Aku no Hana
Director: Hiroshi Nagahama, Assistant Director: Tetsuo Hirakawa, Original Creator: Shuuzou Oshimi, Series Composition: Aki Itami, Character Designer: Hidekazu Shimamura, Art Director: Kentaro Akiyama
Voice Actors: Youko Hikasa, Shinichirou Ueda, Mariya Ise, Sayuri Hara
This was not one of my picks from the Spring 2013 anime season. When I was writing the synopsis for it during the spring season guide for Anime UK News I was very uncertain about it. I mean, on the one hand it sounds initially unpromising, a middle school student named Takao Kasuga steals the gym clothes of the girl he has a crush on, Nanako Saeki. Great.
But things get really interesting when we find out that he was spied stealing the clothes by a fellow student, the strange, creepy and rebellious loner named Sawa Nakamura. The class is shocked and Saeki is upset so Sawa is sitting on explosive information. Instead of informing people about Kasuga’s indiscretion, Sawa uses this information as a way to control Kasuga and draw him into her own twisted world. Kasuga has a difficult choice: Play her game or be revealed to the class as a perv.
After the spring season started and I was disappointed with Devil Survivor 2, I was drawn to this because I kept reading about how viewer reactions were extreme.
The art style has proven controversial amongst fans of the manga and anime in general. It is very different to that of the original manga by Shuzo Oshimi due to its use of rotoscoping, a technique where animators trace over live-action scenes frame by frame.
There are real actors portraying the characters.
Some hate it for this change but there is an opposing camp who love it. I am in the latter camp and not because I like being different (which I do). I have thought about this deeply (for once) and I have come to the conclusion that Aku no Hana is one of the most intentionally disturbing anime I have seen¹ and it is thanks to its art style.
I like it a lot because it is different and it is very effective at delivering this twisted existential love (?) story which captures adolescent feelings in a unique way.
Anybody walking in expecting bishounen or wild hair styles will be shocked. The characters look much more like normal human beings than in most other shows.
Rotoscoping lends the features and movements of the characters an added weight to every scene. They constantly move and react to the world in real ways and while some of the detailing is off (faces can disappear), the visuals are never boring and always have an impact. Indeed, their faces are very expressive thanks to the technique. It feels like watching real people. It is perfect for conveying both huge and subtle changes in emotional tones, priceless for monitoring the reactions of certain disturbed characters and their tormented prey as well as the moments when the blossoming of love, hope and admiration appear.
The backgrounds are also highly detailed which make the world they inhabit seem very much like our own and shots can be manipulated to highlight certain feelings such as the artificiality of life that characters observe.
Shorn of typical anime aesthetics and with its own unique look the show is very uncomfortable and unnerving and uncanny. Stealing a person’s gym clothes is as seedy and pathetic and dangerous as it sounds in Aku no Hana.
This has been the key element in differentiating it from every other anime out there. The animation studio, Zexcs, creators of cute anime Da Capo and Rental Magica have taken a huge gamble on rotoscoping and it pays off brilliantly. The first three episodes have made a very heavy impact on me.
Episode one was all about build-up, establishing Kasuga’s world and his place in it.
Kasuga is an intelligent person and normal school boy and I say normal school boy without a hint of irony.
He has a normal, supportive family who actually talk to him and have things in common – books.
He has friends who are typical dumb boys – porn and posturing – and he’s slightly smarter than them.
He is not a pervert and he cannot run through walls.
What makes him little special is the fact he loves reading and he understands Charles Beaudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil on some level.
Okay, that’s hardly something to shout about but… well he’s at that age where being pretentious and reading literature like that comes naturally to intelligent adolescents who have a precocious talent for interpreting the world and it does feel special when you genuinely do understand something². And anyway, his love of books is admirable.
Through his narration and his conversations with his friends we understand that he is as a genuinely thoughtful teenager and an observer.
His world is small-town Japan. It is nondescript and surrounded by hills.
It is a place with its rusting signs, weed-strewn patches of grass, dusty store fronts, and sleepy and ordered streets.
Kasuga feels trapped in the town as the imagery rather helpfully shows.
It is maddeningly dull and Kasuga wants to leave town but is unable to change his circumstances due to his immaturity and indecisiveness.
He is genuinely conscious of his place in his world and what might be played for laughs in other titles – stealing clothes – causes him to swing between profound guilt and joy over his act of deviancy in a believable way since he is at an age in an environment where such feelings can be magnified beyond all proportion because he gives his existence meaning through his love of literature and using that to romanticise his desire and love for Saeki. A mere smile from her can change his whole outlook on life.
Like Goth – Love of Death, the world of the adolescents is delivered skilfully. There are numerous moments when scenes and sequences are repeated which highlight the vapid and dull nature life outside of an individual can take on in comparison to all of the internal feelings one has.
When the location changes to the school, there are the same establishing shots and Kasuga walks down the same dull corridors.
These moments are delivered with long held shots where many things remain unnaturally static (thanks to the animation) or empty apart Kasuga and his fellow students trudging around. The repetitious nature of the scenes and the way they are set up gives the world a deadened feeling³. No wonder his desire for Saeki and his act of theft affect him so much, the drudgery train that is life is far too dull to compare.
The only time Kasuga’s world comes to life is when Saeki looks at him and when he reads books. These lead to wonderful magical sequences which show the sense of escape he feels when reading and expanding his horizons.
What he did in stealing the gym-clothes is not simple perversion but an extension of his pure love for Saeki, a beautiful, intelligent and seemingly happy girl he idolises. I can sort of understand why he might do such a thing and so the act is less pathetic and desperate and more… okay, it’s still pathetic and desperate but we know he isn’t a perv.
