This anime seems to have caused a divide among the anime community. Some praise it as a beautifully unique, dark tale while others say it’s a boring, ugly-looking mess. Me, personally? Well… It’s interesting, I’ll give it that. Whether you’ll enjoy it for not, however, is an entirely different question and it’s also one of those shows where I can totally understand the points of view from those who love it and those who hate it.
Takao Kasuga is a normal, book-obsessed student. He doesn’t have many friends and his only joy in life are his books and his long-lasting crush on his classmate, Saeki. One day he goes too far, however, when he spies her gym clothes left at school after everyone has gone home and can’t resist temptation and decides to nab them. To make matters worse, Nakamura, a strange and fairly sadistic fellow classmate of his, knows of his moment of weakness and uses it to her full advantage to ‘tear down his walls’, as she puts it. As Saeki begins to notice him and Nakamura begins to turn up the heat, Kasuga begins to question what the significance of his actions really are.
Strangely enough, it’s this aspect of the show that seems to have divided so many and with good reason. For those who aren’t aware, Aku no Hana was animated solely through the use of rotoscoping and this turns out to be a real double-edged sword in terms of quality.
The style is very refreshing and it’s good to see a story being told in a more creatively unique way than what we’re used to in anime. I also give massive credit to the fact that the character models do look like genuine Japanese teenagers rather than the usual formula of ‘short skirt, big eyes, wacky hair colour’ that’s usually seen in anime. Not that this formula is a bad one but it is nice to see a high school set in japan where the characters do actually look believably Japanese.
So, what’s wrong with this technique? Well… Imagine for a minute that you were asked to trace something like, say, photograph. You get your tracing paper ready and you copy all the lines through it till you’ve traced it all. You then remove the photograph from the paper and look at the paper on its own. It still doesn’t look much like the original photo, does it? Of course not. Because only when you add shading and detail to your outline, does it start to resemble the original picture.
And that’s Aku no Hana’s animation’s biggest problem. The character models look like they’ve been traced from live action but no detail has been added. As a result, some scenes look incredibly awkward. Characters don’t appear to have facial features when they’re a certain distance away, the shirts of their uniform simply look like white blobs from a distance and the lip movements look stilted and unnatural. No shading has been added to skin tone at all, meaning their skin is just one flat colour, and no detail had been applied to facial features either. Nakamura, in particular, looks very off in a lot of scenes. Whenever she gets a close-up, she looks like a grotesque female ogre that wants to come out of the screen and eat you. You just want to physically push her face away from you and the other characters don’t look much better via close up.
However, I will say this for the animation. As the series progressed, the quality did get much, much better and I noticed more detail was added for things like hair and facial expression. There’s a scene around episode eleven or twelve (I forget which) where Kasuga sees Nakamura in a dream sequence with a purely white background, surrounded with black flowers, and this scene had a definite, twisted beauty about it. There’s a few moments like this near the end of the show and they actually are rather striking. The backgrounds looked fairly nice and detailed, even though they didn’t seem to mesh too well with the rotoscoped character models.
So, on the whole, mostly a mixed bag of the style balancing out to the animation. Most of the time, it misses but when it hits, it hits rather well. I’d say its worse moments are definitely the first few episodes, which also had some really strange editing techniques as well (what was the purpose of those jump cuts? And why did that scene replay over five times? And is there really a need for so many still frames? And what on earth was up with that weird angel vision?) that may take a bit of getting used to. But, as the series progresses, the style grows on you and the animation slows down and begins to take its time a little more.
The opening is a combination of different sections of the same song in order to tell the separate points of view of the three main characters (them being Kasuga, Saeki and Nakamura). All three versions are enjoyable to listen to and give us a good look into what our characters are thinking at certain points in the story. Of special note is Nakamura’s version, which is enjoyably demented. The rest of the music is mostly dark atmospheric tracks that do wonders setting the mood and tone for the show but unfortunately aren’t very memorable on their own. The ending song couldn’t have been more fitting, with the creeping mechanical voices and minimal music making even the most positive of episode endings seem uneasy and sets an uncomfortable mood every times it creeps in near the end of an episode.
The voice acting was fitting for most of the cast, though Kasuga’s VA did grate on me for a little while. Until I realised that’s exactly how the character was supposed to be and didn’t mind it as much. Nakamura’s voice actor steals the show for the most part, with her demented ramblings and sadistic threats dripping with glee every time she says anything.
