House of Five Leaves episodes 01 and 02 – Down and Out in the Tokugawa Shogunate

House of Five Leaves was one of those shows I just fell in love with from the first second of the OP, so for this season I’ve chosen to blog this Noitamina series about criminals and a down-on-his-luck samurai in Edo. The characters and story remind me a lot of the sort of struggling to get by and takes jobs feel that Cowboy Bebop had, except with a larger main cast. While the art style may not be for everyone, I’m a big fan of it. The character design is unique and looks cool, and the backgrounds are beautiful with a distinctive style. This post is more of a first impressions and overview post, so check it out if you might be interested in the series. From episode 03 onwards I’ll be making weekly episodic posts on the show.

Starting off with the OP, the show immediately impressed me. I can’t quite put my finger on what to call the art style exactly, but I love it. Perhaps a reader with more art knowledge could comment on what the term would be for it. There’s a lot of texture and detail on individual objects in the background, but not quite the watercolor approach as seen in a lot of JC Staff shows or in the game Valkyria Chronicles. Seems more hand-drawn, with clearly defined lines between the pieces of the backgrounds (like the tiles on a roof, for example) and none of the fading/blending between objects seen in the aforementioned examples. The characters generally are made up of solid colors and thick lines, in contrast to the textured backgrounds to create contrast. The backdrop to everything is textured like rice paper, and various Edo period designs fade in and out with the credits as the background colors also fade in and out. As the scenes move back from the screen and progress from Mt Fuji into Edo and the OP song ‘Sign of Love’ plays it makes for a very cool opening sequence, something I had to stop and go back and watch twice before I went on to the rest of the first episode. Very impressive.

Just a sample of the constantly moving and changing OP sequence. Moving in from the more rural areas into Edo and showing all the main characters along the way, it’s my favorite OP sequence out of a season with several impressive ones.

The story starts off with a hostage being hidden under a house and the two kidnappers upstairs above him. One, Yaichi, flashes back to a time when he was a very proper looking retainer of the Saegusa family. An adopted child of the family is in his and another’s care, a child hated by his adoptive mother and taunted for a maple leave-shaped burn on his back. Yaichi tries to cheer him up by comparing the burn scar to the red maple leaves, but just then another servant announces that the mistress of the house is pregnant. The flashback fades back to the present, and then we switch to another character. Akitsu Masanosuke is being dismissed from yet another bodyguard job for being unreliable, and the sullen samurai returns to his small room with no money and no food. The job broker has no bodyguard jobs, and he won’t stoop to being a day laborer so he wanders the streets for a while. Coming upon a yakuza and a beautiful woman he stares for a moment then averts his eyes and runs off when he’s noticed. Slumping against a stone lamp,  he wakes up to see the yakuza, Ichi, offering him some of the dango he was eating earlier. And then offers him a job as his bodyguard. He treats him to some food and Masa tells him that his lord dismissed him, though Ichi doesn’t seem to care and hires him anyway. Ichi is rather unconcerned about Masa’s problems adapting to life in Edo, and that night brings him along for a business meeting. Two ronin hired by the other party attack and Masa masterfully dodges their attacks and gives them some strong but nonlethal counterattacks, sending them running. Ichi gets what he wants from the other party, ransom money, and is surprised that Masa is so talented when he’s so socially awkward that he can’t take praise or look him in the eye. Masa is also very uneasy working for criminals, something Ichi doesn’t try to hide, even if Ichi seems to have some sort of odd code of honor about it. The next day he sulks in his room wondering what to do, but the woman that was with Ichi earlier comes calling.

Seinoshin, the prominent family’s child with the burn scar.

Yaichi has certainly changed from what he once was. It will be interesting to see why he ended up leaving his post in the samurai house.

Recruitment bonus.

Just look at the texture on that bridge!

Ichi doesn’t try to hide it.

Edo period NEET.

