Media Monday: House of Five Leaves

House of Five Leaves, Cover of Manga

House of Five Leaves

Over the last few years, Arlys and I developed a fondness for Japanese animation. We have very specific tastes. For example, we don’t care for “slice of life” dramas such as the award-winning “Ping Pong the Animation” or weird cutesy concepts like “Kantai Collection” (which portrays battleships as Lolly girls.) Having watched most of the classics, we’ve been having difficulty finding interesting shows that we haven’t seen. A coworker recommended “House of Five Leaves,” which is a historical drama that takes place in the samurai era. This is one of our favorite genres, so we gave it a try.
“Five Leaves” is a single 12-show season, based on a manga by Natsume Ono in 2010 and adapted by Manglobe as a TV series in 2012. We were surprised we hadn’t heard of it or seen it in any of the “best of” lists we’ve searched for. Nevertheless, we found it quite interesting. The first thing that struck us was that the art style is deliberately simplified. The characters look cartoonish, though not in a childish way. It reminded me of classic American cartoons such as “Little Orphan Annie.” (Rather than having blank eyes the characters tend to have huge black pupils.)
The protagonist is Masanosuke (Masa), a samurai who has lost his job as a bodyguard. Though he is a skilled swordsman, his meek personality makes him an ineffective protector. As he searches for work, homeless and hungry, he meets a shady character named Yaichi (Ichi.) Ichi heads a secretive group of criminals called “Five Leaves” after their symbol, the five-lobed maple leaf. Their specialty is kidnapping the sons of wealthy aristocrats, and holding them for ransom. They are unusually ethical kidnappers; they return the hostages promptly on payment and are distressed by the idea of killing.
Despite his desperation, Masa is reluctant to be involved in anything illegal. Ichi presents a carefree facade, but is actually a skilled manipulator, slowly drawing Masa into the gang. Besides these two characters, the group includes a tavern owner, an ex-thief, and an ex-prostitute. As his life becomes more intertwined with the gang, Masa’s childlike innocence and Asperger-ish bluntness threatens them all with capture. In the meantime, Ichi’s past comes back to haunt him, as members of his former gang hunt for him to settle a score. With its theme of crime and criminals, you might expect “Five Leaves” to be a shonen (young boy’s)-type show, with lots of swordplay, but it’s actually a character study. Its focus on relationships between the characters would make it just as appealing to a female audience. The Five Leaves gang is like a dysfunctional family, and the characters are all endearing in their own quirky ways.
The “House of Five Leaves” anime is licensed in the USA by Funimation.

Why Steampunk?

Steampunk Frog

Illustration: Steampunk Frog by Kyle Dunbar. Kyle now has his own tattoo business in scenic Cave Creek, AZ, be sure to check it out!

Note: WordPress won’t let me put a link in the caption, so see Kyle’s Instagram Page here.

For those of you who are wondering, what the heck is steampunk, there are plenty of definitions but I’ll give you mine. Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction set in the past, generally in the period of the late 1800’s we call the Victorian Era. England was at that time the world’s ruling power, and its monarch, Queen Victoria, reigned from 1837-1901. Personally, I would include the reign of her son Edward VII, extending the period to 1910. In America, it was known as the Gilded Age, the time of industrialization and progress when steam power ruled the world.

In one sense, steampunk is historical fiction, but it’s more correctly a form of alternate history, which is why we add the “punk” suffix. According to Wikipedia, sci-fi writer K.W. Jeter coined the term to classify his works. The term was a pun on the term “cyberpunk,” a popular sci-fi subgenre of the 1980’s, which was in turn associated with the “cypherpunk” political movement of computer hackers. In the beginning, “punk” signified the anarchy and decadence of the musical style by that name. Eventually, it was broadened to include any genre in which history is skewed or twisted, giving rise to “dieselpunk” fiction set in the period from around World War I to the 1950’s.

What makes steampunk so popular? I believe it’s because the Gilded Age was a time of great optimism about humanity’s future and the advancement of technology. This is when writers like Jules Verne and HG Wells invented modern science fiction – though admittedly not all their works were optimistic. In our uncertain and decadent times, this era seems inviting, even refreshing. Courtesy was an essential character trait, and honesty and hard work were widely admired. The positive outlook of that time provides a welcome contrast to today’s bleak economic and political outlook. The class distinctions and rigidity of Victorian society, which would be stifling to our modern sensibilities, can seem reassuring when viewed from a distance.

