Summary (from Crunchyroll) A young man is a shut-in, with nothing to do but kill time. The sole pleasure in his life is following home an angelic high school girl he sees every day in a convenience store. Today, like any other day, he follows her, but… Shuzo Oshimi, the creator of Drifting Net Café and Flowers of Evil, continues to open hidden doors of the heart in this monthly serialized story!
Review (so far) The Flowers of Evil (Aku no Hana), one of the most uncompromising stories to be committed to both manga and anime in recent memory, enthralled me because it took teenage melodrama so seriously: that is, in all its ridiculousness and self-dramatization to the point of serious cringe. There was nothing noble or romantic about Kasuga’s self-loathing or repressed sexuality, or Nakamura’s sadistic nonconformity: it was what it was, ugly and fascinating at once.
Inside Mari, a more recent title by Flower’s manga artist Shuzo Oshimi, continues the tradition, and not from a completely unrelated angle. Inside Mari tells the story of a hikkikomori named Isao Komori, who has been stalking a local high school student named Mari at a nearby convenience store. One day, he finds himself awake in a strange bed, and in a strange body, of the opposite sex…Mari’s body. Now Isao/Mari has to navigate school life, as a girl, all the while pretending to everyone that Mari is still Mari even though Isao has no idea how to be a woman.
This is not a new concept, of course, as it’s been treated both comedically and semi-seriously in other anime and manga stories, and often with dollops of melodrama on top. (cough*Kokoro Connect*cough) What is different, and refreshing, about this take is how it is introduced, and how Oshimi dramatically complicates the situation over time. The first volume and half makes it appear that Isao is experiencing a bit of a morality play: you have objectified and lusted after this high school girl, now you get to see what it feels like to be one, and it’s not so fun! For example: one of the very first things Isao/Mari becomes aware of is how men check her out all the time, a glance here and a glance there. This is on top of now possessing those body parts that he had previously so lusted after and not knowing quite what to do with them…and that’s before the period begins. (Quite graphically, too: the reader is not spared the pain and messiness of the experience.) An explicit critique of the “male gaze” is very much in operation here, much like Kasuga’s actions served as a critique of the standard manga/anime “nice guy” who thinks he’s pure and romantic. Instead of an external catalyst like Nakamura to prod him into another mindset, though, he literally must walk in another person’s shoes, to see an experience foreign to his insulated ways.
The story would be worthy enough, though simplistic, if it had been left at that. But Oshimi goes further, in an apparent (not, as of this writing, 100% confirmed) twist that turns the tables on what the apparent “moral” of the story is and how we understand the characters of both Isao and Mari. Mari is not completely all together, in the tradition not so much of Oshimi’s Nakamura, but of Saeki, whose twistedness was explored much more in the manga than the anime was able to show. Like Saeki, Mari has a near-perfect exterior that masks much pain and possibly instability. That facade, due to Isao living inside of her, is painfully and ruthlessly torn down, and the poignance of watching her social relations unravel is hard to watch sometimes. At that point, the boundaries begin to blur and the reader wonders just who these people are, and how much of what we call friendship and civility is really held together by pretense and hiding. If my theory about what is going is correct, what we have is a challenge to the whole notion of identity itself, whether it’s based on gender, social standing, or otherwise. Who is Mari? Who is Isao?
Identity crises are classically adolescent, and Oshimi is a rare talent that explores just how dark and confusing they can be. Inside Mari, barring a disappointing finale or revelation, furthers his oeuvre of hurting and desperate youth who can’t seem to stop wondering who they are, who they belong with, and what life means when you can’t seem to feel at home anywhere.
Inside Mari is available on Crunchyroll Manga. It is recommended for mature readers as it contains some explicit nudity, though it is necessary for the storytelling.
