Monday, November 15, 2010

:anime: Final Impression:: House of Five Leaves

Originally, this review was going to be posted last month, but as I thought about it…Thanksgiving is in November…Natsume Ono also did Ristorante Paradiso, which has something to do with food…Thanksgiving has something to do with food, too…so.......

Instead, I decided to hold that off until now and declare November "Impromptu Natsume Ono Appreciation Month"! Granted, I never read her manga before, but the anime adaptations of them are pretty good and not your typical fare, and with said holiday around the corner, it seemed like as good a time as any to celebrate her work (that's synergy for you). You could probably guess what is going to be this month free/low-cost anime pick by now (or not, click the link above…), so in the mean time, give this series a chance and kick back to some Natsume Ono manga this November in commemoration.  -.^

Review: House of Five Leaves (Sarai-ya Goyou)

Official Site: Japanese
Additional Links: ANN Entry
Video [Free]: FUNimation Videos, Hulu, YouTube

When reading the plot description for House of Five Leaves and seeing animation studio manglobe (Samurai Champloo, Ergo Proxy, Michiko e Hatchin) attached to it, a likely set of thoughts might pop up in one's head. An unassuming, down-on-his-luck samurai falls into a mysterious group of cool, eccentric thieves with a "Robin Hood"-complex. Rounding out its ranks are the dashing, enigmatic leader who reels him into a world of danger and intrigue, the seductive courtesan who knows all of the in's-and-out's of the underworld, the big, bald-headed muscle of the group, and the quiet, aloof spy who stays in the shadows and carries out espionage and assassinations. While the young ronin takes content in finally having friends and enjoys a new-found sense of being wanted, he slowly begins to discover that they may not be who they appear to be, and at the same time, falls in too deep in the seedy world they deal in…

Now, take all of those images, run them through a strainer, and toss what was sifted into the bin (or plop it into your pocket to make your own cool story with). Whatever you were thinking about it going along those lines should, and eventually will, be removed. And yet, that is quite OK, as House of Five Leaves is still a compelling piece of drama and animation.

An unassuming, down-on-his-luck samurai named Masanosuke Akitsu is indeed befriended by a dashing, enigmatic leader in Yaichi, who hires him as a bodyguard for a deal he is doing. Masa's sword skills are displayed during the matter when Yaichi is threatened, though despite the latter's attempts to recruit him, the timid ronin is unsure of joining his outfit. As mentioned, this isn't as stylish a setup as one would believe, and House of Five Leaves plays it out in leisurely fashion. This low-key attitude is woven throughout the fabric of the show. Masa is downright soft-spoken and looks the part, and while Yaichi is surely an enigma, he swoons and attracts with his smooth-talking tones more than anything else. Likewise, his crew isn't as romantic as the ones dreamed up above. Umezo may be big and burly, but he is primarily the keeper of the tavern where everyone meets up at and lends a hand in the operations. Otake, the "lady of the night" at a brothel, may have connections, but it's more like she passes along information she can get her hands on from others at the brothel and elsewhere. And Matsukichi--our "stealth ninja"--is a former thief adept at sneaking into houses and eavesdropping on private conversations. Between the four (and later with Masa, five) of them, they comprise the gang, "House of Five Leaves", who kidnaps the kin of wealthy, but venal, families and politicians in exchange for bribe money (and not quite for charitable reasons, either).

The titular series is more "slice-of-life" drama than kinetic slash-fest, and as such, focuses more on the characters and their relationships than action (as noticed in the ungainly and paltry fight sequences--all three or four of them). Director Tomomitsu Mochizuki (Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, Kimagure Orange Road OVAs and movies, Here is Greenwood, Princess Nine) is no stranger to these type of tales and applies his extensive expertise to this entry. The backgrounds give off a sense of realism and everyday-life vibe of old Japan, subdued enough that even the weather and overcast sky seem reflective of the story's nature. Its genteel score could be best described as an eclectic cross between traditional Japanese music and jazz, featuring an evocative, atmospheric leitmotif that feels more modern in its touch than one might expect to hear in a period piece. However, like its other idiosyncratic compatriots, it manages to befit the era and give it a distinctive flavor. The same can be said of its simplistic, yet varied, character designs that are anything but typical, and may appeal to some more than others, but still feel natural in their historic setting. As adapted from Natsume Ono's manga of the same name, the anime rendition retains the same distinctive look that the artist has become known for.

And similar to the adaptation of her Ristorante Paradiso manga last year, it is the interaction and interrelationships between the characters that is the true highlight of the show. Watching milquetoast Masanosuke's steady growth as a person through his experiences with the various people and situations he encounters can often be amusing in its crash-and-burn results, but it is certainly pleasing in the end to see the strides he made since the beginning. He's not alone, as a number of the characters grow over the course of the series, including the seemingly-untouchable Yaichi, whose stark differences in personality and looks from Masanosuke belies another distinction that doesn't become apparent until later, when we learn more about his past and how it connects to his current self. The "introvert/extrovert" relationship can be a compelling one to watch when explored well, and Mochizuki does so adeptly with the two. In a show that is bereft with action, character study and growth often becomes the focal point, and the degree that they are covered in the series becomes especially rewarding.

A tale about a samurai and a gang of kidnappers taken more with its denizens than pizazz and a clash of swords, denoted by a laidback attitude and an aberrant (by its settings' standard) score and character designs--any way you slice it, House of Five Leaves is not your typical anime, and as a more realistic, no-frills story, it plays out like a live-action series rather than an animated one. This seems like a deliberate choice on the part of Tomomi Mochizuki and manglobe for the show to hearken to the samurai dramas that are popular in Japan and the rest of Asia. Yet, however disparate its elements may be, they form a solid and enjoyable whole with its interesting characters and a story still compelling and involving to watch through its mundane pursuits. And in a landscape of flashy anime and superlative styles involving swordplay and action, something along the lines of Five Leaves can be quite refreshing.

EDIT [11/29/10]: Corrected Natsume Ono's gender as female. Used to have trouble determining this a while back, first thinking she was a "he", then a "she", then a "he" again…

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