Reviewby Carlo Santos,
House of Five Leaves
Masanosuke Akitsu is a ronin, a wandering samurai who has trouble keeping a job because of his shyness. That all changes when he joins the Five Leaves, a gang whose main business is kidnapping. Despite the shady work, Masa tries to live by his principles, even bailing out his overambitious younger brother when he gets caught up in a bribery scheme. However, the Five Leaves is on the verge of disbanding now that the past has caught up with its enigmatic leader Yaichi. As a one-time member of the violent Bakuro gang, Yaichi must settle scores with his former boss Jin, as well as former victim Ginta. Will it end in bloodshed or reconciliation? The authorities are hot on the Five Leaves' trail as well, and it will take Masa's unusual sense of integrity to save Yaichi—as well the rest of the gang—from the executioner's blade.
After a modest beginning, a wandering middle, and a gradual buildup of tension, House of Five Leaves reaches its climactic finale in this volume. Through it all, Natsume Ono sticks to her distinctive style—the relaxed pacing, the introspective characters, the sketchbook-like artwork—but does it at a high enough level that the closing arc stands as the pinnacle of her craft. As multiple storylines and conflicted emotions come together, the results may not always be perfect, but the ending of this series may be one of the best things to ever come out of Natsume Ono's pen.
Volume 8 starts out by resolving some of the smaller-scale storylines: Masa confronts younger brother Bunnosuke over his bribe-taking, putting the finishing touches to a moral lesson about "doing what's right" versus "doing what looks good." But exploring the line between right and wrong doesn't end there. The next few chapters fill out the back-story about Ginta and his grudge against the Bakuro gang, raising a tough question: If someone commits a crime at your expense, but ultimately uses his gain for altrustic purposes, is it forgivable? Ginta's struggle to answer that question—especially when he questions Yaichi directly about it—gives the storyline plenty of meaningful drama, even if it's only a side character in the spotlight.
The real drama, however, comes in the latter half of these 270 pages, as the law finally catches up with Yaichi and his troubled past is laid bare. Tensions run high as deep-seated guilt and hidden motivations come to light—and somehow, it manages to be an intense, page-turning experience despite there only being one swordfight. Indeed, the characters are complex enough that their personal stories and conflicts are all that's needed to drive the story to its finale. Even though Masanosuke's stand-up sense of integrity is already well-known, his final solution to save the Five Leaves still comes as something of a surprise: that he would give up so much just to look out for his friends. Natsume Ono also avoids bad storytelling habits in the endgame: there are no wasted chapters that go nowhere, no pointless scenes where the characters stare off into the distance. Every plot point comes with a sense of purpose, giving the series a satisfying ending and a final page with a hint of hope.
Just as the storyline shows strong improvement in the finale of House of Five Leaves, so does the artwork. The characters may be as droopy-eyed as ever, but their expressions and actions are meaningful, and the linework—still drawn in loose strokes of brush and pen—looks confident rather than out of control. Even the backgrounds, which had long suffered from being too sparse or nonexistent, now contain enough detail (even just a subtle line or two) to make the wooden interiors and Edo-period townscapes clear. Well-designed page layouts also maintain the flowing pace of the series, with lots of long, parallel panels and frequent silences that allow the eye to glide across the page without interruption. If there's one problem with this minimalist design, though, it's that there are still too many areas left blank white or gray, and the vague placement of dialogue bubbles makes it hard to pick out which character is speaking.
Adding to that vagueness is the nature of the dialogue itself, which focuses on the characters' inner thoughts. Given the complex personal relationships and often-ambiguous intentions, it can be a challenge to follow what people are really trying to say in conversation—although that challenge also makes it more engaging than basic "I'm good and you're evil" banter. The script tends toward lines that are short but loaded with meaning, giving an almost poetic quality to the dialogue; the formal tone of speech also reminds us of the story's historical trappings. Traditional Japanese forms of address such as ani-ue (big brother) are also preserved in this translation, lending to the cultural accuracy. The writing may not always be witty, or instantly gratifying, but those who take their time to parse it will gain a true understanding of the story.
House of Five Leaves does a fine job of finishing up its intricate, character-driven ending, but the series' ultimate accomplishment is the way it defies all expectations of the samurai genre. This is a saga that barely relies on violent fight scenes, features a hero whose greatest act comes from quiet self-sacrifice rather than powerful conquest, and has more to say about the human spirit and integrity than feudal politics or warfare. Even the simple character designs and free-flowing artwork reveal a unique, inidividual style. Natsume Ono's approach may not be for everyone, but give her credit for daring to stand out in a field full of imitators—and, perhaps, inspiring future artists to look into new ways of portraying the Edo period. It's been a long, winding, and occasionally dead-end road, but the final volume of House of Five Leaves proves that it was all worth it.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Multiple subplots and character arcs are wrapped up in a satisfying manner, while the loosely sketched art remains as distinctive as ever.
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