One thing that has surprised me about the steampunk movement is its longevity. At first, it seemed it might be a transitory fad, more about the fun of wearing “high tech” period costumes to conventions than the stories themselves. Perhaps costuming and art are indeed steampunk’s more popular aspects and we have a lot of that in our house, but the literary movement is going strong as well. This is one of the reasons I’ve been writing in this genre- its current popularity, combined with my own fascination with history and technology.

My first exposure to steampunk fiction was the novel The Difference Engine by Willliam Gibson and Bruce Sterling. This alternative history about the rise of mechanical computers in the 1850’s helped establish some of the archetypes of the genre. Alternate history, including the steam era, were frequent themes in science fiction (such as Michael Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air) but only recently did it earn its own category. Since then we’ve seen talented young writers such as Cherie Priest (Boneshaker) and Scott Westerfield (Leviathan) emerge to further develop this trend.

Some of its devotees say that the steampunk genre is much older, going back to the 1960’s sci-fi TV western called The Wild Wild West. It’s set in the 1870’s, when Secret Service agents James T. West and Artemus Gordon have their own train car HQ and lots of proto-James-Bond gadgets. It was one of my favorite shows as a kid, which unfortunately gives away my age.

Though I’ve always been fascinated by history and period novels, alternate history, such as the works of Harry Turtledove (Guns of the South) are even more fun. This kind of writing provided the inspirations for my second novel Fidelio’s Automata. In this book Nikola Tesla did not leave Colorado in 1900, staying to play a part in the Colorado Labor Wars, which pitted radical miners against the companies. I set another part of the story in my home state of North Dakota, involving the real-life characters the Marquis de Mores, an eccentric French nobleman, and his liberated American wife, Medora. In real life, the Marquis’ meat-packing business failed, he returned to France, got involved in extremist politics, and died violently in North Africa. In Fidelio, his business did not fail, and he stayed in America and lived to see the twentieth century.

My latest foray into steampunk is the novella Miss Ione D. and the Mayan Marvel, a collaboration with my writing partner Arlys Holloway. She invented Ione D as a Facebook persona to promote Fidelio’s Automata. I found the character so intriguing that I decided we had to create stories for her. We began with Professor Ione D and the Epicurean Incident, but decided instead to start with Ione D in her younger days, exploring the pyramids in Tikal, Guatemala. (Don’t worry; Epicurean Incident is next!) Ione is the daughter of an American diplomat and a French actress and grew up in the US embassies in Paris and London. She’s a brilliant young woman who travels the world looking for adventure and exciting new recipes, while solving mysteries in the process. Mayan Marvel is a short work and as such it is (in our humble opinion) a good introduction to the steampunk genre. Check it out on Amazon; it’s currently free to Kindle Unlimited members.

And now, a serious candidate for president.

Triumph the Insult Comic Dog

Triumph for Top Dog

Here in the US, the 2016 election cycle has been plagued by cynicism, as all the candidates for the Highest Office in the Land seem to be puppets of special interests. The only (possible) exception is Donald Trump, whose obnoxious pronouncements have offended half the nation and made him insanely popular with the other half. What this country needs is a combination of the two, someone who is both a puppet AND obnoxious.

Announcing the Puppet Party nominee for President in 2016, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog! He will go the existing candidates one better, in that he (a) is not just metaphorically but literally a puppet, and (b) is at least as offensive as Trump if not more so. His name even sounds a bit like Trump, which, if the Donald succeeds in getting the Republican nomination, may garner him millions of ballots through voter confusion.

A President Triumph would be a dogged, no-nonsense, take-charge kind of guy. Instead of wasting his time hob-nobbing with the high and mighty, the Puppet in Chief would give them what they deserve by urinating on them. Triumph would, of course, make an exception for female politicians, such as former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who would instead receive a furious leg-humping.

Selecting a dog for president would also serve the interests of diversity as American’s first non-human President. It would also be a symbolic “bite me” to the world’s dog-despising Muslim theocracies such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the troubled Middle East, Triumph’s strategy would be “I poop on ISIS!”

Miss Piggy

Miss Piggy: #2 is #1 plus one!

And speaking of diversity, the Puppet Party’s nominee for Vice President is that indomitable Muppet, Miss Piggy. Unlike Joe Biden, this porcine feminist would not suffer being the “butt” of jokes about vice-presidential ineffectiveness. A few well-placed karate kicks would ensure that the White House Press Corps would grant her the respect she deserves. Piggy’s number two position would also serve to deter terrorist attacks on President Triumph, as no self-respecting Muslim would want to see a female swine with her pudgy finger on the nuclear button.

As a long-time Libertarian activist, I’m accustomed to hearing the argument that a third-party vote is wasted. However, this ticket is sure to Triumph!

Vote Puppet Party, Triumph & Piggy 2016!