The woman, Otake, leads Masa to a bar associated with Ichi and his group, the Five Leaves. Ume, the owner, and his daughter Okinu run the place and let Ichi use the upstairs for meetings. He and Masa go upstairs and Ichi asks him to join again. Masa is still nervous about joining a criminal organization and refuses again when Ichi pulls a knife to his throat and then backs off saying he was kidding. Masa is pretty scared, but Ichi keeps talking normally, saying that he wanted a bodyguard just as a matter of form. He decided to try and find a softhearted ronin, was surprised that one exists, and has now taken a liking to Masa, asking him to join once more. They have a drink and Masa is so weak with alcohol that he falls asleep and is woken up the next morning by Okinu. He’s given breakfast on Ichi’s orders, even if Ume doesn’t like to be giving out free food to someone who’s not a part of their group. Talking to Ichi later, Masa makes smalltalk and asks where he lives, which is in the unlicensed pleasure quarter of the city. Masa hasn’t joined yet, but he’s curious about Ichi and follows him later that night. Ichi apparently works as a guard for a brothel, the Katsura-ya, and when one of the women notices him and approaches he finds out that he’s supposedly a ronin too…and very popular with the women who work there. Masa still won’t join the group, and the next day he swallows his pride and tries being a day laborer, something he’s not very good at. Ichi approaches him again and mentions that he can have food for free whenever he wants at Ume’s establishment, and then walks off. And Masa does show up that night after failing at being a laborer, Otake drinking with him and trying herself to convince him to join. Once again Ume isn’t happy with him being there, and being so close to Otake, but he does as Ichi has ordered.

Ume, the owner of the bar/restaurant and member of the Five Leaves.

Ichi is definitely using a full spectrum approach to recruiting Masa: food, money, threats, compliments.

Okinu, Ume’s daughter. She tells Masa that they started the Five Leaves for her, but it’s not elaborated upon whether that means more than just giving her and her father some money to live off of.

Ichi has the fangirls. I love Masa’s expression.

Ichi’s campaign to bring Masa into the group continues. I like how a job and food is such a motivator in the show, there were a lot of unemployed samurai in Edo when the wars ended and the shogunate started making changes.

Not Otake seems to have taken a liking to him and is trying to get all up close and personal to try and get him to join, before Ume gets all angry and slams down the food on the table to interrupt them. Stop your cockblocking, Ume.

Ume doesn’t care for having Masa there when he’s not a member, but the next day he has a job to do and asks Masa to come along while he goes shopping. Going shopping meaning taking a hostage out to the countryside in a wicker basket and dropping him off at a safehouse. The owner of the house offers a meal to the travelers, and Ume tells them both that Masa is already in the group, he just doesn’t know it yet. Ichi wouldn’t be putting forth such an effort if he didn’t think Masa would change his mind. Ume takes a nap, and the house owner tells Masa that he probably won’t like this kind of work and that he should get out now. But the Five Leaves really offer a home to Masa as well as a paycheck. He helps out for a bit at Ume’s, he’s put in charge of the tsukemono, and he meets the final member of the group, Matsu. After a day of picking up five leaved maple leaves with Otake for ransom notes, and a brief encounter with another samurai, they head back to the bar to meet with Ichi. Masa realizes he’s become part of their group of friends, and when he comments that he never had friends back in his fief Okinu thinks that’s just too sad and begs him to keep coming back. It was a rather DAAWWW moment as Masa blushes and says that he’ll definitely keep coming back, being such a softy that he can’t turn down Okinu. Ichi tells Matsu that night that he’s confident that Masa will join since he keeps getting himself involved on his own. And aside from him being a skilled swordsman, Ichi finds him interesting to watch.

Yeah, Masa, it’s just the son of a retainer of the shogun, kidnapped and thrown into a basket, yeesh.

Soon, soon. It is unavoidable. It is your destiny.

More of that sweet background art. I especially liked the way the trees and hedges right behind Masa were drawn.

Where everybody knows your name.

Otake asks him to join again. In her view she will make them complete, there will be five members like the five points of the leaves.

Haha, they’re both so cute. Masa looks like he’s about to cry out of overwhelming gratitude.

Final Thoughts: – This season is a rather impressive one for drama and action/drama shows, with Senkou no Night Raid (go watch it, at least thus far it’s not the revisionist propaganda many feared) and Rainbow debuting, but House of Five Leaves was my instant favorite for its mix of characters, art, setting, and tone. It has an interesting group of personalities, the tone seems like it will have just the right mix of seriousness and fun, the visuals are unique and impressive, and the background music was pretty cool. My favorite being the neat mix of what sounded like accordion and koto that played when Masa was sitting in his house with an empty stomach and an empty purse, and when he was trying unsuccessfully to be a day laborer. The only thing that was kind of a turn off for me was that HORRID ending song.

