Reviewby Lissa Pattillo, Oct 11th 2010
House of Five Leaves
A samurai without a master, Akitsu has been having trouble keeping a job - his self-effacing attitude lacking the intimidation factor wished for by his employers. With no money for food and a growling stomach, Akitsu takes on the job as bodyguard to an enigmatic man named Yaichi. Yaichi is in fact leader of a group who call themselves "Five Leaves" - a team of outlaws with their own agenda. Though they kidnap the sons of the morally-gray for ransom, Akitsu can't help but be drawn to this tight-knit group all the same. He quickly finds himself joining in on their plots, even if he doesn't realize it.
A body of work is always subject to an individual reader's tastes, yet there are some creators and stories which are often recommended to the masses for their diverse appeal. Natsume Ono's books, however, would not generally be said to fall into this category. Slowly paced, roughly drawn and often relying on listless subject matter , this artist's books aren't the most exciting out there. Not bad in itself but certainly not for everyone. House of Five Leaves doesn't break the pattern but it certainly makes the absolute best of it.
In true chronological fashion, House of Five Leaves is Natsume Ono's strongest visual work to date of those released in English. The bulk of the characters here still sport the familiar droopy eyes and frog-like lips, but her more confident use of black and less cartoony by design proportions go a long way. The simplicity of the style leaves lots of room for strong character expression and makes the details that are present, such as the careful folds on a yukata to the crisp backgrounds, stand out that much more. That said, while by personality Akitsu feels primed to evolve, it would be nice to see his face do the same. He sports an eerily repetitive presentation of the same stunned facial expression on every page.
Akitsu himself is rather reminiscent of Big Windup!'s Mihashi, albeit with a bit more self-control at keeping that somberly-straight face. He's talented at what he does but lacks social confidence, which constantly wears on him. While Akitsu doesn't seem to feel hesitation towards his sword skills, his ability to interact with other people and assert himself is always a problem. With naivete working against him, it teeters on feeling a bit sad watching him pulled along by Yaichi's plans from the moment they meet, knowing he's doomed, so to speak, from the get-go. His honest and uniquely intuitive nature (one which unfortunately does not favor the obvious) make him interesting in his own way. He's a very sympathetic character, and in being able to understand his hesitations and reading the story predominantly through his eyes, he becomes that much more compelling for readers.
Yaichi's group of kidnappers are an interesting sort. All of there for their own reasons and stand out as individuals who could easily sway the entire story by their own actions, be it in the best interest of the others or not. They don't have complete trust in Yaichi as a person, knowing full well he's too clever to be fully trust-worthy, but they still have near-absolute faith in his actions. This confidence in Yaichi proves infectious for Akitsu, as does the sense of camaraderie and family he experiences spending time amidst the Five Leaves. It's heartwarming to see Akitsu get so cozy amidst them in their little pub-style home, even though it's all part of some master plan that anyone witnessing could see he has no self-controlled way out of.
The story, despite any presumed potential for hack and slash samurai action, is whole-heartedly a character study. It excels really well at it too, combining Natsume Ono's skill at subtle storytelling with a well-grounded yet exotic locale to keep it that much more interesting. The plots and kidnapping add a spice of intrigue to the story but still sit second-string to the characters committing them. The focal point of the story is really Akitsu's relationship with Yaichi, despite a finite time on page together. There's an undeniable chemistry between them as Akitsu is drawn to Yaichi's charisma and Yaichi is intrigued by Akitsu's skills and 'usable' personality. It's not necessarily a good thing on a pratical level for either of them - Yaichi getting Akitsu mixed up on the wrong side of the law or Akitsu posing a potential security risk to the Five Leaves- but the opportunities they each provide the other for character growth is unmistakable. This is driven home by a powerful last couple of pages where Akitus's curiosity over Yaichi's true motivations are bolstered by his keen eye and Yaichi realizes the man is seeing through him more than he'd perhaps like.
House of Five Leaves offers a first volume best enjoyed with a cup of tea on a rainy day. It's a nice, easygoing read with an atmosphere that achieves an air of melancholy without the bog-down angst. The guarded pace and poignant character interactions in the Edo era makes up for the lackluster execution of the outlaw-activity, which isn't even really a bad thing in itself. This carefully crafted tale might need a little more meat on its bones in volume two but the structure here still holds up with a temperament rewarding of a reader's patience.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : C+
+ Offers a strong character-driven story with a more grounded, everyday-life feel for the often exploited Edo-era; leads have strong character chemistry while secondary characters still feel acutely relevant
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