Every now and then a show is needed to unwind to. Something to break the monotony of the typical over-the-top anime shows with "in your face" color pallete and the overused tropes. We seek these melancholic shows to provide temporary release from the norm, a sort of meditative experience if you will. House of Five Leaves is that kind of show. A show that understands its audiences' desires and executes it with a delicate balance. This certainly isn't for anyone seeking an adrenaline rush or intense action flick but rather serves as an oasis for anime fans that want to just kick back and relax.
The story follows our protagonist Masanosuke as he searches for a purpose in which he can excel at. However being a wondering ronin limits his options to bodyguard duty and through this he becomes acquainted with the "Five Leaves": A band of kidnappers that target affluent people of questionable business behaviors to receive ransom. It isn't structured as a clear cut point A to point B narrative but more of a character driven one. The show follows several mini arcs, each either involving the mission of the team or showing the main overarching story, which involves slowly unveiling the gangs' boss Yaichi's life and backstory. This slowly exfoliates throughout the show's duration with a ending that wraps everything up nicely by coming full circle. The effectiveness of the story is within its simplicity. Since its structured in such a simple way it allows the characters in it to breath life into their world as they remain the primary focus throughout. It's simple storytelling done right.
Everything from the opaque backgrounds to the character's visual aesthetic was handled with great care. It's like a painting brought to life. The world building was also handled well, as you're immediately sucked into the setting and time period that the story takes place in. You can also tell that the animators had a grasp of capturing a sense of depth of frame, as there was a clear distinction separating the foreground from the background, something many shows tend to neglect to do. They use an acid washed color palette accompanied with rich blacks and other textures to help build an aura that looms over the entire show, bathing in a distinct tinge of melancholy while still being easygoing. They were also aware of when and how to use color, as they would limit color choices given the kind of mood they're trying to capture and convey. This was evident with flashbacks and key episodes throughout the show. It's an impressive display of color theory and color placement that was spearheaded by a talented and impassioned crew of creators.
The character designs of Five Leaves are far from conventional. They all share a distinct facial structure with gaping looking eyes (as shown on the anime art cover), which, despite the obtuse expression, was actually pulled off well. They become a part of the environment they're presented in and are uniquely designed when compared to the "run of the mill" brightly colored haired bishounens we're used to seeing. This unique character design gave the show its trademark identity that made it stand out from the crowd. Whether you like it or not comes down to preference but there's no denying its distinct look.
It's hard pinpointing the soundtrack for the show. Sure It had its somber piano ballads, traditional Japanese song instrumentals and other pieces to accompany its usual easy going setting, but there are some tracks that are clearly inspired by French/European flavoring with an Accordion playing throughout certain songs. Seeing that this anime is set during an Edo period Japan, the cultural clash of European influenced music seems like a rather odd choice. One would think they would stick to only traditional instruments of that era of Japan's history, such as the more common placed Biwa or Koto stringed instruments for example. This does not take away from the music used but it would have certainly set a better tone if the show would have taken a stricter cultured route. If they were going for a self-aware cultural mash-up like Samurai Champloo it would have been understandable but they clearly wasn't. It's certainly a unique choice but sometimes it doesn't fit the mood as well. Seeing that music is subjective to one's tastes, how much this bother you as a viewer will vary. Hell, it may not even register with you at all, which in any case it doesn't do much to hinder the show's overall quality to begin with. You can see this as more of a personal nitpick than an actual problem.
The voice actors were also well composed. Everyone came across like they were in their element, this made the character interactions to show great chemistry. Almost like listening to a conversation between old friends, which in turn allowed for great immersion.
Our main protagonist Masa suffers from a clear case of inferiority complex. Although this approach isn't new it's handled well and not made out to be simple melodrama. It's nice to see him strive for self-worth without sacrificing his ideals as a person, with him being a man with a decent moral compass. Another refreshing aspect is that he doesn't throw this ideal around like a bishonen MC would, but rather expresses it to show his distaste for certain actions. Due to his timid behavior, however, he doesn't seem to fight against the actions his companions take. This may make him out to be a push over but due to the character interactions it's never abused for unnecessary drama. Slowly but surely he opens up to the lifestyle of the group and proves his worth.
Yaichi is by far the most enigmatic and captivating character, mostly due to his ambiguous and collective personality. He always steals the spotlight in whichever scene he's in, as we as viewers are constantly trying to piece together his true motives. He isn't simply clear cut as "the cool guy" but more so a person that seem to dabble in the grey, which makes his presence unnerving at times.
Ume is a man of stubborn pride that only seem to care for those who he's close to. He takes on the role of big brother to the others and is often the one with the sharp tongue. He isn't afraid to speak his mind but is also protective of his friends and family. Just like Masa he has a moral compass, but unlike him, he isn't afraid to get his hands dirty if it means protecting the ones closest to him.
Matsu seem to be a closed off individual that is all about business and fulfilling his obligations. He's the information gatherer of the group and his job reflects his personality. He can be summed up as a lone wolf. He only show respect to those he's indebted to and shows loyalty to the group but never brings up anything regarding his personal life. Due to his detachment to others he isn't quite explored until later into the show with his individual arc.
Otake is a rather carefree woman, she doesn't seem to take anything too seriously but still composes herself to a degree. She seems to go about things on a whim with a smile always on her face and always find pleasure in the company of others. Her past, like the others in the group, is revealed later on, which brought another aspect to the story involving Yaichi. There isn't much to her in layered characterization but she is still a nice addition to the group.
the rest of the supporting cast also play their roles well and don't need over the top quirky personalities to be understood. They simply play their roles in the story without overstepping their boundaries.
Together these characters are all subtle in execution and are down to earth enough that their presence feel natural. The air of maturity complimented the melancholic tone of the show quite well. This brings forth nice organic character interactions between them, making all their time on screen a pleasure to watch. All the characters show a sense of honor as to be expected among Japanese customs. This mutual comradery for each other is what makes this cast among the better ones anime has to offer.
I entered this anime to seek escape from the usual dime a dozen shows and that's exactly what I got. It's soothing, got to the point and didn't overstay its welcome. For that, I can easily recommend this to anyone seeking the same kind of escape as myself.
Don't be fooled, this anime will not be everyone's cup of tea. It's not trying to impress the audience nor is it trying to be more than it is. It's simply an anime that slowly unfolds a simple story on its own pace. If you're looking for a show to relax to or just something to offer a break from anime's usual tropes then this might be just the remedy. But if you're looking for intense samurai action flick and a grandiose story I advise you look somewhere else.
As for other recommendations, I point you towards:
Mushishi: A show that also captures the familiar melancholic atmosphere, accompanied with unique character designs and tranquil presentation. It also takes its time exploring its world and individual stories. However, it lacks an overarching story as oppose to House of Five Leaves.
Shigurui: You won't find the tranquil easy going nature of House of Five Leaves here but what they do share in common is that sense of mutual comradery, slow pacing and similar Edo period world setting with samurais. Also, it has a slowly unfolding backstory of certain characters as well. Be warned though, it's a VERY bloody show and follows more of a grittier approach. If you're one who doesn't want to see a bloodbath, stay away.