18 May 2017

V Reviews: Onihei - The first dream project of a dying producer

One of the few Winter 2017 titles that picked my interest was one that wasn't available through regular means. The anime named Onihei is one of the first anime to be only available through Amazon Prime, where anime only goes to die.

All bad jokes aside, seasonal anime that end up being "reserved" through premium streaming services are a good thing for legally watching anime (see my previous rant on the closing down of Nyaa). But the downside is that all the different services together can cost you quite a bit. Especially with Amazon's model, where you both need an Amazon prime account + an Anime Strike subscription. Both together costing you 16$/month.

At first I would've said that Onihei by itself isn't really worth that much money, since it's only an "above average" anime.

But when I started researching this anime's backstory segment, I ran into so many things that I had to change my opinion completely. Let's get over this one step at a time to show you why I changed my opinion.

V Reviews - Onihei (the Anime)

Backstory - About Onihei Hankacho

Onihei Hankacho (lit: "The Crime reports of Onihei") is a series of light novels written by the late Shōtarō Ikenami (1923-1990). These stories are based around the historical figure of Hasegawa Nobutame, whose name later changed to Hasegawa Heizo - also nicknamed the Onihei (Heizo the oni). The first volume of these novels has been released back in 1967 and ran until the author's death, with the 139th novel released in 1989 (wow, really productive there!).

And the series of novels have received quite a bit of adaptations over the past decades. From 1989 to 2001, there was a TV series on TV Asahi, which also received a movie and several TV specials. Next to that, several of the light novels have been adapted into Kabuki theater plays, the first of them already aired back in 1970.


Promotional image for the regular tv-series

And since 1990 there is a manga adaptation of the light novels as well, which is running to this day and has already amassed 100 different manga volumes.

So to say that Onihei Hankacho is a cultural phenomenon in Japan is kind of an understatement. The show and its main character (Hasegawa Heizo) have been part of the Japanese cultural heritage for decades now. This so much that his character either appears or gets parodied in other manga/anime. Most notable being Hasegawa Taizou from Gintama (who couldn't be further away from the character he's based upon, like most Gintama historical characters).

If you want to know more of the historical figure of Hasegawa Heizo, read the following blog post on My Little Dejima. He goes deep into the history of the person behind Onihei.

So if you think about that, it's actually more surprising that this series NEVER got an anime adaptation before this year. To think it would take a terminally ill producer to make that possible...

Backstory - About Studio M2 & Masao Maruyama's dream projects

If you follow the anime industry as a whole, you may have heard the name Masao Maruyama before. He's a legendary figure who has been present in the industry for over 50 years now. If you want any indication of how long exactly, he stated in an interview that the first anime he ever worked on was the 60s adaptation of Astro Boy (which aired between 1963 and 1967).

Over the course of his career, he worked on dozens of classics and raised talent from the ground up (including legendary directors like Satoshi Kon).

He co-founded Studio Madhouse in 1972 (The Ma from Madhouse comes from his name) and he is one of the main reasons Madhouse became so famous over the years. If you look at the works Madhouse made ever since its existence, most of them were possible due to Mariyama's "producer" powers and influence. You can look up the entire list on Wikipedia, but let's just list a few to make your jaw drop: Trigun, Beck, Chobits, The Girl who leapt through time, Gunslinger Girl, Hajime no Ippo, High School of the Dead, Monster, Nana, Paprika, Summer Wars, etc, etc.

But 2010-2011 were the year of change for Madhouse. Both co-founder Osamu Dezaki and legendary director Satoshi Kon passed away. The studio had financial issues due to (among other things) the anime bubble bursting and the financial crater the movie Redline left behind. To make sure the studio survived, Nippon Television pumped money into the studio and became its major stock holder (and thus becoming the new rulers in that process).


The movie looks amazing, but it was a financial disaster for Madhouse.

But with a new financial ruler at the studio's helm, changes at the top were inbound - whether voluntary or forced, we'll probably never know. First up was obviously the firing of Redline's director Takeshi Koike. Co-founder Dezaki passed away as previously mentioned. Co-founder Shigeyuki Hayashi (Rintaro) left the studio and basically retired. And Masao Maruyama left as well. And with 3 of the 4 co-founders gone, most of the Madhouse directors, animators and other employees started to leave the studio as well.

One of the reasons of Maruyama's departure was the legacy of Satoshi Kon: The unfinished movie "Dreaming Machine" (Yume Miru Kikai). It's not really a secret he felt regret for the financial side-effects of Redline and did not want to repeat that disaster for finishing Dream Machine (he knew it would cost a lot to finish properly).

In order to find the financial means and continue making anime he liked, he founded studio MAPPA in the same year (Maruyama Animation Produce Project Association).

