House of Five Leaves Complete Series Premium Edition

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Monday, April 16, 2012

Anime is often known for its use of exaggeration, which is one of the main reasons that House of Five Leaves might take quite a few viewers by surprise. Set in feudal era Japan, rather than going for ultra-violence or stereotypical characters the show uses minimalism and an emphasis on the interaction between its protagonists. It’s a drama that admittedly moves along at a very slow pace, and while the show is definitely an acquired taste and I personally feel it could’ve benefited from another season House of Five Leaves managed to capture my attention and stand out thanks to its differences.

When the show first begins, the emphasis is on Akitsu Masanosuke (Masa). Masa is a skilled swordsman, but is extremely shy and has a poor opinion of himself and because of this he has been unable to hold a job. After a run-in with a man known as Yaichi, Masa becomes drawn into the Five Leaves, a group of thieves that kidnaps members of noble families and demands ransom. While he is uncomfortable with the kind of work the group does, the relationships between the characters and mysterious charm of Yaichi keeps Masa coming back and the story goes from there. The majority of the story is focused on the relationships between the Five Leaves and the backstory between the characters, although it is worth noting that Masa does showcase some development as the show progresses. Based on this description, the main character might sound fairly boring and admittedly he isn’t the highlight of House of Five Leaves for several of the episodes. But surprisingly the supporting cast is able to really hold the show together and taken as a whole, there is a lot to explore and be drawn in by. The overall pace is extremely slow, with shots often lingering on character’s facial expressions to portray their emotions. I’m reminded quite a bit of Takashi Kitano’s movie Sonatine, as like that movie House of Five Leaves spends much of its time examining its characters and their state of minds and when violence does occur it is fast and in your face. Although I did feel rewarded at the end of the show when the mysteries of the past began to become clear part of me felt that there could have been an entire second season where the group moved forward.

Part of what really drew me to this series was the design of both the characters and the environments. As I mentioned previously, a lot of emphasis is put on the facial expressions and the animators did a really good job of making this work. The character designs are particularly striking as each one has a distinctive look, and they have been drawn in a way that feels very different from traditional anime. Throughout House of Five Leaves the character designs reminded me very much of a shogun/samurai period film rather than an anime, and this was also reflected in the design of the locations that the show takes place in. It was beautiful to watch, and I really felt pulled into the various locales. Although this series has been released on DVD only rather than a DVD/Blu-Ray combo (which is likely due to however the show was distributed in Japan), the colors are still quite vibrant and on a good television or monitor everything really comes to life. The voice acting is a bit hard to judge, particularly because everything is so muted and quite a few of the characters are rather withdrawn and don’t show a lot of emotion in their voice. But at the same time, it didn’t seem as though any of the actors were on auto pilot the entire time and it did seem as though they fit the particular person they were voicing. The background music is also very well put together, and there are a number of haunting tunes that really enhanced the drama of particular scenes. With that being said though, I wasn’t that thrilled with the opening or ending themes as while they were decent musical numbers they seemed too lighthearted for the type of show that House of Five Leaves is.

It has become expected of every NIS America anime release to have a lavish box with some extras, but the case and art book really stood out this time around. The case has a woven look to it, as though it is made out of the same material as wall scrolls and the artwork on it is quite striking. Additionally, the art book goes more in depth than many of the previous NIS releases have, as in addition to the episode summaries and character artwork there is concept art and entire storyboards that reveal what the team was planning for a particular scene or location. I really love this level of behind the scenes involvement, and really the only thing that would’ve made the book even better is an interview or two that revealed more behind the team’s ideas and goals for the project. There aren’t any real bonuses on the discs aside from creditless opening and ending themes, but it is likely that NIS is limited to whatever features the studios give them when they license a particular series.

I’m a little torn on how to feel about House of Five Leaves, as despite the fact that the relationships between the characters and use of extended shots to portray the drama was a nice change from much of the anime I’ve watched the show felt a bit underdeveloped as a whole. It will be interesting to see if this is all that comes from this series or if at some point in time it is continued, as it really feels as though there is so much more that could be done with the character dynamics and setting. But I don’t regret watching it to completion and commend it for trying to do a samurai/feudal Japan anime in an entirely different way. The pacing will likely put quite a few people off, but if you’re open to a show that takes more elements from Japanese cinema than other animated fare and does a lot with a little then consider giving it a chance.

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