The streets glow with a crimson hue.
Upon closer gaze, a pattern of five-pointed leaves stained with a fiery red flutter in synchronized elegance, encapsulating the essence of an enigmatic tale told in the 12-episode anime titled Saraiya Goyou or House of Five Leaves. Based on the manga by Natsume Ono, Saraiya Goyou tells a slow-burning narrative revolving around an unemployed samurai named Masa, who in simple desperation, finds himself hired by Yaichi – the leader of a small band of thieves who call themselves the Five Leaves.
The bulk of the series focuses on the dynamics between the members of the Five Leaves, specifically Masa and Yaichi. Naturally then, this series is an entirely character-driven drama that entices with a very clear handle on its ambitions. Surprisingly enough, the fundamental strength of this series comes from its ability to deceive; from the characters to its progression. The series keeps itself under a veil, revealing in perfect doses, what’s necessary to tempt and assume, only to taunt those assumptions back into their flawed origins. It is in no way a standard samurai tale featuring spectacular sword fights or thrilling wars between conflicted states; rather it aims to do something far more basic than that and that is to tell an unassuming story about individuals trying to find their place in a fragmented society, where meaning is lost, and relationships are forged through coin and sin.
The character’s journey to find sanctuary, belonging, and one’s self - when there seems to be very little hope - is a premise that echoes throughout time and land, and can be found really in every medium. What sets Saraiya Goyou apart in its story-telling is the mechanics it uses and the subtlety it does it with. All of the characters that are part of the “Five Leaves” find themselves together, bound by an unspoken contract and sense of camaraderie, but what’s important here is: why? The manner in which the series examines each individual’s motivation for doing so is nothing short of magnificent. Under the ruse of “criminal activities” whether its kidnappings, or thievery, or blackmail, the activities of “Five Leaves” are never the focal point, but rather it’s the interactions, reactions, and the impact of each respective crime on the band, and the individual characters themselves and that's what elevates the series. Thus, the show is able to streamline what it wants to do at all time, which is fleshing out the characters with every scene, and it does that, without skipping a beat.
As the crimes escalate in risk, so do the vulnerabilities and traits of the characters regardless of how deceptive they may have seemed, initially, which brings up the strengths in the development of the individual characters. From the naïve, black-eyed Masa who suffers from a lack of confidence in his craft and himself; to the enigmatic white-haired, powder-blue eyed Yaichi with a seriously deceptive smile; to the reserved, lone-wolf-type Matsu – the gang’s spy – who is as reckless as he is reserved; to Take, the sultry geisha with a sharp tongue and undying loyalty to the gang; to Umezou, the unofficial member with a stained past trying to clean up his present and future, yet offers the Five Leaves his tavern as their meeting place. All of these characters with their idiosyncrasies and quirks are a pleasure to witness as they try to fulfill their own goals while maintaining the House of Five Leaves. It is astounding the amount of meticulous effort that went into each gesture, interaction, and conversation when evaluated elementally, and how those come together to give dimension to each character, and the relationships that come as a product.
The last defining point of the characters is their design. Saraiya Goyou is not only unique in its content, but also in technical achievement and aesthetical quality. The art-style of this series is very peculiar. Uneven lines, big circular eyes blobbed with a simple pattern and one color, mouths drawn in a way to make the Joker envious - the way the artistic design comes together is indeed very different, but for a series as out-standing, as it is, it complements it perfectly.
Even the background art and the music that accompanied the story-telling were equally fitting such as the subdued use of color except for very intentional markers such as the crimson leaf, or Yaichi’s eyes, or objects that consistently enhanced the mood or scene, contextually or situationally. The serene shamisen accompanied by the jubilant accordion and flute seemed to be the instruments of choice and bode well, as they really heightened the time-period it was depicting. Overall, every element seems to have been crafted only to tell this story, and Saraiya Goyou is that series where everything just came together in just the right way.
As slow-burning as this show is, it’s worth experiencing for all those who enjoy a well-seasoned, character-driven tale. It isn’t flashy. It isn’t in your face. Saraiya Goyou is more like an impressionistic painting, which requires patience to fully appreciate the details. The strengths lie deeper than a first-look like within its stylistic choices, its clandestine characters, its simplicity, and unparalleled elegance.
Though, don’t be deceived; even though it may run at a relaxed pace and seem indifferent to action, the impassioned crimson-hearted House of Five Leaves and their members will surely persuade you to stay until the end…