For those of us whose first exposure to Aku no Hana/The Flowers of Evil was the odd, willfully different anime adaptation, this bravura scene–which occurred in Episode 7–seemed to have come out of nowhere. In a show that, at first, seemed to revel in its aggressive “ugliness,” as well as willful slowness, the final five minutes was an explosion of orgasmic ink, charged with the release of all of Kasuga’s pent up sexuality, resentment, and anger–while Nakamura dances in ecstasy. The odd and foreboding ED, when slowed down and with string backing, took on a surprising majesty. As Kasuga and Nakamura paint the classroom black, one senses that what they are experiencing–and what the audience is experiencing with them–is nothing less than the true meaning of catharsis: a purgation or purification of emotion. (It was so overwhelming, it’s no wonder that the subsequent episode spent minutes just depicting them walking home together, as if to recover from such an explosion.)
After the first episode, I challenged the creators of the anime to justify the rotoscoping and the offbeat character designs with content to match. The depiction of this moment, as well as some other scenes of high drama later on, fully met that challenge. Aku no Hana became one of the most searing depictions of both the ridiculousness and the depth of teenage angst in anime. Real angst, not the manufactured kind of most shows. Sadly, it is not likely to continue and adapt the remainder of the manga, which takes even more bold turns that are only hinted at in the final episode’s close, given its low sales figures. But like Kare Kano, even the fragment that was left is a thing of beauty, albeit a twisted and incomplete one. That such a show is even made today is a wonder.
Shizuka, our photographer, attended and recorded Hiroshi Nagahama’s fan panel at Animazement 2013. Nagahama directed Mushi-shi, Detroit Metal City and most recently Aku no Hana (The Flowers of Evil). The pivotal seventh episode of Aku no Hana was shown near the beginning of the panel.
This transcript is translated directly from Nagahama’s remarks from the Japanese by Rome, and edited for clarity by gendomike.
The panel begins as Nagahama walks up on stage. He points to his shirt and points out that he’s cosplaying Iron Man 3 (see picture above). Then he sits down.
Nagahama: I am currently working on the new anime Aku no Hana (The Flowers of Evil). What do you think of it?
The audience agrees that it is a ‘masterpiece.’
Nagahama: Really? In Japan, people got freaked out when we used rotoscoping, and [the technique] became controversial, a hot topic. We didn’t expect that….On the internet, it was huge, but we didn’t plot [the response]. The original is a manga, but I thought it would be the best to use rotoscoping for the adaptation.
If you guys want, I can show you the latest episode, episode 7 Have you seen it? It just got aired in Japan.
Most of the audience indicates that it has already seen the episode.
You’ve already seen it? But they weren’t any subtitles, so you can’t understand it. But the latter part is only music and pictures, so I hope you may get that part, at least.
Nagahama: I read the original manga thoroughly, and I thought that the feeling from its artwork was actually more real and vivid than the manga artist had depicted. It felt very close to how we are. Living in reality, you see and feel a tactile sensation, and I wanted to evoke that feeling of real life as closely as possible. So my only choice was rotoscoping.
Q: What are some of the differences between traditional animation and rotoscoping?
Nagahama: It took three and half months to shoot the live action scenes that the rotoscoping is based on, but the actual time to animate was about a month. Live action and animation production are not really that different, though it did take twice as long to edit. To me, making anime like my previous works, Mushishi and Detroit Metal City, used exactly the same techniques. The way you adapt the original work didn’t change a bit: you read the manga thoroughly, and you make the anime that perfectly fits the original manga.
(Our Question): Your works tend to dwell on the hidden side of people or the world. Is this a theme that you are drawn to, or did it just end up that way?
Nagahama: Both. I love American comics: X-Men vs. Magneto, Spiderman vs. Venom, Iron Man—and one of them is an alcoholic, what a secret! I was interested in them from my early days. Everyone knows that American comics have characters with a dark side. And Star Wars, of course: having a dark side is part of being a human being, and I’m interested in that.
Q: If goal was realism, why rotoscoping, and not live action?
Nagahama: If you make it live action, then you will notice and tend to fixate on the real human actor projected on screen. For example, Iron Man: I love the Iron Man movie, I really love it, but when it was made into a live action film, there is a risk. In the film Tony Stark doesn’t really exist—more accurately, it wasn’t Tony Stark but Tony Stark as played by Robert Downey Jr. And people will think that Tony Stark as played by Robert Downey Jr. is really cool. But Tony Stark doesn’t really exist anywhere in the world except in a comic book, which can only really appear in motion pictures as animation. But in the case of an animated Tony Stark, it requires a high level of skill to connect the animated world to our own, and there will always be a gap between its world and ours.
