Kono hentai yaro.

Of all the emotional responses one could conceivably have to this unusual anime, mine was anger. Mild, but unmistakable. There’s so many things I dislike about this show, both superficially and in depth. At the same time, I find it a curiosity, and find it somewhat interesting for that. It’s a highly creative work in some ways.

But put all that on the scales of my judgement, and overall I don’t like this show. The bad outweighs the good, as it were. And a big part of my dislike comes from the fact that I think the “bad” was meant to outweigh the “good” in this show. Not in an artistic sense: in a human sense. And ultimately, I can only be so interested in a work about people’s bad behavior, corrupt human instincts, and warped expressions of their confused psychological and emotional states. 

Some R-rated material below; please be advised.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Characters

Rating: 5

You thought NGE had psycho middle schoolers. You obviously haven’t seen these “middle schoolers.”

These people all have extreme psychological problems. Yes, they are middle schoolers, and middle schoolers have it tough mentally. Yes, this is a coming-of-age story essentially, and the difficulties of puberty must play a major role in such stories. But these guys have it bad. At least those guys in NGE have the excuse of having to confront life or death situations nearly every day. These freaks are just going to school.

Takao Kasuga is not a normal middle schooler. He reads The Flowers of Evil, a dark work of 19th century Western poetry, a work nearly devoid of artistic value given its unhappy nature (my expertise is in anime, not poetry, but having read some of this work, I find it unpleasant at best and depraved at worst). Unsurprisingly, given Kasuga’s inclinations, reading this work has a profound effect on him. It “changed his life,” as he says. Kasuga already was a weak person, both physically and mentally, and pouring this heavy dose of poison into his system leads him onto a path which could only be dark and unhappy in the end.

Given some of the themes at work in this show, one could probably craft a decent argument that Kasuga reading this work is actually a very good thing. The “change in his life” could be interpreted as him beginning to see the light; the societal norms he has learned to adorn and clutter his heart with are suddenly exposed to a light, and begin to whither away. Or perhaps it’s better to say those barriers are overwhelmed, as if a weedy flower had grown all over them, breaking them down into decay and ruin. I like this argument. It’s creative, it casts a good light on something that superficially looks very bad, and casts aspersions on the idea of societal norms. That last item there is most significant, since those themes are very prominent in this story. So this argument has a lot going for it.

The only issue with this argument is that Kasuga doesn’t end up in a good place. Whatever the trigger was for him to “tear down the walls of his heart,” he ends up in a dark place. In that sense, Kasuga simply trades the lie of societal norms for the ruination of a directionless and “evil” life. There’s a lot of room between those two extremes, yet Kasuga goes from one end of that spectrum to the other without pausing anywhere in between. True, he is a middle schooler, and middle schoolers like drama, and extremes such as these have a certain understandable appeal to someone like him at that age. Nevertheless, no matter how you look at it, the outcome here is highly undesirable for all involved.

Kasuga himself is highly unpleasant. I mentioned he’s weak. I dislike that he puts up with Nakamura’s torments, almost to the point that he accepts them. This is weakness corrupted into masochism, and it’s unpleasant to watch it devolve. It would be devastating to someone that loved him. Indeed, we see his poor parents distraught over his behavior, and that accurately reflects real life. It’s not much more pleasant just watching it happen on a screen. It makes Kasuga a very dislikable character. Meekness, turning the other cheek, is a good thing. Accepting torment to the point of following the same path of your tormenter is pathological, and a disgrace to a person’s humanity. 

Sweet words of encouragement from Nakamura.

Which is essentially Nakamura’s goal. She seeks to break Kasuga. Ultimately her excuse would be that she’s looking for a compatriot, a like mind, and in her loneliness she would do anything to find such a person. But it violates human autonomy to attempt to turn someone into the thing you desire. And more than once Nakamura violates Kasuga’s person. She strips him naked two different times, once to replace his clothes with Saeki’s stolen gym clothes, the other time right in front of Saeki. Both instances are attempts to humiliate and disgrace Kasuga. This is a gross behavior, the worst use of human sentience. 

