House of Five Leaves, Vol. 1 is the first of eight tankōbon for Natsume Ono’s historical crime manga. First serialized in Shogakukan’s seinen manga magazine Monthly Ikki in November 2005, the series was completed July 2010.
Masanosuke “Masa” Akitsu is a proud and skilled samurai with a small flaw in his character, one that has comprehensively sabotaged his career. Crippling shyness ended his formal service and saw him leave his hometown from shame. Attempts to establish himself as a bodyguard have failed, because nobody wants to be protected by a man who is too socially timid to make eye contact.
Masa is retrieved from starvation by carefree Yaichi.
Concerned about the people with whom he has an impending meeting, Yaichi engages Masa’s services. Masa is not an imposing bodyguard. He is, however, sufficiently talented with a sword to discourage attempts to overpower Yaichi. Yaichi survives the meeting.
Only after protecting Yaichi does Masa discover what sort of person he was protecting and the nature of the meeting. Yaichi heads the obscure Five Leaves gang. The Five Leaves occupy a very specific criminal niche: kidnapping people who are not in a position to complain to authorities. However, negotiating and collecting ransom can be risky, thus the need for a bodyguard.
Perhaps the Five Leaves are not all bad. After all, they victimize miscreants. Perhaps they are Japan’s answer to Robin Hood! Or maybe they’re just canny crooks in it for the money. Either way, they are definitely criminals and working with them should be beneath a proud samurai.
However, Yaichi still has a use for Masa. And if Masa’s qualms prevent him from knowingly participating in the Five Leave’s plots, then Yaichi will simply have to ensure that Masa unknowingly takes part.
It would be trivially easy to come up with a list of five manga focusing on people with incapacitating social anxiety … I could do that even if I restricted myself to manga I’ve reviewed1. Is social anxiety of particular interest to manga authors or is the frequency of this theme coincidence? It’s hard to believe that writers, whose occupation by definition involves scrutiny of their work by a potentially global audience, could have any issues with social interaction. Probably the frequency with which I encounter characters like Masa in manga is as meaningless as the week in which every book I read involved protagonists who lost a hand thanks to dynastic squabbles.
Ono’s deceptively simple art supports her tale effectively. One only has to look at Masa to perceive his perpetual anxiety. Other characters are drawn equally skillfully.
Which isn’t to say that it is always obvious what’s going on, what the various characters want, or if the Five Leaves are lovable reprobates or just superficially charming sociopaths. Yaichi for his part seems uninterested in justifying his occupation beyond his desire for money and an aversion to notoriety.
While the manga goes provide us with a broad range of viewpoints, the author is careful not to reveal too much in the first volume. Perhaps Masa will learn to be forthright. Perhaps he will find a path that does not require him to be outgoing. Maybe the Five Leaves will be redeemed. Perhaps it will all end in blood and tears. Readers will want to know how the story ends.
1: Komi Can’t Communicate, House of Five Leaves, Kaiju Girl Caramelise, Amanchu, and Don’t Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro.