[Synopsis]: Akitsu Masanosuke (Namikawa, Daisuke), a disheartened and meek samurai recently dismissed from service, finds himself fortunate when he crosses paths with a mysterious man named Yaichi (Sakurai, Takahiro). In dire need of both money and food he becomes his bodyguard only to discover thereafter that Yaichi is the leader of a group of thieves titled the ‘Five Leaves’. Though he finds their activities such as kidnapping to be cold-hearted and cruel he believes there is a chance that the Five Leaves are a group of chivalrous thieves. He is additionally captivated by Yaichi’s personality as he admires the way in which he conducts himself and wishes to improve upon his own timid and cowardly behavior. As Masanosuke mingles with the members of the Five Leaves he finds himself inexorably drawn further and further into their world.
Saraiya Goyou employs a handful of characters to tell its story and spends its time fleshing out only a few of them. Its character focus rests primarily on the characterization and relationships of Masanosuke and Yaichi as well as the members of the Five Leaves and their individual backstories. This narrative approach worked well for the show in some regards and fell short in others as its exploration of characters like Yaichi felt quite thorough and compelling whereas other members of the cast weren’t investigated to a greater extent and were left feeling a little dull. The show finds its greatest character successes in its main two characters.
It is immediately apparent from his introduction the kind of man Masanosuke is based on his interactions with other people and his mannerisms. Cripplingly shy and submissive, he bumbles about the story and acts for the most part at the behest of Yaichi whom he quickly gains an admiration for after encountering him. Masanosuke’s respect and relationship with Yaichi is his strongest character trait as his near-envy of Yaichi’s carefree nature and dismissive attitude makes him interesting and gives his interactions with Yaichi and the Five Leaves purpose. The story also suggests that he works with the Five Leaves in order to earn money to send back home and dig his brother out of debt however this is addressed in such an off-screen manner that its narrative relevance is rather low. This makes Masanosuke’s reasons for his continued involvement with the Five Leaves a little weak though his reverence of Yaichi is enough to keep his situation in the story believable. Masanosuke has a tendency to think out-loud and say what everyone is thinking but has left unsaid which I felt was a refreshingly unique character element and one that prompted some of the more chemistry driven responses from the other members of the Five Leaves.
While it is typically a highly charismatic and excitable personality that earns the admiration of other characters, Yaichi himself is actually quite mellow and controlled for the most part. Masanosuke appreciates Yaichi’s aloof and relaxed personality which he likens to a leaf drifting in a pool and when the two are together they present an entertaining enough contrast. The strongest point of Yaichi’s characterization and possibly the strongest element of the entire show is his own hypocrisy of belief. He believes in leaving the past behind and living in the moment however it is he himself who is ultimately the most ensnared by his history. It is then interesting to see how Masanosuke changes in relation to Yaichi, a man who doesn’t truly exhibit what he believes.
Saraiya Goyou spends a great deal of its time investigating the other members of the Five Leaves as well as Masanosuke and Yaichi as it is highly evident upon their introduction that each member has their own circumstances for being involved with the group. Though the majority of them are given ample attention, their context and backstories were a little bland especially compared to Yaichi’s and this left many of the episodes in the midsection of the show quite dull. Though their stories involve other gangs of thieves, betrayals and loyalties, the manner in which they are explained and unfold is highly matter-of-fact and unemotional. Though not outright bad, the time spent trying to elaborate upon the other members of the Five Leaves ultimately left the show feeling a bit bloated in places as their own personalities and histories were lackluster, especially in immediate contrast to Yaichi’s own central backstory.
If one understands the atmosphere and pacing of Saraiya Goyou then one can accurately expect the kind of animation and visual style of the show. The story itself is quite slow going and meanders from character to character each episode and only rarely introduces any tangible narrative tension. The animation is similarly not very showy and lacks any notably flashy moments however its ability to match itself to the tone of the story is on point. Given Saraiya Goyou’s occasionally dull progression, this ends up being not altogether good and I feel that the show could have benefited immensely from some strong dramatic imagery – even something as immersion-breaking as surreal imagery would have been much appreciated if it artistically emphasized the strengths of the show.
