House of Five Leaves episode 06 – Speaking Truth to Appearances (additional commentary from ghostlightning)

Episode 07 may already be out, but it was worth the wait to watch this in its proper resolution with good subs. CommieSubs may be a little slow lately, but it feels like a crime to watch this show in anything less. This episode we have two things going on, one short term and one the evolution of a long term trend. The immediate situation is that Ume and ‘Saint’ Soji are being dragged into the problems that Senkichi has had since he tried to leave the underworld. Denshichi, an upstart young criminal is threatening Senkichi’s family directly in recent days unless he joins back up with the group. The longer term situation that continues to play itself out centers around Masa, still recuperating in Soji’s safehouse. Not only has Masa been quick to pick up on what everyone in the Five Leaves tries to hide or not speak of, but he’s figuring out Soji at a fast pace as well. While this makes the people around him uncomfortable at times, it’s also bringing them closer. Indeed, Masa has that kind of unintentional, natural magnetism that forms groups and makes existing ones stronger. Plus everyone is kind of moe for Masa.

Ichi asks Ume about Masa, showing concern but definitely trying to hide it. Awww, everyone’s so kuudere for Masa!

Denshichi arrives in Edo, part of a larger organization that wants to forcibly recruit Senkichi.

Back at the safehouse. Those are some damn impressive shadows and there was a neat emphasis on framing most of the shots in this episode, shown here with the corner of a building on the right edge.

Toku, perhaps a one-time or maybe recurring character, who brings Soji news of the goingson in an around Edo.

Senkichi stops by Ume’s to ask for help, even as he’s very reluctant to. But the reluctance isn’t only, or even mostly, from his falling out over Soji helping Ume but not him. The grudge may still exist, but he’s admirably more concerned about Ume finding himself in the same boat for helping him. Visually, more of the abundant framed shots in this show, and a long take where all the motion happens within the fixed frame.

Masa speaking with Soji, bringing up one observation after another as he sees through the appearances the characters try to hide themselves behind.

But in contrast to the more child-like characters that typically serve as the blunt voice of truth, Masa is just naturally honest without the naivety of what’s going on around him.

Senkichi sits down with Ume to discuss his situation, sharing some sake as they do so. Just as he leaves, he finds that Denshichi was tailing him and was lurking outside. Denshichi confronts and threatens him, and then threatens to drag Ume into it until Senkichi lies and tells him that Soji has been the one giving him money. But unbeknownst to both of them, Matsu has been keeping a watch on the area and overhears everything. Inside Okinu is doing some sewing and Ume is once again confronted by someone figuring him out. Instead of Masa, this time his own daughter has picked up on his shady business, but also knows that he’s only doing so to help Senkichi. Ume seems trapped between a strong sense of responsibility for a former comrade who’s tried to go legit and the guilt he has for Soji not helping him, and wanting to be a good man and a respectable father to Okinu. Back at the safehouse, Otake comes to visit Masa, and the two briefly discuss Ichi, who at the moment is holding down the fort at the bar and keeping his eyes on Denshichi’s gang via Matsu and possibly other agents.

There’s a lot of focus on the drinking and sharing of sake in this episode as well, always one way between Senkichi and Ume. Ume always pours the drinks for Senkichi, Senkichi always raising the glass a little to end the pouring as they speak and Senkichi drinks.

The expression on Ume’s face was something we’ve never seen before, the face of someone confronted by one of their worst uncertainties.

Sharing some yakiimo with Otake. Even though she didn’t have a business purpose to stop by, one by one the other members are stopping in to check on Masa.

Masa’s poetic impression of Ichi.

Nice touch CommieSubs! Ichi sticks around the bar while Ume heads to consult with Soji. He acts kind of annoying to Okinu, covering up his real reason for being there.

That emphasis in mid-episode on the cups of sake, the left image from Senkichi and Ume’s meeting, the one on the right firmly put down on the table as Ichi keeps watch at the bar.

Out at the safehouse Denshichi arrives to try and extort money from Soji, who flatly turns him down, prompting Denshichi to come at him with a wakizashi. We cut away for a moment to see Ume now running towards the safehouse, extremely worried about what might happen to his old boss and the one who set him free from his old gang. Cutting back, we see that Masa has blocked the slash with his left arm and is now about to use a cooking utensil to do what he can to fend off the criminal. Otake then runs in with Masa’s katana, making him much more able to defend both her and Soji. The tables have turned on Denshichi, but the decisive moment is provided by Ume throwing open the front door, giving Masa the chance to draw and knock the wakizashi out of Denshichi’s hands. It’s only a moment, as combat in this show typically is, but it was fast, precise, and clearly showed off Masa’s skill. Fighting indoors with a full sized sword, from a draw, and then being able to have so much control as to disarm the opponent instead of just striking them, really proves how damn good Masa really is. Even while sick, he was immediate in acting to protect those around him. Ume then grabs Denshichi by the neck, but from behind Senkichi stabs the extortionist with a kitchen knife, killing him.