So in order to connect the animated world to ours, we have to choose something in between: something that is not anime and also not live action. That is why we did the rotoscoping this time. If someone asks whether rotoscoping is the best choice, we wouldn’t know. But we try rotoscoping first anyway, then we think, and that’s the case. Does that make sense?
Q: Did you expect to get backlash to episode 1?
Nagahama: I knew there would be criticism because we chose the method that we did. Even if this rotoscoping was accused of being creepy, it’s way better than if the audience didn’t feel anything. Tor example, this aired on TV: so if you turn on the TV at midnight, you can watch this show and see that this anime is so different from the usual anime. So it’s creepy. But 5 years from now, if this anime is still sold, you’ll see it and think, “oh this is that creepy anime, maybe I should give a try.” And then you’ll watch it, and if you discover something new from that, I would be happy.
There are so many anime in Japan, and most of them fail to leave any lasting impression. I didn’t want my anime to be just another show, and I didn’t want to treat the original work that way. That’s how I felt.
Q: How did you develop your own personal directing style?
Nagahama: well, I don’t have my own style until I actually start work on it. Why was Mushi-shi unique? Because Mushi-shi’s original manga is unique. Same with Detroit Metal City and Aku no Hana as well. Because the original mangas are so distinctive, the motion picture will be distinctive. Thus the original manga determines the direction of my artistic method. If I ever did Mushishi again, it would be in the same style, I won’t make it rotoscoped. (Laughs.)
Q: I was just wondering, how you pick your projects? What do you search for to find what to work on?
Nagahama: I really wanted to do Mushi-shi, so I begged them to let me do it, and I could die happily if I did it. But I’m still alive even after Mushi-shi, so that means I can’t accept death. As for Detroit Metal City, I refused at first. But then a different idea popped up in me, so I animated that too. Aku no Hana was the same.
So I did only two types of work: one I really wanted to do, or ones I refused at first but but did anyway. And I think it will be like that in the future.
Q (by Omo): The stuffed animal [on the bed] from episode 7 – is that actually the voice actor’s rotoscoped bear? (It resembles one from another anime.) Also was the hair rotoscoped [in the end credits with the manga-ka, Oshimi]?
Nagahama: Really? these dolls were of the actress that played Saeki, Yuriko Mishina, so I made her bring her own dolls. And the doll had very long limbs, like Jason, so I folded it and tied it and put it there. But as a result, I reckon it resembled Gooter.
As for [Oshimi’s] hair, this is the first time I was asked that question both in Japan and the USA! Everyone asks about the rotoscoping because it leaves such a strong impression. So, to tell you the truth, that end credit self-portait was in the original manga and I drew it myself: I traced and made the original picture for the animation. I used different material for the hair and made it move. Most of Aku no Hana is of course animated in the opposite way, but for the end card I had actually wanted to do it in Flash, almost as a symbol of this anime. But no one could do a Flash animation, so I made them animate the hair in a Flash-like style. That gave it a weird atmosphere, and the picture that come out made me say, ummmm.
Q: The soundtrack and animation create a very unique atmosphere. How did you want the viewer to feel through that?
Nagahama: Atmosphere? That’s difficult to answer. Mushiishi was the same and this time Aku No Hana is the same.
It’s like when you meet a new person for the first time: you are going to see that person’s mannerisms, hairstyle, fashion style, the visual information that comes in first. Then you talk to that person, and you hear that his voice is deep and warm, and talks fast, or slow. Then the words themselves come in: oh he’s interested in those things, oh, he doesn’t click with me, or oh, this person has a common interest.
…If you get lazy with your own work, or if you let your guard down, it’s like meeting a new person and thinking, “oh, I’ve met this person before!” “Oh, this person is just like that other guy.” You have a preconception that “oh, this person mostly doesn’t like this” or “I don’t really like this type of person.” [Analogously], you think that a given work is going to be easy to pigeonhole, and I don’t want that to happen. Just like when you meet a stranger for the first time and you wonder what kind of person it is, I want have the audience to have the same curiosity and take interest in my work.
