Sarai-ya Goyou has several things going for it: a cowardly samurai who is actually damn good in a fight; a dubious antihero called Yaichi, who hides in the shadows smiling knowingly; a gorgeous soundtrack that mixes the modern (OP and ED) and traditional (in-episode score); a mature concept design and distinctive-looking characters wearing haunting, mournful eyes; and a ‘rogues against the world’ plot about a ragtag of people who kidnap members of bad families for a living.
In the great tradition of bad decisions, however, the show throws these fruitful seeds on a bedrock of bland character arcs. After a hopeful setup in which the cowardly samurai Akitsu Masanosuke joins the odd criminal band, the House of Five Leaves, the plot drifts into the wan, uncontroversial back stories of its members. Their backgrounds are given away in long expository dialogues, the gist of which is usually ‘I steal and kidnap because my impoverished child needs the money’. These could have been snappy misadventures in the vein of Cowboy Bebop but their insipid formula and insistence on telling instead of showing quickly dampens any burning emotions.
Masa is also annoyingly passive, cripplingly dull, and stalks through the plot with a face like a beaten pup. Even the creators seem unsure what to do with him, at one point giving him the debilitating ‘Edo disease’ so they can conveniently shuffle him aside while the rest get on with driving the plot. On the other hand, his foil, Yaichi, the mysterious leader of the House of Five Leaves, brings a seductively twisted undertone to the narrative. Designed with lank, white hair and usually portrayed as veiled by shadow, his background of neglect and betrayal only add to his intrigue. But his criminal plots are in dire need of thickening: they’re often simplistic and play too little a role to convince us of his singular genius.
Encouragingly, all that eschewing Sarai-ya Goyou does of its initial potential leads to something unique. Even if I wasn’t enamoured of its limp progression, I was charmed by the sturdy flavour, which recalls the delicacy of Mushishi and the subversive tang of Kaiji. For all my reservations, I’m enormously glad this trend-bucking show exists. I think people who love brooding, deliberate stories that aren’t immediately obvious will gain the most from this.