In this and the last episode, Ume has really comes out as a much more worried and loyal character than his usual tough guy act.

Masa defending Soji, but being initially unarmed and still sick, he doesn’t emerge unharmed.

Masa can be both moe and GAR. We’ve never really seen him in a defensive situation before, his skirmish in the first episode was mostly a preemptive attack, but he’s the model samurai protector when his friends are threatened. It’s interesting how he’s the paragon of a skilled member of the warrior class as far as what that class was originally created to do, but he’s been dismissed because he can’t manage the courtly manners and social graces that were added into the samurai’s role in more peaceful times.

He’s that good. The light reflected off his blade and onto the edge of his sleeve was a nice little touch.

Just had to throw this nice closeup in there.

Trying to get out is a frequent theme in a lot of crime fiction, but when it’s completely forceful like in this case, you have to wonder about the intelligence of the one doing the forcing. How do you get someone to work for you based purely on threats and not on the prospect of gain as well? Unless Denshichi just thought that he could keep intimidating him for money.

It’s still killing someone, but I don’t think there was any other way. Denshichi’s boss isn’t exactly known for being reasonable either. Though killing him could just get the Five Leaves deeper into things if said boss finds out what happened and ignores the face that Denshichi basically went too far and got himself killed.

Senkichi announces that he’s going to leave Edo with his family, and Soji gives him some of his remaining savings to help him out. It’s an intense, almost tearful moment as Soji apologizes for contributing to this situation by not helping Senkichi when he first asked for help, and Senkichi moved by Soji’s generosity and understanding even when he almost tried to push his problems onto Soji. It’s a belated resolution to something that happened in their pasts, and it was a highly emotional ending to mistakes made on both sides. Ume also gets down and bows to Masa for protecting Soji and Otake, even continuing when Masa tells him that he’s overdoing it. To Ume, it’s both appreciation and a ceremonial gesture of finally putting the matter to rest. Otake then mentions Ichi keeping tabs on the rest of Denshichi’s gang, and Masa has one of his characteristic insights where he puts it out in the open that Ichi is there to protect Okinu and the bar, even if Ume would prefer not to verbally acknowledge Ichi’s concern. The next day as Ume goes to bury the body, Ichi comes to visit finally and Soji seems to recognize him, apparently having never met him in person.

Even such a respected boss has made mistakes, and now he gets the chance to right this one.

Masa seems to bring everyone together. Ichi may be the organizational center, but Masa seems to be the social one.

Or so you would like people to think, Ume.

Timotei, timotei. Timotei!

Final Thoughts: - The framing in this episode was really nice, and every episode I’m continually impressed by the visual techniques. It’s such a treat. And I think I’ve realized this week that in terms of backgrounds, the show seems especially strong in the sort of near-background (not to be confused with the ‘near-abroad’, which is an excuse to keep acting like you’re still the Soviet Union. Sorry Putin, don’t polonium me bro.) By that I mean that the far distances in outdoor shots, while nice, are definitely outshown by the mid-range details and objects. Given that many of the scenes are indoors, we get a lot of this near-background detail while the far distances are usually left to simpler drawing techniques.

- Ume and Masa both reveal parts of themselves that are normally hidden or not emphasized in this episode, both in response to danger. For Ume it’s the physical threat to Soji and his worry about forsaking his old loyalty, as well as how he appears to Okinu and how his actions supporting his debt (real or imagined) to Senkichi. And Masa is put in a defensive situation for the first time, physically and martially showing the strong links of loyalty and duty he has with the people who depend on him. This is reflected in his feeling of indebtedness to the Five Leaves and in his letters and payments home to his family as well.

- Now that Ume no longer has to support Senkichi, he’s going to have to at least acknowledge the changed situation if not stop working for the Five Leaves completely. Though I somewhat doubt that he will, given the loyalty he exhibits and the more personable bonds that Masa is unknowingly forging between members of the group. And there’s also the matter of whether this business with Denshichi’s gang will continue or not.

Ghostlightning’s Thoughts and Commentary

Now more than ever, House of Five Leaves successfully communicated how palpable the concerns are for the characters in its story. While it’s easy to manufacture pathos — any character can be shown to be down on their luck, but here the actions the cast come from a very strong, very real place:

From Ume’s reverence and eternal gratitude for his boss, sponsor, mentor and liberator, to Senkichi’s desperation to escape his former gang’s reach. I can really feel something important was at stake. For Ume, it’s central to his life’s meaning, for Senkichi, it’s his own life, livelihood, and his family.

