Aku no Hana – A Polarising Anime
April 30, 2013 3 Comments
When Aku no Hana first aired you would have thought that the series was the anime equivalent of the antichrist judging from peoples reactions on Twitter and other social media. The outpouring of rage and abuse thrown at the series, along with the counter abuse thrown by those who proclaimed it to be the saviour of anime without any hint of the maligned and hateful moe was something to behold. From my perspective I thought it was rather silly of people to proclaim it to be the best series ever simply because it annoyed those who ‘only watch moe-blob anime’, and the general polarising nature of the series seemed to feed into debates, or more accurately arguments that have been circling for years. From my own personal perspective I have so far found the series quite boring and haven’t actually enjoyed it at all, which is not to say that it is a bad series, just that it has a few fatal flaws that mean I am not going to complete it. But, before we get onto these flaws, a quick discussion of what is interesting about Aku no Hana, and why I like these elements seems in order.
Anime generally goes out of its way to be inoffensive, and often a-political, with little comment on the social and cultural conditions of Japanese society. It is certainly informed by Japanese society and in many series we can see a relatively accurate depiction of everyday life in Japan, mostly from the perspective of high school students, or junior high school students. It is however not entirely real or accurate, and the high school life that we are shown in series such as Amagami SS, Tamako Market, Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai, and Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai (to name but a few), is both idealised and romanticised. It is a place where characters are free from the constraints of society, a time when they do not have to worry about things such as making a living, paying rent, perhaps working in a job that they do not like. The main problems that these characters deal with is friendship, romance, and occasionally exams – although even here the exams are merely end of term, and don’t have a direct impact upon their chances to get into university. It is a carefree time filled with the magic of youth, and a time when these characters can happily enjoy their school lives without any major worries. Such series also focus almost exclusively on the school, with home lives, and even parents having little, or no impact upon the characters lives.
The absence of parents and general hardships are striking in their absence, life is almost too perfect in many high school series, almost as if these characters, and the school exist in their own bubble, free from the constraints and confines of everyday life and broader Japanese society. There are series like Great Teacher Onizuka that break this mould by quite deliberately presenting us with a school that is full of problem children, while also focussing on why these students are the way they are. But such series are few and far between, with the majority of anime maintaining a feeling of ‘Yasashii’ – a kind, gentle feeling, producing a view of Japan that is accurate, while also alien to the realities of everyday life. Where Aku no Hana differs from this is by quite bluntly stating that the romantic, and idealised version of school life is a lie, and it exists because we trick ourselves into believing that it does. As we watch Tasao Kasuga steal Saeki’s gym uniform, we are watching something that has happened in anime before, but whereas in other series such an act is treat with a certain amount of comedy, here it becomes the reason foe Tasao’s problems.He knows that he shouldn’t be stealing the gym uniform, but still does it, while also feeling incredibly guilty in the process. Then we have the startling character Sawa Nakamura, someone who is alone without any friends, and perfectly willing to blackmail another classmate into doing her bidding. Loners in anime are often portrayed as being either handsome or beautiful, characters that can turn out to simply be shy and have hearts of gold. In this case Sawa is manipulative, with looks that belie a heart of darkness – it is this juxtaposition between the external and the internal that is actually rather interesting. The excellent soundtrack further helps to reinforce this, along with producing a creepy ambience that pervades every aspect of the series. Instead of a normal middle school anime, we are presented with a horror series, but one without monsters or demons, instead it is the horror of the everyday and the problems that impulsive actions can bring upon you.
