Of all of the series in Viz’s SigIKKI initiative, I think Natsume Ono’s House of Five Leaves is probably my favorite. It’s intriguing in a very delicate, oblique way, and it’s rare to be able to say that about… well… just about any kind of entertainment.
It’s about an out-of-work samurai called Masa who falls in with a gang of kidnappers. Masa isn’t a bad person, but he lacks confidence, and he doesn’t inspire it. He looks physically frail, and whatever good intentions he may have are outweighed by the harsh realities of his jobless existence.
Beyond necessity, the gang, the Five Leaves, have a kind of lazy allure. They aren’t violent, and they plan carefully to make sure they profit from their illegal activities. There’s Matsukichi, the spy who prefers to keep his own counsel. In the rest of his life, Ume owns a bar and looks after his daughter who’s just entering adulthood. Sexy, mature Otake views life with a wry curiosity. And Yaichi, their ringleader, has a shady glamour and a strange kind of affection for, or at least profound interest in, Masa.
They’re appealing individually and as a quintet. Ono has assembled the kind of cast I could happily read about if they just sat around and drank and gossiped (which they do a lot). But she finds surprising depths in all of them, and she shifts their relationships around in measured but heartfelt ways.
The second volume digs into Umezo’s criminal past as it encroaches on his present. Masa is recuperating with Ume’s former boss, Goinkyo. Two of Goinkyo’s former underlings are stirring up trouble, one reluctantly and one maliciously. There’s blackmail involved, and violence, but they’re secondary to the dynamics that fuel them. Fatherly Goinkyo seems to have a sense for people who aren’t cut out for a life of crime, and his observations resonate through the events and revelations of the volume. And, of course, there’s Yaichi, guarding his secrets and managing the state of his colleagues at the same time, while wanting to not seem like he’s trying very hard.
In that, he’s representative of the series itself. It kind of glides along, casting sideways glances at its characters that mask the sharpness of its observations. It’s sly, but it’s also very sincere. With an apparent absence of effort, Ono has crafted a cast and a set of circumstances that are deeply involving, even at a very low volume. Ono leaves you wanting to know everything there is to know about these intensely private people, even as you understand she probably won’t spill everything. As low-key as House of Five Leaves is, it’s also cumulatively stunning. I can’t get enough of its hidden depths.