Much like many others, I skipped over trying Saraiya Goyou when it first aired because I was put off by the strange art style. BUT! After trying out other treats like Katanagatari and Kaiba–with their own unique art styles–I realized I needed to get over my aversion for the sake of something that could truly astound, or truly suck. The teeter-totter possibility of this anime, like any other, is saddled not only with the different art style, but also with a slow plot. Mega-slow plots are usually grounds for immediate failure, but this anime fights off failure with its exemplary characters featuring convoluted backgrounds and motives and the surprisingly tense atmosphere.
The first episode opens up with a long scene that we later find out to be back story on one of the main characters, Yaichi. However, the name and faces from past and present do not match; the Yaichi from the past is a servant and unremarkable in appearance, while the Yaichi in the present seemingly commands his own interests and, unlike any of the other characters around him, has a head of white hair. In a conversation with another man, the present Yaichi sets forth the notion that they hire a ronin (masterless samurai for hire) for show to counter the move made by another unnamed party. This history and current proposition set the grounds for the entire show.
As I mentioned previously, the graphics of this anime were highly odd to me; the faces are smooth and flat, like expressionless masks, with large eyes whose irises are simple solid colors often with just pinpricks in the middle or nothing at all. The mouths are single lines that run wide across the face. In contrast to the simple character designs, the background boasts a wide array of detail. I feel like I’m re-describing Katangatari, which had similar contrast in designs.
Following Yaichi’s idea of hiring a ronin, we meet Masanosuke “Masa” Akitsu, the main character of Saraiya Goyou. It becomes immediately apparent that Masa is thoroughly incapable of holding a job as a bodyguard, yet he is too prideful of his samurai training to undertake any other manual labor.
His meek and modest demeanor do little to assure his employers, much less their enemies, of his skill. After a recent job loss, he encounters two members of the House of Five Leaves, Yaichi and Take. He mistakes them for yakuza and flees after Yaichi notices him gaping at Take’s beauty. Yaichi’s confrontation and subsequent invitation draw Masa into a world of danger and familial friendships. Masa takes up Yaichi’s job offer as bodyguard, yet quickly discovers there is more to the job than just protecting his benefactor. The House of Five Leaves turns out to comprise of a miscellaneous group of people who kidnap and threaten people in return for money. Masa quickly makes it clear that he disapproves of such indecency, but is hesitant to leave the comfort and camaraderie of his new found friends.
He changes his mind and joins them once he discovers that the majority of their missions have other objectives, which he comes to suspect are actually the primary objectives behind the crimes. In the first case in which Masa is involved, Saraiya Goyou kidnaps a young man and demands ransom. The young man turns out to be the son of a family who employed the daughter of one of Five Leaves’ members, Umezou. That son came onto her and abused her, but the family would not do anything to stop his actions. Yaichi proposed a kidnapping of the heir, getting both money and revenge in return. At other times, they kidnap people from problematic households, often resulting in a peace among the family once they are reunited. Yaichi is quick to deny Masa’s observations, but his actions speak otherwise.
The rest of the show follows with somewhat episodic groupings detailing the crimes of Saraiya Goyou, yet all the while keeps an underlying plot to hold the whole anime together. The main mystery is how the flashback beginning ties into this show. Through Masa’s keen perceptions, we learn about Yaichi’s past, little by little, and how the House of Five Leaves was formed.
Warning: Spoilers contained
Yaichi’s story encompasses the whole of the anime; we see him as a young heir to well-off family, later on as a seemingly heartless and violent yakuza member, and finally as the mysterious leader of Saraiya Goyou. Because of Masa’s prying questions, we find out the events which shaped Yaichi’s life and traits. As the adpoted son of the master, “Seinoshin” earned the wife’s hate. His sole friend in the household was a servant, named Yaichi, who spoke with him, played with him, and tried to soothe his feelings of self-hatred. Following the wife’s pregnancy and birth of legitimate male heir, Yaichi was kidnapped; however, instead of receiving the ransom money from the household, the kidnappers instead received a message to get rid of the boy. When Sei enquired further about the message, the leader informed him the message was delivered by Yaichi, the boy’s only hope.
