Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Jan 27th 2012
House of Five Leaves
Ichi's past is catching up with him. After the brutal murder of his old gang companion, he has distanced himself from the rest of the Five Leaves, most specifically Masa. Masa is concerned, even though the other members of the Five Leaves seem to be taking it in stride, and tries to seek out Ichi to learn what is wrong. But the policeman Yagi is also aware that something is going on, and he is not above using Masa to investigate. Will the life Ichi has created for himself come crashing down?
Natsume Ono's tale House of Five Leaves is a slowly building story about the hidden pasts, worries, and daily lives of those who have fallen into the Edo (Tokyo) underworld. Previous volumes have spent time establishing the reasons that most of the Five Leaves have for being a part of the criminal group, but there has been one notable exception – Yaichi, the team leader. In volume 4, Ichi's past began to make an appearance with the entrance and violent exit of one of his past associates; now Ichi is trying to prolong the inevitable reveal of his true identity by distancing himself from his new companions. Viewers of the anime will know where all of this is headed, but those experiencing the truth about Ichi's past will be slowly drawn into Ono's story as it builds upon itself.
This is one of the less consecutive books in the series, although that does not do too much to harm the overall progression of the story. We share time between Masa, Ichi, Yagi, and Masa's younger brother Bunnosuke, appearing for the first time in person after several mentions. The Masa segments do more to establish his character than to advance the plot significantly. After Ichi got him fired from Katsuraya in volume 4, Masa finds himself jobless and sharing a room with newcomer Ginta, essentially a mediator for hire. Yagi, who has taken an interest in the atypically gentle samourai, gets him a new position, and then takes advantage of Masa's kindness and concern for Ichi to goad him into investigating for him. Masa's role is that of the unknowing informant, a tool of Yagi's deceptively sweet policeman. Yagi's point of view sections are short, but they reveal that he is determined to discover Ichi's true identity, although his motivations are unclear. Does he want to help Ichi? Bring him in? (This seems unlikely.) Simply to know for his own benefit? These unanswered questions make Yagi's character an interesting one, moreso than if he were a more stereotypical cop figure, and also give him elements of being a foil figure to Ginta, who acquired information solely for his own benefit and often to the detriment of others.
It is difficult to determine whether Ichi is so warped by his past as to be completely amoral or whether he cares about people in his own way. His deliberate distancing of himself from the other members of the Five Leaves could be read either way, part of what makes Ono's slow-paced story interesting. While other volumes have made the Horatio/Hamlet relationship between he and Masa more obvious, the two still play off of each other in recognizable ways, even when not directly interacting. This volume shows some of Masa's hidden skills on the physical front; does Ichi harbor similar hidden talents emotionally? Ono begins to hint at this, but it will take a resolution of this storyline to really be able to tell. In any event, the interplay between hero and anti-hero remains intriguing, even as Bunnosuke and Ginta add a bit of spice to the mix.
We have heard mention of Masa's younger brother before, most notably when sister Sachi came to visit. Now we meet the man himself, and are introduced to another wounded character who hides his hurt behind a harsh face. There is a more obvious parallel between Bun and Ichi than any clear relation between the brothers, and while it is interesting to finally meet the new head of the Akitsu family, it also feels it might have been a better choice to hold off on introducing the character until after the resolution of the Ichi's past storyline.
One of the greatest weaknesses of this series is Ono's art. While not truly “bad” in the sense that characters are indistinguishable and poorly drawn, it is not especially attractive, and people tend to have a frog-like look to their faces. Movement is almost nil and expressions are not, for lack of a better work, particularly expressive. Ono does put a good amount of detail into some of her backgrounds, but her grasp of anatomy is tenuous. It is certainly not what most people think of as “manga art,” owing more to American webcomic art than to Tezuka, and that will be a deterrent to some readers. The fact that the story moves at deliberate pace also makes this a manga that will not appeal to everyone.
For those who can get past the pacing and the art, House of Five Leaves is an interesting tale of a disparate group of people fallen into crime. With complimenting characters, a clear sense of the time in which is takes place, and intertwining motivations, Ono's series is one for the older reader who is ready for something a little different that doesn't involve students or superpowers and is worth at least checking out to see if it grabs you.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : C-
+ Fascinating character relationships and parallels, closer to solving the mystery of Ichi's past.
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