The wandering samurai Akitsu “Masa” Masunosuke has no home to call his own anymore, until the House of Five Leaves takes him in. Accepting a job as a bodyguard, Masa quickly finds himself wrapped up in a world of kidnapping, bribery, robbery, prostitution, and more. The shy swordsman must figure out if his place in the world is with the nobles he once swore to protect or the illegal activities of those who have shown him kindness. Can Masa reach beyond his shyness and grow in a Japan that’s equally transitioning?
House of Five Leaves is a 12-episode series about the life of the wandering samurai, Masa, once he encounters a group of criminals. Based on a comic book, it’s set in the time of samurais in Japan, roughly equatable to the era and reverence the west gives to cowboys. The titular “Five Leaves” includes the aformentioned shy samurai. The rest of the already-assembled gang includes Yaichi (the mysterious leader), Matsukichi (robber/spy), Umezo (“reformed” tavern owner), and Otake (the geisha). The supporting cast is rounded out by Umezo’s daughter, and in many cases, family members of the core five will come and go, but their appearances have differing levels of wake from their pebbles in the rivers of their lives.
Despite starring a wandering samurai and a host of characters of ill-repute, there’s very little action. In fact, throughout the series, there’s only a handful of scenes of violence. The whole series is very slow-paced and focused purely on the dialogue, but it works. The series harkens back to the slower age of Japan where things were more focused on warlords and geishas than websites and Gameboys. It moves like a snail, allowing emotions to settle and thoughts to linger, but it will definitely be a slower take than the Rurouni Kenshin and Samurai 7 crowds.
Visually, there’s a unique art style in play here; characters have huge pupils but relatively realistic eyes that are subdued in comparison to “The Anime Standard”, and mouths are all low enough to imply a lack of chin. Characters are, for the most part, tall, lanky, and slender, but not to the extent of a Clamp production. The voices and music are all appropriate, but nothing stands out as creative or endearing.
NIS America has released the set in a beautifully large box (and since this release, a smaller, cheaper, non-”Premium Edition”) including an artbook that features character bios, an episode guide, visual guides of how the series progresses from sketch to final image, concept art, and a glossary. NIS America’s set might cost a little more than some competitors, but the physical bonuses make up for it.
One issue with most, if not all, of NIS America’s releases, is the lack of a English-language option. It’s an understandable omission, given the fact that most of their titles are too-niche in an already-strained Japanese animation market in America to justify the cost of producing one (and in all cases, we’d rather have the series be released without than not released at all), but it is one that sticks out from most releases in 2013. Also notable, given that contemporary series and releases from NIS America, such as Bunny Drop, are dual-format releases, it’s not available in high-definition or BluRay despite being a 2010 release. There are reasons, sure, but it’s just a note.
The show is honestly not bad, but it’s understandable why it’s an NIS America, non-dubbed, release. The demographic for this show are highly niche, allowing only those who can appreciate a slower-paced, action-minimal, series with designs that don’t completely fit in with modern animation standards. (Note that “modern animation standards” doesn’t imply that modern is good, or even tolerable, when you look at the morass of pandering series released in Japan post-20th century). If you want a series that you can kill an episode over two weeks as you wind down for bed, House of Five Leaves might be up your alley. If you’re looking for the next Rurouni Kenshin or Samurai Jack, follow a different wandering samurai.
(Note: This is a review of the Premium Edition. The Standard Edition should have the same discs, but different packaging/art book.)