Image source: アニメ「鬼平」 on Twitter
Onihei is a police drama disguised as a samurai jidaigeki (period piece), one that’s ostensibly about the lead character, Heizo Hasegawa, and his service of justice. Yet a lot of screen time is also spent with criminals who struggle to maintain their own code of conduct, in particular the three “rules” of being a thief.
The first time viewers hear of this criminal code is in the very first episode of Onihei. Kumehachi, a thief, has been arrested and is being interrogated and tortured by the Arson Theft Control squad under Heizo’s supervision. It’s graphic and bloody but Kumehachi refuses to give up his confederates even though they ran out on him, citing a criminal “sense of duty.” He spends months in custody, unwavering in his stance.
Kumehachi only starts talking to the authorities when he overhears that his former criminal mentor, Chigashira, is suspected in a series of deadly robberies. Kumehachi is appalled as Chigashira was the one who taught him the three “rules” of thievery: no killing, no stealing from poor people, and no raping of women. Kumehachi had spent years working under Chigashira and was only cast out from the gang when he violated the third rule.
From this initial scene, it’s made clear that Heizo is just as aware of the “rules” as any common crook. Just as Chigashira does in a flashback, Heizo and his men draw a line between criminals who respect the “rules” and those who don’t. That means these unwritten “rules” carry more weight than the literal law of the land as players on both sides of the law consider violators contemptuous. Even though Heizo has treated Kumehachi harshly, the two men come to respect each other by recognizing that mutually respecting the “rules” makes them more friends than enemies.
Kumehachi has so much faith in the “rules” (and loyalty to Chigashira) that he begs to become a mole for Heizo in order to capture this rogue thief. At the time, he thinks he is on a mission to uncover an impostor soiling Chigashira’s name–literally, as wooden blocks bearing his name are left lying in crime scenes in pools of blood. When he discovers that the “impostor” is the real Chigashira, who has turned his back on the “rules,” Kumehachi is furious and makes sure to personally confront Chigashira as he is being arrested.
Image source: アニメ「鬼平」 on Twitter
There’s a lot of visual coding going on in Onihei as this plot unfolds. Kumehachi, Heizo, and the flashback-Chigashira are handsome and dashing men with full heads of dark hair. A short scene where young Kumehachi stares at Chigashira on a boat, blushing when his mentor notices him, suggests that their relationship was more than professional. When they reunite after fifteen years, Chigashira is a mess. He’s gone gray, he’s gained weight, and his face is bloated. Making the villain physically as well as morally repugnant speaks volumes, especially when contrasted with his attractive, honorable past self.
In the end, Kumehachi’s devotion to the “rules” (and his cooperation in capturing Chigashira) supersede his crimes and he is rewarded with his freedom. Released from jail, Heizo asks him to continue working for Arson Theft Control as a spy in the underworld. Kumehachi doesn’t say anything, but it’s clear that even though he still believes in the “rules” his priorities have shifted. Turning in crooks no longer violates his personal code even though he endured months of torture at the hands of the state/his new employer. For Kumehachi, the “rules” are what matter.
While Heizo Hasegawa remains the title character and the star of Onihei, the criminal code is a recurring theme that runs throughout the story. Few criminals characters make a second appearance (Kumehachi has done so), but the code is referenced in multiple episodes giving the weekly antagonists deeper motives and building a world where the law may be broken for profit but the “rules” of thievery are respected by both sides.
Onihei is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.