an older thief who’s tried to come clean but keeps getting dragged back into the business. In his case the impetus is a weak heart, and Wasuke has managed to resist the entreaties of greedy crime bosses for five years. He’s in Edo working with an old friend to whom Wasuke gave custody of his infant son 20 years earlier after the death of his wife (for which he blames himself). To young Isotaro he’s “Uncle Wasuke” – and the old thief is happy enough to let Isotaro live what he believes is a happy life with loving parents. But while the parents are indeed loving, the happy life the youth is leading as assistant manager of a famous paper shop is anything but happy.
Wasuke’s story is a compelling one, but once more it’s Heizou’s take on it that’s especially interesting. He has no qualms about telling this story to his demon child and painting Wasuke as a noble man, for starters (clearly his fusty wife doesn’t approve). And when Hikojuu brings word that Wasuke is planning on jumping back in (as an act of revenge against the manager of the shop that destroyed the lives of his son and his step-parents) Heizou notes that he might be late “because the moon is so beautiful”. It’s a dereliction of his duty, no question about it – but clearly, Heizou sees himself as accountable to higher laws than those of the Shogunate.
I’m not sure what moral Onihei is trying to spin, really – either generally or with this episode. But ultimately it always manages to make a pretty convincing case that the person most deserving of sympathy (and usually admiration) is the one on the wrong side of the law. In the end Wasuke effectively gave his life in extracting his revenge for his son, which in theory is hardly admirable but in practice is wholly understandable. if anything, the recurring theme here may be the powerlessness of the law – for all his noble intentions, very often Heizou is unable to help the people he most wants to help. Maybe that’s why he’s so admiring of those that take the initiative to help themselves – even if they have to break the law to do it.