Connect this intelligent characterisation and world building with rotoscoping and I found a protagonist I cared about. His existential angst and emotional anguish felt palpable and recognisable.
And now we come to where the anime truly gets its power, the horror of Nakamura’s malevolence.
The first thing to note is that her design distinguishes her from the get-go. She has red hair and in a class full of students who have black hair she is clearly noticeable especially since she sits behind Kasuga.
Even when we don’t know who she is we still take notice of her.
Every time she cocks her head, our gaze is drawn to her. This is perfect because when Kasuga is blackmailed by her and she starts to control him, every little movement and change on her face gains importance. Kasuga is careful to watch his every move and when he thinks he has messed up he slowly turns to see if Nakamura has registered anything.
Episode one marks her out as danger girl. At the bottom of the class for results and quite willing to face down teachers with her unnerving glare, nobody wants to mess with her and they treat her like a deviant. Her red hair can be taken as a sign of her status as an outsider and rebelliousness. Kasuga is aware of what it is like to be on the outside since there are moments when the class are quick to blame Nakamura for whatever goes wrong.
For all of her toughness, the emotional bullying must still be horrible to experience, at least a little, and judging from the next shot it does register with Nakamura.
It’s heartbreaking and an example of the messed up social nature of school life where everything is stratified and based on popularity and those who don’t fit in either make themselves invisible like Kasuga or become targets for bullying like Nakamura. In an environment where it is safer to conform it comes as no wonder he is desperate to avoid being outed as the pervert who stole the gym-clothes by Nakamura and so he plays her increasingly strange games. It rings true and nothing feels contrived. This is very much My Youth Rom-Com without the gags.
Why is Nakamura tormenting Kasuga? This is fascinating to think about. His little act of theft has convinced her that he is a fellow deviant and she is making all sorts of associations about Kasuga that he finds horrifying.
She is not just a simple weirdo but one who wants to make a connection with Kasuga. She has built herself a persona as an outsider and is aware of the frustration she feels with the world around her much like Kasuga only she is the darker version of him.
She wants him to realise that she exists on the same level and the two have something in common which is why she goes to such great lengths to torment him.
Basically she thinks he is too intellectual and repressed and stuff while she is open and honest about wanting to break things and tear everything down and the two should join forces to burn the town to the ground and maybe kiss. I don’t know about the last part yet because her behaviour is somewhat unpredictable but it seems likely that Nakamura likes Kasuga a lot and he is drawn to her on some level.
What I do know for certain is that there is something very profoundly wrong with the girl and Kasuga has no answer for it. He gets rolled over by her because he lacks the will to do anything about it and it is disturbing to watch the emotional turmoil his confusing situation has caused. She may be shorter than him and a girl but she dominates the heck out of him and it is both painfully embarrassing and believable.
One highlight has to be episode three where she totally dominates Kasuga and (spoiler) makes him wear Saeki’s gym-clothes (spoiler). The rage that surges out of her is very scary and made all the more scarier by the animation.
It is gripping watching the anger and jealousy that roils around in Nakamura. She is very, very angry but out of all the characters she is the most alive. Just broken.
That written, the moment in episode 2 when she points to the hills and demands that Kasuga takes her over them was the moment I liked her a lot.
She has the guts to do things while others just exist.
A case of a moth drawn to a flame?
I find Nakamura is an amazing character to watch.
Even after episode five she is hard to get a handle on but I do love watching her and fear for Kasuga’s sanity. Every episode I wait for the ominous music to build and the camera to cut to her glaring or, even worse, grinning at Kasuga.
She is like the catalyst that makes all of the elements in the show – characterisation, animation, music and writing – explode into one of the best teen stories I have seen.
For some viewers the change in art style and the cheapness of some of the effects are off-putting but I think it works perfectly⁴. To be honest, this My Youth Rom-Com, and Attack on Titan have had the best first episode reactions from me this season and possibly since I have started watching TV anime regularly. Attack on Titan made me froth at the mouth over its action and gorgeous visuals and gritty story, My Youth Rom-Com made me laugh at remembering all the ways I was a pretentious cynic and Aku no Hana reminded me of those painfully angsty and deadened feelings which surfaced fro time to time. These titles makes the anime of spring 2013 the psychoanalysis season for me… I am going to recommend this as one of the two best titles airing right now.
It seems like a bizarre love-triangle is being set up and Kasuga is going to be on the receiving end of a lot of psychological torment. I dread to think about what’s in store for him. I cannot wait to watch what Nakamura does next.
Oh how I love Nakamura, a most interesting and disturbing character.
¹The anime Adventure Duo/Kid was unintentionally disturbing because it was mind-bogglingly awful.
² I thought I was special because I was watching films like Chungking Express and Battle Royale while school-mates were watching American Pie… Pretentious, I know but I did not care because it was one of the few things to break through my cynical shell
³ It from reminded me so much of my own time in high school since I took similar dull walks and buried myself in films to escape.
⁴ Some of the staff behind the anime have worked on lofty titles with unique approaches to delivering their subjects. Hiroshi Nagahama directed Mushishi and Detroit Metal City. Aki Itami, the person behind the scripts of Fruits Basket and Mushishi, is writing the scripts for Aku no Hana and Kentaro Akiyama, the art director for Mawaru Penguindrum, is in charge of art direction here. These guys really know what they are doing and it is working.
I went through the entire first impression and barely touched on the music. It’s fantastic. Here are the OP and ED themes.