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Don’t Fear the Adaptation: House of Five Leaves

House of Five Leaves | by Natsume Ono | Manga: Shogakukan/Viz Media | Studio: Manglobe/Funimation

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House of Five Leaves cast

Regular readers of Manga Bookshelf will need no introduction to House of Five Leaves. Melinda listed it as one of her best new seinen series of 2010, Kate has reviewed all three volumes, and David himself wrote a smart little ode to it recently when he reviewed volume two. For those of you still new to the series, House of Five Leaves is Natsume Ono’s seven volume samurai story. The main character, Akitsu Masanosuke, referred to in the series as Masa, is a masterless samurai determined to change himself while looking for work in Edo. One afternoon, Masa is hired by a suspicious man named Yaichi as a bodyguard. But all is not as it seems: Yaichi is actually the leader of a band of kidnappers who call themselves “Five Leaves”, and he doesn’t just want Masa to be his bodyguard — he wants Masa to join them as a comrade in crime. Masa, by nature a righteous and naïve man, resists Yaichi’s attempts to draw him in. However, he soon finds himself entangled in the fate of Five Leaves and, more importantly, in the mystery of Yaichi.

There are so many wonderful things about the anime adaptation of House of Five Leaves that it’s hard to know where to start. Thankfully, Natsume Ono’s distinct art style makes my job easier. Manglobe and the series director Tomomi Mochizuki transferred Ono’s art effortlessly into animation. The character designs are instantly recognizable, especially in Masa’s wide, childish eyes and Otake’s playful lipsticked smile. The sweatdrops, stray hairs, and blush lines of Ono’s characters are rendered in loving detail in every episode. There are even moments — the candy pieces of episode four, the pillars of the bridge in episode twelve — where the lines look like calligraphy, as if they were penned by Ono herself.

Often anime simplifies manga artwork. House of Five Leaves, the anime, does the opposite. While the manga tends to be very “white” on the page, full of negative space, the anime is full of textures: the unpolished wood of Goinkyo’s home, the tatami mat of the Katsuraya house, the smooth rice paper doors of Ume’s restaurant. Even more impressive is the interplay of light and shadow in the anime. Characters constantly move in and out of candlelight, open doors to let in sunlight, or sit with their backs to a window, hiding their faces in the dark. Ono is no slob herself when it comes to lighting in the manga, but the anime takes full advantage of its color palette — earthy browns and subdued gray-greens — to make Edo come alive.

The soundtrack features a combination of rumbling drums, wistful koto melodies, and reedy flute-like tunes that helps ground us in a historical Edo that, amazingly, never comes off as antiquated or forced. Likewise, the voice actor choices are almost flawless. Daisuke Namikawa as Masa is exactly the kind of guy who wears his heart on his sleeve and never says anything less than what he means. Veteran voice actor Takahiro Sakurai’s performance as Yaichi is by turns teasing, seductive, spiteful, and, at his best, all three at once. A shout out must be given to Masaya Takatsuka, who never misses a beat conveying Ume’s my-bark-is-worse-than-my-bite personality, especially in episode three when Ume makes a crack at Matsu. But the anime adaptation goes that extra mile: if you listen carefully, you can hear Edo in the background, in the soft drone of water boiling in a kettle, or the river streaming past, or the birds of Goinkyo’s backyard, or the shuffling of Yaichi’s wooden shoes. Ono’s manga might not think to comment on the “shaaa chhk” sound of a rice door sliding open or the faint crackle of straw as Ume unloads their latest hostage out of a basket, but it would be a pity to go through this anime without appreciating these little details.

At first glance, House of Five Leaves is about the journey Five Leaves takes from a ragtag group of misfits to a family who looks out for their own, even when there’s no money involved. For lack of a more nuanced, less cheesy word, the story is heart-warming. The more you uncover the crisscrossing ties of responsibility that connect the Five Leaves members, whether it be the reluctant life debts Matsu shoulders or the reason Ume remains in Five Leaves, the more you enjoy seeing them together at Ume’s restaurant, making fun of each other as they drink sake. Sadly, the anime does cut out one of my favorite scenes from the manga so far (Ume and Matsu bickering in volume one), and I imagine the later episodes similarly streamline forthcoming volumes. But the heart of the story comes through unscathed, which is a testament both to the strength of Ono’s writing and Manglobe’s talent at adaptation.

