Secret Santa 2014 – House of Five Leaves

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An anime where Sakurai Takahiro voices yet another white-haired hottie is a wonderful Christmas gift!

I’ve got a bit of a lucky streak, and I think it really shows in my secret santa options. I’ve seen people complain on twitter about getting choices for anime they’ve already seen, lazy choices stolen right from the “plan to watch” list, and just downright weird choices that go completely against the blogger’s tastes. But every year for the past 2 years of being a part of the Reverse Thieves Secret Santa event, I’ve ended up watching truly amazing and memorable shows. This year is no exception.

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I was given the choices Full Metal Panic, Xam’d, and House of Five Leaves. Only FMP seems like an odd choice for someone who is “eh” about mecha shows, but I get the feeling it must be something my secret santa is really fond of. The other 2 looked right up my alley. Suggesting 3 perfectly tailored anime to a random aniblogger is not easy to do, especially since more often than not you get paired with someone you don’t know. That means you have to try and gather whatever vague scraps of info about that blogger’s tastes as you can. So good job, once again, to this year’s secret santa! But anyways, enough about the ins and outs of recommending anime – onto the show! [NOTE: THIS POST IS SPOILER FREE!]

House of Fives Leaves is one of those prestigious noitaminA shows that aired back when noitaminA was a genuine marker of quality (now it can include shows like Black Rock Shooter and Guilty Crown so it’s lost a lot of meaning). This show isn’t that old, making me wonder how I could have missed it. The first episode was wonderful so I must have just skipped it altogether. Perhaps it’s because of the massive temptation I have to skip anything with the word “historical” in it. That label just makes me picture a boring history lesson or another one of those shows where Nobunaga comes back as a moe girl or a hot guy. Dismissing it immediately because of those misconceptions was a huge mistake. House of Five Leaves has the depth and soul to achieve incredible heights (and heart-wrenching lows) within a span of 12 episodes, and I absolutely adored it.

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A mix of sad and happy faces. It’s complicated.

In a nutshell, the story follows a nervous samurai named Masa who gets mixed up with a bunch of unruly criminals. They’re not like your typical low-class scum though. They kidnap people (usually children) from wealthy yet corrupt homes. For example, by kidnapping a boy from a wealthy rice field owner who is cornering the market, they try to lower the ludicrously high prices of rice so other people can afford it. They just so happen to pocket some extra money on the side in the form of ransoms, making their “good deeds” rather profitable. But it’s never depicted as being as simple to understand as Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Some of the Five Leaves members really are only in it for the money. As the straight-laced Masa gets caught up in this, he tries to figure out if what they’re doing is right or wrong. And the answer is not an easy one to come to, if he even comes to it at all.

One of the big reasons someone as pure as Masa stays with this group (aside from being crazy poor and horrendous at job-hunting) is because he’s captivated by their leader, Yaichi. He’s mysterious, composed, and dangerously clever. Not even the other members know much about him. But Masa is convinced that despite how devious he looks, that he must be doing this kidnapping businessfor good. So the crux of the issue of figuring out the morality of the House of Five Leaves lies within Masa’s observations of Yaichi. Their chemistry is wonderful as the shy and clumsy Masa tries to learn more about the stoic and calm Yaichi. He sees a side of him the other members don’t dare to see, and this adds to the inherent mystery behind why a group of ragtag strangers would suddenly start up a major kidnapping business revolving around one guy that no one knows anything about.

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Masa is an excellent vessel for the viewer to navigate the criminal world through. Like us, he’s innocent and has no knowledge of how this underbelly of society works. That is…unless you also kidnap random children and hide them in a closet for a few days. But for the rest of us, everything is a shockingly new experience and we want to ask a ton of questions. Masa is not exactly the most socially eloquent person, so he bluntly asks everyone about themselves all the time. To the members of the House of Fives Leaves, he’s being incredibly rude and half of the time they blow him off. They don’t want to reveal anything about themselves, because that’s not how they’ve done things up until now. I say “up until now” because everyone eventually does tell Masa about themselves.

So many conversations go like this: Masa plainly asks about someone’s past, they tell him it’s rude to ask something like that, he fidgets nervously and apologizes, and then they tell him about themselves anyways because he’s so adorable and harmless. It’s funny that despite everyone telling him that this is the wrong way to compose himself that Masa never does change his ways. In fact, it’s because of his blunt nature that he becomes close to the House of Five Leaves and is able to understand Yaichi. It’s a simple mechanic, but it unfolds in many different ways that show us the true nature of all the members and why they’re so indebted to Yaichi. If anything, House of Fives Leaves is more of a character study than a story about crime, kidnappings, and samurai battles. There’s an incredible amount of detail that’s placed in each and every character – even the minor ones. Hell, even the stray cat that lounges around Masa’s old home has a big personality!

