Anime Review: House of Five Leaves

House of Five Leaves
Studio: Manglobe
Publisher: Nippon Ichi
Genre: Drama
Release Date: 03/06/2012

House of Five Leaves is the newest anime release from Nippon Ichi who, at this rate is putting out more anime than video games. I’m glad to see this has been so successful for them, especially since they’ve brought over anime series like Arakawa Under the Bridge and Toradora!, both of which are amongst my favorite anime series of all time. House of Five Leaves however, isn’t a series I was especially looking forward to as it is a straight drama. If you’ve been reading me for a while, you know that I like my anime series light hearted. There are exceptions to this like Robotech, Vampire Hunter D or Galaxy Express 999, but most of the time I’ll take The Slayers or Tenchi Muyo over something like Demon City Shinjuku or Master of Martial Hearts any day. I had the same worries with Kimi ni Todoke when I had to review it however. I ended up appreciating that series and coming to care about the characters, even if it wasn’t my cup of tea. Much like Kimi ni Todoke, House of Five Leaves wasn’t my cup of tea but unfortunately, it also wasn’t something I found any enjoyment in. it wasn’t a horrible series by any means. It was just simply dull and boring to the point where I had to make a concentrated effort to pay attention to it.

My boredom with House of Five Leaves isn’t unique however. The first episode did so poorly in Japan, Yamamoto Kouji apologized publicly for it. The series got roughly a third of the ratings share that something in its time slot was expected to get. Ouch. Because of how poorly received the series was in its home country, I was really surprised Nippon Ichi chose to pick them up. Still, Nippon Ichi had proven to be very smart about what they published anime-wise, so maybe they thought it would do better in the West. Hey, maybe it still will – just not with me.

The main character in House of Five Leaves is Masanosuke Akitsu. Aklitsu is a ronin swordsman who is fired by his previous employers due to his personality even though he is quite capable with his blade. He is a very shy introverted man and I don’t really understand that as impetus for firing a warrior, but it’s the plot hook for the anime to get started, so it is what it is. Akitsu ends up being hired as a bodyguard for a man named Yaichi, who turns out to be the leader of the House of Five Leaves – a group of thieves that engage in everything from kidnapping to blackmail. The series tries to make the group into anti-heroes, but it falls rather flat, mostly due to the delivery (or lack thereof) and characters making very abrupt decisions that go against their personality with little to no explination. Yaichi is a perfect example of this. The more back story you get on him, the less sense it all makes as it’s a pile of contradictions and “Oh, this person was a jerk so I’m going to kill them, but then I’m going to feel bad and sell out my current friends because of it. Now I feel bad for that. Angst time.” Yuck.

The other three members of the Five Leaves are Umezo (an ex-robber turned tavern owner), Otale (geisha) and Matsukichi (thief and spy). Together these five characters make up the Five Leaves, although you have to wonder why they were called that when originally there were only four of them. The are other characters that you’ll encounter, but the majority of the plot revolves around these five and specifically Akitsu and Yaichi. Much of the series is basically watch Akitsu grow into a more confident man while Yaichi devolves into a codependent melancholy mess. It’s as if one grows strong while the other grows weak.

House of Five Leaves is only twelve episodes long, but man it feels like twenty six due to how slowly everything moves. I like a nice slow burn at times, but this made plot progression in something like Dragon Ball Z seem fast and insightful. Even worse, much of the series feels like padding; as if the dialogue and events are ultimately unimportant. Perhaps the series would have been better off as a movie or an OVA trilogy. Either way I could barely concentrate on this from how plodding it was and I’ll happily sit through the uncut crazy long version of Das Boot.

The animation style was another thing that outright bothered me. On one hand, I appreciated how unique all the characters looked compared your typical “big eyes, small mouth” anime. At the same time however, ever character looks like they are a Deep One from the Cthulhu Mythos. With the fish shaped heads and eyes that most characters are sporting, I half expected the anime to be set in Innsmouth rather than Fukagawa. It’s not bad, but if you’ve ever read or watched anything Lovecraft based, you’ll make the same connection I did and it will be impossible to get out of your head once you have.

All in all, the anime’s not terrible. I’ve watched far worse, but man was I bored from beginning to end. I nearly fell asleep watching it and I can’t honestly say that’s the first time I’ve ever had that happen with a cartoon series, western or eastern style. I’m honestly not sure who to recommend this to unless you’re so completely devoted to Nippon Ichi that you automatically like everything they put out up to and including the Hitmaster games.

Unlike a lot of the recently released Nippon Ichi anime sets that have included both DVD and Blu-Ray versions of the series. House of Five Leaves only contains the standard definition DVD. This was a bit disappointing as I loved how Nippon Ichi was doing this? Perhaps it was too expensive to do a Blu-Ray version? Maybe they didn’t get the rights? Who knows? Nippon Ichi’s next set, Occult Academy is going to be Blu-Ray only and June’s Zakuro will be DVD only as well, so perhaps NISA’s dabbling in hybrid sets is a thing of the past.

Like all of Nippon Ichi’s Premium Edition DVD sets, you get two thin-pak DVD cases with character art, along with a full cover artbook and a coffee table sized hardcover slip case. Unlike previous Nippon Ichi slipcovers, House of Five Leaves is not done in cardboard covered in glossy paper. Instead Nippon Ichi did something really neat by using rice paper for the top layer, giving House of Five Leaves both a stunning look and a unique texture. The case has character art on each side (Yaichi and Akitsu on one and the same two with Otake on the other.)Unfortunately (there’s that word again), the switch to rice paper has made this slip case far less durable than the other ones Nippon Ichi has put out. With all of their cases, I give them what I call “the rabbit test.” This involves letting my rabbits play with the cover to see how much abuse they can take. With other Nippon Ichi cases, they might get a scuff or two. With House of Five Leaves, however, they were able to not only shred the case, but in record time to boot. They haven’t slaughtered a special DVD packaging container this savagely since the Robotech: Protoculture Edition one. So you’ve giving up durability for style. It’s your call which is more important. I really like the race paper feel of the slip case, but there’s not much left of mine so…

Finally, there’s the hardcover art book. This wonderful little piece is by far the best part of the House of Five Leaves Premium Edition. This art book contains character biographies, episode synopses, animation breakdowns (my favorite part), pieces of concept art and finally, a glossary of terms you will hear in the show. The book is laid out (and reads) from right to left like traditional Japanese works. It feels right considering the setting and time period that House of Five Leaves takes place in, but I’m not sure why Nippon Ichi keeps flipping around between Western style with one art book and Eastern the next.

All in all, I really can’t recommend House of Five Leaves. It’s just not on par with any of Nippon Ichi’s offerings so far and out of all their releases, this is one I would have happily stopped watching partway through if I didn’t have to review it. There are only twelve episodes but they’re all quite dull and as pretty as the premium packaging looks, it’s just not up to the usual quality we see from a Nippon Ichi offering. If you’re still interested, you can read more about the series here. You can also purchase the series directly from Nippon Ichi for $47.99 directly from their web site. I feel bad that I can’t recommend this set, but they can’t all be winners. Save your money and purchase one of the other sets Nippon Ichi has put out over the past two years instead.



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2 responses to “Anime Review: House of Five Leaves”

  1. […] the original post: Anime Review: House of Five Leaves – diehard gamefan This entry is filed under […]

  2. Neil Vaughan Avatar
    Neil Vaughan

    I can’t say I agree. The characters are intriguing and the atmosphere is tense. I would suggest that there isn’t a lot of action and maybe the stumbling block for those who don’t like this story is that they are looking for a fast-paced Basilisk-type Samurai anime full of epic moments. I admit that you won’t get Shakespeare-type tragedy here and you won’t get Ninja Scroll-esque fight scenes. It doesn’t rely on gore to sell it. It is pretty deep. What is provides is a slice of realism with characters and themes that are both complex and thought-provoking.
    I agree that the animation style is not for everyone, but it was not meant to provide a tapestry of colour to delight the watcher. What it creates is the desired atmosphere. In other words, it expertly paints an picture of an ugly story full of people who are anxious, sad, questionable of morality or just plain dark and evil.
    Call it dreary, call it drab, but come on, this isn’t a fantasy story. It’s a tale about life in the lower echelons of society in Feudal Japan. Personally, I understand why it wasn’t well received. Most people look for escapism in anime and are not interested in being reminded of hardship and the more negative realities of humanity.
    I think it’s a shame, however, that any apology was given to the public. For me, it addresses issues that other animes dare not through masterful character creation. It focuses on insecurity, loyalty and disloyalty. It shows that we are all a product of our upbringing and our life experiences. ItIboldly demonstrates that we live in a dog-eat-dog world through a no-holds-barred cross-examination of the human spirit.
    Pretty bleak stuff. I won’t be watching it every five minutes. But House of Five Leaves, for me, is nevertheless no less than a masterpiece

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