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House of Five Leaves Complete Series Premium Edition Anime DVD Review

The paths of two very different men intersect and starts an interesting bond that one might never expect.

What They Say:
Ronin Akitsu Masanosuke is a skilled swordsman, but his personality often causes him to be let go from his job. With desperation closing in, Akitsu accepts an offer to work as a bodyguard for Yaichi, the charismatic leader of a mysterious gang: the Five Leaves. Though the meek swordsman finds the gang’s actions disturbing, Akitsu grows more fascinated by the outlaws every day.

Contains episodes 1-12.

The Review:
Audio:
The audio presentation for this release is pretty basic as we get only the original Japanese language track in stereo encoded at 192kbps. The show isn’t one that really demands a big and bold encoding to it as it’s generally very much dialogue based with only a few instances of mild action. In fact, the opening and closing sequences are the only areas that really stand out when it comes to the sound design since it has a bit of an upbeat feeling to it. The opening sequence alone stands out simply because it’s not like the show itself at all. That said, the show itself is pretty straightforward where it handles the dialogue well with some decent placement. There are a lot of quiet scenes here and the dialogue is well handled as it never comes across as too faint. Everything is clean and clear throughout and we didn’t have any problems with dropouts or distortions during regular playback.

Video:
Originally airing in 2010, the transfer for this twelve episode TV series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is enhanced for anamorphic playback. The show is spread across two discs evenly with six episodes on each, giving it a good bit of space to work with. The show is one that definitely has a particular look to it, especially with the character designs, and with the time period it’s set in it has a feeling of very light grain to it that helps enhance the overall feel. It’s not like Pandora Hearts or anything, but with the earthy colors to it, the transfer is not one that’s going to leap out at you. The overall look is good and it avoids problems like break up and line noise or cross coloration.

Packaging:
The premium edition release of this series is pretty strong as it uses the familiar pattern that NIS America has established with the oversized heavy chipboard box that holds the hardcover book and the two clear thinpak cases. The box has a very good feel to it as it uses some softer colors outside of the darkness on the front cover with Masa and his outfit but Yaichi is softer looking and it blends well with the natural backgrounds with the greens and yellows that paint a spring-like picture, which the show itself doesn’t actually have. The back of the box is done in various shades of pink which is a bit of a surprise as it features Masa, Yaichi and Otake, it has a very classic feel when you get down to it. The box really looks great here.

Within the box, the hardcover book is really great looking here as it uses the pink hued cover that showcases the character artwork well along with the logo. The full color hardcover book is fantastic as it deals with a look at the main cast of characters with designs and scenes from the show with dialogue as well as two pages dedicated to each of the episodes that breaks them down with various pictures and descriptions. Add in some behind the scenes production design material and the glossary of terms and you’ve got a great looking book. The thinpak cases inside are really nice as well as it features some classic design feeling to it with the backgrounds that uses the leaves and traditional Japanese styles with one volume focusing on Masa and the other on Yaichi. The back covers bring out several shots from the show with a breakdown of the episode numbers and titles for their respective volumes. The rest is given over to some minor production information and a clean technical grid that covers everything well. While there are no direct show related inserts included, the first volume does have a one sheet included where one side talks about the Viz Media manga release while the other side showcases other NIS America releases.

Menu:
Set to a bit of instrumental music that fits well with it, the menu layout goes with soft almost pastel colors as it shows elements of the time period with things like the leaves and other earthy pieces. The left side for each main menu uses a different piece of artwork with Masa on the first disc and Yaichi on the second. The right of that has the basic menu navigation, and it is basic, as well as the logo. The menus are very easy to navigate and the setup is easy since it’s a monolingual release. The menus set the tone well and it hits all the right notes for setting up the atmosphere and mood for it.

Extras:
The extras on the second disc are pretty basic but welcome with the clean opening and closing as well as the original Japanese trailer.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on the manga by Natsume Ono, which is being released in the US by Viz Media, House of Five Leaves is originally known as Saraiya Goyou and runs for twelve episodes. Ono gained some popularity in the last couple of years for the manga Ristorante Paradiso which has a distinctive art style to it and was adapted into an anime itself. FUNimation’s streamed the House of Five Leaves during its original airing as a simulcast as part of their deal with Fuji TV to stream their NoitaminA block alongside Tatami Galaxy. The original source material for this has been running since 2006 and has gotten up to several volumes so far, so there’s a good bit of material they can work with for a twelve episode series.

