Saraiya Goyou, or House of Five Leaves, is the latest work by cult studio Manglobe. Now, while it isn't generally a good idea for a critic to speak personally, it bears mention that this is the first time I have ever seen anything by Manglobe, so I can't really comment on how it compares to their previous works. However, the fact that Manglobe already have a cult following in spite of only having four previous works to their name (Samurai Champloo, Ergo Proxy, Michiko to Hatchin and Seiken no Blacksmith) says quite a lot about this studio. Now, I don't know if Saraiya Goyou is in the vein of their other works, but this is likely considering that Manglobe are known for having a completely unique style and presentation, both in story and visuals, and Saraiya Goyou not only delivers on this, but it does so in spades.
The show revolves around a swordsman for hire. Right now, you may well be thinking of some underrated master swordsman, a badass with amazing skill, who slays men in their thousands. This could not be further from the truth. Whilst the swordsman, our main character Akitsu Masanosuke (usually called "Masa" for short) is a competent swordsman, he is completely human. There is nothing truly special about him. He is, however, rarely hired, in part because he looks so harmless. But this all begins to change when he meets a strange man calling himself Yaichi, who actually agrees to hire him. However, as Masa soon discovers, he's been hired to work for a group of kidnappers. He initially tries to leave, but soon finds himself more and more immersed in the criminals' world.
Now, it's worth noting that this show has a very unusual art style. This can be extremely offputting to some people, which, alongside with the slow pace of this show, probably account for the incredibly low ratings this show had upon airing. This is a great shame, because as of writing this is probably the best anime of 2010. It starts off quite slow, making it hard to rope viewers in, but it slowly but surely hooks the viewer. The pace is often considered to be the best and worst thing about this anime. It seems boring, but at the same time, utterly captivating. It's strange, but no matter how slow the show is, you never want to stop watching. At the same time, the slow pace can make the important moments all the more impressive and memorable.
When it comes to the cast, most of them are good characters, and there are no bad characters in this show. However, the ones everyone remembers are the leading pair, Masa and Yaichi. Lesser characters like Ume and Matsu are memorable, but they aren't nearly as impressive. While Masa starts out as awkward, spineless, and mildly annoying, over the course of the series he gradually comes out of his shell. He comes to impact the plot strongly, form bonds with the Five Leaves, and prove his worth repeatedly in a fantastic display of character development. While he isn't as impressive as Rock from Black Lagoon, another character who started out in a similar fashion, he's certainly a character worthy of praise. Yaichi, on the other hand, is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. He is the mysterious leader of the Five Leaves, and a highly interesting character. To speak of his past is to ruin the entire plot of the show.
Now, while the art style is offputting for some, it is by no means bad. It doesn't take long to get used to, and the art is produced to a high standard, as is the animation. Both are joined with an interesting style that focuses on a subtle, yet rich darkness. A large amount of the series is set at night, viewed only by candlelight, if even that. The daytime scenes are often indoors, under shadow. And the high-quality production extends to the soundtrack as well. The background music is distinct and memorable, giving a unique feel to the show. The opening theme, "Sign of Love", is a great song that grows on you more with each passing episode. The only problem I have with the soundtrack is the ending theme, a fun, bouncy song that invariably seems completely out of place at the end of each episode.
While Saraiya Goyou is by no means a show for everyone, it is a great watch for those who can appreciate it. Some patience will be necessary for viewing it, but it will not go unrewarded.
Final Words: Watching every other Manglobe show just shot up significantly in my priorities.