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Épater L’Otakusie! Meditations on Aku no Hana’s Aggressive “Ugliness”

Aku No Hana OP Screen

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!

A perfect encapsulation of Oshimi’s attitude.

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.

Note the contrast between the face and the background detail.

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”:

Manga vs anime faces.

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.

Honestly, they don’t look that terrible.

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.

Or, in short: put up or shut up.

The ultimate abomination? (HT: @executiveotaku)
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