The series is fairly laid back and relaxed, but with that edge of tension to it that’s really appealing. The bulk of it focuses around a ronin named Akitsu who hasn’t had any luck in finding a job recently. While he’s physically something that can be impressive, he’s also somewhat lanky in a way that can be off-putting. What has him standing out amongst others is that he’s fairly tall, though his nature has it so that other people generally aren’t intimidated by him. Where his luck changes is when a man named Yaichi comes across him and decides to use him for his own purposes. Yaichi is part of a group known as the Five Leaves, which is something of a group of “chivalrous robbers” as they put it. Yaichi needs a bodyguard in name and form only and Akitsu fits the bill perfectly, so he brings him into the fold slowly but surely.

With the show focusing heavily on the relationship between these two men as it progresses and we see the kinds of jobs that Yaichi deals with, it works really well while also bringing in smaller plots with the supporting cast. The two men have an interesting sort of relaxed nature around them, but one that’s also slightly guarded. Akitsu has an attraction to Yaichi and what he’s doing, but he’s uncertain of whether they should really be doing it. Yaichi is a pretty smooth talker, but not in that salesman kind of sense. He has an easygoing nature about him that allows him to draw in people so he can get what he wants out of them, but there’s the suspicion he may get more out of Akitsu that he may have guessed. Wanting him for a symbol, or even just a target, is just the start of this curious relationship.

While the series does explore this relationship in a very slow and methodical way, it does it by putting Masa into a lot of odd situations for him and having Yaichi watch him. As some of the others in the group note as it progresses, Yaichi has come alive a little bit in a new way when he brought Masa into the picture. There’s a real curiosity on Yaichi’s part about who Masa is and how he exists when you get down to it that it’s just fascinating him. When Masa starts dealing with the others in this group of “chivalrous thieves”, it just continues on in a way that makes you understand where Yaichi is coming from.

While these two do dominate the show, it is seeing the others along the way that helps to flesh things out. As Masa gets drawn into their routines, which does lead to a few less than honorable paths, we get to see just how tight this group is but also how many things exist between them that can break it apart. With the world being a very rough place at this time where choices in the past can really come back to bite you, it deals with some neat little twists with the supporting cast that you might not expect. And unlike some other shows, they don’t come out of the blue and feel wrong but rather come across as a natural story arc to be told. When it deals with past criminal activity, relationships that have gone awry over the years and more, it does a good job of proviing a greater view of how the world works at this time.

Directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, someone whose been behind a lot of works I like, this Manglobe production has a very distinct look and feel to it. In a lot of ways it reminds me of Mushishi with its slightly off the norm character designs and the way it makes the world that they inhabit feel so alive and real. Much of this series takes place in darker areas or run down homes so it has a very murky and earthy feel to it but also a real sense of life. When things of value are show, such as gold or particularly fine clothes, you realize that they are valuable because they stand out so well against everything else. I really liked the character designs as they speak so much about the personalities, from the way Akitsu has such wide open eyes and a large frame that’s lanky and easily pushed around to Yaichi’s calm confidence with its far more angular face that speaks of danger and cunning. The pairing of these two for much of the series really highlights their differences but also shows how their personalities stand out.

In Summary:
During its original run when I watched it weekly, House of Five Leaves started off intriguing but lost its way for me as it progressed. Something about its nature just didn’t click for me when taken an episode at a time. With this set, I watched it over the course of a day and it all came together very well. There are some good, small subplot threads here that really shine better here when taken in full. Masanosuke didn’t annoy me as much this time around with his ways and the kind of suffering he was really going through. The story of what’s driving Yaichi also feels more defined across it which helped a lot since the teasing about it in small steps just served to annoy me before. While I was weakening in my interest in this series during its simulcast run, I found it to be a much more enjoyable and stronger work as a whole when taken in during a marathon run.

Features:
Japanese 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Clean Opening, Clean Closing, Japanese Trailer

Content Grade: A-
Audio Grade: B
Video Grade: B+
Packaging Grade: A
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B-

Readers Rating: [ratings]

Released By: NIS America
Release Date: March 6th, 2012
MSRP: $59.98
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70” LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.