And with Maruyama's name, amazing anime followed as well. Since its founding, MAPPA created hits like Kids on the Slope, Hajime no Ippo the Rising, In this Corner of the World, Rage of Bahamut and also the 2016 "best anime" (according to Crunchyroll) Yuri on Ice.

But in 2016, he first hinted in an interview and further elaborated in a Q&A at Animazement that his health is deteriorating and he probably only has 3-5 years left to live.

Due to this, he really wants to use his last living years to finish his personal dream projects. But since he doesn't want to put financial burdens on MAPPA (once again reflecting on what happened at Madhouse), he founded a mirror studio to MAPPA, aptly named Studio M2.

This Studio will only focus on the dream projects of Mariyama and thus will push to complete anime like Satoshi Kon's Dream Machine (if Mariyama ever finds a good replacement director), Naoki Urasawa's Pluto and the novel/tv-series Onihei Hankacho. There probably are more, but these are (at the moment) the only ones that have been hinted or confirmed.

Mariyama will be 76 this coming June (born June 19th 1941). Let's hope he is able to live long enough to see most of his dreams see fruition (Pluto, please make Pluto happen! Come on, Pluto).


And in case you were wondering: Yes, Shirobako's Masato Marukawa
is based upon Masao Maruyama (and he IS aware of it).

The Story

Hasegawa Heizo is the long-time head of the Edo era equivalent of the police force: The arson and theft control. His crew and he go around trying to capture (and/or kill) crews of thieves, murderers and other scum. This via an intelligence network he slowly builds up from reformed thieves.

All the while, Heizo himself can be an "oni" on the battlefield, while being an aloof husband to his wife, a caring father to his children and mischievous supervisor to his underlings.

The 13 episodes of this season (+1 OVA) tell stand-alone adventures about Heizo, his crew, his family and former convicts he somehow ends up recruiting along the way. While you can watch the episodes out of order if you want to, each episode has the focus on introducing one or more of the recurring supporting characters. So if you don't want to feel alienated from these people, it's still advised to watch them in order.

The episodes can vary from story and from tone, depending on what story needs to be told. Some of the stories are filled with remorse and making things up for mistakes made in the past. Former criminals trying to reform and seeing how their former friends turn into scum, or how people they thought were their allies will suddenly drop them or even kill them to save their own hides. A recurring theme here is the "three rules of the thief" in Japan (Do not kill, do not steal from the poor and do not rape women) and how some abide by these rules, while others (the scumbags) do not.

Other stories then are a bit more light-hearted. Like the episode were Heizo's pipe is stolen while he was sick and he by accident stumbles upon the man who has stolen it. It's enjoyable to see Onihei play with the poor thief on the one end, as well as his own personal underlings on the other end.

Animation

Yeah, I eventually had to stumble upon this one, eh... While a lot of things are enjoyable about Onihei, the animation is often not that great. The direction, the backgrounds and the basic character animation is good or even great. But the movements can be somewhat awkward at times... and the lighting... Boy, do I have an issue with the lighting. And that's one thing I never thought I would say about an anime.

This is the first time that I see an anime where light and atmosphere is being added in post, as a 3D effect upon 2D images. The result thus also varies between "interesting" (as the choice itself) and really, really awkward to look at.


I can't be the only one noticing something wrong here, am I?

Let's just say that this method works at certain moments, while it just simply distracts at other points in time.

Music

The overall music choices are good. Though i can't really judge how it compares to the TV-series of the same name. Is the same music being used or remixed, or is it entirely new? I dunno.

The most notable thing is once again: The opening theme ("Edo o Hashiru"). It's instrumental and shorter than usual (only 1:00 instead of the usual 1:30), but it's really good. It's like a perfect mix between classic Japanese music and jazz, and it works!

Overall enjoyment

I'm not going to lie: I initially dropped it after the first episode. The first episode had Onihei's crew torturing one of their captives. And while this certainly is a practice that was done in real life in the past; it's not really a positive depiction of your hero and his team IN THE FIRST EPISODE!


"How was the first episode?"
"We nailed it..."

But in order to give accurate feedback for my "halfway point" blog post, I did decide to give it the 3-episode test. I soon found out that the disturbing imagery was only in the first episode and was toned down further down the line. The stories in the following episodes did pick my interest enough to keep watching until the end; even if the series had its high and low points.

After the last episode I was left wondering whether or not I would advice this series to anybody else. And while at first I did come up with a negative answer (it's just average and forgettable), the entire backstory sure does make it worth checking out. Even if only to support Mr Maruyama and help him complete his dream projects.

Overall, I give this series a 7/10. It's not bad, it's "above average".

Check it out if you want to know more about the figure of Hasegawa Heizo, or why Masao Maruyama was interested in him. If not interested in either, then you can easily skip this one.

Until next time, V out.

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