Underlying this story, though, is another tried and true theme: appearances are deceiving. Yaichi shows up in the first episode as a sage and benefactor to Masa, so naturally Masa, along with the viewer, looks upon Yaichi as a voice of authority. When we meet Yagi, the police chief who seems to know more about Yaichi than he lets on, we’re immediately suspicious of him because Yaichi tells us to be. But the more that’s uncovered about Yaichi, the more we realize Yaichi is the unreliable one. Just as Ume, Matsu, and Otake are more virtuous than the criminals we first meet them as, Yaichi is not at all the kind-hearted character we first encounter. In fact, he’s the most dangerous one of them all.

The anime has restructured the pacing of Ono’s series, favoring episodes that end on jarring cliffhangers and jumps in the timeline, often through flashbacks. Some might prefer the more measured pacing Ono shows in the manga; others might find the anime benefits from a more coherent focus, especially when it comes to Yaichi’s storyline. I for one felt like I could guess the events of episode twelve from the flashback sequence in episode one — a flashback sequence, I should add, that does not exist in the manga. But anime being the inherently action-based medium it is, I can’t fault Manglobe for wanting to ratchet up the tension just a little on what is, overall, a slow-moving story.

In the end House of Five Leaves is one of those series that I enjoy for reasons I can’t put into words. It’s not plot driven, and the characters never really change, even if they become more well-rounded. Certainly Masa never learns to get over his fear of being watched and remains the clumsy, shy samurai we first meet. But there is a marvelous je ne sais quoi to House of Five Leaves, an atmosphere of rambling down a countryside path on a late autumn afternoon, knowing that you’ll get to your destination eventually but not really knowing when. The anime luxuriates in that feeling. You could spend your time trying to piece together all the threads of the story, but you’d be missing the point. It’s meant to be savored, like a dango shared with a friend while hungry.

P.S. Next month’s anime adaptation will be Antique Bakery, just in case you haven’t had enough of stories about people making their own families. As always, if you have any anime you’d like taste-tested, drop me a line.

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About Cathy Yan

Cathy Yan is a law school student in Illinois. In fourth grade, she made the unfortunate decision to allow her best friend to introduce her to Sailor Moon, and she hasn't looked back since. She loves cooking anime, josei dramas, Shounen Jump rivals, and BL manga by Yamada Yugi. One day she'll start a therapy group for people who watched Neon Genesis Evangelion while under the age of 20 and are now, like her, permanently traumatized. You can find her on Twitter or Tumblr.


  1. Love, love, love this anime! I really hope we get a DVD release of it.

    • It’s been a long time since I’ve wanted to own a DVD set this badly. And considering the last time it was Samurai Champloo… there you have it. :D

  2. Katherine Dacey says:

    Another lovely column, Cathy! Your description of the artwork and sound effects have persuaded me to seek out the amine — something I almost never do.

    • Oh Kate, really, if you liked the manga, I think the anime won’t let you down. It made me want to read the manga and watch the anime at the same time. And they really compliment each other so well, neither one of them jostles the other out of the picture. When I first realized that Ono’s manga used almost no sound effects at all, I immediately started rewatching the anime, haha, just to see how the feeling of a scene can change when you add in sound effects. Like, Ono’s work has that woodcut quality to it, you know? And the anime is this comfortable, slow, nostalgic piece of koto music.

  3. That is a lovely anime review of a lovely slice of life anime. And since you said we could suggest some anime, and the manga is finally being released in the US, I would like to suggest the first series of Saiunkoku Monogatari, which actually was licensed, too – and mostly sank when Pioneer shut down – although Funimation rescued it and finished releasing the whole of the first series – 39 episodes.

    • David Welsh says:

      Oh, suggestions! I’m almost totally anime ignorant, but I’ve seen bits of Natsume’s Book of Friends and think it’s exquisite, so that would get my vote. Or something vintage, like To Terra….

      • Oooh, Natsume, yes of course. I’ve heard good things about it and the sequel, so I will put that on my list. As for To Terra, it’s actually one of those many series I watched the anime for before reading the manga! I have to say Takemiya Keiko is one of those authors whose work is so rich and lyrical that none of the adaptations of hers (Kaze to Ki, Natsu e no Tobira, To Terra) have been a match for the original manga. But maybe that is exactly the kind of thing I should write about, haha. Anyway, yes, thank you for the suggestions! I will keep them in mind. :)

      • I second Natsume! Did they finally license that? I want to buy DVDs! I utterly adore the first ending song, by the way.