- Looking forward to watching and covering the series this season. The Noitamina block continues to deliver. I’m really happy to see it continuing on with quality shows that are willing to break the mold in some fashion, whether it be the true to life drama of Honey and Clover, the unusual premise of Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 (even if I disliked the execution I have to respect the premise), or the unconventional art and themes of Trapeze.

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  1. ToastCrust
    Posted May 1, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Even though initially I had my reservations about the character design, I agree on the quality of the backdrop, and the competence that the story and characterization itself shows.

    It’s quickly become one of the shows that I look forward to watching each week.

    • ExecutiveOtaku
      Posted May 2, 2010 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

      From what I gather the character design is hit or miss for a lot of people. But that aside it is developing a really cool setting and cast.

  2. Posted May 2, 2010 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the review (And taking over the series, instead of me messing it up.). Things are heading downhill and busy on my side. Probably I’ll stick to the monthly reviews I did earlier on.

    • ExecutiveOtaku
      Posted May 2, 2010 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

      Too bad things are getting busy again for you, but it’s good that you’ll be continuing the monthly reviews. And if you want to add a secondary comments section to future posts just let me know.

  3. Marigold Ran
    Posted May 2, 2010 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    It’s a good show. The characters are interesting and the visuals look good. I just wish the women were prettier. By the way, isn’t your screen name an oxymoron?

    • ExecutiveOtaku
      Posted May 2, 2010 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

      Heh, House of Five Leaves definitely isn’t a moe character design show, though Okinu was pretty DAAAWWW and Otake did the whole sultry thing well if you consider her actions, movements, and facial expressions.

      My screen name comes from a concept I borrowed from an Eddy Izzard skit years ago and applied to anime fans to differentiate between the ones who have a life/social skills/hygiene and the kind that makes you embarrassed to be a fan. I consider myself an executive otaku, not one of those weirdo otaku with daimakura and apartment walls entirely covered over with fanservice posters, etc. The skit I referenced is here:

  4. Kherubim
    Posted May 3, 2010 at 3:29 am | Permalink

    Well now, I like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo movies and Kitano Takeshi’s version of Zatoichi, might be worth taking a look at this as well…

    • ExecutiveOtaku
      Posted May 3, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, sounds like it might be for you. In some ways it reminds me of Samurai Fiction in that it’s kind of an intentionally stylistic, reinterpretation/revision of the older Edo period fiction.

  5. Marigold Ran
    Posted May 3, 2010 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Eddie Izzard is funny.

    I thought the prettiest females in anime were Frederica Greenhill and Hildegard von Mariendorf from Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Besides being beautiful, they were also extremely competent and intelligent. I stopped half-way in the show because things could only go downhill from there. But would you consider blogging about THAT series?

    • ExecutiveOtaku
      Posted May 3, 2010 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

      I’m a fan of Frederica Greenhill and Hildegard von Mariendork myself, for the same reasons. I liked Frederica a bit more since she wasn’t all business. Legend of the Galactic Heroes is an amazing series, but I’m also stopped around the halfway point. Not that I’m afraid that the ending would disappoint, just that I watched a lot of it in a short span and just felt like a break. But when I start back up I don’t think I’ll blog it, at least not in episodic posts. I love the series, but that’s a lot of episodes even starting from halfway. Maybe an editorial post or something like that though once I finish it.

  6. Posted May 4, 2010 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    This is one I’m meaning to watch, but between Arakawa and Tatami Galaxy I’m having trouble making the time for it. Might be a little late with comments on your posts, hope you don’t mind.

    • ExecutiveOtaku
      Posted May 4, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      Take your time. I try to reply to comments from posts still on the front page, so that’s a while to get your comments in. Episode 03 post should be either today or early Thursday. I’m a little behind myself, trying to get 03 post out there before ep 04 comes out.

  7. miden
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    This show is magnificent. I just love the main character! For all his faults, it seems his swordplay skills make up for his faults. It would be nice to see more of his swordplay! But yeah, the show is good so far!

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