Aku no Hana is a masterpiece in a medium that has difficulty recognizing artistic perfection unless that greatness exists along pre-established lines. You may have already heard of the show as the one with rotoscoped animation – the show that anime fans by and large decried for being ugly, boring, and too different – too unlike anime. After all, anime have always existed as escapist tales of either over-the-top or nearly meaningless consequence, populated by purposely designed caricatures; Aku no Hana is not that. There seems to be little room in public perception for the medium to evolve out from under the prejudices of the average anime viewer. It is a shame, then, that we must discuss Aku no Hana as a work all but completely ignored when it is easily the most important anime of the decade so far and one of the most important of all time – let alone one of the best.
The story of Aku no Hana concerns a teenage love triangle where no one is in love. Our protagonist, Kasuga, is just another average student with nothing that set him apart from his peers, though he fancies himself an intellectual due to his love of French poetry and philosophy. He is neither like Saeki, the popular star student whom he secretly loves and deifies, nor like Nakamura, the foul-mouthed and emotionally unstable girl whom the class collectively hates. His life is average.
One day, he realizes left behind one of his prized books at school and returns in the late afternoon to retrieve it. The book is a translated version of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, an anthology of poems dealing with moral decadence and perversion as a grotesque yet exciting response to ennui and normalcy. In the moment Kasuga finds his book, a bag containing Saeki’s gym uniform falls off of the classroom shelves and onto the floor. Kasuga gives in to sexual curiosity and removes the uniform from the bag, panics at a noise, and stuffs the clothes under his own, running home in shame. The next day, everyone knows that the uniform has been stolen and Saeki is mortified, but none suspect Kasuga. With her clothes back in his bedroom, Kasuga feels like he has gone past a point of no return, but when Nakamura confronts hims with her knowledge of his secret, Kasuga’s daily life becomes something else entirely.
The plot is an an unassuming one, but it is riveting to watch it play out. Nakamura is unwavering in blackmailing Kasuga, forcing upon him all manner of sadistic demands that result in physical, emotional, and psychological pain. She sees in him a fellow deviant who must be awakened. Saeki, on the other hand, ends up dating Kasuga, with her naiveté about relationships pulling him ever closer while he wrestles with the stabbing guilt he feels over his secret trespass. What’s more, Kasuga’s constant trauma and stress have actually made the choice between Saeki and Nakamura a real one. He desires certain parts of each while they try to redefine the different halves they have seen of him as his whole. It is a love triangle without love, but rather of dependence, desire, selfishness, unfair expectations, and pain.
The subject matter is twisted and the events melodramatic, but possibly the most important reason why the production works lies in how the characters are still undeniably relatable, believable, and human under these extreme circumstances. Nakamura has no easy psychological answer to why she acts the way she does. She is damaged and emotionally hard, but she is also lonely. She is ecstatic about her connection with Kasuga and when not forcing demands upon him, she requests after-school meetings with him, only to talk. Saeki is not simply desperate for a relationship. She is happy that Kasuga likes her, but her confusion about his erratic behavior and his visibly close relationship to Nakamura translates into insecurity and self-blame. Her attempts to guide her first ever relationship back to “normal” take their toll.
Kasuga’s role in the story is paramount and he is neither a pure innocent being tortured nor a closet deviant realizing his true nature. He is but a teenage boy who made an impulsive mistake: the consequences of which led to two intense emotional relationships of a sort he has never experienced, and he loses himself in both. His genuine desire to understand the greatness of Baudelaire is matched with a Holden Caulfield-esque pretension that he is already there, too smart and too ambitious for the town in which he lives. But even as events spiral out of control, his analysis of them along the thematic lines of the art he so admires is piecemeal and naive. He is a confused teenager; they are all confused teenagers and that you can see that, believe that, and relate to that so strongly makes Aku no Hana a tragic drama as good as the best of them.
It’s a powerful story and the aesthetics used to communicate it are just as impressive. Anime should not have to be confined to one style of animation and the rotoscoping of Aku no Hana proves that (though it will be some time before that proof is accepted). Director Hiroshi Nagahama’s choice to make the show in this way places the visuals in a space between live-action and animation that is more effective than either medium on its own. Pure live-action would have necessitated a separation between the real world of the characters and the imagined representations of their fantasies and insecurities. Here, those visions belong to the same reality. After all, such things felt so vividly real to us when we were teenagers. Pure animation would have necessitated a streamlining of character design and movement. Here, the characters are captured with a fidelity that a caricature could not match. The way their faces change and their bodies move are captured with lossless, human transitions. It is surprising every time in a way that a character design could not allow.