As you’ve probably guessed from my focus on the both of them, Kasuga and Nakamura are where the core of the story lie. While Saeki plays a significant part of the story, these two form the centre of the story. As for said story, it feels all over the place. For example, one of the shows major plot points is the stealing of Saeki’s gym clothes, which Nakamura uses to blackmail Kasuga to do twisted, pointless things because she gets a sadistic thrill out of it. This is all fine and good but I feel that this plot point takes up too much of the story. The gym clothes are just a catalyst in order to get the show going. So, do we really need to be still discussing them in episode five of a thirteen episode anime? If you really want to start exploring complex ideas of perversion and sexuality like this show obviously does, you should probably not give something fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things so much focus. Aside from the obvious solution to the problem (why not just give them back and tell her he found them lying somewhere?), it just takes up too much of the story.
I also feel there are points where the show takes itself too literally and blows certain events WAY out of proportion. For example, when Saeki’s gym clothes are first stolen, the whole school’s reaction seems too extreme. They talk of how someone who did that must be the scum of the earth and the lowest kind of pervert imaginable. One student even remarks about how he’d love to shoot the guy that did it, for god’s sake! Even though they were really stolen, did it really never cross their minds that someone could have picked it up by mistake and had every intention of giving it back the next day? There’s another scene like this where the class finds out that Kasuga and Saeki have started dating and the school reacts like a bunch of hooting chimps at the mere thought of it. I know the idea is that high schools are obsessed with gossip but not to this extreme. I wouldn’t focus on details like this so much except for the fact that the show focuses on them too much.
The themes and ideas of the show don’t really start to pick up till the second half. Till then, show feels like it falls into the ‘so bad, it’s good’ category. But as the second half goes on and all insignificant plot points are thankfully now forgotten about, the show starts to find its feet. There’s a very interesting struggle between Kasuga about Saeki and the idea that idolizing the one you admire can sometimes be more harmful than degrading them as it forms unrealistic expectations of the person in question. There’s also a theme shared by Nakamura and Kasuga of deliberately distancing yourself from others and using hobbies that are different from others to gain a sense of superiority over other people, not because you genuinely enjoy those hobbies.
These was really good themes and ideas that they touched upon that I honestly wish I could’ve seen explored more throughout the course of the show and I’d say it really is worth sitting through the sometimes ridiculous first half in order to get the second. The shows biggest saving grace is its atmosphere and underlying implications. The ending is open with the promise of a second season which will probably never happen (despite the controversy, this series did not do well for viewership, as most dropped it after episode one) but judging from what I’ve read ahead in the manga, a second season would've been far more promising and, if it is announced, I’ll be very happy to see these themes developed further. While the relationship between Saeki and Kasuga seems innocent enough, there’s always an underlying uneasiness to it, made all the more unnerving by Nakamura’s full support of it and a second season focusing more on it as well as these themes is more than welcome.
As much as I hate her guts at times, I have to admit Nakamura keeps things entertaining. Violent, foul-mouthed and downright destructive at times, her bipolar outbursts of extreme anger or chirpy, sadistic happiness is what makes her enjoyably unpredictable. She seems to operate on nonsensical logic, blackmailing Kasuga to do things that she feels will make him realise what a disgusting deviant he really is in order to mold him into someone similar to herself. She’s not likeable in the slightest but she is interesting (and is right up there with Haruhi Suzimaya in my list of ‘characters I find entertaining in fiction but would loathe in reality').
Sadly, the same cannot be said of Kasuga. While the premise of his character is intriguing, he comes off as unbelievably bland and feels more like a puppet being used by the writers to move the story along rather than having any defining will or character of his own. He whines and complains and repeats himself all the time rather than thinking of what he should do about his situation.
Saeki is much the same but does seem to have a little more of a mind-set to her. While she seems overly simple, it feels like that was the intention in order to set up her character for the second season. She’s underwhelming but that feels like how she was meant to be. As such, the show has to rely on the potential of one character. This necessarily isn’t bad; it just makes the other two seem even blander in comparison.
On a side note, a small mention here goes to Kasuga’s two supposed ‘friends’ or, as I like to call them, ‘the twat team.’ Yes, I'm aware they aren’t important to the overall plot but just their appearances made me want to throw a brick at the screen. The facts that these idiotic wastes of oxygen take up so much of the show annoys me to no end.
So, is Aku no Hana worth the watch? I would say yes. Despite a very choppy first half, lack of a varied cast and animation that’s a rather acquired taste, I would definitely say it’s worth watching just to make up your mind about it. It’s strange but there’s definitely something there. I definitely don’t think you’ll love it as I don’t really think it’s that kind of show, but hopefully you’ll find something in its more promising second half that’ll interest you. All I can say is, I’m fairly conflicted but I’m glad I saw it and, if season two comes out, I’ll certainly check it out. Take my words for what they're worth and give it a shot.