Over the past year, I’ve dealt with excessive anxiety caused by financial problems, dissatisfaction at work, and the college classes I’ve been taking on a part-time basis. Also, I’ve had to decide on a whole new career plan, which has plagued me with indecision and doubt, and my car keeps breaking down. I feel like these kind of stressors are particular to the age we live in, and it’s enough to make me often want to return to a simpler time and place. 18th century America? A dusty, racist hellhole. Feudal Japan? Now that’s much more appealing to my escapist fantasies.
No, my attraction to Japan and “Japanese things” wasn’t spawned solely by my fondness for anime. Rather, I personally identify with many of the social values that seem to be so prevalent in Japan, at least when compared to life in America. I think I’m a pretty polite and reserved person. I think most people who know me would say the same thing. I find myself identifying more with the way that the typical Japanese person conducts themselves than I do with any Americans, and I base that on observations I’ve made of real Japanese people and the interactions I’ve been fortunate enough to have with them at my job (customer service work in an international business setting, I’ll leave it at that). What Americans consider “quiet,” Japanese people consider “polite” and perfectly normal. It’s little wonder that I often feel like I’d fit right in to their society, or at least in most of the ways that I feel I don’t fit in here.
I’m also drawn to the aesthetics of Japanese life. I’m talking about homes, interiors, furniture, the way dishes and cups are designed, etc. On a larger scale, the way towns are planned and the look of the average city street is both more pleasing to look at and simply function more efficiently. American cities and towns are designed for automobiles, are inconveniently laid out, favor ugly architecture, and breed feelings of contempt and isolation. Japanese cities, on the other hand, seem to be built for people to actually live in and have a sense of integration and purpose in their layout. Even the average city block is more functional and visually appealing, conveying a sense of coziness and harmony without looking excessively cramped or cluttered. I’ll admit these are all media-based impressions taken from video and photographs. I’ve never visited Japan and, let’s face it, probably never will.
What I’m getting at is that there seems to be a set of deeply-held cultural values that guide life in Japan, which, more or less, don’t really exist in the US. Once in a while, these are really reflected in anime: I’m thinking of Miyazaki’s more pastoral films and the more recent work of Makoto Shinkai. Perhaps you could count House of Five Leaves, which I had the fortune of watching last week when I was sick, in the same company. It channels many of my fantasies about life in Japan in its quiet tone, slow pacing, and lush, soft visuals. I ‘m guessing that it takes place in the 17th or 18th century — long enough ago that Tokyo was still called Edo — firmly during the feudal period, at any rate. Yet it’s surprising just how modern and familiar it feels, thanks in a big part to the characters.
The series follows a band of robber-kidnappers who make a living collecting ransoms from the wealthy families of their victims. But they’re actually a rather pleasant group of folks, at least once you get to know them. The main character, Masanosuke, is an unemployed samurai whose shy demeanor keeps him from holding down a job. He’s eventually approached by the mysterious but charismatic Yaichi, who offers him much-needed work in his operation. Masa is reluctant at first to take part in such rogue business, but finds himself slowly growing more and more involved with Yaichi and his comrades, until he’s finally one of the gang, finding both the work and the personal companionship that he’s sorely needed.
I love the atmosphere and the serene mood of this series. The attention to detail in the settings, costumes, and other visuals make it a very relaxing and soothing watch. The world of House of Five Leaves is unspoiled by modern progress, providing lush backdrops of dense forests, grassy fields, and quaint-looking but bustling cities. The city of Edo, the principal setting of the series, is — despite its share of roaming thugs — a very peaceful town, not to mention beautiful in its preindustrial simplicity. There’s special attention paid to the characters’ ordinary, everyday lives; we watch Masa and his companions making business deals, cooking meals, drinking sake by candlelight, and just going about their days. There’s a “slice-of-life” feel to this series, but with a more sinister undercurrent than we’re used to from that genre. As the series goes on, there’s a mounting sense that the characters are living on borrowed time. How long will the gang stick together, and at what cost?
Also, while the main character might be a samurai, this is definitely not an action series. Episodes play out slowly and conflicts are gradually resolved though nonviolent means. Viewers expecting a battle-of-the-week against a series of conventional antagonists might come away confused or disappointed by what they find. Rather than concentrating on samurai-style clashes, House of Five Leaves is more concerned with developing its characters and slowly revealing their pasts. Yaichi, the leader of the Five Leaves, keeps his past a secret from his comrades. His history and motivations for forming the group form the dramatic core of the series. By comparison, Masanosuke’s troubling past is just water under the bridge, but he continues to struggle with his own lack of confidence and social anxieties. This makes him both the polar opposite of the standard anime hero and one of the more unique series leads that I’ve seen in some time.
House of Five Leaves is a real slow-burner, one that takes its time to draw the viewer in and rewards patient and attentive viewing. It’s a very low-key series, one that will probably come as a relief for anyone who’s feeling burned-out on hyperactive shonen anime and looking for something completely different. It’s also a thoughtful portrait of life in a bygone era, which will be particularly attractive to anyone fascinated by Japan and its culture. Recommended!