House of Five Leaves Vol. 1

By Natsume Ono
208 pages, black and white
Published by Viz

With House of Five Leaves Vol. 1, another one of the SIGIKKI website’s online strips is making the jump to a print edition. As it’s by Natsume Ono (not simple, Ristorante Paradiso), I knew it wouldn’t be your typical samurai story. What I found, though, was a nice play on the genre where no one is quite what they seem, and I think it’s probably the best of Ono’s works brought into English to date.

House of Five Leaves stars Masa, a yojimbo (masterless samurai) who sells his services to anyone who’s interested. Unfortunately for Masa’s finances, he’s quite possibly the utter antithesis of a typical samurai. He’s weak-willed, nervous, and apologizes to people who bump into him in the marketplace. He’s everything you wouldn’t want when hiring a swordsman, which is why out of desperation he takes his initial job with Yaichi, a man who is quickly revealed as the head of the criminal organization the House of Five Leaves. It’s from there, though, that Ono’s story takes a turn for the interesting.

House of Five Leaves is one of those stories where no one’s inner self matches with their title or initial impression. So we have characters like Masa the feeble samurai, or Yaichi the kidnapper who targets corrupt houses and businesses. No one is who they initially appear to be, but what’s nice is that it’s more than a simple switching of roles. Ono starts slowly peeling back the layers of characters at a gradual pace, letting us get to know them step-by-step so that they become more interesting as time goes on. It’s just the right speed, because it never feels like Masa is rushing into decisions or his slow acceptance of the House of Five Leaves, but at the same time it doesn’t come across to the reader as Ono dawdling for time.

As the lead character, Ono pays particular attention to Masa, and while it’s hard to keep from occasionally getting irritated by his general cluelessness (there are times when you almost want to slap him for being so dense), I think Ono is careful to give him just enough redeeming features that you can’t write him off. He’s someone who is clearly unsuited as a samurai (and while there are hints as to why he took this role in the first place, it’s a story that Ono hasn’t shared with us by the end of the first volume) but we start to see his gifts in other areas as the chapters play out. By the end of the book, I found myself wanting to see Masa succeed in spite of himself, and I have to hand it to Ono that she made me come around on the character.

Ono’s art has her typical shaky lines and large eyes in House of Five Leaves; here, though, we also often get large, thick brush strokes of ink as well. It’s a nice combination, bringing to mind old Japanese brush paintings from an earlier time, and helping set the story in its era. Ono draws Masa’s nervous face well, but it’s the sly expressions on the other members of the House of Five Leaves that really drew me in. There’s something about those characters that draw you into the art, those glances that they shoot one another. It’s a fun, sly look for the characters, and it fits their personalities well.

Since House of Five Leaves is part of the SIGIKKI group of titles at Viz, that means you can also check out chapters of the story for free on their website. That said, House of Five Leaves is a title I definitely want to have permanent copies of on my bookshelf. After a slightly disappointing turn with Ono’s Ristorante Paradiso, I’m fully back on board with Ono here. I’m definitely going to keep reading.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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