Set during the Japan’s Edo Period, when the pacification policies of the Tokugawa Shogunate demilitarised the samurai warrior class and converted them into the regime’s public servants and bureaucrats, “Onihei” tells the story of Hasegawa Heizo, or “Heizo the Oni” (Heizo the Demon), the Chief of the elite Anti-Arson and Theft Squad. Based on the historical figure Hitsuke Chokan (who was noted both for his championing of the law and his compassion for those who committed crimes out of existential necessity), Heizo and his crew of eccentric samurai and reformed thieves-turned-informers fight against deadly gangs of murderers, thieves, blackmailers, and kidnappers – all the while striving to observe the fine line between upholding the law and delivering justice. Heizo himself is confronted by the ghosts of his own past, as are several of his subordinates; and the job of being both magistrate and law enforcer is further complicated by the demands and obligations of family and friendship.

Adapted from the historical novels of Shotaro Ikenami, and originally aired in Japan in 2017, “Onihei” is presented in a dramatic fashion reminiscent of the television cop dramas of the 60s and 70s, all the while rendered with an artistic sensibility that recalls both the classic animation style of the 80s and 90s, as well as the ukiyo-e aesthetic of the Edo Period. At first glance, each episode seems to be a simple morality tale: but closer attention reveals complex and nuanced explorations of the ambiguities and contradictions of our humanity, the conflict between love and duty, and the subtle (and not so subtle) prejudices of a patriarchal society. Classic samurai drama with a twist that lifts it above the pack in what is a very crowded genre field.

© Text Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2019. All rights reserved.