The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

House of Five Leaves

Title: House of Five Leaves aka Sarai-ya Goyou
Genre: Drama
Company: Manglobe
Format: 12 episodes
Dates: 15 Apr 2010 – 1 July 2010

Synopsis: Masa is a strong and loyal samurai, but his doddering personality undermines his talents and causes all of his employers to eventually let him go. When a mysterious man named Yaichi approaches him about a seemingly simple job, Masa jumps at the chance for work despite the ambiguous nature of the request. To his shock, he later discovers that he was an aid to a kidnapping, orchestrated by the gang known as the “Five Leaves,” who demand lucrative ransoms in exchange for the return of their abducted charges. Against his misgivings, Masa is drawn deeper into the lives of these outlaws, where nothing is as it seems.

The Highlights
Character Designs: Gaunt, pale faces and expressionless eyes; an acquired taste.
Coloring: Beautiful outdoor backgrounds; indoors are awash in grays and browns and dreary lighting.
Mood: Brooding and atmospheric.
Scenery: Easily the most pleasing aspect of the series.

House of Five Leaves was the latest offering from the famed television block Noitamina, where many mature, clever, and critically acclaimed anime titles like Honey and Clover, Moyashimon, Nodame Cantabile, and Eden of the East debuted. Five Leaves’ license was quickly gobbled up by FUNimation for US distribution and streamed on Hulu near simultaneously with the Japanese broadcast. As the pleasingly upbeat techno OP tune in the first episode greeted me, I felt no reason to doubt that this series would live up to the Noitamina pedigree. Yet, little by little, I had to dial back my expectations as even the noblest intentions couldn’t save a production fraught with directorial missteps.

House of Five Leaves is first and foremost about its characters. The “Five Leaves” refer to the five main members of the organization, primary focusing on the lonely ronin newcomer Masa and the enigmatic but effortlessly charismatic group leader Yaichi. Through mellow conversations and unexcited interactions, viewers are told their motivations for forming their little kidnapping club, shown their personalities and, most importantly, related their personal histories. However, the first inkling of trouble came in several confounding flashback scenes. They come with no indication that they are such, nor is there any context to whose pasts they are until late in the series. The effect is often more bewildering than enlightening.

Watching Five Leaves for action would be a mistake, though an easy one to make. The synopsis about an Edo period samurai caught up in a cloak and dagger business gives one a very different idea than what Five Leaves actually is about. The anime fervently avoids any fast movement. Confrontations are often diffused before fights begin, and the rare sword slashing is restrained to a precious few seconds. It’s content with talking heads, though the humorless dialogue wasn’t compelling enough to hold my attention. At one point after midway through the series Masa’s sister is introduced, but she has absolutely no impact. There just isn’t any palpable tension as Five Leaves lacks an overarching plot to build suspense or create dramatic twists.

Perhaps instead of looking for hard-hitting drama, viewers can immerse in the atmosphere of a period piece slice-of-life. The characters are most often relaxed, lounging about, slowly smoking pipes, and speaking in easy monotones. The lazy mood is supported by soothing, period appropriate music and understated but gorgeous scenery. The vivid autumn backgrounds and moonlit nightscapes peppered with the soft glow red lanterns are fully enjoyable by themselves. It’s then a shame that Five Leaves is chronically afflicted with poor lighting, as numerous scenes are visibly too dark, overcast in shadow and colored in uniformity of dark browns and grays, making an unsatisfying visual experience.

On a conceptual level House of Five Leaves, a mature character driven story examining wavering moralities, should be a critical success. But the reality is that Five Leaves lacks the punch to deliver an edgy drama, nor does it put much effort to engaging the audience’s more basic senses and desires for entertainment. As I saw the series continually strip away potentially stimulating elements, I grew confused with Five Leaves‘ purpose and frustrated with its languid pace. Even though the title carefully avoids repeating tired anime tropes, in the end, I did not feel it was time spent worthwhile.

The Rating: 5

Reviewed by: kadian1364

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