If I had to diagnose the foremost problem with the show’s visuals it would be that they spent too much time trying to match the realism present in the story instead of dramatically emphasizing upon what little emotion and drama arose within its characters. With that said, the actual art and animation of Saraiya Goyou is at least consistent and the show is pretty free of quality drops. I found Masanosuke’s mannerisms and general aesthetic highly supportive of his personality and I thought he was visually executed quite well from his expressions to his movements.
The beginning of the show doesn’t do too much to establish what Saraiya Goyou is about however it does a moderate job at presenting the personalities of both Masanosuke and Yaichi without actually delving into their respective intricacies – a good skin-deep introduction to the characters of greatest importance. By the second episode a problem arises as it becomes evident that the show lacks any kind of sufficient hook, making it somewhat difficult to get into. The second episode does little else but reinforce what was established within the first – the personalities of the characters involved and how Masanosuke is being inexorably drawn into the House of Five Leaves in part due to his dependence on them for money and food but also due to his curiosity about them as individuals.
The issue with such an episode immediately proceeding the first is that, while Masanosuke and Yaichi are at times well-written and interesting, their personalities are far from what could be called exciting or captivating. The members of the house don’t present any immediate intrigue and we remain as distant from the activities of the Five Leaves as Masanosuke himself. Even the covert operations of the House are presented quite openly rather than with an air of mystery or danger. The result of this somewhat repetitive and straightforward beginning to things is that the show is left desperately wanting for something gripping in order to better attract the viewers attention and transition more strongly into the show’s weaker midsection.
With all of that said, Saraiya Goyou gets progressively better and more engaging in its latter half as it comes down to its final episodes which deal with Yaichi’s backstory which is teased and hinted at all throughout. The show’s single strongest element is Yaichi’s story and characterization as his circumstances are far more interesting and exciting than those of his fellows and his relationship with Masanosuke is highly volatile. Surprisingly, though it is Yaichi’s interest in Masanosuke which marks the beginning of the show and Masanosuke’s involvement with the Five Leaves, Yaichi’s intrigue with him quickly turns to something akin to annoyance which exhibits his fickle nature excellently. An unfortunate side effect of this otherwise interesting character dynamic is that the distance between the two characters only serves as another point of boredom rather than solely emphasizing Yaichi’s detachment.
Fortunately, Saraiya Goyou finishes strong after detailing the whole of Yaichi’s story which is far and away its most interesting narrative element. The combination of of a particularly awful story of betrayal with Yaichi’s current characterization and his past coming back to haunt him is very entertaining. The question then becomes whether or not it is worth watching Saraiya Goyou for Yaichi’s story alone which takes up only about a fourth of the show. I think the answer will depend heavily on what the viewer is looking to get out of the show and whether or not they can tolerate the slow pacing of the show alongside its occasionally dull characters amidst otherwise decent writing.
In much the same way that the visuals were rather plain and served mostly to match the atmosphere of the show, the soundtrack is similarly designed and executed. Though there were a few rare instances were the music felt mismatched to the scene it fit the show fairly well without becoming independently memorable. I will say however that the music got progressively stronger and more poignant towards the end when the subject matter became more somber and melancholy and certain tracks emerged.
[Final Thoughts and Rating]:
Because of the rather dull proceedings after establishing the characters early on and its straightforward art style, Saraiya Goyou continually threatened becoming entirely forgettable up until the end when it arrived at Yaichi’s backstory. I could easily envision Yaichi’s story as a highly compelling 3 or 4 episode OVA where it could focus more primarily on him as a character rather than bothering itself unnecessarily with laying out the full details of the other members of the Five Leaves.
I gave Saraiya Goyou because, though I admit to being bored by some of its characters and general artistic presentation, the show had very few elements that were outright bad or negative. Were it not for its final episodes and its strong conclusion the show would most definitely have remained a fairly forgettable 5 however fortunately this was not the case and though it fails to excite in the beginning and thrill in its midsection, it becomes entertaining before the end.
It is quite hard to recommend Saraiya Goyou based on genre as it hardly exhibits one outside of its occasional drama elements. I would say that people that enjoy shows with relaxed and steady pacing would find Saraiya Goyou’s leisurely progression and calm atmosphere to their liking. As to whether or not it is worth watching for the drama present in Yaichi’s story I would tentatively answer ‘yes’ however this is mostly due to the show’s low episode count and its potential appeal that I may have downplayed in my interpretation.