House of Five Leaves Episode 1 – Slow Burn
So I’ve been a pretty big fan of the noitaminA block of shows for as long as they’ve been airing. It’s a time slot dedicated to expanding the audience of anime beyond your typical young, male otaku, which makes it perfect for a site like this. For the last 5 years, they’ve had several spectacular successes, a few hilarious failures, and some less exciting stuff in the middle. Honey and Clover and Eden of the East, two of my favorite shows of all time, both aired in the block, so I make it a point to always check out what’s airing.
This season, noitaminA is being expanded to two shows, and they’re the last two premieres to air. In addition, the rights to the block itself have been bought by American anime distributor Funimation, which means that, unlike the rest of what I’ve been writing about so far, you can stream them legally from a Web browser.
House of Five Leaves is the first of the two shows to air. Set in Feudal Japan, it’s the story of a ronin, a masterless samurai, named Akitsu Masanosuke. Despite his skill with the blade, Akitsu is a shy and timid man, which makes it hard to find work. He stumbles across Yaichi, the easy-going leader of the Five Leaves, who offers him a job as a bodyguard.
Yaichi isn’t looking for a samurai of any skill—he just need a bodyguard to keep up appearances at a kidnapping negotiation. So he’s surprised to find out that Akitsu is a much better samurai than he looks. And Akitsu is equally surprised to find out that…he’s working for the kidnappers.
The Five Leaves are, apparently, a group of semi-noble kidnappers. While they don’t have any illusions of being good people, they make sure their victims are innocent children who are being mistreated by their parents.
The show doesn’t whitewash this; it merely presents it as it is. Yaichi does what he does to make money, first and foremost, and if he helps someone or gets revenge, that’s fine.
That same laconic attitude carries over into the pace of the show. House of Five Leaves is not a fast-moving show. It has a slow, steady pace that it maintains from beginning to end, drawing you quietly into its small, dream-like world.
If the pace doesn’t put you off, the art might. The unique art style gives the show a lot of charm, but let’s face it, it looks pretty weird. The characters are vaguely insectoid, with big, bug-like pupils, angular faces and long mouths. The characters all look pretty ugly, which makes the “beautiful” women in the brothel Yaichi frequents look eerie. The exaggerated facial features lets the show be more expressive, though, with plenty of sly smirks and mouths gaping in amazement that seem distinct from the now-standard set of anime facial expressions. And the ungainly, loping postures that all the characters have fit its serene atmosphere perfectly.
The direction is top-notch, as well. The shots linger, or peacefully pan across backgrounds, and even the action scenes know to use their inside voices. It’s all in service of the laid-back vibe the show seems to be going for.
It’s a rare thing to find a quiet, subdued show in this manic medium, where all too often layer after layer of patent absurdity get added onto shows to hide the fact that there’s nothing there of substance. House of Five Leaves, however, wears its substance on its sleeve.
That might be a bad thing if it turns out not to have any. I enjoy both the main characters, although Yaichi often steals the show, and the way each character’s personality subtly complements the other’s is engaging. Just know that there’s not much to this first episode beyond the two interacting. It’s rewarding, if you can appreciate its nuances, but if you don’t care, then you’re left with a show about two people slowly talking about nothing in particular.
House of Five Leaves isn’t going to be a show for everyone. To be honest, I’m not even sure it’s a show for me. But it’s a quiet, subtle and mature show in a medium filled with loud, brash juvenile antics. That alone makes it worth paying attention to.
Watch the first episode here. I’ll see what I can do about embedding the video.