There are however a significant number of problems with the series so far, many of them essentially ruining what was quite an interesting, if also problematic story about a school life that isn’t full of sunshine and rainbows, but darkness and mental anguish. Much has been made of the rotoscoping technique used to create this series, with many talking about how ugly it is, while others defending it. As a technique it does create a fascinating world, one where the mundane detritus of Japanese society, including peeling paint, signs, road markings and so on are shown in really wonderful detail, but it also has its issues. Chief among them for me is how one-dimensional and flat everything looks – which is a little odd when you consider that manga and a lot of anime have been influenced by the ‘Superflat’ art movement, founded by Takashi Murakami. Manga and anime, along with other elements of Japanese pop art are a part of what Takashi Murakami calls the ‘shallow emptiness of Japanese consumer culture’, with these forms of media using straight lines to create perspective rather than the intense and intricate shading often found in western comic art forms. This art form can be dated back to more traditional art forms including ukiyo-e, wall scrolls and folding screens. Manga and Anime are therefore inherently two dimensional, although through the art form we can view them as three dimensional and realistic.
It is quite striking then that through the use of rotoscoping the characters look entirely flat and one-dimensional, almost like a cardboard cut out of sticker that has been placed onto the animated landscape. This isn’t the end of the world, but the rotoscoping gives the series a cheap feel, almost as if it was only half done when it was released. This technique also somewhat spoils the effect of Sawa Nakamura’s entrance and the juxtaposition between her external beauty and internal darkness. Having briefely flicked through the manga, the art style lends itself to this darker version of school life, with the beauty of Sawa and Saeki shown in stark contrast to the problems that Tasao has to deal with and the problematic nature of his relationship with Sawa. By changing this art style and using rotoscoping this effect was lost, and while there is still darkness, it wasn’t quite as interesting, or as well defined in the anime as in the manga. We also have issues with faces popping in and out of focus, along with jagged looking animation at times, caused by the low framerate that you tend to get with rotoscoped animation. This isn’t terrible though and the different kind of animation does create a very different form of anime, although it can be rather distracting to see characters faces continually pop in and out of focus, and further detracts from the realism of the story.
I recall that Aku no Hana’s director, Nagahama Hiroshi originally said that he didn’t want to make another anime, and instead felt that Aku no Hana would work better as a live action drama. The rotoscoping is more of an in-between method, a compromise perhaps, and in some ways this shows. The use of rotoscoping seems to be an artistic decision, one that produces some interesting results, while leaving certain problems with the series; the problem comes when you wonder where they intended to take this series. It’s like an artistic decision was made without any real thought of where the series wanted or needed to go from there, so we are left with an interesting eerie anime that is also rather aimless and slow paced. The anime industry has effectively recreated the Japanese studio system, along with the way the system works, and I cant help but wonder if everything for this series had already been arranged and Nagahama Hiroshi didn’t have a say in whether it could be an anime or a live action series. Speculation perhaps, but as I watched the first three episode of Aku no Hana, I felt like I was watching a series that had little engagement from the production staff. It meanders and lacks any real sense of direction, it’s a series that doesn’t seem to understand what it wants to be, and suffers because of that.
I watched these first three episodes in a malaise, barely engaging with the characters, to the point where I wasn’t even shocked as Sawa effectively raped Tasao in the library. Such scenes are supposed to be shocking, with Oshimi Shuuzou, the original creator of Aku no Hana stating that he wants to kill his audience through his works. But, because I was in a malaise, because I lacked any form of critical engagement in the material this doesn’t happen – the soundtrack is the only element of Aku no Hana that for me successfully created a deeply creepy and disturbing aesthetic, something that the animation failed to do. I am neither interested in the story or the characters and the series lacks a clear direction and wanders around not knowing where it should go next. If I cant get involved with the characters, or story, the apparently creepy atmosphere just wont work, and if I am in such a malaise that the physical and psychological rape of Tasao by Sawa doesn’t even register on an emotional level, then the series isn’t working for me. It isn’t a terrible series by any means, and certainly isn’t the antichrist of anime that the ridiculously over the top reaction to its release suggested it was, but neither is it especially good. I also cant escape the feeling that the director’s heart isn’t really in it, but he is stuck making an anime because the studio system hasn’t allowed him to make the live action series that he clearly wants to make. So, I don’t much like Aku no Hana, but neither do I hate it – there are some interesting elements to the story, and I like the way it produces a completely different portrayal of the Japanese school system, unfortunately there is too much wrong with the series for me to continue watching.