Let’s say you go to an anime convention, and you like Gundam, but everyone else is cosplaying Naruto. They only talk about Naruto, they only like Naruto. So then you cosplay with Naruto’s headband on your head, but wear a robot suit over the rest of your body. They are like, “Who the hell is this guy?” Or “which one do you actually like? Naruto or Gundam?” You might say “I like both Naruto and Gundam,” or “I don’t know any of this, but it’s my first time cosplaying, so I did it in this strange way.”
You have to grab their interest before they can like it. Maybe you can’t go in to a group that is devoted to perfect Naruto cosplay saying that you like Gundam. But if you are a little off, or not clear, getting “sorry, I don’t quite get that, so what are you?” can evoke that kind of atmosphere, but if that strangeness goes too far, then no one will come to you. They get the impression “Oh wow, scary, what is that person? Why is that person dressing up so weird?” Then no one would touch you. But it’s not like that: you co-exist within the same animation, so I don’t want to make my anime like a person you’ve already met, or treated in that manner.
So I am going to make more anime in a similar style. But, this work that I’m intending to do, if this is going to be fulfilled, some interesting works will be put in motion. If you guys can wait for that, I will be happy. and like Aku No Hana, it’s not like that I’m only taking this direction with cute girls, and indeed I get a lot of offers of that type of anime, but right now as far as timing concern, I can’t do it.
I’m really happy to hear the feedback, and also answer your questions.
And so with self-expulsion comes long-sought intention. Flirtation with the unfamiliar, and an attraction to all things id. What can be perceived as broken and dangerous to some, just might be liberation for others. Finally caught up with the misadventures of Takao & Nakamura when matters became abundantly transparent that the entire series has in fact revolved around a very simple concern that plagues many a creative talent; whether the work is endemic to a continuing, organic process, or merely additional fodder for mass consumption. (and that high school life itself can be seen as a working analogue for this) A merging of form and function is at the center of this affair, and it has little to do with maintaining a vanilla existence – which is often everything that anime safely represents ad-infinitum.
While over the course of several weeks already, we have seen our lead character’s indiscretion become something of a spark for all manner of internal conflict. From the onset, we are privy to his bookish nature, his curiosity for the darker corners of life’s domain. And yet we are also allowed to understand his need to be embedded within the collective in some manner, no matter how slight in his adoration of Saeki, a classmate with which he cannot help but feel represents something of a sanctuary in a world he sees rotting from all corners. How funny it all is when the caustically antisocial Nakamura enters his life, and sees Takao as some form of externalizing force for her rage, something far more volatile than his own concerns. How strange it is then, that the show has done quite a spirited job at offering attractive glimpses at both roads Takao can choose for himself. Saeki (and in turn, his mother) representing a domestic world packed with sincerity amongst so much data defect, and conformity. Whereas Nakamura is an unwitting emissary of a much-required deviation from this world. A kindred which is using a bevy on repressed angst, and emotion to whatever end. While both have their respective dangers, they also carry with them some manner of very real desires, ever at conflict with one another.
There also seems to be an unspoken choice which is implied by his subsequent actions throughout the story that is never verbalized, and yet seems on the edge of virtually every rash decision; that expression manifests as it will, whether the bearer of such feelings recognize them or not. That the outlet of art is often one of compulsion, and not as much a matter of practicality.
A facsimile versus an authentic portrait. A photograph, or a personally nuanced drawing? This is where Aku No Hana resides as of episode 10. In this series, form and function are paramount, and as our leads struggle to best grasp what it is they truly wish for, while it won’t always be pretty, it is perhaps in the name of all that it is to be young that it be as ungraceful as humanly possible. Even when one wishes to look away, there is something undeniably true about a collective sigh versus a scream. And even when a reviewer cannot agree with the choices of a character, there is also an implicit understanding of life within certain guidelines that occasionally requires aberrant types to balance out the larger equations.
