The Case of the Criminally-Underrated Onihei, Sleeper Agent of Winter 2017
It’s quite possible that, with all of the new stuff that’s come out this year, you might have overlooked that one samurai series with characters that look like actual samurais. I don’t blame you. After all, there were a lot of factors that seemed to be working against this show and its release.
First, it’s the debut project of fledgling Studio M2. Second, its licensing rights were purchased by Amazon, guaranteeing a quick trip to the bottom of the scrap heap. And third, it takes its story from a series of novels bearing the same title – imagine the dusty old kind that might have passed for entertainment, back when the internet still wasn’t a thing.
Regardless, Onihei defied the odds and went out there anyway, because that’s how much its creators care about conventional standards. What you end up with is something that's simultaneously unlike anything mainstream, yet destined to be a cult classic. That is, if anyone else ends up watching it later on.
But that’s alright. If there’s anything to learn from Onihei, it’s that sticking to your guns is always worth it, as long as you know you’re on the side of right.
But I was talking about the samurai.
Welcome to the Jazz Show
Samurai and jazz – who woulda thunk it? This unlikely combination is one of the first things you immediately notice about the series. These days, it seems that all you need to make it big in the cool biz is a jazzy soundtrack. That’s nice and all, but in the wrong hands, it can come across as a little try-hard. Here, however, the soundtrack injects some modernity in a show that could have easily dropped into the standard samurai tropes.
With this series, it’s easy to dismiss the jazz as a silly gimmick. It doesn’t help either that the snazzy soundtrack only has around three or five tracks that play over and over again. Regardless, Onihei has this distinct sound to thank for its fresher and more dynamic take on the stiff-as-bones samurai genre. Just like the show, the soundtrack starts to grow on you at some point. Eventually, you’ll either dismiss it as elevator music – or, if you’re like me, you’ll keep playing that OP until your ears bleed out:
Edo District Blues
Here’s another thing you’ll notice almost immediately: Onihei is a police procedural drama set in ancient Japan. A cop show and a crime drama, starring samurai instead of your favorite boys in blue. You have to wonder why a marriage between two impossibly-cool genres wasn’t done before, but thank the gods that be for making this shotgun wedding happen.
The series follows an episodic format, featuring 13 different stories, each with their own separate sets of characters, motives, and crimes. Your main character, Heizou Hasegawa, leads the Arson Theft Control Unit, and spends his days investigating your not-so-friendly neighborhood crimes.
Like your average police procedural, nothing in Onihei is black and white. All 13 episodes share the same trait, which is the constant splashing of gray moralities to give you the whole picture. Heizou himself is known to be lenient and understanding when he needs to be, even if he’s the closest thing ancient Edo has to Robocop. Thanks to the dominance of gray, not all of the episodes end on a happy note. But herein lies the beauty of the show, even if the one shots tend to get monotonous at times.
You could also say that the series suffers from the lack of a main arc. As the entire season is made up of separate stories, there’s bound to be some hits and misses. It’s also possible to lose interest at some point, only because there’s no special gimmick to keep you watching – other than the fact that some of the better stories were saved for last.
But again, like your average cop show, the hard-hitting brevity is what gives Onihei its appeal. Brevity is wit, but it’s also a tragic thing sometimes, especially when those special moments go by so quickly.
Slash and Awe
Here’s where it gets bloody – but not really, because this show knows when to really pull its punches. I mean this in a good way.
The first episode opens with a torture scene. The third episode depicts an assassination attempt. The fifth one begins with a tryst in a brothel. It goes without saying that Onihei is a series not for the faint of heart.
At the same time, the series knows when enough is enough. It’s violent and cruel, but only when needed. This is not some pulp movie that relies on exaggeration and over-the-top gore. Instead, think of it as a more exciting version of your favorite noir story – while there’s the usual investigation, don't be surprised to see a few limbs getting decapitated once in a while.
