OP: 「鬼平～江戸を走る～」 (Onihei ~Edo-o Hashiru~) by ()
「血頭の丹兵衛」 (Chigashira no Tanbei)
“Tanbei of Chigashira”
Most anime opening themes are pop songs of one kind or another, so when one isn’t, it’s always worth taking a closer look. I mean, I enjoyed the Cowboy Bebop OP quite a bit, so I don’t see why we necessary need to sing at the start of every show. This is especially the case for period pieces where the usual pep of J-pop may not exactly be appropriate. Yes, I know Cowboy Bebop is not period piece per se so maybe it’s not the best example, but the jazz does perfectly suit the moody, used-future setting of the show, no? Music is key to establishing atmosphere, so it may be better to have something that really gets us into the time, is what I’m saying.
‘But wait!’ I hear someone in the back crying out, ‘I thought Onihei was set in feudal Japan, but it’s OP is neither feudal nor Japanese!’. Quite so; I couldn’t have made that point better myself. What is Onihei trying to achieve, then, with its choice of soundtrack? When I first the OP, the first thing i thought of was the Joker Game OP. Am I right, or am I right? Indeed, there’s much to the show that may remind you of some sort of spy-mystery-thriller. The titular Hasegawa Heizou is in fact, voiced by none other than Horiuchi Kenyuu who always played—and I recognised this one instantly as well—Joker Game‘s Lieutenant Colonel Yuki. A coincidence? I think not. Perhaps Onihei is going out of its way to be that kind of show. Consider its literary roots. The Western tradition has Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, and Japan has Hasegawa Heizou. He was the archetypal Japanese ‘detective’ for some time. Actually, I suppose ‘Demon Heizou’ is less Sherlock Holmes and more Robocop. In any case, though, if you wanted a feudal crime serial, he’s your man, but how do you translate that for the audience? By framing it as a stylish mystery thriller, I think, in the vein of Joker Game. Joker Game may have its period trappings too, of spies and WWII, but at its heart it’s also psychological detective fiction.
Joker Game, though, rode on its masterful execution, and I’m not sure Onihei displays the same chops. Heavy dramas like this naturally require very tight storytelling to manage balance the waxing and waning of tension and the flow of the narrative, but this Onihei pilot seemed to me somewhat disjointed. Joker Game quickly drove home its setting and its themes to unifying everything it was about, whereas Onihei doesn’t seem to have that same focus. Is it about Hasegawa Heizou, and the contrast between his ruthlessness with criminals with his respect for honour and and his goofy family life? Is it trying to establish an era of lawlessness and brutality for him to work in? Or is the main character actually the thief who was too idealistic for his own good? Are we supposed to draw parallels to something? Is it an allegory? I can’t answer any of those questions, and that’s a problem.
Without tight storytelling, nor a strong script, I’m not exactly sure from which angle I’m supposed to recommend Onihei. I mean, it’s not the best looking show either. Sure, the action is for the most part fine, but there’s so many samurai anime already that it’ll take more than that to impress. More concerning is the character animation in general. I think Onihei was going for something stylistic, perhaps even inject some realism in the art and movement, but they don’t quite get there, and the end product ends up more uncanny than anything. An while it’s evidently very proud of its background art, considering the ED, and sure, it’s great, the overall aesthetic doesn’t grip me as much as other period anime—and there are many.
All in all, not the best start for Onihei, but I think it’s got potential. Perhaps it’s expecting the audience to already be familiar with the character—which is not entirely unfair, considering his history—and actually works better for those who do (I, myself, am not very). Once we get to know Heizo better, perhaps everything will start clicking. And, in any case, a gritty, violent crime drama is certainly something we don’t get an abundance of in anime, and Onihei could be a welcome addition to the season on that alone. I’m willing to give Onihei time to impress me, for now, but I hope it does it soon. It definitely needs the opportunity to show-off the literary chops its based on.
ED: 「そして…生きなさい」 (Soshite… Ikinasai) by 由紀さおり (Yuki Saori)