Many of my own personal inspirations have opined that the creative impulse is something embedded within all of us, yet not all of us feel it knocking as loudly as it does with others. Pop music icon, Bjork once even stated that her shifts in musical tone have been so not because of some need for her work to be impenetrable, but because of a deeply rooted compulsion to do so. That these things spring forth as they will, and WILL manifest one way or another. It becomes less a matter of economics as it is one of lava that is primed to escape the crust, ever closer to bursting. That a minor few find themselves in this predicament, often very early in life, and is often something that mainstream society isn’t willing to accept, or is adamant about stamping out. The Takaos and Nakamuras of the world, for all their unspoken pains, have a need to produce, to quantify and expose their findings, society be damned. And while they flirt endlessly with ideas that are on a surface misanthropic and strange, could the alternative provide a reasonable, honest equivalent?
A nasty paradox..
While so many detractors have complained regarding the show’s presentation and pace, it is with a happy heart that I look at views such as this with fondness, as if I once knew a time when such feelings were as natural as breathing. To be confronted with something this stark, this honest, it is often the last thing many fan-types find themselves either interested in, or willing to submit themselves to. This series demands to be seen on its own terms, and that in and of itself is worth shouting about. The choices are more than clear at this point, and to imagine that we have a show like this airing right now is akin to a miracle. It simply shouldn’t be happening – and that..is invigorating.
That triumph. By which I mean, the triumph of women over men. Nakamura-san annuls the contract which should have caused Kasuga to scream in joy like MLM making skinship with Kana-chan a reality. Instead he is devastated. His expression, his defeated, no, relinquished spirit as he kneels pathetically on the classroom floor cements his submission of himself to her, man to woman.
Marx is certainly not wrong when he claimed that history is the struggle between the haves and the have nots but it may be even more accurate to say the same for women and men. Dating back to The Wife of Bath’s Tale, Chaucer made a case for female dominance centuries prior.
However, it’s not simply flowers we are seeing here. It’s flowers of evil. Women don’t have an innate desire to reign over men. They seek equality. The same cannot be applied to men given that those in power are often unable to recognize the privilege they hold. It’s an atrocity not unlike stealing a classmate’s gym uniform without conscious malicious intent. It just kind of happened right?
Well, it’s not cool.
Of course, it’s not right to retaliate in kind as Nakamura does. At some point, enough is enough. Evil begets evil. The viewer never truly feels sorry for Kasuga. He deserves everything. We see Nakamura smiling and blushing. She’s in bliss with power and in that moment all seems right with the universe. Having never read the eponymous book, I believe it’s a cautionary tale.
It’s highly intriguing on how the rest will unfold. I had expected Kasuga’s confession at the end.
The Paper: I want to open this episode’s discussion by going back to something you mentioned last week. You asked “how come clothing fetishism is widely denounced?” which you actually answered yourself in the preceding sentence! An unhealthy level of such a fetish erases the person wearing said clothing. Would you agree that seems to be the intent of Nakamura-san here?
The beauty of a buruma fetish or any others lies in communication. Nakamura-san is only able to pervert Kasuga due to his failure to confess to Saeki-san. In other words, by discussing fetishes, a perverted act tranforms into one of respect, consent and trust. Not to mention your favorite skinship.
Likewise, a kiss is not a perverted act. In fact, it’s a very natural and healthy desire. Alas, Kasuga fails to see Saeki-san as a lover, a person. She’s a Goddess, an object of worship. And probably a host of other things you will illustrate lovingly below. Because as we all know, you’re pure like driven snow:
@gendomike I never had that perverted thoughts in my entire life, I have the purest innocent heart on earth.
MLM: LOL. Nakamura-san would say to me, “I guess kimo-ota like you really has no other way to live but as kimo-ota.”
Yes, I think after seeing episode 6, yes, basically agree with The Paper‘s proposal, it seems to me that Nakamura-san’s intention is to bring down Kasuga’s goddess figure, telling Kasuga that Saiki wants to have sex with him. But I didn’t know Kasuga was such shojo-chuu (virgin-mania) that he thought Saeki never thinks about sex. That Saeki is not a sexual being. That is the first time I knew he was a virgin worshiper. What kind of shunamitism is that? I mean, isn’t sex the purpose of dating? To get laid? Is romance without sex possible? He wants to have “Platonic relationship,” but I think Kasuga should read Platonic Sex instead of Flower Of Evil. Platonic Sex was a novel written by Ai Iijima, the most famous ex-porn actress from Japan.