    • Saiunkoku Monogatari is actually on my list of series to review for Manga Bookshelf, so have no fear, I will definitely get to that before the summer, I hope. It’s always been a series I’ve been to read or watch.

  4. I’m kind of an anti-anime snob, but your review has me wanting to see this. I’m glad they did change some things up though. I used to wish for that perfect adaptation, but then I saw the Monster anime and it didn’t really do much for me besides make me want to read the original books, haha. The slow meandering pace of House of Five Leaves could easily drive someone up a wall if they suddenly couldn’t absorb it at their own pace.

    • This comment makes me grin in glee. I also am glad when adaptations take advantage of their mediums. I didn’t mind Monster so much, because the story was so thrilling, that I’m glad anime-only fans got to experience the genius of Naoki Urusawa, and with David Sylvian music, no less! But my favorite manga-to-anime stories have always been the ones that changed them up a bit. Makes the material new for everyone, you know? As for the slow meandering pace, haha, I could see that! I think for me, most twelve episode animes are so action-packed and have such a predictable beginning to end that House of Five Leaves was refreshing for me, because it’s slower. Ono’s stories, though. I used to think Oki Mamiya was the most frustratingly slow mangaka ever. And then I read Natsume Ono.

      • I used to think Oki Mamiya was the most frustratingly slow mangaka ever. And then I read Natsume Ono.

        :D LOL. Try reading the rest of her work. Sans Ristorante and Saraiya Goyou. Coppers and the rest are… Yeah… (what I don’t understand though is how exciting she can get in her BL but not in her regular work!)

      • Did you catch Ristorante Paradiso? That was a lovely twelve episode series, too – they basically mixed the stories in the Gente volumes up with Nicoletta’s story.

  5. If there’s one thing I truly love about the anime: it’s faster than the manga. Ono’s got a penchant for “taking her time” in her manga hence the pace of the anime certainly brought that up to speed (in fact to a point that the anime even spoiled some things that were happening or is about to happen in the manga… at least the Japanese version of)

    Lovely column and I couldn’t help but agree with you on what makes this awesome. I must confess though that the opening, while beautiful, sounded weird or completely different from the series. It’s probably just me but I’ve been spoiled with awesome samurai music like Samurai Champloo. -3-)

    • Did the anime really spoil things in the Japanese version? oh dear. I thought that the anime was aired after the series was over. But yeah, honestly, I was really surprised in, um, I think it was episode four where there was a flashback in the middle of the rice merchant’s kidnapping, and it completely changed Yaichi’s reaction for me. In the manga I thought it was just like, “oh, Yaichi is bad with emotions!” but in the anime it’s actually a really poignant traumatizing moment, haha. The same thing happens in Antique Bakery… but that’s a story for next month. :D

      I have to admit i loved the opening, and it’s actually the ending that left me completely cold. There’s something so, you know, eager and earnest and innocent about the opening, so hopeful, that it made me excited to start an episode every time. And yes, sadly for us, not every series can have Watanabe’s genius propelling it along. Sigh.

      • The anime ran a little before the series was about to end. It’s like the manga was about to end anyway, hence let’s go all out with the anime. The manga finished like a few months after the anime and even the endings were relatively close. I really didn’t mind the spoiling since the manga did detail things over. But yeah, it has its shocking moments. And I must admit, the motion that comes with animation help express emotions a lot better than the manga. Ono has this “stoic” universal face which can be interpreted differently by people. However, the anime leads you towards the emotion that they should be feeling which is all right by me. I must confess, I couldn’t stand watching Antique. It has its own beauty just… I suppose not exactly my cup of tea. Have you seen the korean movie version of Antique? Strangely, that’s the closest to Antique I’ll ever have.

        Please, let’s not go on with the ending. -_-) I was just “… whut? Why can’t you have great OP and ED like every other Noitamina anime, ha!?” Seriously. *sighs*

        • Oh wow, that’s really interesting to know. Her art style kind of reminds me of, um, Takaido Akemi’s art? Because of that opaqueness of expression. Like you stare at her characters and wonder what they’re thinking.

          I didn’t like Antique either, haha. I, uh, wouldn’t describe the anime as having its own beauty. I think it just needed a better studio to pick it up. Like, IDK, JC Staff would have been good. I haven’t yet! I have seen the jdrama version of Antique, which was…. not at all… like Antique, but Fujiki Naohito might forever be my idea of what Ono would look like in real life.