On one hand, I understand and sympathize with Nakamura on a very deep level. She finds herself separated from society, both involuntarily and intentionally, and therefore she’s incredibly unhappy. It’s  hard to buck norms, and doubly frustrating when all the other herd members think you have the problem for not blindly following them in their littleness. One of the saddest parts of this show is when you realize that the first time we truly see Nakamura happy is when she’s vandalizing the classroom with Kasuga. This might be the first time in her life she’s had fun. It’s so heart-crushingly sad. Yet to the make unhappy feeling worse, look at what she’s become, what she has to do to be happy. She has to destroy. One could argue her happiness here simply stems from finally being able to act out against the constriction of societal norms (as represented by the classroom), but I think it’s more likely that her happiness simply comes from the destruction itself. Given her behavior towards Kasuga, I think this conclusion is unavoidable. She says trying to get Kasuga to discover his true self beneath the prettifying norms surrounding his heart, but one way or another, she must “break down” those walls to get there. That’s an act of destruction, not an act of creation. She is a destroyer.

So ultimately Nakamura is a wholly evil character. She is the putrid water, the corrupting fertilizer, to the seeds of Kasuga’s flowers of evil. A very warped and broken character by any measure. It’s very hard to think well of her. 

As a character, that’s kind of point though. The writers of this story do a great job making her impossible to like. You’re watching this story unfold, and you see the thing happening with Saeki and Kasuga, but somewhere in your heart you anticipate and want Nakamura and Kasuga to love each other. Maybe not even romantically, but love nonetheless. But every scene she’s in she gives us reason to dislike her. If you object to abusive and vulgar language, she never ceases to use it. If you object to bullying, it’s incessant from her. If you object to violations of autonomy, that’s her goal with Kasuga. If you object to nonconformity, that’s her entire character. Disrespect, mockery, assault, blackmail, hypocrisy, dishonesty, jealousy even…she’s a regular Machiavellian. She does it all. It would take all of one’s human goodness to find love for such a person. If the writers truly meant to pull our emotions in both directions with this character in this manner, it’s very well done.

Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.

Those two are the only characters that really matter. Saeki represents the facade of society that hides the darker parts of the human heart, something Nakamura explicitly points out to Kasuga. More on that below in the Story section. Nakamura indirectly attempts to destroy her facade as well, succeeding later on beyond what’s shown in the anime. At the least she makes Saeki extremely unhappy, whereas at least she was simply getting along before. I don’t find her character very interesting. She’s supposed to represent a typical type, and she very much does.

The voice acting is interesting in this show. Or perhaps it’s more correct to just say “acting.” Due to the way this show was animated, I believe the seiyuus actually did live acting (see below). I haven’t confirmed that the VAs are actually the actors, but I imagine they are. As a result, the voice acting doesn’t seem very anime-typical. It feels and sounds like live-action; more like real life. The actors’ cadence is faster, not so paced and precise like voice-overs sometimes are. It’s remarkable for an anime, but probably fairly ordinary for live-action. If I’m completely wrong about the actual VAs in the live-footage, somebody let me know, as I wasn’t able to confirm or deny this as of now. The pictures kind of look like the actual seiyuus, but I’m not 100% certain.

I have mixed feelings about this aspect of this show. On one hand, I love getting to hear Mariya Ise (Ikishima, Kakegurui; Ray, The Promised Neverland; Antarcticite, Land of the Lustrous) and Youko Hikasa (Mio, K-On!; Estella, Vivy: Flourite Eye’s Song; the infamous landlady in The Great Jahy-sama Will Not Be Defeated!; and of course Rias Gremory from High School DxD) speak in something like their normal voices. This show has a lot of interest factor just for that reason. Mariya is as powerful as you’d expect given the kinds of characters we associate with her. And Hikasa-san is everything you’d expect given her resume too! But on the other hand, the voices impact the anime-feel a little bit. It doesn’t sound like anime! That might not be a bad thing by itself, but instead of just not sounding like anime, it sounds like live-action instead. So it makes you think live-action, like you’re watching a Japanese drama. It’s an odd effect.

