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House of the Five Leaves aka Sarai-ya no Goyou



Masanosuke is a tall, naive and shy samurai who was sent away from his master because of his overly timid personality. Exiled as a ronin to Edo he tries without much success to make his life as a bodyguard when he meets Yaichi, a suspicious and easy-going guy, who takes interest in him and starts making use of him for the schemes of kidnapping and ransoming people he does along with a few friends as the gang of the five leaves.

I was looking forward to this adaptation of a manga by Natsume Ono (aka the author of Restaurant Paradiso) which I've been enjoying reading a lot in its French translation called Goyou; and I wasn't disappointed : House of the Five Leaves is one beautiful, nuanced and entrancing adaptation, suffering only from being a bit too short for its source material.

Goyou is an odd work, which, despite the involvement of samurai and criminals, is more a slice of life and character study than an action series. It's an understated, atmospheric and bitter-sweet work where we mostly learn to appreciate the characters and their interaction as they go about their day to day life and start revealing events of their past and changing as characters from their relationship with one another.

The production values are excellent and really carry out the atmosphere. The art is beautiful, with lovingly detailed backgrounds and a lot of fluidity; the music is unique sounding and lovely, and the character design is original yet pleasant (well, I liked it, I've seen people on the internet react badly to it but they know nothing :p)



The storytelling makes great use of Masa's candidness and genuine kindness to bring out interesting bits from the characters he interact with, as well as bits of subtle humour. With his awkward height, shy demeanour yet emotional boldness, he kind of reminded me of Fumi from Aoi Hana (is that an odd comparison? ^^). Yaichi's like those ambiguous allies with their eyes always shut you always see in shounen series, except his personality is treated in a much more realistic fashion in term of both his weaknesses and how annoying it can be for others. Their relationship is more than a little bit slashy. The rest of the five leaves are Otake, a beautiful woman who loves drinking sake and teasing people, Umezou the grumpy looking owner of the tavern they all always gather at, Matsukichi a silent and stern thief. Each one except for Otake has a narrative arc dedicated to exploring their background and personality. Overall, they have some very nice chemistry and subtle characterisation.

For a historical work, this one is really interested in looking at people's life from a different kinds of social class in a very down to earth fashion. The direction gives attention to small gestures and objects of the daily life, giving a rhythm and a poetry to the narrative as it fills it with subtle meanings. The situation of the character are quite morally ambiguous, yet revealed to be a complex result of their character, social situation, and network of conflicting obligations (with all the weight that obligation has in traditional Japanese culture) in a way that allows them to remain sympathetic while still having a dark undercurrent. How to handle the way the past can weigh you down and learn to appreciate life and friendship as they come form the core of the thematics of the series and are realised beautifully with deft touches.

The gender dynamics aren't the best : the few female characters were the ones which were the least focussed on by the narrative though it (barely) pass Bechdel's test. And despite some clever rearrangements to fully tell the story despite the shortness of the series' run, there are still some awkwardness of pacing in the middle and some plot threads that are just left hanging there, though they managed an ending that was fulfilling and cathartic enough.

With its down to earth attitude to the historical setting, its mature tone, the slow and deliberate pacing that build up the atmosphere beautifully, and its subtle characterisation, it kind of reminded me of Mushishi though it doesn't quite match that sublime anime series (what does?); it was still a pretty amazing anime and my favourite of the series of spring 2010.
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Etrangere's anime reviews

September 2011

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Currently watching

- Legend of Galactic Heroes
- Katanagari
- Uraboku
- Senkou no Night Raid
- Madlax
- Welcome to the NHK
- Now and Then, Here and There
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- Occult Academy
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