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The cat has more substance than most male main characters in harem shows

Although all of the members have their own charms and moments in the spotlight, Yaichi is the pivotal character who we yearn to find out more about. I won’t spoil anything, but it all basically comes down to understanding the truth behind why his family abandoned him and why this drove him to begin his kidnapping business. It’s quite a wild ride from start to finish and the pay-off at the end is incredible. I’ve seen several reviews describing this show as slow and I would have to disagree. While it’s not rife with action, deceit and crazy heists, there is always something happening. There’s no filler. Every conversation has a purpose. Every episode is based on a current kidnapping plan or a future one. Things are constantly moving forward and characters are constantly either butting heads or starting to trust each other. It’s a beautiful show that manages to juggle all these elements so effortlessly that there’s never a dull moment. Combined with the beautifully unique art style, you really don’t want to look away for even a moment.

So thank you, secret santa, for suggesting such a great show. I’ve also got Xam’d lined up to watch, but I didn’t want to rush it just to make my post longer by reviewing another series. Maybe I’ll even give Full Metal Panic another shot some day. I can’t wait until 2015 to see what I get to watch next!

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Merry Christmas! Go share some dango with your loved ones!


A neuroscience graduate, black belt, and all-around nerd. You'll either find me in my lab or curled up in my rilakkuma kigurumi watching anime.
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22 Responses to “Secret Santa 2014 – House of Five Leaves”

  1. Bobob101 says:

    There are slow shows, and then there is this one. Personally, I love period pieces like this where there isn’t a lot of fighting, just people living in the world of the samurai. I rarely recommend this show to others, but it is quite a viewing experience

    • Overcooled says:

      True, it’s not a show that everyone would like. If you’re not pleased by deep character studies and prefer more plot-heavy or action shows then this would be a flop. But for me? Oh mannnn it was perfect!

  2. G44 says:

    I am SUPER excited to see you covering this show, because it may well be my all-time favorite anime and yet it’s one of those things that barely no one ever watches. So obviously I try to counter-balance that by rewatching it on the regular.

    My most recent rewatch was in early November and I think it was my fourth time going through it. I loved it just as much as the all the other times, and also I cried just as much.

    I hope your review inspires other people to watch Saraiya Goyou because honestly, if you haven’t, you’re missing out. So anyway, great job on the review and on totally lucking out on your Secret Santa. Merry Christmas!

    • Overcooled says:

      Aww, thanks! I hardly see anyone talk about this show either, so I didn’t know what to expect going in. I thought it would be a big political drama with backstabbing and all sorts of trickery.

      House of Five Leaves needs more love…Hopefully my post will act as a secondary secret santa recommendation and get people to watch it from seeing how much I loved it.

      Merry Christmas, G44! Thanks for commenting!

  3. BlackBriar says:

    It’s not every day a spoiler free post shows up.

    Looks and sounds interesting, though the character designs are weird to look at. The scenery judging from the screenshots are almost on par with Mushishi’s gorgeous work. Except here, the color is a little drained if you ask me. For a moment, the guy at the header I almost mistook for Ginko. What was I on? 😀 I should give this a try when I have time.

    • Overcooled says:

      I tried to make it spoiler-free so anyone who wanted to see if they should watch the show but didn’t want anything spoiled could read it. Although then again…maybe most people just didn’t click to read the post because they thought it had spoilers anyways. :B

      The art style is certainly offbeat, but I love it. I got used to it pretty quickly. The character designs are mostly odd because everyone has those hideous oldschool Japanese hairdos. Everyone except the pretty Ginko lookalike that is. I made that mistake before too, especially watching one right after the other.

      You might like it, so give it a try if you have time!

      • BlackBriar says:

        You might like it, so give it a try if you have time!

        First, I’d have to download it. I despise any and all forms of buffering when watching anything.

  4. Kyokai says:

    Glad you finally watched this and enjoyed it.

    I watched this while it aired and loved it. I don’t remember if I shouted from rooftops of its accolades but I do remember that Tatami Galaxy was airing with it, along with Drrr, FMA, Arakawa under the bridge… Yeah, it’s all coming back to me as it was the time when I used to watch EVERYTHING.

    The pacing was slow but it was visually amazing and of course, both the seiyuu did an amazing job giving life to their characters. I’d be a Yaichi fan forever but have to tip my hat to Namikawa Daisuke’s variance for Masa.

    • Overcooled says:

      Ahhh, maybe that’s why I missed it. There were too many other shows airing at the time and I got distracted.