Of course, the animation is only one aspect of the show’s aesthetic perfection. Nagahama’s direction is indispensable, faithfully adapting Shuzo Oshimi’s manga while liberally adding his own striking compositions. The series is littered with close-ups as character portraits and lingering shots of emotional turmoil and aftermath defined by suspenseful, nervous movement. It all works to bring the brisk pacing of the manga back down to the slow and purposeful build that the story deserves. The voice actors deliver amazingly naturalistic performances filled with raw emotion, with the post-production leaving intact all sorts of genuine cracks, hesitance, and frustration. This is to say nothing of the filmed actors whose studied physicalities were exactly what they needed to be. Further analysis could go into depth about the gorgeous backgrounds, the subtle ambient drone score, the pitch perfect dialogue, or even the show’s ending theme: a haunting and disjointed piece of experimental electronic music that encroaches into the final moments of every episode, oozing dread. Everything works.
Anime is a medium still defined by safety and cliché. I would argue that it has yet to hit its golden age – a period that other popular media have already had – when actual innovations and risks are celebrated instead of snubbed. Without spoiling anything, one of the defining scenes of Aku no Hana is an act of vandalism that comes at a crucial junction between two characters. A choice is made and it is expressed in violent destruction. It is an act so far removed from physical sex, but for these two characters it might as well be that, and everything of that scene is a conscious choice to communicate that complicated idea. I look forward to the day when the medium will allow another such masterpiece to exist and when scenes such as that one come around more often than nearly never. Until that time comes, may we never forget Aku no Hana.
Like in pretty much any show, the Flowers of Evil were judged by most, based on how they looked, instead of what they actually were. The anime community was divided into those who hated it because it doesn’t have the exact same artwork as the source material, thus it’s bad, and to those who loved it for the exact same reason, because it was avant garde. And of course close to nobody bothered to look past the pretty colours to see if there is anything else besides that. Stay classy you tasteless casuals.
If you ask me, I say it is both ugly and artistic. On one hand, the budget is clearly low, making it look crude and not good fapping material for the otakus. On the other hand, it is unorthodox, experimental, and different. Both of these impressions are the result of rotorscoping, a technique no longer used much, since it takes way too much time to look nice compared to android animation. They didn’t give enough frames per second or detailed enough body structure, so the result feels very crude. The motions are jerky, and the characters don’t have faces or lightening when they are a few meters away from the camera. This makes them look bizarre, especially next to the backgrounds which remain fairly detailed and full of textures.
Nonetheless, exactly because rotorscoping is very rare, it gives the show a special feel. If you are fed up with all those overused anime-style characters and their copy-pasted into infinity school grounds, then chances are you are going to embrace this artwork as a breath of fresh air. I mean, they could have simply used the bland artstyle of the manga, the result of which would be an anime nobody would notice or care about. By not doing that, it created an enormous amount of buzz, and became rather famous.
SCRIPT & CAST
But what does fame or animation style even mean in the longrun if theme exploration, characters and writing are garbage? When it comes to those elements, I found the show interesting but not developed. There is emphasis on the twisted mentality of the characters but it’s not going anywhere in specific, so by the end of the day it feels like deviance for the sake of deviance, with very little of anything else. It makes it focused, but also one-note.
I appreciate the effort to deal with the issues of disturbed teenagers and trying to make something more other than yet another fan service oriented school comedy. It feels like a psychological thriller at times, but saying all that stuff led to something, would be a lie. Despite the characters SEEMINGLY acting far more realistic and plausible than your average school harem, they are still pretty simple and hard to take seriously. Especially the teen idol girl which is pure hearted to the point of stupidity, falling in love with the introvert loser protagonist for no real reason, and constantly forgiving him despite everything he did to her. And despite the various scenes where the characters are hallucinating, or completely lose themselves in rage and frustration, nothing really comes out of it.
