House of Five Leaves 8

April 21, 2013

Natsume Ono – Viz – 2012 – 8 volumes

Speaking of things that slid to the bottom of my to read pile, this is high on that list. The last volume of House of Five Leaves, which has been a fantastic series about a group of thieves, their pasts, and how they interact with one another. Wonderfully illustrated, to boot.

The last volume (and a large one at that) deals mostly with the fate of the Five Leaves in general, and Yaichi in particular. He’s still reluctant to open up, but everyone seems to know his secrets. Yagi is being forced to act, but isn’t sure what to make of it all. Yaichi is rather harmless. The gang business is behind him. The Five Leaves were never the criminals the rumors made them out to be. And Yaichi has led a hard life in general. Yagi has to confront Yaichi to settle the matters to his satisfaction. Similarly, his old gang members also confront him to settle matters to their satisfaction.

There’s dissension in the Five Leaves as ugly rumors about them begin to spread, and when one of them is imprisoned, they all consider turning themselves in, as they all have lived a peaceful life and don’t want the single member to take the blame.

One of the best scenes in the series, though, is an artful conversation between Yagi and Masanosuke to delicately try to figure a way out of the predicament, without either saying out loud that they know the full circumstances of what’s going on. It’s intense, very personal, and the type of scene you can only find in House of Five Leaves. I loved it dearly, and was happy to see that the whole series built up to that.

The ending itself isn’t anything spectacular or outrageous, which was fine by me, as that would go against the nature of things. It’s friendly, somewhat mysterious, and open-ended, which is the only way to leave things.

Overall, I liked this series an awful lot. It’s a different flavor than what I normally read, a very subtle story, mostly based on conversations and how one collects information, with subtle, but likable characters and a plot that doesn’t move fast but sucks you in anyway. And again, Ono’s spare, ink-heavy art suits the story perfectly. Highly recommended to those that enjoy period stories or love the slow buildup and payoff.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

House of Five Leaves 7

November 3, 2012

Natsume Ono – Viz – 2012 – 8 volumes

Are you ready for some Yaichi backstory? Because that’s exactly what you get in this volume. The whole series has been building up to it. How is it?

Weeeell… I like it. It’s a great story, don’t get me wrong. It pretty much matches all the expectations from the hints we’ve received throughout the series. We learn about his background in the gangs, his ruthlessness, and why he went soft on the hostage whose father refused to pay his ransom. We also learn about his connection with the real Yaichi, and his connections to all the characters from his past that have entered the story throughout the run of the series.

But for all that, there wasn’t anything fantastic about it that made the waiting seem worth it. There’s nothing terribly extraordinary about Yaichi’s story, and I was almost a little disappointed with it as a near-ending to the series. Then again, that is Ono’s style. Her storytelling tends to run along an even keel, so moments that actually rock the boat are rare. That’s true of House of Five Leaves as well, as the tense moments tend to slide in and out rather than come up suddenly.

In fact, the most dramatic part of the series so far is when the Five Leaves receives a commission for a kidnapping, with the commission wrapped in a cloth Masanosuke gave his brother. That continues to deliver exciting moments in this volume, when the job is seen all the way through and Masanosuke has a talk with his brother. There’s some good stuff there, and for me, it made up for the Yaichi origin story.

The volume ends with Masanosuke finding out about Yaichi and coming to terms with it. That leads into the final volume, and I’m excited to see how the Five Leaves comes out of this trial.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

House of Five Leaves 6

July 25, 2012

Natsume Ono – Viz – 2012 – 8 volumes

The eighth and final volume of this is coming out next month, I believe, so I’m a bit behind. No time like the present to catch up, though.

As good as it is (the writing and the art are both superb), I always find this a difficult read. There’s something so terribly awkward about Masanosuke and the way he interacts with the characters. That Ono really gets across the fact that these characters have things they would really, really rather not talk about is quite remarkable. However, what started out as a curiousity has become more and more painful with every volume. Masanosuke has a run-in with his disappointed younger brother in this volume, there’s a Five Leaves job that goes awry, and Yaichi and Masa have to deal with the fact that the former’s past now lies between them. Rather than getting more comfortable with these characters as time goes on, it gets increasingly awkward. It’s an interesting technique, but it also makes it a bit hard for me to enjoy these volumes as much as I’d like.

The interactions between Masanosuke and his brother Bunnosuke were what interested me most here. The story introduction at the front of the volume divulged the fact that the money that Masa sends home was not to cover a gambling debt, but was rather to cover a bribe Bunnosuke was collecting in order to score a prominent post. I either don’t remember this detail or didn’t understand when it was divulged, but it’s not really mentioned here. Masa feels like he’s let his family down, and the very strict Bunnosuke seems to use Masa’s shame and guilt as leverage to cover his own wrong-doing. The end of the volume takes an interesting turn when Masa begins to suspect Bunnosuke is tied up in something rather sinister, and I’m curious to see where that heads.

Though it looks like the next volume may be tied up with more flashbacks about the various gang characters and Yaichi’s past. Somehow, this has become less important to me, but with two volumes to go, I’d be happy if the Bunnosuke story wound up being the finale to the series. As awkward as it is to read, it’s still very good, and likely worth picking up for anyone that enjoys Japanese period drama-type stories.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

House of Five Leaves 5

April 16, 2012

Natsume Ono – Viz – 2011 – 8 volumes

On one hand, I always have a hard time convincing myself to pick up the next volume of this series. The slow pace and quiet story haven’t drawn me in to the point where I really have to know what happens next, and I have a hard time picking it up over other stuff in my to-read pile. On the other hand, I know that when I start the volume, I’ll be really, really into it. And that’s still the case, happily.

Things do get a bit more exciting in this volume as Yagi gets closer and starts asking the right questions. Yaichi pulls further and further away from Masa and the Five Leaves, and Masa finds work that suits him. Yaichi states that the next very big job will be the last for the Five Leaves, but I wonder about that.

I’m never quite sure what to feel about Yagi. He’s obviously The Law, and it’s no good for him to find out about the Five Leaves. But on the other hand, he’s not interested in the Five Leaves, he’s only interested in Yaichi. And even then, it’s not for any crime that Yaichi committed, but because of Yaichi’s childhood. We find out more and more about what happened between the two of them in each volume, but the flashbacks are maddeningly short. We still don’t know the full story, or why Yagi is so driven to find out what happened to Yaichi. And honestly… I’m not sure who Yaichi is at this point, as far as his past identity.

I do like that Masa found work that he can excel at. He’s also slowly overcoming his weakness, and even stands up to someone in this volume. While he still feel guilty about being the cause of Yaichi’s recent funk, he’s also the one that begins to bring him out of it towards the end of the volume, and it seems as if nobody bears him any ill will. Things are good for Masa right now, and I’m curious to see if they continue as such, or if something will happen to bring it all down.

Again, this is interesting and well-written, and every volume is worth reading. I like the characters, and I love the slow way the story is unfolding. But again… it’s not the kind of book that begs you to read. Just a very good one.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

House of Five Leaves 4

November 28, 2011

Natsume Ono – Viz – 2011 – 8 volumes

Somehow, the beginning of volume four had me a little lost, and I was hoping that reading it so soon after volume three would help me get into the story a little more. The problem is that it starts in the middle of a kidnapping negotiation, with a disguised Yaichi and Masanosuke talking with a character we haven’t met yet. Since I didn’t recognize any of the characters, I thought it was somehow supposed to relate to Yaichi’s past, then I was disoriented when characters that looked like Yaichi and Masa appeared… I don’t know if that’s my fault or the story’s fault, though.

This volume is all about a negotiator named Ginta. Ginta begins to hire himself out as a kidnapping negotiator, mostly dealing with the high-profile kidnappings of the other organization that tends to slay its victims. But the Five Leaves crosses paths with Ginta, and through a set of coincidences, Ginta winds up learning their identities, about their organization, and where their hideout is. So then he has to become one of them, except nobody accepts or trusts him.

The story takes its time about introducing him. It’s not clear whether he’s going to turn on Five Leaves, and this ambiguity makes learning about him a little daunting, since you’re not sure whether you should sympathize with him, or if he’s lying to gain the trust of Five Leaves. Masa does his usual act, where he’s nosy and makes Ginta spill all his secrets. Unusuallly, Ginta turns the table, and we finally find out all the details of Masa’s trip to the capital, too. I wasn’t expecting any more details about that, so I enjoyed that little bit of story.

We are also still dancing around some of the uglier issues surrounding Yaichi. Ginta walks in on a brutal scene between Yaichi and someone from his past, and Yaichi seems to have given up on Masa and the Five Leaves by the end of the book as his past catches up to him.

As interesting as the story was here, I’m still having problems with flashbacks and distinguishing the characters from one another. I was a little less enamored this time around. Maybe reading the volumes back to back was too much of a good thing, then? I’m curious to see how the next volume will go for me.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

House of Five Leaves 3

November 19, 2011

Natsume Ono – Viz – 2011 – 8 volumes

This month’s Manga Moveable Feast is Natsume Ono-centric, and the host is Alex Hoffman over at Manga Widget. Check out the archive, because there’s a lot to say about Natsume Ono and her rather diverse body of work available in English.

I’ve had good and bad experiences with Natsume Ono, but House of Five Leaves does endear me to her quite a bit. I enjoy the series as a sort of strange period piece. Not quite a drama, not quite noir, not quite crime, maybe a little bit of a slice-of-life story… it’s a lot of things, and it’s very easy to enjoy.

