Set in Japan’s traditional Edo period, “House of Five Leaves” ( Sarai-ya Goyou) is a twelve-episode anime series (written and directed by Tomomi Mochizuki) adapted from the Japanese manga of the same name, written and illustrated by Natsume Ono. Although falling under the seinen genre, it is based on the story of a rather timid ronin (wandering samurai), Akitsu Masanosuke, who is unlike our stereotypical protagonists. In spite of his deft swordsmanship, he is often fired by his employers for his shy and unimpressive personality, a quality that we usually don’t associate with the ruthless samurai clans. This is what makes this anime so special and causes it to stand out from the rest.
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While Masanosuke is unemployed and frequently visits the Employment Office out of desperation to seek a job as a bodyguard, he holds himself with a certain pride and refuses to take up menial labour that he considers not befitting to the prestigious status and reputation of a warrior even if that drives him to starvation. He values loyalty, and genuinely respects the standard bushido codes of honour. His sense of work ethic and need for survival clashes when he finds himself offered a working position by a mysterious local yakuza, who he later learns, engages in illegal activities. However, trapped by his dire circumstances, Masanosuke slowly begins to develop an interest in the aloof and enigmatic leader of the gang of outlaws, called Yaichi, and ultimately decides to join them.
It is important to note that this anime depends heavily on its dialogues to move the plot forward and, although it might seem like nothing much happens throughout the series at a first glance, what is unique about it is that this apparently simplistic storytelling allows the creator to devote more time to each of the character developments and thus presents us with a very realistic and almost philosophical outlook on the life of a samurai as it was, instead of romanticising it with swashbuckling action scenes or including unnecessary gore. Additionally, the absence of bloodshed or violence doesn’t make it any less mature. In fact, some of the situations portrayed in the anime are highly complex and nuanced, something that one hardly expects in an anime, a medium that caters mostly to a younger target audience.
The show explores the major themes of loyalty, deception, chivalry and honour, tropes that are common in most samurai anime, but here, it also dwells upon the mental health of our protagonists, raising questions of concern about the treatment of childhood traumas, PTSD and social anxiety issues which are often overlooked in other mainstream productions, encouraging us to be more accepting of differences. Each individual character has been given their own specific backstory and personality, they are all crafted differently in their own ways and the creator has taken great efforts to depict them as sensitively as possible, rather than reducing them to a collection of stock characters with a predictable set of emotions and responses, giving their identities an essentially humane aspect.
But the most appealing feature of this anime is its visuals, especially Natsume Ono’s typical dead-fish-eyes and distorted drawing style. Despite having a surprisingly dull color palate, almost monochromatic except the occasional bright orange autumn leaves in the panels, and its bleak setting, the minimalism draws us in and helps to bring our attention more to the little intricate details, the subtle hand gestures or eye movements that act as crucial markers in this thoughtfully constructed and slow-paced narrative. The use of traditional music and the sound of kabuki drums enhances our overall experience. One must not fail to notice the backgrounds that are skilfully drafted and filled in to complete the final look. Sadly, due to the lack of its superficial charm, this series is highly underrated and perhaps deserves greater appreciation than it has received so far.