House of Five Leaves Volume 1 by Natsume Ono
This is one of my favorite series on the Sigikki site. I find Ono’s art style very refreshing and the story about a hapless ronin provides an interesting contrast to all the fighting samurai manga out there. Masanosuke is the poor unemployed samurai with a personality disorder. He’s skilled at fighting, but he freezes up whenever anyone pays attention to him. Masa is shy and passive, living in a poor apartment and apologizing to his cat every day for not having enough food for him. Due to his absolutely intimidating personality, he’s fired from the few bodyguarding jobs he’s able to get but he’s unwilling and incapable of taking on a job doing labor.
The turning point for Masa comes when he meets a man named Yaichi, who hires him for a yojimbo job. He tells Masa to stand up straight instead of hunching over so he’ll look more intimidating. Masa follows Yaichi around, fascinated by the way the other man seems to have a natural charisma when dealing with other people on the street. It soon becomes clear that Yaichi isn’t an innocent man wanting protection, he’s the leader of a kidnapping and extortion gang called the House of Five Leaves. Masa tries to resist joining the group, but Yaichi finds him intriguing and is determined to keep using him for jobs despite the fact that other members of the gang think that the poor ronin is useless. Yaichi explains “I don’t want him simply for his skills. He doesn’t bore me. I want to observe him for a while longer and see what kind of man he is.”
Ono draws with a great economy of line. The backgrounds are just detailed enough to evoke the historic setting, with screens, tatami, and the kitchens where the gang hangs out being the main settings. She does great things with body language evoking character. Masa is constantly hunched over as if he’s trying to disappear. Yaichi is loose and confident in the way he holds himself, wearing a cynical smirk as a mask to hide his secrets.
Masa needs to send money back home to his family. He’s so naive and passive, he accepts whatever job Yaichi recommends him for, not realizing that he’s actually going to take part in a kidnapping plot. Everyone in this series seems to have murky motivation for participating in criminal acts, some members of the gang follow Yaichi out of habit and others need the boost to their income. The House of Five Leaves tens to target corrupt people with their kidnapping schemes. Yaichi claims to be running the gang for money, but his personality is so complex that can’t be the only reason for his behavior. The smooth secretive gang leader and the bumbling credulous ronin each inspire feelings of fascination in each other. It’ll be interesting to see how this unlikely relationship develops.
Review copy provided by the publisher.