Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Spring 2010 - Saraiya Goyô ("House of Five Leaves")

Traditionally, the samurai-centered anime has followed two paths that could intersect and overlap at times. One path is taken by the classic samurai—a rugged Yagyû clashing swords with a rogue rônin in a sugegasa hat, likely leading to the victor flinging blood and tallow off of his blade. The other path recently cleared of bamboo is taken by the new-century samurai, a glamorized hyper-color version (Rurôni Kenshin, Samurai Champloo) forced to battle modernized, machinated (Samurai 7) or alien forces (Gin Tama).

Whether it be the historical or modernized versions, both images of the samurai have been surrounded by the romantic image of violence. Blood or no blood, the fight has been the attractive aspect of samurai drama, while inside dealings have been the lurking motivations. However, a question does come to mind—what about the survival of the gullible and meek yôjinbô? What role do they play in a society where the samurai are held to a different level of class worship?

This is one of the major focuses that drive the plot for Sarai-ya Goyô ("House of Five Leaves"), a samurai drama running on Fuji TV's "noitaminA" television block and Funimation's YouTube channel. Animation is handled by Manglobe, who worked on the Samurai Champloo comedy-drama. Directorial duties are handled by Tomomi Mochizuki, who has extensive credentials as a director (Here is Greenwood, Twin Spica, Princess Nine).

The series takes place in Edo Japan and revolves around two primary figures with two very different personalities. We first meet Masanosuke, a samurai by trade with a good skill with his sword and pride in his profession, but his good conscience and wavering indecisiveness causes more troubles for his employers, and he usually wakes in the morning without a job to fall back upon. It isn't until he stumbles into the presence of Yaichi, a calm and collected gangster about town, that he is able to get a stable job. However, Yaichi's motives come after a stand-off with rônin warriors—he's actually leader of the "House of Five Leaves", a group that kidnaps for a living.

As Masanosuke fights his accidental descent into crime as a bystander, he meets other members of the House—Otake, a sultry woman with only a fleeting affinity for sake; Umezô, an innkeeper whose daughter is the "reason" behind the House; and Matsu, a town artisan who hardly talks to the group. The House itself appears to be torn on allowing Yaichi the constant coddling of such an inept samurai, and the slow draw of Masa into the House's ranks brings more guilt to the honest samurai's own heavy head.

Watching such a samurai drama like Sarai-ya Goyô is surprisingly calming. The series itself is pretty close to the artistry from the manga produced by Natsume Ono, as the wide-lipped characters are drawn with a style that almost seems more genuine than your prototypical puffy-eyed anime design. The music is placid and drifts along with the quiet motion of the plotline, almost to the point that it might make the more eagle-eyed viewers drowsy. This leads to perhaps the one strike against it—you're not going to get the fiery battles from the usual suspects. If anything, this series might be meditative and therapeutic.

With all of the serenity to the series, I started to ask myself if Sarai-ya Goyô was a smart thing to animate—after all, there was nothing difficult about the animation itself—but perhaps it was my own stubborn nature that branded the series as something that couldn't be animated due to its simplicity. However, after much consideration, it seems that the quiet nature of the characters and gentle portrayal of such underhanded jobs in Edo Japan would make it difficult to film it as a live-action drama. By putting emphasis on animation, I think the show actually becomes more aesthetically pleasing than if it had been done with human emotions trying to carry the situations.

Hunt through the samurai dramas and comedies out there, and you'll manage to find that aura of cultural ease, the feeling of watching falling leaves while eating powdered dango snacks by the river, in almost all of them. Sarai-ya Goyô manages to initially capture all of that in its series while telling a story that potentially hasn't got that pleasant vibe in the end.

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