Flowers of Evil is an ugly anime. Aesthetically, it is offputting, and thematically it is rotten to the core. In a way, it is a kind of anti-anime. A large part of the draw of anime to many of its fans is as a form of escapism – many, many series place their emphasis on creating a fantasy for the viewer, where ideals and characters are pure, insulated from the drudge and dirt of reality. It’s the source of the popular “2D vs 3D” debate, and readily apparent in a number of the medium’s favorite tropes, perhaps most presently visible in the stream of adaptations of seemingly identical light novels. Aku no Hana’s goal, meanwhile, is to identify and tear down fantasy, to tear away the walls of isolating idealism around it and expose the unsightly, ugly reality behind them.
Now there is nothing wrong with enjoying a fantasy – my biggest beef with light novel adaptations is not the fantasies themselves so much as the tendency to prioritize them over the more interesting or meaningful elements introduced by the story. But what is important to keep in mind while doing so is that it is, in fact, a fantasy, and that expecting it to apply outside of the insulated environment of the show is, well… silly. Aku no Hana, in its early episodes, has set out to examine how fragile that environment is, and to explore just how unsettling some of anime’s favorite fantasies actually are once that layer of cartoon abstraction is peeled away. That is not to say that Aku no Hana is realistic – quite contrarily, a lot of the situations the series sets up are pretty ridiculous – but the way in which it is unrealistic is very careful and calculated. It deliberately lines itself up to fall smack in the middle of the uncanny valley – at just the point in the crossroads between the 2D and the 3D, so to speak, that it can most effectively illuminate the contrast between the two.
While the manga has always dealt with these themes, it is interesting to note how the changes the anime has made allow it to tell the same story and present those same ideas through a completely different method of delivery – its unusual aesthetic presentation.
The Haunting Drone of Emptiness
While it was the Aku no Hana’s use of rotoscoped animation that caused the biggest uproar in the fandom, the real star of the show here is the sound direction. While the manga, lacking the ability to produce sound, relied solely on its visuals to generate unease, the anime has made use of a minimalist, ambient musical score to marvelous effect. What would otherwise be a normal, daily occurrence in Anime High School gains a menacing undertone as the relentless hum hovers like a specter over the scene. A situation that would normally be played for laughs has the playfulness sucked out by the empty void of the background drone. The very air in these scenes feels very heavy and unnatural. It feels almost like an almost Lynchian approach to anime, betraying a sinister side to the apparent normalcy that makes it seem not quite so normal.
Imagine if Moe High School Anime XYZ was done like this
Interestingly, for the actual director of the show, Aku no Hana seems to be a sort of middle ground between his two previous works of note. Hiroshi Nagahama has previously directed Mushishi and Detroit Metal City, two shows that probably could not be more different from each other. From the content side, it resembles the exaggerated depravity of DMC, but the sparse soundtrack gives it the atmospheric, deliberate tone of a more introspective show like Mushishi. Having dealt with both the depraved and the moody, Nagahama puts the pieces together in a way that effectively draws out the uncomfortable side of these characters’ adolescent experience.
One of the most prevalent fantasies of anime is a fascination with and idealization of the teenage years, and it is that fantasy which the music of Aku no Hana most directly confronts. In reality, adolescence is a very uncomfortable time, full of awkward feelings as one undergoes the uncertain transition from a child to an adult. It is a time when you misunderstand and are misunderstood, and a time where the weight of the world slowly begins to lower itself onto your shoulders. It is that weight, and that discomfort, which is thrown aside in the fantasy of Anime High School, and in their place the conflicting teenage desires to be “special” and “normal” are both reaffirmed. Aku no Hana takes place in that same Anime High School, but replaces the cheery background music with its unsettling ambiance. It puts the weight back, it puts the discomfort back, and it aids what the manga started in its portrayal of Kasuga’s adolescent experience.
In, say, a harem comedy, Kasuga stealing Saeki’s gym clothes, and later trying to dispose of them, would be a scene played for laughs: “Oh he is SO perverted!” the show would tell us with a knowing wink. “What a hilariously unfortunate situation! He just CAN’T get rid of these things!” as the upbeat, wacky music accents his frantic run around town, his helplessness a comedy of errors. The strip scene would be a series of comedically overplayed “Kya~”s and probably the result of a harmless misunderstanding from an aloof haremette. But here, the sinister atmosphere provided by the sound puts forth feelings of desperation and confusion in place of absurdity, while the flow of the story has placed the emphasis in these scenes on intent. “What if,” the show asks, “this wasn’t just a cartoony joke?” What if a situation like this were to happen in an environment free of the insulating walls of safety and purity that anime tends to offer? What sorts of feelings does this fantasy really imply? It makes the viewer take a step back and look at what’s actually going on. What their fantasy really is. It’s pretty clever, actually – not only does it bring to the forefront the things we readily accept about anime and question why we accept them, but in putting forward such questioning, it forces the viewer to experience the same uncertainty – the discomfort, the self-doubt – that Kasuga is feeling on his trip through pubertyland.
And of course, all of this is failing to mention the absolutely perfect ED song that disturbingly and antimelodically fades in as each episode draws to a close.