I can’t even say I cared about any of them either; they were so simple in character and bland in behaviour that I was given no reason to bother remembering them. And no, reading books or reciting poems is not depth of character. The only things I still fondly remember are the artistic overtones, the ending song, and the scene where they vandalize the school. Everything else is just a vague memory by now. What does that mean? If you have a show where you only remember one song, the art, and one scene, then you know there isn’t much content in it. The plot also uses the age-old trick of resetting progress after every event, and making everyone to act like they are too blind in figuring out who is responsible, or too stupid for doing the obvious.
The show also ends incomplete, so you don’t even get closure. Thus the whole thing becomes once again an excuse for advertising the source material. That’s right people, the anime is just a sample, go read the manga, only to realize it is also not going anywhere as well.
In all, the Flowers of Evil try to be different and more mature than your run of the mill ecchi school comedy, by trapping you in a constant feeling of disgust and regret. It is still nowhere near great, and the small fanbase the show has are blowing its content out of proportion. If it had a faster plot, no character resets, closure, and the atmosphere was like episodes 7 and 8 all the time, I would consider it an amazing watch. But because it isn’t, I end up remembering mostly as an ugly looking piece of low budget art.
I didn't love this anime. To me there just seemed to be no point in the story or for the characters' interactions. I didn't understand why any of the events that happened did. If it had been longer than 13 episodes I would have dropped it.
The music and background noise was good at creating an unsettled, almost creepy atmosphere which was certainly part of the series. Although I don't really think it's fair to vote on the animation style, I wasn't impressed by this one.
Overall I didn't really enjoy it and I wouldn't recommend it if you have another, more pressing series on your list to watch instead.
Aku no Hana is certainly not for everyone. It's different, both visually and in content: it's not an anime that makes you feel happy or good about yourself, no escapism at all here. You don't watch it for the fun of it; it took me a good three weeks to finish it, I couldn't watch more than two episodes at a time. It's a psychological anime with a dark atmosphere and bucketfuls of tension. I honestly think it's quite perfect. And not because I particularly liked the story or the characters, and not only because it's different from your standard anime set in a school with clichèd characters, banal dialogues and a storyline we've seen repeated infinite times with little variation. What I really appreciated about it is that it makes clear that anime is an artistic medium to express feelings - very intense feelings, in this case.
The story is about Kasuga, an average middle school student, who likes to think of himself as being different and superior to his peers because he loves reading difficult books like Baudelaire's Le fleurs du Mal. It's quite a common attitude in teenagers, you need something that can differentiate you from others, you need to feel special and different and better. He has a long-standing crush on his classmate Saeki whom he sees as an unattainable muse. One afternoon after school, having forgotten his book, he goes back to the classroom and realises that Saeki forgot her gym clothes. So he can't resist the urge to take them. But Nakamura, another classmate of his, a weird girl in full-swing rebellious phase, foul-mouthed and seeping hatred and anger from every pore, sees him. And so the story is set in motion, with Nakamura blackmailing Kasuga in doing all sorts of perverted things in order to "tear down his walls" and prove that he is a "deviant" just like her. In the mean time, Kasuga manages somehow to confess his feelings to Saeki who, surprisingly, accepts them. The story then starts to escalate, with Nakamura forcing on Kasuga her own beliefs, Kasuga putting up just a pretense of resistance and Saeki trying to sever his tie with Nakamura and draw him to her. It's clear that Nakamura and Saeki symbolise opposite worlds, Nakamura representing all that is forbidden, dark and sexual, the destructive urge and the rebellion to authority, as well as the aspiration to freedom and knowledge; while Saeki is the lumionous, kind, pure-hearted girl who just wants a normal life within the boundaries of what is commonly accepted as good and proper. And Kasuga is in the middle, the object of this power struggle between the two, divided between the two different ways in which he sees himself. It seems a love-triangle, but in reality it's not at all. There's little love involved. They're all using each other to establish their own identity.
I was also intrigued by the background, this town where everything looks old and rusty, with weeds creeping out from cracks in the pavement, surrounded by hills that seem to isolate it from the rest of the world. Nakamura has the strong desire to see what's beyond the hills, she wants to break the shell, she finds everything and everyone in her home town "boring". Is there really nothing beyond those mountains? Can they really never escape? We don't know, because the story doesn't end. There was probably supposed to be a second series, but it didn't happen.
