It's no secret that when it comes to releasing anime on DVD, region one is going through a bit of a rough patch. Sales are down and there are fewer companies chasing a smaller pool of anime-purchasing fans. The upshot is that fewer series are being released than there were several years ago, and to save money a lot of the shows that are coming out are subtitled only. One company that has done a really great job in these difficult times is
A young boy is shunned by the members of his household. The illegitimate son of the head of the clan and his mistress, he's been legally adopted by his father because his wife has not been able to provide the family with an heir. His adopted mother, feeling shame at his very presence, makes his life miserable and the boy's only friend is a servant who is kind to him. But then, there's an announcement that the leader's wife is pregnant....
Barely managing to earn enough money to feed himself, Akitsu agrees to take a job as a bodyguard when Yaichi offers it, even though he looks a little seedy. Yaichi's a carefree fellow, never worrying about the past that seems to haunt Akitsu and always has some ready cash at hand. The two spend the day walking around the city, eating and meeting some of Yaichi's friends. There's Matsukichi, a secretive man who makes jewelry for well to do clients, Umezou, the owner of a local tavern, and the attractive and seductive Otake.
That evening Yaichi and Akitsu wander out into a nearby forest. Yaichi is supposed to meet someone there, and he's expecting the man to bring some bodyguards, hence the reason for Akitsu.
Yaichi was right and when the man and two thugs show up Akitsu instinctively leaps into action, disarming the guards and sending them running without hurting them. The man then gives Yaichi a large sum of money and leaves. It was ransom for the boy Yaichi's group, the Five Leaves, has kidnapped.
Akitsu's can't believe that the friendly man he's spent the day with is a criminal, and Yaichi makes no bones about it. Though the man they had targeted was a crook himself who was cruel to the people around him, Yaichi makes it clear that he's not kidnapping people to make the world a better place; he's doing it for the money. The people that he introduced Akitsu to that morning were the other members of the Five Leaves. He offers the timid warrior a place in the group, but Akitsu can't quite decide. He doesn't want to be a criminal, but these people are the first friends that he's had in a long time.
This show was something unexpected. Being only 12 episodes long, I wasn't anticipating a lot of character development or an involved story, but I was wrong on both counts. The plot, such as it is, also unfolds in a rather unexpected manner. Over the course of the series the Akitsu gets to know the members of the Five Leaves (with the exception of Yaichi who remains a mystery until almost the end). I was expecting this experience to ennoble him and unleash the kick-ass fighter that hides within. That's not what happens. That's what would take place if this was an American TV show. Instead the tale follows a different path and arrives at a conclusion that's both satisfying and believable. Sure, the swordsman does grow and change due to his association with the kidnapping ring, but not in the ways that one would expect.
The series is filled with vignettes of some of the main characters pasts. They go into more detail showing some people's lives than others, but all of these back histories are just as interesting as the main story, and more so in some cases. These aren't included just to fill time either, they're an integral part of the story, and not only how everyone got to where they are, but explain why the make the choices that they do.
Another thing that made this series so fun to watch was the way that it played with time. Some stories were told through flashbacks, but they didn't always make that clear. Sometimes a scene would change and viewers would be watching an event from the past with no warning. It was only through the context of what was happening that a timeline could be pieced together. There were several enjoyable "ah-ha!" moments when pieces fell into place and events became crystal clear. Having said that, the show is not confusing nor is it hard to follow. The colors in flashbacks are muted to give viewers a visual cue that the story is taking place in the past, and the narrative never really gets too convoluted. Though there are a few places were you'll be wondering just who a character is, if you sit back and keep watching things will reveal themselves.
I really like the way
Unfortunately there was a mix up during production and only a mono track ended up on the first pressings of this set. Never fear,
The original Japanese stereo soundtrack sounds fine. Dialog is clear, the sound effects are mixed at an appropriate level, and the background music comes through nicely. There are optional English subtitles, but there is not a dub track, which is fine with me. I prefer watching anime in Japanese since that was the way it was created to be seen.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic image looks very good. The colors are purposefully muted, but they're accurately reproduced and come through clearly. The level of detail is very good and the lines are tight. There was a slight amount of very minor banding in just a couple of scenes but aliasing, which often plagues anime, wasn't a problem.
The discs themselves include a clean opening and closing, something I really enjoy seeing, and a series of trailers for other NIS America releases.
In addition there's also a very nice hardcover book included with the set. Reading right-to-left the way it's done in
This is a high quality release all around. From the packaging to the menus to anime itself, everything about this set was top notch. An anime that I really enjoyed and one that I'm sure I'll rewatch soon, it is well worth checking out. Highly recommended.