I think of Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji to remember characters who were desperate to the point of breaking. We see the same here, but the story is told with far more restraint while remaining the same kind of melodrama. I particularly appreciate how important this particular arc is as portrayed by the events in this episode. How did it show?

We get to see Masa draw his sword and show his considerable skill.

By now we know House of Five Leaves is utterly stingy with showing swordplay. If Masa swings his sword, something very important must be going down.

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  1. deaky
    Posted May 29, 2010 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    I am starting to love this show. It likes to hold back and be muted, but not at all in that “only because we ran out of budget” way. It’s like a more intelligent, less childish Samurai Champloo (more dull as well, but even that’s becoming untrue). The attention to detail is excellent, and without feeling led around by the nose you can understand the depth of the characters surprisingly well. If they keep this up, it will be a most excellent show.. the likes of which we rarely see in the shounen-dominated samurai genre.

    Also: nice touch on the Timotei.. I couldn’t resist but wonder how the guys in Hakuoki get away with the hair they have while Masa and the rest here actually seem to follow the hair-customs of their time (could be wrong on that one).

    • Posted May 29, 2010 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

      It’s certainly not an action show, but I love the depth of characterization in it, as well as the art. I don’t really mind the emphasis on conversation and characterization, but I’ll admit that those factors make it not for everyone (which might be why only one good fansub group is releasing it.) Then again, I loved .hack//SIGN and it’s long conversations. They made the action parts that much bigger of a deal for me.

      Haha, glad you liked the Lucky Star reference. Hakuoki…yeah, that’s a whole different beast. It’s much more about a certain way of using the time period. Some would call it fanservice (I would), some would call it ‘having fun’ with the era.

      • deaky
        Posted May 29, 2010 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

        Shows like Hakuoki usually lose me because they seem to have no real sense of aesthetics. Madhouse is putting a lot of emphasis on the aesthetics in Five Leaves (as you’ve noted in your post), and that’s always been a welcome trend of theirs. I’ll agree with you regarding .hack//sign as well.. I’m not quite sure why I enjoyed it, but chalk it up to the OST and the fact that it didn’t get fantastically trite despite it’s basic premise. Slowness doesn’t bother me as much as blandness or broken suspension of disbelief.

  2. Posted May 29, 2010 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Hmm, I’m pretty sure that was a tantou Denshichi used. A wakizashi is more of a short sword (~2′ blade), while a tantou is a knife that would be easier to conceal.

    Nit picking, yes, but it is my area of interest…

    • Posted May 30, 2010 at 12:51 am | Permalink

      Yes, indeed. Only Samurai would be allowed to carry wakizashi anyway right?

      • Posted May 30, 2010 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

        …. maybe?

        Honestly, I don’t know too much about what the laws were and are, but you’re probably right. Not that the laws would keep any bandits from carrying full swords (interesting to see if they could afford/steal them, or if there were any bandits to speak of in that period). But definitely not in Edo; actually, for a time I’m pretty sure no weapons of any kind were allowed in Edo.

  3. Dandos
    Posted May 29, 2010 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    Minor quibble: I bet that’s actually a tantou (dagger) that Denshichi was using. It looks too short and seems incorrectly shaped to be a wakizashi – not to mention that wakizashis were mostly restricted to Samurais and higher-class people. Criminals tended to prefer the tantou because it was fashioned more for stabbing, and because it tended to be cheaper.

    • Posted May 30, 2010 at 3:11 am | Permalink

      Ah, true, I guess my sense of perspective was skewed and the blade looked a bit larger than it was.

  4. Posted June 1, 2010 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Interesting point about near-background details. In general the artwork shows a very rich sense of aesthetics, to the point that it seems strange to me now that there was so much early complaining about the show being “ugly”. I guess it goes to show how the majority of viewers concern themselves almost exclusively with character design. Five Leaves takes a different approach, putting a lot of emphasis on atmospherics, and the atmosphere being evoked isn’t the sumptuous scenery of a palace; these locations are all extremely humble.

    • ExecutiveOtaku
      Posted June 1, 2010 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      It seems like most people look first to character design, and then to the far-background when evaluating aesthetics. Those are the areas that I think naturally draw the eye. And as you say, the locations and objects are often very humble. That goes along well with the art from the time, as well as the aesthetics. Hiroshige and Hokusai both did their work mostly with everyday scenes or objects, for example, and even the samurai classes and political leadership emphasized a minimalist sense of aesthetics and design in their homes. All of which goes well with the atmosphere and setting of the show, but certainly makes it no Aria or Gankutsuou in terms of overtly lavish backgrounds.

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