Blow Down the House of Leaves
I gotta give House of Five Leaves the credit it deserves: It’s trying. It’s fighting the good fight. It really want to do something different. I love that it’s about adults rather than school-aged brats. I love that it’s skewing towards a contemplative tone. I love the artistic choices made as far as the character designs go.
House of Five Leaves has all the pieces to form a great anime series. The problem is that none of these pieces come together to form an interesting whole.
It’s easily the best-looking series of the season. Better than Angel Beats’ ultra-clean-and-shiny aesthetic. Better than Heroman’s well-animated action scenes. Better than Arakawa’s camera angle shenanigans. The character designs are striking and stand out from the crowd. They’re deliberately “ugly” in the sense that there’s little attempt to make everyone attractive in the traditional anime sense of the word. Someone that feels all anime should look a certain way will be turned off by the designs, but said people, quite frankly, are poor judges of aesthetics if they find anything that strays from that artistic formula to be unattractive.
The anime’s look lends itself well to the overall tone the series seems to be conveying. The characters introduced so far seem to be people who are lost in the shuffle of “contemporary” feudal-era Japanese society. The main guy is a ronin cast off by his master for being an underachiever. He has the talent, but he’s mentally incapable of reaching even acceptable standards of competence. The rest of the characters appear to be involved in a Robin Hood-esque band of “noble” thieves who commit crimes with socially conscious motives.
We’re looking at the so-called “dregs’ of society here. These guys are criminals and outcasts that even other criminals and outcasts would likely mock. How in the hell can a ronin make a living in the world if he’s afraid to draw his sword when said sword is the very reason why he exists in this world? And what self-serving outlaw goes about robbing people for reasons other than making a buck and getting by in life? These guys are rejects amongst rejects, and Five Leaves’ aesthetic choices match that outlook well.
Unfortunately, it’s that very outlook that becomes Five Leaves’ primary flaw. The series has an interesting premise: down-on-his-luck samurai gets wrapped up in the actions of criminals. While I don’t expect this premise to turn into a straight-up action series, I also don’t expect said premise to turn into a showcase for low-key, uninteresting conversation pieces.
The problem is that Five Leaves, judging by the first episode, doesn’t really have anything to say. We get a sob story from the main samurai about needing money for his family back home. We get hints from the head of the criminal group as to their somewhat altruistic motives. The samurai admires the criminals intentions, the criminal brushes off the samurai’s naive, typical backstory. And all of this is presented as the “climax” of the episode, as if this is some sort of profound revelation of characters’ emotions.
It’s all a bunch of nothing. The dialogue is fairly unremarkable and doesn’t present this typical exchange of words in an interesting manner. It’s the epitome of the “it’s just a bunch of talking heads” complaint that many people like to levy. There’s nothing wrong with “talking heads” so long as there’s some tension amongst the speakers, something insightful or clever is being said, or some interesting visual trick is being used to enhance the scene. Five Leaves’ dialogue scenes have none of this.
This would be excusable if the rest of the anime has some sort of payoff. That brings us to the action scene. I get that the series seems to want to downplay the action and make it come off as “realistic,” the problem is that there’s a difference between an action scene that’s filmed in a realistic manner and an action scene that just plain sucks. The sword fight in Five Leaves is filmed far too “close” to the action for anything to make much sense. It’s the same criticism that many people (myself included) level against the fight scenes in, say, The Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum. When the “camera” is too close to the action, it’s hard to get a sense of “place.” Where is the samurai in comparison to the guys he’s attacking? What, exactly, is he doing other than swinging a sword? Visually, the action scene didn’t make much sense until the samurai proclaimed that he only gave them minor wounds. If he didn’t say that, and if I didn’t see the guys still standing and running after the fact, I’d have had no idea what happened in the action scene. As far as I could tell, the dude was slicing people in half. I had to assume that because the action scene was so poorly framed due to fixating so close on the assailant. Close-up shots do not make an action scene feel more “realistic” and mundane. It just makes them incomprehensible. Yeah, for the people involved in the fight it might appear to be a jumbled series of images, since they’re right there in the mix, but we as the viewers are not the combatants. We need to see the fight from a reasonable distance in order to comprehend the action, and this seems to be something that directors and audiences alike don’t grasp.
The dialogue is unremarkable. The action scenes suck. All we’re left with is various puzzle pieces that sound great on paper but sound horrible when brought together. I won’t give up on Five Leaves just yet, since I really want it to succeed, but based on this first episode my hopes have fallen dramatically.