In this volume, things get a little more serious and story-centric when the most important agent of the Five Leaves, Matsu, disappears. Turns out that he heard something important was stolen to a man he was indebted to. Matsu went unasked to get the item back, botched the robbery attempt, and was captured. Masa enlists the help of his new acquaintance, Yagi, to free Matsu and set things right.

Yaichi is somber the entire volume, sliding into a foul mood after he lays eyes on Yagi. The end of the volume suggests a connection between the two, and the story begins to fill in some of the details of Yaichi’s past. Things are still pretty confusing by the end, but we’ve only heard half the story, so I imagine the next volume will be more clear. Yaichi also suggests that Yagi, despite his aid in the Matsu situation, is a bad friend to have after several members of the Five Leaves confirm he’s a Magistrate, or some sort of law figure. Masa can’t help who he is, though, and his attempts to try and shut out Yagi meet with a kind of sly knowing, since Yagi can tell he’s been told to stay away. Then again, Yagi doesn’t seem like he’s trying to track down the Five Leaves, or really trying to crack down on crime at all. Yaichi’s the one that discourages Masa, so the link between Yaichi and Yagi might actually be the main factor in staying away from Yagi, rather than the fact he could arrest the kidnapping group.

Later, Masa’s sister shows up in Edo and gets to know the members of the Five Leaves. She helps bring the story back around to its slightly voyeuristic, slice-of-life roots, and her chapters are charming ones. After she leaves, the last chapter in the book takes a darker turn when another kidnapping group is up to more sinister activities than the Five Leaves.

One thing that bugged me a little in this volume was the faces of the characters. Ono uses a very nice sumi-e style of inking that suits this series well, but lends a rough quality to the drawings. Unfortunately, the rough quality makes it difficult to tell the character’s faces apart (they lack distinctive details), and I began to get confused in some of the flashbacks and sudden changes of scene. Unfortunately, none of the characters wear very distinctive clothing, either, so I can’t use that to help me follow along. Going back over certain parts of the story and trying to contextualize them usually helped me identify the characters, but the fact that I had to frequently re-read segments to figure out what was going on doesn’t really bode well.

But overall, I’m still enjoying the series quite a bit. I’ve got volume four with me, and I might try to read these volumes back-to-back to see if immersing myself in a bigger part of the story makes it easier to distinguish the characters for me.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

House of Five Leaves 2

September 24, 2011

Natsume Ono – Viz – 2010 – 8 volumes

This series is why I like Natsume Ono. I found that I was not as fond of her storytelling technique in a relatively modern setting, but here, her roundabout way of revealing facts by having the characters strike up conversations with each other works much better since the setting is pre-Meji Japan. But that technique is used less in this volume. Rather than having Masanosuke slowly prod information out of the characters via his quiet curiosity, or overhear bits and pieces of sensitive information, this volume actually has Ume opening up at telling Masa everything about his past. Others do the same.

The result is that we get a fairly long flashback about the entertaining roots of the Five Leaves gang. We also learn about the roots of Ume’s gang-related activities before Five Leaves, why he’s doing what he does now, and what his relation to Goinkyo is and was. It’s a sweet, touching story though it involves criminal activity. I also have a soft spot for these types of stories about criminals that try to escape gang activity but can’t. There’s some drama in the retelling, and it ties into present events. This climaxes into a situation where Ume’s past comes back to threaten him in a very real way, and Masanosuke gets to prove just how brave he can be. Nothing big, but I did like the show of bravery in a pinch.

This is immediately cancelled out by a duel that Masa is engaged in when he returns to Edo. I like this aspect of his character quite a bit. He’s just not a hero. He’s… well, he’s a regular shy, timid person. He also happens to be a samurai, and a bodyguard for a gang of thieves. Immediately after this soul-crushing scene, Masa meets up with another samurai worth looking up to, and I think he plans on training with him. I wonder how far his desire to better himself will go. On one hand, scenes like the one at the end of the volume can’t keep happening. On the other hand, I like him the way he is.

Earlier in the volume, Masa is quite ill and needs to stay with Goinkyo while his body flushes the toxins from Edo from his system. There’s a funny thread where the characters all try and convince Ichi to go visit Masa, telling him that Masa is dying. We find out later that love of Edo isn’t really the reason Ichi refuses to visit Masa, but Ichi’s story is one for the future.

This is a very slow-paced, quiet, conversation-heavy manga series. One could argue it would also work as a novel, but I find that the character expressions, the subtle body language, adds quite a bit to the narrative. It’s not for everybody, and I think that many might be daunted by the slow pace and the historic setting. But I’m enjoying it quite a bit, and with volume four out this month, I’m looking forward to catching myself up.