It probably is a function of my personal timing in reading this series, but I feel as though the first three volumes centered around establishing the tone and characters in this slice of life series about a group of improbable criminals in the Edo era and the next three volumes things actually start happening, as the reader learns even more about the past lives of the characters before they joined The Five Leaves.
House of Five Leaves Volume 4
The fourth volume of the series shows that while hapless ronin Masa may be treated like a bit of an outsider by the band of criminals he’s found himself attached to, they actually like him much more than they let on. It takes the sudden appearance of another outsider, an intermediary named Ginta, to make everybody suddenly appreciate Masa. Ginta functions as a middleman handling money for kidnapping and ransom transactions. He’s trying to play both sides of the fence, representing kidnapping groups while feeding information to the police on the side. Masa tells Yaichi about his new friendship with a man named Yagi who asks odd questions and shares stories about his past, including the death of a servant Yagi once knew named Yaichi. In turn, Yaichi becomes more withdrawn and depressed.
Ginta gradually discovers more about the House of Five Leaves and starts serving as an intermediary for their next job. As newcomers, Masa and Ginta get thrown together a bit, and Masa shares how he was kicked out of his family. Ginta spies on Yaichi as he deals with an element of his past in an alarmingly direct fashion. While Yaichi has always seemed dangerous, this volume finally shows how far he’s willing to go to hide his past.
House of Five Leaves Volume 5
The House of Five Leaves has put all kidnapping jobs on hiatus. Yagi gets Masa a job at a dojo, teaching children. When Yagi spends time with Masa, he mentions that a boy he used to know had a scar on his shoulder, and he wonders if Yaichi has a similar scar. Despite all the unspoken undercurrents of emotions and past history that swirl around them, Masa and Yaichi have a quiet moment that showcases the odd friendship they have with each other. They talk about eating soba noodles, and Masa comments “When I talk with you I feel as if I am being gently urged forward.” Yaichi replies “The soba. You’re buying, right?” Masa says “Of course” and the men walk down the road together.
Yaichi’s mood is lighter, but Yagi still lingers with his investigation. Masa agrees to take on a challenge at his Dojo, because the master there has injured his arm. One of the things that I like about this series is the way the psychological issues that prevent Masa from being an effective samurai are portrayed. Masa’s gradually become less awkward through his association with his new friends. He accepts the challenge because he can fight one-on-one with the challenger. As long as there isn’t an audience, he’s actually a competent fighter. This is shown economically with only three panels. We see Masa’s resolute face in the shadows, a dark square of nothing, and then the feat of his opponent as he retreats. The master at the Dojo comments that he’d underestimated Masa. He says “We should have a bout when my arm heals. When the kids aren’t around.”
Yagi finally pins down Yaichi and they drink together. Yagi tells the story of a discarded heir to a noble family named Seinoshin and a servant named Yaichi who died. Yaichi’s strict avoidance of his past and mentions of family is something that Masa should adopt, as we see his brother Bunnosuke forging letters from their mother to Masa, determined to bleed him of all his money.
House of Five Leaves Volume 6
This volume is where things get crazy. Masa is struggling with the opportunity to move forward and take another position as a retainer, but feels he can’t due to his time as a member of a kidnapping gang. The House of Five Leaves is about to pull off their last job, and the subject is an heir to a house whose circumstances mirror Yaichi’s past. When they collect the money, they are instructed to dispose of their hostage instead of returning him because he’s no blood relation to the family. Yaichi actually shows some emotions in front of his comrades when he’s confronted with the case of the disposable hostage. Yaichi is increasingly cornered, as both his old gang members and the authorities are getting closer and closer to him. Masa gives his brother one last large payment of money and sees the money returned when someone makes an inquiry about a kidnapping bid. Masa decides that he has to move forward by himself, investigating his brother and going to Gojinko to learn about Yaichi’s past.
The most emotionally gripping scene comes when Masa finally confronts Yaichi, telling him how he decided to become a ronin. He asks Yaichi what the House of Five Leaves means to him, saying “Perhaps you are the one…who is mired in the past.” Yaichi reacts violently and Masa just sits there and takes it, saying that he decided to share his story because he’s finally decided to find out the truth about Yaichi. I have no idea what is going to happen with Masa or Yaichi, but I think that Masa is going to somehow have some sort of emotional breakthrough. He’s finally being direct and expressing how he feels. Even though his brother tells him he’s pathetic, he has the most integrity of anyone in the entire book. Yaichi might be headed towards a spectacular gesture of self-destruction, but I’m hoping that Masa is able to save him somehow. With the bleak background of the daily lives of the characters in House of Five Leaves, I’m not really expecting that Ono will conclude this series with an easy act of personal redemption.
Natsume Ono’s works can be tricky to appreciate, because the events that take place in her manga are often portrayed in such an understated way that it seems like nothing much is going on. Reading three volumes of House of Five Leaves back to back really made me appreciate the way she slowly builds tension in this manga across multiple volumes. Most of the time the characters are talking to each other instead of indulging in action, but the way everybody relates to each other and the meaning attached to eating noodles or the exchange of a money pouch invests these events with a great deal of symbolic weight and emotional tension. At the end of volume 6 I felt a bit emotionally wrung out seeing Yaichi and Masa thrown in different directions that are going to have great impact on them, and I’m wondering if they’ll get through the next couple volumes intact.
Review copies of Volumes 5 and 6 provided by the publisher.