My introduction to Natsume Ono and her work was through the 2010 anime adaptation of her series House of Five Leaves. Since then, I have been devouring her other works available in English, so far all a part of Viz Media's Signature line, but House of Five Leaves remains my favorite. Ono completed House of Five Leaves in eight volumes which were initially published in Japan between 2006 and 2010. It was also in 2010 that Viz Media began releasing the English translation of the series. Currently, the first four volumes are available; the fifth volume is scheduled to be published in December 2011. Although I haven't been reviewing the individual volumes as they have been released, I have been reading them, and rereading them, as soon as I have a copy available. But because Ono was the focus of November 2011's Manga Moveable Feast, I decided to be a little more vocal in my love for House of Five Leaves.
Akitsu Masanosuke is a highly skilled swordsman although most people wouldn't expect it to look at him. Often they are surprised to discover that he's even a samurai at all. He's extremely shy, embarrasses easily, and is not even close to being intimidating. Masa's unfortunate personality makes it difficult for him to keep a job. His lord let him go as a retainer and no one wants to hire a timid bodyguard, and so Masa wanders Edo as a hungry rōnin looking for work. At least until he meets Yaichi, who is looking for a samurai in name only. Yaichi, perfectly capable of defending himself, simply needs a bodyguard for show. Preferably one that is easily controlled. Masa is glad to have the work, not realizing at first that Yaichi happens to be the leader of a kidnapping group known as Five Leaves. Despite his misgivings, Masa slowly finds himself drawn into their circle.
One of the most distinctive aspects of Ono's manga is her art. I have never mistaken her illustrations for anyone else's, nor have I ever taken another artist's work to be hers. Admittedly, Ono's style is not one that everyone will appreciate. I wouldn't describe it as pretty, but the loose, deliberate lines have a certain attractive elegance to them. I have become quite fond of Ono's artwork. The style seems to be particularly well suited to the story of House of Five Leaves, especially in the portrayal of the characters and their personalities. The droopy-eyed melancholy fits Masa's timidity perfectly while at the same time the artwork also easily embodies Yaichi's lazy, slightly unsettling intensity. My only real complaint about the art in the first volume of House of Five Leaves is that it is difficult to discern what is happening in the few action-oriented sequences.
House of Five Leaves is not a quickly paced manga by any means. It's strength lies in its characters and their interactions, and especially in the relationships developed between Masa and the members of Five Leaves. Probably most important is Masa and Yaichi's strange sort of friendship. Yaichi is fascinated and intrigued by Masa and his unusualness. In return, Masa admires Yaichi's confidence and is curious about him. Yaichi is a charismatic, enigmatic, and intensely private man. Not even the members of Five Leaves know much about him. At this point in House of Five Leaves, not much is known about any of the characters yet, but Yaichi is the most guarded. The groundwork for the story has been established in this first volume and the major players have been introduced. Masa still isn't quite sure what he's gotten himself mixed up in or who these people are, but that will all be revealed as the series progresses.