I really can’t picture myself that the fact that a dream girl wants to have sex is shocking to him. I mean most guys would think that would be a paradise. A girl wants your body, how awesome is that? She fancies you! How envious. How riajuu he is! There is nothing more awesome than that, but that is shocking to him. I don’t get it. He never watched porn before? While only 2D girls, such as Love Plus girls, tell me that they want me, otaku life…(sigh)
Why does his ideal woman have to be virgin without libido? Holiness? So, sexual desire is evil? But isn’t love motivated by libido? Without libido, how can you get attracted to girls? Saeki obviously wants him, but he denies Saeki’s libido. And he also denies his own libido, despite his crime, kunka kunka buruma without Saeki’s consent. That’s like saying I want her but I don’t want her.
Libido is holy and sacred, so fetishism is holy. The object of libido is holy, so sexual Saeki is the Goddess, thus, her buruma is holy, which indeed brought a miracle to Kasuga, that he can now date his ideal girl! So, magic actually worked. It’s more magical than a maid addressing you as Master. And I must admit that Saeki with buruma on is just amazing. I can eat three bowls of steamed rice with that! So, I would say if you want to date your dream girl, get her buruma, if impossible, then her jersey (school tracksuit)!
Yes, jersey is also irresistible. I remember during our school trip to Kyoto, girls were wearing jerseys, and these protruding oppai were guys’ night talk at hotel. Oh yes, Kana-chan’s jersey, that’s what I want! A legal way to get indirect skinship is just ask her, “Can I borrow your jersey for a moment? I forgot to bring mine today.” That’s how you wear your crush’s jersey, achieving oneness with her indirectly, inhaling sweet smell of her perfume by taking deep breath. Then, you can say, “I’ll wash it and give it back to you tomorrow.” Then, you can bring it home without any problem. So, jersey would be a great alternative. Yes, jersey fetish, more viable than buruma fetish! “Can I borrow your buruma?” would freak a girl out, so jersey is more acceptable, so you don’t need to steal, don’t need to suffer from a guilty conscience. Also, no space for Nakamura to enslave you! Oh yes, feminazis already abolished buruma from Japanese schools, so there wouldn’t be any Nakamura-san in Japan.
Yes, discussing fetishes would lead to accept pervertedness, or maybe not, depends on how strict a society is, especially here is rampant with religious fundamentalism. That prevents people from talking about it. Merely asking “What kind of fetish do you have?” would get us into trouble, we would get punished for that. I hope people will be more open to paraphilia and sexual orientations. This ongoing argument at the Supreme Court is part of that. If gay rights people win this case, then a society will become more tolerant on paraphilia, eventually a buruma fetish will be acceptable, and Kasuga can smell Saeki’s buruma all day long as he pleases, not to be afraid of being exposed as a buruma fetish, but be able to be proud of his own sexuality. We don’t need to be underground Mahou-Tsukai (magician), hidden from public in the catacombe to perform magic on buruma for our stairway to heaven. Oh yes, we no longer have buruma in the first place, so I’ll say revive buruma! Sukumizu, jersey, buruma or shimapan, fetishism is a human right!
Whatever else can be said about the anime version of Aku no Hana (The Flowers of Evil—or, really, Les Fleurs du Mal), one cannot accuse mangaka Shuzo Oshimi and director Hiroshi Nagahama of misunderstanding the spirit that Charles Baudelaire, whose poetry inspired the story, was working within. Baudelaire and other Decadent, avant-garde French artists and writers inaugurated all of the tropes that we now recognize as “modern art” and modernist literature, and central to their self-understanding was that they were against everything conventional, complacent, middle-class, and comforting. Or, to sum it up in Flaubert’s rallying cry, épater les bourgeoisie: shock the middle class.
From right out of the starting gate, Aku no Hana’s aggressively anti-kawaii, anti-moe, almost anti-anime anime style can be seen as one giant middle finger raised to current fandom: épater l’otakusie!
