House of Five Leaves
Author: Natsume Ono
Genre: Drama, Historical
House of Five Leaves concerns jobless ronin Akitu Masonosuke (Masa) who, while living in Edo, falls in with a group of kidnappers calling themselves the Five Leaves. The manga tells the story of how Masa comes into this band of criminals, how his arrival changes the group and the mystery surrounding their enigmatic leader, Yaichi.
Characters – House of Five Leaves deals, oddly enough, with six main characters: Masa, Yaichi, Otake, Ume, Matsu and Ginta. This is not a plot based manga but is centred on its characters, spending many chapters going into their pasts and back stories.
Masa, the protagonist of the story, is easily the most compelling of the group mostly because he is such an unusual character for a manga lead in this genre. Masa is a timid and soft-spoken man, who harbours great shame at being let go as a samurai retainer. His curious and earnest nature also work against him in a society that values honour, etiquette and strength of character and so Masa often finds himself saying the wrong thing or being seen to be prying. Masa feels lost in Edo by the beginnings of the story, is struggling to find samurai work and it looks unlikely he will ever hold a permanent position under a lord again. He also has a strong moral compass and when offered to join the criminal gang, he is reluctant. All these traits come together to form a character that is much more relatable (to me anyway) than the brash and eager protagonists of a lot of seinen or shonen manga. I also think many people can relate to the fact that he dreams of his life going in a particular direction, but being unsure that it is ever achievable. He is definitely one of the deeper characters I have seen in manga or anime for a while.
While Yaichi is explored almost as much as Masa, though telling his backstory would be a huge spoiler, the others don't get quite as much attention. However, their backstories are filled in and their motivations made clear, making for a great main group of characters that are far more rounded than your average supporting cast. Their stories are satisfying to find out and one of the more enjoyable parts of the manga.
While these characters are strong individually, they are even better together. They have realistic, imperfect relationships with one another that become even more imbalanced with the entrance of Masa and Ginta. They are a struggling group and it is easy to root for them to succeed, and more importantly, to stay together.
Setting – The story takes places in Edo, which is now Tokyo, in the Edo period of Feudal Japan. For anyone interested in Japan or its history this makes for a very interesting and informative setting. I feel I learnt a good amount of background knowledge of the period from reading this manga and every volume has a glossary of Japanese terms in the back that I found really useful. Much like this is a sort of Japanese Robin Hood story, it should be taken as such, so it teaches some things but concentrates heavily on sections of society that I can't imagine very many people came into contact with in their daily lives. I'm no expert though but like most entertainment it's to be taken with a grain of salt.
Plot and Pacing – Due to the fact that so much time is given to the characters, House of Five Leaves lacks a strong plot and has pretty slow pacing.
The only real plot points are the few kidnappings and the parts concerning Yaichi's past. There is also a small sub-plot concerning Masa's family. The parts that deal with Yaichi are easily the most compelling parts. The mystery here gets quite gripping and contains the small amount of action in this series.
I couldn't call these points terrible though, as they make room for the characters to really be explored. The slow pacing is mostly to accommodate chapters solely dedicated to looking into character's pasts and for this reason I think it can be forgiven.
Art - Natsume Ono's art is very unique, though her style might take a while to get used to. Personally I prefer to see different styles rather than a sort of 'industry standard' you see in some. Her style often shows off her talent, but can also look unpolished and sketchy (though this is clearly intentional) and I can see it being divisive.
Overall, I thought House of Five Leaves was a very good character based manga. It didn't grip me or pull me along like Death Note or 20th Century Boys but kept my interest in the characters, and kept me invested in them as a group. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone who wants a fast paced manga with lots of action, but for fans of the something slower and with deep characters this is a must have. The Edo setting also proves interesting and I would say this is a great place to look for Japanese history and cultural background.