Instead of killing him, they decide to take him in and train him as one of their own. From that point on, he becomes “Yaichi” and serves as a yakuza member. For reasons unknown and never stated, he betrayed his gang to the police and took off with their money–fast forward to the present, and he continues committing shady acts, only this time with arguably justifiable rationale. The close of the show brings about the close of his personal story, as he ends up confronting the last member of his gang and uncovers the truth behind his kidnapping: Yaichi was not the one who undertook his removal from the family. With this knowledge, and the following murder of his one-time leader, he finally comes to terms with his past.
Masa as the main character was a bit surprising given the introduction’s back story and following present time with Yaichi’s character. He comes across as harmless and utterly unskilled as a samurai. He flinches from confrontations and confesses to feeling discomfort at attracting notice. For such a man to attempt a lifestyle that requires presence and high capability is ridiculous.
Despite his looks, we soon discover that he is, in fact, highly accomplished with the sword and unafraid of receiving injury in place of his employer. Not only is his appearance and skill paradoxical, but so is his mentality. While unassuming and usually submissive, he continually sees more than those around often wish. He almost always voices the unspoken and sheds light on many of the true motives and intentions of Yaichi, Umezou, and Matsukichi’s actions and words. In a way, he acts like a child who sees what he should not see, yet understands. Of all the characters, I find him to be the most interesting. As his connections to the other members grow, so does his faith in their trustworthiness. Perhaps it is due to his own often mistaken physical and mental weakness, but he is never one to trust what he sees. He follows his belief in them and earns their mutual respect and friendship.
Yaichi (“Ichi-san”), like Masa, exhibits conflicting mannerisms. For the most part, he appears calm, almost uncaring, and ruthless in his violence. And yet, he takes the time to speak with the prostitutes with whom he lives and buys them treats and trinkets. Instead of tiring of Masa’s strange personality, he instead welcomes him in and unintentionally confides in him from time to time. He is also usually the announcer of Saraiya Goyou’s next crime, “coincidentally” picking ones that commit good in one way or another. I can understand his appeal; the mixture of hot and cold is one that many women find attractive, and that many men find charismatic. Like Masa, I was drawn to his brooding character and wanted to help solve the mystery behind his unrevealed past.
Three major factors contribute to Saraiya Goyou‘s enchanting atmosphere: its art, plot, and music.
While the simplistic character designs seems exactly that, simple, they instead work to greatly highlight moments of great importance. The slightest hint of a smile to the normally move-less mouth and the miniscule widening of the eyes immediately indicates changes in thought and action. When the body reshapes itself for any reason, you can bet that it does so for good reason.
I found the background art of the anime extremely well-done and understated. While detailed in Edo’s rustic-like city, the occasional flash of bright colors immediately drew the eye (the maple leaves and Take’s makeup).
Even though the plot moved slowly along, the characters’ developments created tension in such a way that although I felt relaxed watching this show, I was still highly intrigued by what was going on.
The sound of Saraiya Goyou was another major point in this show’s appeal. The regular sound effects were not overdone in any way like many other anime tends to do. A door opens, and you hear a regular door opening. A window slides, and you hear a window sliding. What little music there was followed in the vein of the plot. The piano, shamisen, and harmonized vocals, in turn, soothed or energized my blood. Music was used only at key moments, which served well to help pace the vitality of this anime.
Final Impression 9/10 (Great)
Thanks to Saraiya Goyou, I am more open than ever to trying out shows outside the popular crowd. I’ve also learned a greater appreciation for minimalist art and sound styles, which at one point I found tiresome. This anime succeeding in hypnotizing my attention; the one thing that keeps this show from being a perfect 10, is…well, I’m not sure. Watching this anime, like Mushishi, you can’t help but know that you’re watching a masterpiece unfold. Perhaps what holds me back from giving a 10 is that I want more. At 12 episodes, Saraiya Goyou deceives the viewer with its complex plot which seemingly should not be able to fit into a short season. I want to see more of Masa and the House of Five Leaves, and I want to see what becomes of Yaichi after his tumultuous history finds rest. I can’t help but want more of this very good thing.