          THE ED WAS SO DISAPPOINTING. I AM GLAD SOMEONE AGREES. Noitamina is usually so good about it! I mean for chrissake it aired at the same time as Tatami Galaxy, and OP/EDs for Tatami Galaxy were incredible.

          • I think that’s what Ono wants. She gives them this empty look so that you can read the thoughts of her characters at that given point in time. I mean in the manga those were some of the handsome Yaichi moments but otherwise, I’ll just flip on the next page. It’s a great style and technique and there are days where I’m really drawn to it but… sometimes it’s too much.

            I suppose I was being polite in saying “it has its own beauty,” (just in case some rabid fangirls might cross my opinion, you know how it goes). But I do know some people liking the style. I used to like it as well but I must agree, if another studio picked it up, it might be okay. I mean if it was animated as great as Ristorante, then that might just be nice. YOU HAVE TO WATCH IT. The Ono there is different and upholds the DEMOND that is Ono. T^T)b I just caught it again in time for my spotlight this month and is possibly the best Antique for me.

            NAKAMA! o/ \o I know how great Noitamina can get with the music in their programs. Tatami, Nodame, Honey and Clover, Kuragehime, etc. etc. all have fantastic openings and endings! I just can’t understand WHY THEY COULDN’T DO IT FOR THIS ONE!

            • Yes, definitely! I think the only times I really knew what anyone was thinking was Masa, and that’s because he’s either horrified by something around him or confused. Well, and Yaichi is always just teasing him, so that’s easy, haha.

              I am definitely an anime snob, and am more willing to cut series slack if they have higher production values, haha, but I was just so disappointed by the weird CG and the strange sloppiness of the Antique anime. It’s almost like, hmm, like they tried to copy the manga style too much and ended up with something too flat. I don’t know how to explain other than it’s the opposite of what happened with House of Five Leaves. I liked RIstorante a lot too! I think maybe House of Five Leaves was a better overall work, though I also think that’s due to the strengths and weakness of the original material. I will definitely watch the Korean movie and do a cross-adaptation comparison for Antique, haha. I promised another friend the same thing.


              • Masa, after all, is the most honest out of all of them.

                Being an anime snob is not a bad thing. You have to get what you loved about the manga (and maybe more, in some cases). I believe Ristorante worked because it captured the original. I think House of Five Leaves was better than the original for the reasons we mentioned. I realized I typed on DEMON. orz. but you know what it is. I look forward to how you saw Antique and maybe when you catch the Korean version too. :D

                Lol. Honey and Clover. That one just hit us hard, didn’t it? XD

  6. I really love Manglobe. Samurai Champloo, Ergo Proxy, Michiko e Hatchin and Sarai-ya Goyou are great animes but, sadly, very underrateds.
    House of Five Leaves is the best Manglobe adaptation better than manga i think but The Sacred Blacksmith and The World God Only Knows adaptations are so lame…

    • Cathy Yan says:

      Manglobe fanclub, unite~. I don’t think I would consider Samurai Champloo or Ergo Proxy underrated, or at least I’ve never gotten that impression from the blogs I read, but definitely Michiko e Hatchin, I think, is their great underrated series. I’ve neither seen nor read Sacred Blacksmith, but do you really think the anime adaptation of World God Only Knows is lame? I must admit to rather enjoying it and looking forward to its next season. I think the EDs were especially delightful, though I won’t lie— most meta-series will always get a warm reception from me, no matter how crappy.

      • Vincent says:

        Hm… Samurai Champloo and Ergo Proxy had success internationally but in Japan are very underrateds but yeah Michiko e Hatchin is the most underrated Manglobe series. While The Sacred Blacksmith adaptation is the worst shit i’ve seen and House of Five Leaves is the best manglobe adaptation so far, The World God Only Knows was in the middle of good and bad, i really like the manga, is very enjoyable but the anime has very problems like pacing and direction. Maybe “lame” is not the right word to say but after House of Five Leaves, I expected more from Manglobe. I hope Deadman Wonderland has a good adaptation because the manga is awesome.


  1. […] Coming up later this month, new contributor Cathy Yan will discuss the anime adaptation of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Antique Bakery (released just this week by Nozomi Entertainment), in her regular monthly feature, “Don’t Fear the Adaptation.” Be sure to check out her previous installments, covering adaptations of Rumiko Takahashi’s Maison Ikkoku and Natsume Ono’s House of Five Leaves. […]

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