Every year I tell myself I’ll take part in Reverse Thieves’ Anime Secret Santa project, and every year I forget all about it until it’s too late to sign up. This time around though, I wrote it down. Like physically, with pen and paper (quaint, I know), and I finally managed to get there. Merry Christmas indeed.
Of the three titles I was given to choose from (Gatchaman Crowds, Hidamari Sketch, and House of Five Leaves), I ended up picking the latter because a) it had only one season and therefore seemed more likely to be a totally self-contained story and b) it was one of those shows I’d heard a ton about but never quite gotten around to watching even a single video clip of before. And I’m glad I made that choice, because while I’m not about to go and call it one of my favourite anime of all time or anything like that, I did find House of Five Leaves to be a very refreshing and rather unique little series – quite unlike the bulk of other anime titles out there in several interesting ways.
The story is uncomplicated; Akitsu Masanosuke (usually simply called “Masa”) is a ronin living in Edo. Despite his skills with the sword, his rather morose personality causes him to lose jobs with potential long-term employers again and again. One day, he encounters an enigmatic young man named Yaichi who is the leader of a group called Five Leaves. Employed by Yaichi as his bodyguard, Masa soon discovers that Five Leaves is in fact a criminal gang that kidnaps members of rich families for ransom. And that’s pretty much it. Although there’s also a loosely overarching plot regarding Yaichi’s past, most of the show is episodic in nature, and is neither dramatic nor intense. In fact, given some of the subject matter, this is one of the most laidback shows I’ve seen in a long time, making it easy to watch at just about any pace.
For me, this complete lack of dramatics is one of the most appealing points about the series. Anime is frequently exaggerated and theatrical, even when it doesn’t necessarily need to be in order to be compelling, and so House of Five Leaves was a breath of fresh air in that regard. Although I suspect that might make it a little boring and uneventful for some – especially since there’s also little to no action involved – I personally liked its casual, easygoing tone. It made the setting seem very natural; all the more so given that Edo tends to be romanticized in anime for the sake of its audience. In reality, I expect everyday life in Edo was exactly that, and not particularly dangerous, exciting, or sexy for the majority of people making a living there.
Meanwhile, the characters fit that setting well. The mysterious yet charming Yaichi would normally come across as arrogant due to his natural self-confidence, but is perfectly likeable because he’s not in the least hotheaded or egotistical. In contrast, Masa has zero self-confidence despite his undeniable skills as a swordsman, and walks around with a near-permanent expression of either worry or dejection – not exactly usual in lead samurai characters. We never find out all that much about the rest of the cast, but their personalities bring plenty of humanity to the table and, much to my delight, the women are never once used as an excuse for fanservice or romance. In fact, for once, there’s zero romance of any kind going on in House of Five Leaves. As in literally none. Anyone who’s been watching anime for a while can probably appreciate what a huge rarity that is, and the point certainly wasn’t lost on me.
That’s not the only unique aspect of this series. The art style of House of Five Leaves, and more specifically the character designs, could scarcely be more different from most contemporary anime shows with their big shimmery eyes, one-pixel noses, and tiny mouths to match. In House of Five Leaves, on the other hand, almost every character has circular-shaped eyes with no visible pupils, prominent noses, and elongated mouths with a great deal of expression to them. Honestly, it came as a bit of a shock after being accustomed to… well, nearly any other anime out at the moment. Those round, pupil-less eyes sometimes appeared somewhat zombie-like to me. That said, while the character designs are undoubtedly different, I don’t think they’re ugly, and eventually I just got used to them.
The rest of the technical details of House of Fives Leaves are pretty basic. The background artwork is serviceable but not especially colourful or detailed, and the music is fine but not exceptional in any way. However, the OP grew on me quite a bit and the ED, though not as catchy, has the same upbeat sort of feel, plus some surprisingly decent English. There are some nice background pieces of music, again nothing spectacular, but definitely not bad either. A lot of them make good use of traditional Japanese instruments to complement the setting, which I appreciated. Basically, House of Five Leaves is the kind of show that could have used a bigger budget, but made some good decisions with what they did have.
Although I don’t think House of Five Leaves has a whole lot of re-watchability and is likely going to be too low key for some viewers, it’s a strangely uplifting series that’s well worth a look. That goes double for those anime fans who like to groan and shake at the lack of variety and originality of the medium, but then pass on watching shows like this one. So a big thank-you to my secret santa for their recommendation, and for anyone on the prowl for something distinctive yet understated, House of Five Leaves certainly gets my own.
Question of the post: Have you seen House of Five Leaves? If so, what did you think, and if not, are you interested in giving it a go?