Image source: アニメ「鬼平」 on Twitter

If you have been watching Onihei, you may have noticed something rather interesting. Heizo “Onihei” Hasegawa himself is rarely the focus of the anime.

The show is structured as a series of stand-alone episodes, usually focusing on “guest” characters and telling their own story. To put it very simplistically, along the way, the villains encounter Heizo and eventually get what they deserve. However, the series is rather clever at showing how Heizo got to where he is—and to be who he is—through these numerous encounters with deceit, delinquency, greed, and injustice. He is often portrayed as a cool watchman, standing by and acting only when necessary. But when it is, he becomes an unstoppable force. So, why does he let some people go? What code of ethics does he live by?

Onihei, as you can tell by his “demon” nickname, is clearly a feared and respected figure representing the arson-robbery division of the Edo police. Yet there is something of a vigilante side to Heizo Hasegawa. That is not to say he is like Batman, or other such familiar heroes who sometimes work with the law, or sometimes go above the law.

Heizo is always a calm observer who seems to know more than he lets on. He manipulates both friend and foe to get to the real heart of the crimes and then weeds it out.

Let us take a look at a couple of examples. For instance, in a couple of episodes, we do see aspects of his private side and his family life, such as the episode where a young boy who Heizo saved from an abusive father years ago has returned and is now living a life of crime. To spite Heizo, the boy, now adolescent, reveals to Ojun, Heizo’s daughter, that she is in fact adopted and so is not his real offspring—forcing her to feel unloved and causing her to jump into a river.

Heizo saves her just in time, but here is the true insight into his personality: Whereas any other hero looking for justice would seek revenge under the banner of “this time, it’s personal,” Heizo acts like the bigger man. He instead feels responsible for having neglected the boy’s cries for help during his upbringing. Heizo realizes that he is partly to blame for contributing to the spiral of suffering surrounding the boy, which eventually came round back to him. The boy, upon accepting his execution, is afraid to speak up and say out loud what his final wish is, but Heizo reads his expression like a book, and hugs him, the way his father never did.

The series is clever enough to drop hints that the characters are deeper than their dialogue, and invites us to imagine the motivations of Heizo as a complex individual with a past that could have gone either way. He is stronger, bolder, and wiser for having known and experienced the “evil” that he has made it his profession to eradicate.

In another episode, Heizo reprimands a subordinate, Chugo, after the latter spends all of his money on a prostitute while he was supposed to be out on patrol. As a result, Chugo is banished to night watch duty on the premises. However, Chugo, unable to control his infatuation with the woman, attempts to defy this order and sneak out while on duty… which causes him to witness some suspicious movement. Chugo recalls his father’s dying wish that he straighten up and fly right, so he informs Heizo. The bad guys are swiftly caught and dealt with, but Heizo knows exactly why Chugo was out and about. Though instead of punishing him again, Heizo gives him more money to visit his love, informing him that the brothel house is closing down and if he hurries, he can still make it.  

Throughout these many stories, we see that Heizo has respect for thieves and criminals with a code of honor, or at the very least, a sense of fun and good humor. At the end of the day, Heizo is keeping the peace so that the people of Edo can enjoy the good life. Entertainment, love, delicacies… even slightly guilty indulgences from time to time.

Image source: アニメ「鬼平」 on Twitter

Heizo is a calm guy, with a family, who gets his hands dirty only every so often, and uses brute force when necessary, kissing his wife when he gets home in the evening. He represents different things to different people, playing a variety of roles. At first glance, the show is really about the people surrounding him, not really about the title character… But the more we see them interact with him, the more we learn about the real Onihei.

He is certainly playing the role of the stern face of authority, and all the power that it commands in society, but at the same time he is careful not to render himself stripped of all humanity in the process. That is something that befalls many in his position, usually taking the form of chronic corruption and greedy consolidation of power. To someone like him, those are perhaps even worse crimes than the acts of dissent and disobedience their organization is designed to curb.

Image source: アニメ「鬼平」 on Twitter

Because of his own tumultuous past, which more recent episodes have started to show in greater detail, he knows where thieves come from, and he knows where a life of thievery leads.

Onihei is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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