3D in 2D: Fantasy and Reality Through the Rotoscopic Lens
As was briefly mentioned in the beginning of the previous section, it was Aku no Hana’s unusual approach to animation that was its most striking aspect – it was the visual style which caused the most controversy surrounding the show. It is certainly a more immediately noticeable departure from the manga, and from the rest of anime as a whole, and is primarily what comes to mind when it is mentioned how “ugly” the show is.
After this whole mess surrounding the show, there probably isn’t an anime fan out there who hasn’t heard and become sick of the word “rotoscope” – an animation style in which live-action footage is recorded and then traced frame by frame to create an animated reproduction of the scene. It is probably the factor that has turned off the most viewers – especially fans of the manga – to the show. Admittedly, the rotoscope job is pretty cheaply done – there are clearly budget constraints here, probably compounded by a likely lack of experience with the technique. It very clearly falls apart at times, with a massive loss of detail in many scenes – including the oft-cited “disappearing faces” problem – that makes the show look very muddy and unfinished at times, and can make some scenes look unintentionally funny.
Having picked up and read a good deal of the manga after watching the first couple episodes, I can mostly agree that I think I would have preferred a style more similar to that one. In particular, I would have liked to see a heavier use – like the manga had – of deep shadows and high contrast to set the tone, rather than the more natural-looking colors we do have. And for a show that was willing to go the extra mile and use rotoscope in the first place, I would like to see more flourishes added to the original footage beyond a simple trace, such as the unsteady backdrops and added-in animated touches of the movie Waking Life. Not to nearly the extreme of Waking Life, of course – it doesn’t share the film’s topic of dreams, but a little extra would be nice. Perhaps even some of the visual highlights common throughout more traditional anime? I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’d like to see Aku no Hana take more advantage of the fact that it is animated, and not simply a live-action show with a colorful filter.
All that said, I do appreciate what the unusual style has done for this anime, and can easily see why the author of the manga agreed to it. It fits the show very well thematically in how far it tries to distance itself from other anime, irrespective of how well the actual rotoscope job was done. On a purely technical level, it make scenes like the strip scene even possible to animate – this would have been an extremely difficult bit of animation to pull off, especially on Aku no Hana’s clearly-lacking budget. In addition, where a traditionally-animated series would make more use of still frames with its characters to save money, the fact that it’s traced from live-action footage allows for the capture of more motion, and more subtle motion – a level of body language usually not seen in TV anime outside the work of Kyoto Animation, which adds another dimension to the way the characters can express themselves.
Speaking of dimensions, the use of rotoscope twists the idea of dimensions in a sense very befitting of the anime’s primary themes. Rotoscope occupies in a unique place in the world of film styles, holding a position halfway between the “pure” 2D of animation and the “pig disgusting” 3D of live action. It is, in fact, the perfect visual representation of Aku no Hana’s exploration of the disparity between fantasy and reality, as that is ultimately what the 2D/3D divide represents to the anime fandom.
It’s interesting to specifically note, as Landon has in his excellent post on the first episode, that the tracings of the characters’ faces are done in a way that seems to very much resemble anime character designs:
“In the rotoscoping process, they pick and choose what gets drawn and what details are left out. The way the faces are drawn pretty much mimics the style of normal anime characters: pronounced eyes, small mouth, plenty of empty space, and the absence of a nose. You take those particular design choices and you get your average anime girl facial design, but if you apply them to something a bit more realistic in design and you get faces that look like the plastered-on faces from fucking Annoying Orange.”
It’s a more literal representation of the “don’t mix 2D and 3D” sentiment – anime characters are a layer removed from reality, and trying to apply their carefully-designed unnaturality to the natural human form results in a grotesque end product. Just as the anime-like features of 2D cannot mix with the human-like features of 3D, the purity and fantasy of 2D cannot mesh with the reality of the 3D world. Visually, Aku no Hana’s anime adaptation is a direct confrontation against the traditional “anime” style that calls out the anime fantasy as the fantasy that it is.
Of course, the visual style’s gleeful mixing of “2D” fantasy and “3D” reality plays into the story just as well as the metastory. For example, it exposes Kasuga’s idealization of Saeki as his “muse.” He does not know Saeki the person, not for who she is. He know her for what he imagines her to be. She is a fantasy to him. It’s to such a degree that he idolizes her that he doesn’t even really want to talk to her, for fear that the real Saeki does not match up with his own conjured-up image of her. A portion of Kasuga’s unease arises from this internal clash, which we see represented in the animation as something which is not quite an anime character, and not quite a real person.
Kasuga has previously defined himself by the books he’s read, something which is very directly fiction. Over the course of the story, he is slowly learning to express himself more directly, how to recognize the reality of himself as separated from his fantasies of his beloved Baudelaire. It is a transition symbolic not only of his transition through puberty, but also of the disconnect we as fans must have faced and accepted in order to appreciate the anime medium as we do. It is intentionally provocative, especially to those who have not yet come to terms with their fantasies, in that it unabashedly dances through the forbidden ground of the fandom. It was clearly intended to drive away those unwilling to join Kasuga on his quest to uncover the darker, more perverse side of himself and his muse.
But if you’re willing to take the plunge, then pull on that stolen gym uniform and enjoy a date as revealingly intriguing as it is deliciously messed up.