Oshimi and Nagahama admitted it, in an interview explaining their intentions: they deliberately intended to “scar” the audience. They withheld the character designs until broadcast, which in this case was not a sign of misgiving about the show’s prospects as much as a deliberate provocation. They knew that many would regard this as a form of aesthetic violence, even a declaration of war, especially given that Oshimi’s manga itself didn’t quite look so unconventional. But he was in on it the whole time, even stating that the anime is much more like how he imagined the story to be in his head as he drew and wrote it. Nagahama, for his part, thought this should have been live action to begin with; he only agreed to animate it if it would be rotoscoped to his liking. Oshimi agreed.
The result predictably divided audiences, which was almost certainly the intention. For some it became a litmus test of how far “above” moe or cuteness, or traditional anime in general, one’s appreciation was: this was “realistic” and thus substantial. For others, it was an utterly pointless, even nihilistic “crime” against what makes anime appealing—not to mention technically subpar, given how sketchy the rotoscoped faces were. It closely mirrors the reaction that audiences often give when presented with challenging avant-garde art, like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or seeing Duchamp’s toilet in a gallery. There’s a lot of heated debate about whether this is even art to begin with, or if the audience is simply too conventional (too otaku, too moe-fied) to appreciate the greatness before them.
What’s really interesting too is that there is actually great conventional beauty in Aku no Hana: the background art and haunting score, as one might expect from the director of Mushi-shi, is superb. The contrast between the near photo-realism of the backdrops and the aggressive plainness of the characters is part of the shock. Aku no Hana, at least in its first episode, excels at building the atmosphere of ennui and creeping obsession that fits the poetry it takes after. The repetition of scenes and shots, with an almost Hideaki Anno-like focus on signs, empty streets, and rust, powerfully conveys the sense of futility in the lives of the main characters. (That the backgrounds are almost as detailed as anything by Makoto Shinkai or PA Works, but with much more decay, may also be a sly commentary as well. No light-dappled, sakura petal infested landscapes here.) These are all easily virtues that can be found in many other anime as well, and were it not for the character designs, fan reaction would have been far more unanimously positive.
But the faces. The unfeminine (by anime convention), sometimes blank, uncanny faces…the chunky physiques. That alone has turned off so many. It’s as if the creators are challenging the viewer: “everything else about this show is promising, but can you get past this?” The implied moral judgment behind that challenge—that one is a superficial fan if one cannot look past the character designs—is perhaps what irritates so many. There seems something smug and superior about it all, even as one might feel a smidgen of guilt: do I really watch anime because everyone is so cute/handsome/bishie/moe? Because there are no plain or fat people in it?
I find myself torn. Before I was an anime fan, I was a lover of foreign and avant-garde cinema, and so the attitude is familiar to me. I, too, am irritated by some of the overweening trends of current anime, though I’ve grown more tolerant in recent years. But anime is a visual medium, too. Its physical representations of human beings doesn’t always need to be “realistic” in motion, proportion, or look. Here’s examples where the character design choices have an impact and how they differ significantly from the manga, and where some believe the anime version is much “uglier”:
Both of these characters, in the story, are meant to be attractive to the main characters. One can make the argument that in a way the anime has failed to communicate that to a large segment of the audience. Frankly, I agree; I like the manga designs better.
Of course, that may very well be the point: to present something other than the “traditional” or “conventional” style of beauty in anime. Real girls tend to look more like the ones on the right rather than the left. Realism can’t be the only thing, though, given how faceless a lot of the rotoscoped characters are from a distance—they almost become abstractions, not unlike the shadowy people in Serial Experiments Lain (which this show oddly feels like sometimes). Moreover, you can actually see their real life counterparts of the characters here, the models used for the rotoscoping. The models look decently attractive in their photos to me! In the translation from live action to anime, something got “creepified,” for lack of a better term. I have no choice but to think that this is intentional, given the themes and mood of the show.
Here is my final thought: if I had to pick a side, I do think the promise of Aku no Hana outweighs its “ugliness.” There is enough going on that fascinates and reassures me that there may be quality to come. However, bold artistic choices like this demand high standards. The character designs need to fit with the kind of series or story they are telling, and not just be different for different’s sake or, worse, there just to give the finger to fandom. That’s not good enough. If this is Nagahama and Oshimi throwing down the gauntlet—well, we better get our satisfaction then.