Being a psychological anime, it's all about the characters. They're not very likeable, eccept maybe for Saeki. She surprised me in showing a resolve I didn't think her character would have. She really did put up a fight for Kasuga and she was willing to accept him and not brand him as a "hentai" as Nakamura was dying to see her do. But Kasuga, in a moment of honesty, admits that he just isn't capable of reconciling the "angel" image of Saeki he had been cultivating in his mind for so long with the real blood and flesh girl who wants to be his girlfriend. As for Kasuga, he's a typical confused teenager. Nakamura turns his world upside down, makes him doubt everything he thought he knew about himself. He feels guilt for stealing Saeki's clothes, he's scared of Nakamura, he does a lot of crying and trembling and sweating and stammering, but he never openly rebels to her, he accepts what she forces on him and goes back to her looking for more. And finally there's Nakamura herself, she's angry, furious sometimes, she hates her family, her town, her classmates, she rejects everything. She thinks of herself as a deviant and when she sees Kasuga stealing Saeki's clothes, she's overjoyed because she thinks she's finally found someone like her. Anyway, to cut a long story short, it's all about the psychological relationship between Nakamura and Kasuga. The focus is on personal identity, how it is defined, how other people's perception affects it in the contest of a teenager's clash against society. More than once Kasuga chickens out and states that he's empty, that there's nothing to him; Saeki desperately tries to understand him; Nakamura decides that he's like her and forces on him her own feelings. In the end, he seems unable to establish his own unique personality and gets himself into a situation where he has to choose one of the girls.
The animation is different. I have to admit that initially I wasn't fond of it. But it grew on me and I ended up really appreciating it. It's the rotoscope technique, whereby the animators trace over live action film movements on each frame to reproduce realistic images. I think initially I was disturbed because it's so unlike the normal animation style that I am used to. But it's refreshing. The characters look like real Japanese people and towards the end I was thinking that this animation style is actually better at communicating expressions than the completely unrealistic usual one where the characters have huge starry eyes, small lips, inexistant noses and shiny weird coloured hair. The backgrounds are nice and detailed. I loved the silences. There are quite a few long scenes dominated by silence, which is sometimes more expressive than a thousand words.
Voice-acting is really good. As for the soundtrack, I found it fitting and suited to the story. It helps a lot in conveying that creepy, dark feeling of suspense and psychological tension.
I'm aware that many people think the animation style ugly and the story dull and slow-paced to say the least. But I don't agree. I think it's a very effective, dark and disturbing portrait of teenager struggle for personal identity.
An otherwise boring high school boy, Kasuga, is tempted by the left-behind gym clothes of his crush. Startled by a noise as he picks them up, he runs off, only to find that he has inadvertantly stolen them. Terrified, he hides them at home. Shortly thereafter, he finds out that Nakamura, a rebellious member of his class, saw him steal them. Using his secret as leverage, she blackmails him into a "contract," though what it is or what she wants remains ambiguous until the end of the series.
Story: Basically involves Nakamura continuing to be a busybody, Kasuga trying to normally date the girl whose gym clothes he stole, and other dramatic events. The story is heavy with themes of guilt, conformity/rebellion, the awkwardness of being a teenager, depression, and the face-saving behaviors Japanese people engage in, including sweeping your own emotions under the rug and maintaining your facade. It's almost a Japanese Catcher in the Rye, and what I really liked about it was its realism.
Animation & Sound: I thought the voice acting was top notch. This is real Japanese language, not the cartoony voices you'll find in most other shows.
The animation technique used is rotoscoping. People seem to love it or hate it. The backgrounds and character designs were extremely realistic, which, again, I think fit the themes of the show.
Characters: It's hard to cheer for any of them, and the story really brings out their flaws, rather than their good qualities. Personally, I think that's just the way a good story should go: the characters keep falling prey to their own weaknesses, insecurities, and habitual bad decisions. I also loved that Nakamura was so hard to figure out; I never knew what she was going to do next or what was really running through her head.
Overall: Really meaty themes, highly unusual and realistic art, excellent voice acting, and fascinatingly human characters.
Aku no Hana is not a happy show, and is probably not for everyone. If you liked Catcher in the Rye or A Dead Poet's Society, I'd highly recommend Aku no Hana to you. If you don't know much about Japanese culture, don't like the rotoscoping technique, or find depressed teenagers overly melodramatic, this might not be a good watch for you.