      I recognized Yaichi was Sakurai the second he spoke but didn’t even realize that Masa was Namikawa Daisuke! That guy has some great range.

  5. Maya says:

    I mentioned this anime to Fosh not too long ago. What a surprise, Metanorn did a review. He has no excuse but to watch this anime now.

    I love everything by Natsume Ono. She has become one of my most favorite female mangakas out there. Her way of storytelling tells me she does take her time to study human nature closely. House of Five Leaves in particular depicts not only what people in Edo-era would be struggling with but the issues at hand feels very reminiscent to us in this period as well. The writing is very solid. One of my favorite things about this show is that nothing happens in a hurry. The utmost patient it has both in the writing and its audience is very admirable. You just have to sit tight and wait for it all to unfold at a leisurely pace. In the end you will be rewarded and in some cases with her other works you would never see it coming. Although the revelation do coincides with the story at hand logically, giving the story a smooth flow.

    The characters, as well as their intense interaction with one another is what make this series very special to me. All of them are layered and each character were given a fair amount of screen time to shine through their backstory – a past that is gut-wreaching and also endearing but with this past is what tied all of these character together until the end. A character backstory is one of the many key elements of storytelling Natsume Ono is great at displaying. They are carefully detailed and mirrors real life situation which is one of the reason why I am very attracted to her works.

    Her character designs might be one of the reason this anime is disregarded quickly. It took me a while to get use to it but not very long, though I do think her unique art skills go hand to hand with her stories. The animation and backgrounds were excellent from top to bottom – the tones set in this piece encompass real life Edo-era Japan and the staff behind the show greatly execute the vibe and atmosphere the manga has to offer.

    Unfortunately there are no scanlations available online, there is one but I was told you need to pay. What I can see, the anime doesn’t tell the whole scope of the story and have only covered the first two arc.

    Show ▼

    • Sumairii says:

      I’ve fixed your spoiler for you. Please remember to close the tag next time with [/spoiler] at the end.

      • Maya says:

        Oh thank you. I’ve been wondering all this time why I can still see it. Didn’t know I have to do it that way.

    • Overcooled says:

      Now to get all of Metanorn to watch it…

      The writing is definitely one the strongest parts of this show. It’s mostly conversations but it never gets dull. It didn’t even feel slow! Everything really was just the right speed to milk every moment and allow the viewer to take everything in.

      I loved the character interactions too. Usually flashbacks and stories about a character’s past can be tedious and groan-inducing, but I was so hungry to learn more about each and every character. I loved the little things like how Matsukichi’s composure and body language alone said so much about him.

      I’m going to have to look into her other manga, if they’re online. I actually really love the art style!

      Ahhh wow, we missed some stuff…And it was already so good! I didn’t even feel like they skipped material.

      I tried not to spoil anything so more people would be able to read it. I know I like reading other people’s secret santa posts to see if there’s something I want to try.

  6. zztop says:

    5 Leaves was penned by Ono Natsume, creator of Ristorante Paradiso (the one with the older male waiters).

  7. I’m glad you enjoyed it. House of Five Leaves was actually an anime recommended to me through Secret Santa, two years ago. I felt like you were the right person to “pass the torch” to.

    I recommended FMP because it’s actually a mecha show where the mecha itself is not necessarily important. From your list I gathered that you “wouldn’t mind” mecha at least. It’s a decent bit of sci-fi, but also a strong comedy and a fantastic drama. So if you ever feel like it, you should definitely check it out.

    • Overcooled says:

      Merry Christmas! Thank you so much for the recommendations! I also started Xam’d a few days ago and I think it’s going to be great.

      Yeah, you’re completely right about me not minding mecha so we’ll see if I have the bandwidth left for FMP. ^^;

  8. Joojoobees says:

    I really liked the artwork in this show. It was slow, and that could bother some folks, but it has this atmosphere with which most shows really can’t compete.

    As to things looking “drained”, I think that is intentional. Instead of operating in a magical other-verse, this show’s artwork is fairly dark, and you can really see the sources of light (windows, candles, …).

    O.C.: I hypothesized at the time that Masa suffered from Social Anxiety Disorder, making him the “SAD Samurai”.

    • Overcooled says:

      I loved how at night or during flashbacks that the lighting took on this eerie, green quality. It was just enough to make you feel disconcerted at the right times. Now that I think about it, there was a lot that went into creating the right atmosphere in this show.

      Oh my gosh, he IS the SAD samurai ahahahaha!

  9. SherrisLok says:

    An anime where Sakurai Takahiro voices yet another white-haired hottie

    That’s what he should be doing for the rest of his career 8]~~

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