Reviewby Carlo Santos, Nov 10th 2012
House of Five Leaves
Masanosuke is a wandering samurai who earns a living with the Five Leaves, a gang that specializes in high-priced kidnappings. However, Masa's line of work takes an unexpected turn when Yaichi—the Five Leaves' founder—goes into hiding, as gangsters from his past are trying to hunt him down for an act of betrayal. After asking around, Masa finally learns the whole truth about Yaichi: the family that rejected him, the gang that took him in, and how he tried to start a new life with the Five Leaves. But can Masa come to Yaichi's aid before other, less forgiving figures from his past get to him first? Meanwhile, Masa's brother Bunnosuke has gotten into some trouble of his own: his desperation to climb the social ladder has earned him a few too many enemies, and the Five Leaves may end up determining his fate.
Natsume Ono made a classic mistake in the previous volume of House of Five Leaves: Yaichi's back-story was revealed to Masanosuke through the narration of a side character ... over a cup of tea. As one can imagine, this is one of the least interesting ways to reveal a major plot point. Thankfully it's corrected in this volume, with a vivid flashback into Yaichi's past life as Seinoshin or "Sei the Drifter." Over three chapters, we witness the circumstances that shaped Yaichi into who he is now: the coldness of a family that rejects him, the desperation that leads him into running with a gang, and the pain that comes with letting go of personal attachments. Although much of the series involves the characters just standing around looking sad, this is one story arc that moves with a purpose, setting up what will be the final act.
Eventually the plot returns to the present day, and again we see past mistakes corrected with tighter, more purposeful storytelling: the mysterious gangsters from Yaichi's past, who have skulking around for the last volume or two, finally make a move. Not surprisingly, the story has spent plenty of time building up a menacing aura around former ringleader Jin—so when his true intentions are revealed, it definitely comes as somewhat of a twist. As it turns out, the real threat to Yaichi's life are the lower-ranking thugs, and a confrontation near the end of the book provides one of the few doses of action in the entire series. This is the true "confrontation with the past" that readers have long been waiting for—and the outcome, with Masanosuke playing a key role, makes for a satisfying climax with one volume left to go.
But that isn't Masa's only starring role. The subplot involving his brother makes for an interesting character study, showing the contrast between a man who takes a "shady" job but acts with the best of intentions, while a sibling in a prestigious position resorts to unethical behavior due to his ego and greed. Sadly it remains only a secondary storyline, and ultimately the series always returns to the topic of thugs skulking around as Yaichi tries to run from his past while everyone else tries to figure him out. Even as the tension and drama pick up, though, the plot never moves at much more than a moderate tempo—there are always scenes of characters chatting and glancing pensively at each other, which is sure to dampen the expectations of those hoping for an action-packed samurai epic.
Still, Natsume Ono deserves at least some credit for working some action into this installment. The freeze-frame poses as Masanosuke and Yaichi face off against their foes are not too different from the Koike and Kojima school of samurai manga—moments in time where bold penstrokes and unexpected viewing angles give a great sense of motion. Outside of those scenes, Ono's overall style will appeal to those who like a sketchy, individualist look, where the artist's quirks (and even mistakes) come out on the page. This also has its drawbacks, though, as the lack of detail and hard-to-decipher backgrounds can make some scenes look more like an art puzzle than visual storytelling. Wordless panels, which are a key part of the laid-back pacing and emotional subtlety, also add to the vagueness. Why not just say what the characters are thinking and feeling? Still, the less-is-more approach in the artwork leads to some very clean, stylish layouts where the eye can just glide across the page and take in the flow of the story all at once.
Even when the characters do have something to say, their lines don't explain a whole lot: "Tell me everything you know about Yaichi!" says someone to Masanosuke, and presumably he tells him ... behind the scenes. Sometimes the wording is so vague that when dialogue appears on the page, it's anyone's guess who is actually speaking. The only time the script is truly essential in driving the plot forward is during Yaichi's flashback, where personal interactions and decisions end up shaping his youth. But otherwise, the drama lies deeper than the words the characters say to each other—it's more about their feelings and actions. In any case, the translation maintains a slightly formal tone that fits the series' historical setting, and occasionally shifts into more colloquial language when gang members or other low-class characters are speaking. The English script also preserves honorific forms like "-dono" (master) and "aniki" (big brother, or gang boss) to give the series its proper cultural flavor.
In a story that has often had problems with "going nowhere," it's good to see that Yaichi's struggles with his past are at last headed somewhere. The flashback in the first half fills out a major character's past better than any conversation could, and a battle in the next-to-last chapter is the perfect payoff after such a long, dramatic buildup. Some scenes still involve too much sitting around and chatting, and the freewheeling art style can be difficult to follow at times, but House of Five Leaves still remains—if nothing else—a compelling take on a familiar, sometimes overdone genre. The drama and politics of feudal Japan may be set in a distant place and time, but the idea of facing one's checkered past is as relevant as it's ever been.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B
+ A meaningful flashback and a climactic sword fight push the story forward in this visually unique Edo-period saga.
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