Viz’s Ikki imprint recently finished their run of the eight-volume manga series House of Five Leaves by Natsume Ono.
The series tells the story of an Edo-era gang of kidnappers, who ransom members of rich families. Masanosuke is a mostly honest, but disgraced ronin who reluctantly becomes involved with the gang when he meets the enigmatic Yaichi, their leader. Others in the gang are Ume, the sake-house owner; Otake, a geisha whom Yaichi redeemed from bondage in a brothel; Matsukichi, the distrustful burglar and spy. They’re not Robin Hoods — the proceeds go to various purposes, though in at least one case the victim stays his vengeful hand when he discovers where the money went.
Like most of Ono’s work, it is a slow, subtle character study. Many readers may have found it too slow, especially in volumes five through seven. I think that frustration at pacing has been aggravated by the wait between volumes. The wait is over: now is the time to pick up the series, so you can read it all through from beginning to end, with no need to wait for the payoff.
The final volume wraps up the story nicely, providing a wonderful conclusion to the subtle development that’s gone on in the past few volumes.
In the end, the manga is about family. It weaves its story with threads of several (mostly) dysfunctional families — kidnapping victims, Yaichi’s past and his ghosts, Masanosuke’s trouble with his brother, to the various gangs past and present. The Five Leaves may be the healthiest of the lot, even if we’ve spent the last few volumes wondering if Yaichi is going to betray them all in order to escape the past that is catching up with him.
The past several volumes carry the story beyond the end of the anime, introducing a new major character (a foil for Yaichi) In them, Masanosuke grows to accept his lot (and to achieve a good deal of nobility in the process): he teaches his brother a lesson about duty, he sacrifices to save his friends, he becomes Yaichi’s path to redemption; we learn the story of Yaichi’s past and the reason the Five Leaves works through kidnapping; we see the retiring of some old debts, and the forgiveness of others.
Ono’s art is a little like deliberately-crude CLAMP: her characters are long and lanky, drawn with heavy lines with dark voids for eyes. An acquired taste, perhaps, but a refreshing change from BESM cliche, well-suited to the subtle play of expression on her characters’ faces. Melancholy CLAMP: her characters have made mistakes and are living with the consequences. Adult CLAMP: there’s not a pretty boy to be seen, but Otake would be fine company for XxxHoLic’s Yuuko.
I like the presentation of the series, with the paperback covers folded over like dust-jackets, with page-sizes large enough to do Ono’s artwork justice, and inks and paper that gives the contrast and weight that her line-work demands. Viz might be better served by re-releasing the series as a pair of omnibus volumes.