I’m not all that surprised as to how Onihei Hankacho came to be as overlooked as is. As more of a “slow burner”, it’s not really the kind of anime to generate a ton of hype from it’s initial episodes. Likewise, the winter of 2017 featured shows with a huge push behind them long before airing, KonoSuba, Blue Exorcist and Litte Witch Academia to name a few, but it’s downright saddening to see it (as of writing this) a whole 4’000 lower than the travesy One Room, the later being a series of shorts with a mean score of two lower than the former. So seeing as no-one knows about this gem, this will be formulated more around why it deserves attention, instead of dissecting something no-one has any frame of reference to.
Context out of the way, Onihei is what you would call a chanbara series, or the samurai equivalent of western. We’re in the midsts of the Tenmei era, where we follow the infamous head of protection from crime and arson, Heizou Hasegawa, often dubbed the Devil Heizou. It’s a show of mostly episodic nature, were we get more and more in-depth about the character and his location as he fights crime in Edo (former name of Tokyo). Although stronger on the drama, it’s sprinkled with comedy from time to time for good measure. The actual setup is very simplistic in nature, but it also acts as a very nice segway for the focal point, it’s various messages and it’s characters. Whereas at face value, Onihei might seem as “just” a crime of the month series, the vast majority of episodes have a major subtext, either to expand upon the various side characters, or the protagonist Heizou. Where he might appear as the “perfect” officer, he’s simultaneously one of the most calculated and abiguous characters I’ve seen in a while, all the while generally on the morraly good side of things. Hiring a convicted thief to act as a spy for him, partaking in a heist during his vacation and conspicuous trickery are some of the shenanigans he partakes in, but all the while barely on the morally “good” side of things. It’s hard for me not to draw a comparison to Robin Hood, but whereas Robin Hood is a more traditional “hero’s journey” tale, Onihei has a much heavier focus on said character, his reasoning for what he does and his past which dictates his reasoning. It later delves into what shapes a person’s personality, both a persons origin, but also his/her experiences.
What I possibly like the most about Onihei, is how it frames itself as an episodic series first and foremost, and leaves all the more subtle details in the background for the viewer to find themselves. Without any of the self-indulgence and melodrama that easily gets overblown.
Now we come to where most people will probably be turned off… Onihei’s visual presentation is a mix bag of sorts. It’s is the debut product of studio M2, whose previous credited work according to ANN sums up to just about null. Just to get it out of the way, there is a bit of CGI, but mostly in city shots where it doesn’t stand out too bad. I don’t like it, but it’s not intrusive in this case. Animation can also get quite choppy at times, which sticks out like a sore thumb in a show that doesn’t have too extravagant of a visual presentation to begin with. But on the other end, the climax sequences, often taking place as sword fights, look drop dead gorgeous. Some of the most expressive fight choreography and animation out there, with immense weight behind every move. Albeit on the shorter end of fights, it’s quick and extremely effective at what it does. Gif’s linked are from the end of episode one, and if in doubt wether or not Onihei is worth it, just skip to the end of the first episode.
Visual identity is on the stronger side of things, with a very down to earth style. I noticed later down the line how incredibly well the distinction between cast and supernumeraries; How the main characters were all easily distinguishable from the background characters without standing out too much. I think it’s largely achieved by slightly more simplistic character designs and the phenomenal scene composition! It manages to keep retention high despite choppy animation and a story that aims for more nuance and detail, over constant progression, without having simple things like framing, depth and contrast stand out too much, making them the centerstage for viewer retention over story. It’s in a sense the opposite of the “new age of online-animators”, where sakuga (peak-time animation) often takes up space for other aspects.
So what’s the appeal of Onihei Hankachō again? Foremost the three, character drama, police mystery and samurai action. And seeing as I find the three to be very well executed, Onihei has my highest recommendation for anyone that have an appreciation for stories with a mid level pacing. Onihei won’t fill your needs for adrenaline pumped action, but it is otherwise a damned good series.