Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Aug 27th 2010
House of Five Leaves
Episodes 1-12 Streaming
It's the Edo period in Edo; samurai rule the day, bandits rule the night, and everyone else gets caught in between. Masanosuke was a samurai at one time, but now ekes out a living as a frequently-fired bodyguard. Firing is frequent because Masa is the world's least reliable samurai. He's timid, over-inquisitive, and prone to fleeing in the face of danger—particularly if crowds are involved. During one such confrontation he is saved from humiliation by Yaichi, a dashing ne'er-do-well. Afterwards Yaichi hires Masa for a little bodyguarding and Masa accepts. On his first assignment, though, Masa learns that he has signed on as guard to the wrong side of the law. Yaichi, it turns out, is the leader of the House of Five Leaves, an organization that makes its living kidnapping the sons of the rich and nasty. Upset by their choice of career but strangely drawn to Yaichi and his odd compatriots, Masa finds himself getting deeply involved in their lives.
The last time Manglobe and samurai mixed it up, Samurai Champloo was born. But if you're looking for a redux of Shinichiro Watanabe's samurai-and-hip-hop spectacular, you'd be well advised to seek bloodier pastures elsewhere. The House of Five Leaves isn't the least concerned with martial-arts, action, or being cool. A more apt comparison would be the anti-samurai films of Yoji Yamada, or scribe Natsume Ono's own Ristorante Paradiso, with which it shares its basic structure (newcomer joins group, learns about members, and grows in the process) and intense sense of place.
They're all lousy ways to describe Five Leaves, though. Recounting similarities and differences doesn't do the marvelous strangeness of Five Leaves justice. There really isn't anything like it on the market: A period mystery where the mystery is not a crime but a person and its reward is not in the denouement but in the world it describes. Ono's characters serve the series in good stead, each supporting their own small arc as Masa gets to know them, and Masa revealing surprising inner strength as they get to know him. Yaichi spends most of his time acting like a mysterious jerk, but he's a complex and bitterly realistic jerk—particularly once his motivations begin emerging from the murk of his past. All together their unspooling pasts paint a picture of life in lowest echelons of medieval Japanese society that is both compassionate and unsparing. In Five Leaves' underworld, villainy is neither condemned nor condoned, merely a black requirement for survival. Whores, burglars and bandits are its salarymen, pragmatism its religion, and tragedy its motivating force.
The cipher of Yaichi and Masa's quest to unravel it are all that link Five Leaves' tales of the Edo underworld. Each arc reveals not only the past of a Five Leaves gang-member and the unyielding world they live in, but also a piece of the puzzle that is Yaichi. It's the barest thread of continuity, no propulsive narrative but a gentle call to gather the scattered shards of Yaichi's life from amidst the languidly unfolding lives of his comrades. That gathering is not a task suited to the undedicated or impatient; it's genuine work as little is ever explained outright in Five Leaves. Those who do expend the effort, however, are amply rewarded. The moment when Yaichi's reason for creating the Five Leaves snaps into focus is one of the more magnificently ugly in recent memory, and the piecemeal impact of Yaichi's progressively uncovered despair is worthy of a literary medium. It's also the only way you'll get any closure from its non-ending.
Tomomi Mochizuki directs the series with a dreamy sense of dislocation, reimagining lumpen Edo as a gorgeous urban dystopia where life never stops, no matter how sluggish and awful, and companionship and loyalty must be treated with the same fatalism as the cruel twists of fate that destroy them. Kayo Konishi and Yukio Kondoo's omnipresent neo-traditional score marches eerily past everything, good or bad, and Mochizuki's relentlessly even pace neither slows nor accelerates for anything, man or event. Coupled with the bleak palette of browns and grays, it can seem dreary and even boring—even with the uniquely antique look its emulation of Japanese paintings gives it—until its hypnotic rhythm takes you, immersing you in the meticulous detail and the iterations of boredom and brutality of its protagonist's lives. Such calm leaves little opportunity for Manglobe to flaunt its customary fluidity, but the action sequences—both of them—are technically polished enough to prove they haven't lost the touch. It's a daring approach, one that credits its audience with a level of patience and intelligence that anime often doesn't, and one Mochizuki shows singular dedication to. Even Ono's idiosyncratic designs, with their lizard eyes and angular poker faces, are worked seamlessly into his pathologically restrained and even-handed vision.
All is not dark stylization and slow realism, however. Low-key humor—most apparent in the deadpan nonsense of the next-episode previews and the comic tension between Masa's skills and personality—takes some of the lead out and softens some of the harder edges, while Mochizuki's underappreciated flair for dramatic understatement directs each arc to a satisfyingly classy climax. Deliberately unconventional and even alienating at times, Five Leaves doesn't forget that it must also entertain. It just does so without pandering or compromising.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Where else are you going to find a slice-of-life samurai mystery that melds unrelenting underclass realism with a floating atmosphere of uneasy unreality?
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