A word to the picky, though: the animation used in Onihei isn’t anything special, nor is it anything to write home about. The recycled action scenes and shoddy CGI are understandably off-putting for the average viewer, but the thing is, Onihei isn’t meant to be viewed as an action series.
It isn’t a mystery show either, because the cases featured here are all fairly easy to solve. I describe this as a police procedural, but this is no CSI. Instead, more weight and value are given to the stories that make up the criminal portfolio of ancient Edo. It would be wrong to begin the series expecting a well-written whodunnit. It’s more of a whydunnit, where motives are given more precedence than the way a crime was committed. If you adopt this mindset going in, then you won’t be disappointed.
Sidekicks in the Spotlight
A variety of characters make up the world of Onihei, and not all of them are the kinds of people you’d want to bring home to your mother. Because the series runs on its gray moralities, it’s a given that morally-ambiguous characters will be used to help tell these unique stories.
In here, you’ll see that not all thieves are murderers and thugs, while not all government workers are squeaky-clean. It’s a fact that’s evidenced in the way Heizou is known to take in thieves and other questionable characters to help run his unit. These shady characters help show you the darker side of the operations – knowing the types of rascals that caused trouble back then, you know Heizou’s guys will have to get their hands dirty at some point. While they’re generally incompetent when Heizou’s with them, they eventually get their own chances to break out of his shadow and show what they’re really made of.
There’s no development for these characters – you get depth instead, where you begin to understand why they resort to these actions. The characters featured in this show remain stagnant from beginning to end and don’t show much growth. While this might work against the show’s favor sometimes, it’s worth it, if only to see what the next episode will bring.
Finally, you have your main character, Heizou Hasegawa. He’s a grizzled cop who’s seen it all, so it’s no surprise to find out that nothing fazes him anymore. It’s this cool, calm aura that makes him charismatic right away, and a hero worth following. He makes a good first impression, too – kicking off the series with a bang by torturing the living daylights out of someone. A few scenes later, we see him playing around with his children while he’s off-duty.
This isn’t far-off from his depiction in the original novels. While he was widely-recognized as one of the strictest authority figures in his timeline, Heizou was just as renowned for his fairness. His nickname, born from the combination of the Japanese word for devil and his real name, does justice to just one aspect of his personality. If his other depictions in the novel series, movies, and television spin-offs are any indication, then Heizo is to Japanese literature what King Solomon was for the Bible.
Heizou adopts the persona of a wise sage for a reason. While it’s always a trip to see your main character develop and improve himself, it’s just as worth it to see how he might react to the world around him. It’s clear right away that Heizou’s background isn’t the story Onihei wants to tell. Through the fable-like one-shots, we get to see the stories of other characters instead. Heizou is just the lens we view these stories through, where he becomes both the subject of the story and its teller. We view these cases through Heizou’s eyes; at the same time, we gain an understanding of his own character and moralities. He doesn’t show much development, because this arc of his story is already finished. We get Heizou as he is right now: strict, but compromising when the situation calls for it.
There is some benefit to molding a series around this type of character. In order to move these cases forward, you’ll want someone who knows what he’s doing. In a business where one mistake could be costly, it’s important to have someone as reliable as Heizou running the show.
At the same time, this personality trait also means that the stories get stale and same-y. You already know how an episode is going to end – but with this, the thrill lies in seeing how the series executes the story’s moral.
Cease and DesistYou’ve got the right idea when you think of this as anime’s counterpart to Law and Order. While Onihei is obviously a very simplified version of other cop shows, it’s already off to a great start. Time will tell if the crew will be back for another season, so it’s best to get into the show now while it’s already out there. If you’re looking for something to give you a more mature alternative to the other series out today, then Onihei’s got your back. It’s a cut above the mainstream crowd, where its maturity lies in other, more meaningful, things besides its violent nature.
The Case of the Criminally-Underrated Onihei, Sleeper Agent of Winter 2017
Onihei might be one of Winter 2017's most underrated series yet. Read on to see why you should be getting into this series now and giving it more...
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