So while I will certainly say these characters and their portrayals are very unique and very memorable, they are perhaps unique and memorable for mostly the wrong reasons. While I admit a lot of thought and effort went into these characters’ creation, development, and execution, that effort seems a bit wasted on such dark characters. It’s easy to be evil; it’s a natural human inclination. It’s hard to do good, and even harder to write “good” characters. This is why so many “good” guy characters end up feeling rather bland, while villains are often much more artistically complex and interesting. It’s not because evil makes them more interesting, it’s because writing a good character is harder and therefore a high quality “good” guy is a rarity. So I can’t overly compliment the writers for such a set of characters are these at that rate. Still, complex and intricate they are, so I cannot take that away from them. So overall I both like and dislike these characters, and for different reasons, and that’s how I will always perceive the characters in this show.

Artwork

Rating: 5

So there’s this thing called rotoscoping. Basically you film something live then create animation frames from tracing and redrawing the live-action footage. It’s been around a long time, but we’re very unaccustomed to seeing it in anime. It’s “anime” per the definition, but it certainly isn’t what we expect of “anime.”

I will not attempt to speculate why the director of this anime decided to do this. I believe he had a reason (you can probably find it if you look it up), but it’s a mystery to me why he would want the effect this creates.

What is that effect? Primarily, it makes it feel like live-action. It looks like live-action anime. Anime is not live-action. Sure it’s unique, but so what? Yay, they found a tiny bit of artistic space between the visuals of “anime” and live-action. It hits the anime fan wrong.

Second, it is a fixture of anime that you will, 99% of the time, have adults voicing children. And it works very well. We get it: it’s not the voices of children, but it works fine, and we expect it. We’ve accepted that, and are happy with it as it is. But here, since they chose to use rotoscoping, we have (I presume) the seiyuus doing the live action itself. Suddenly we have not only adult voices but adult bodies as well. And it looks bad. It took me being told several times in dialogue in the show to accept that these were supposed to be middle schoolers. They look like adults in school uniforms. It’s looks so wrong.

Third, it doesn’t even vaguely resemble the manga. Drawing from source material is an age-old debate in the world of anime. People regularly decry the lack of similarities between a particular printed source and the resulting anime. Anime directors and artists often attempt to imitate a manga’s artwork with varying degrees of similarity, and do so for a lot of different artistic reasons. But this is too different. The hairstyles and colors (in colored versions) are the only things that are visually similar between the manga and the anime. And the landscapes and locations, since some of those are based on real places anyway. Everything else is very, very different in appearance.

For comparison. Saeki is at the top, followed by Kasuga, and of course you recognize Nakamura. Source: https://www.mangatown.com/manga/aku_no_hana/c005/2.html

Is that a bad thing? People disagree. Obviously the director and the studio thought it was acceptable. But I also imagine that fans of the manga intensely disliked this complete lack of resemblance. I personally don’t have a strong opinion on this. This is the least of my problems with this technique here. I think if a manga is successful, part of the reason will always be its art style. Changing that too significantly in the subsequent anime doesn’t allow for a series to draw on the success of its manga or other printed sources. And that’s what we see here.

Here’s another way to think about it. A successful transitioning of a character from print to anime can catapult a character to unimaginable heights. But done poorly, the character becomes less impactful than he or she could have been. Imagine if Senjougahara from Monogatari was portrayed with rotoscoping. Or Kankei Ken from Tokyo Ghoul. Those characters wouldn’t be half as well known as they are. In Aku no Hana, I feel like a big opportunity was missed with Nakamura. She already has a certain appeal, mentioned above. If a proper “upgrade” had been implemented from the manga, she might have sparked a new and remarkable doki doki in the hearts of viewers. Instead, she looks like a sullen malcontent with dead eyes and an oddly oblong face. She may be memorable, but she doesn’t strike at our hearts.

Put all that aside, my gut reaction is that I don’t like how this show looks. It looks like live-action. And if you’re going to make live-action, make live-action. If you’re going to make anime, make anime. Don’t try to do both. My impression was very negative.

But like many things in this show, even if something struck me very negatively, I cannot overlook the handful of positives from that something that demand attention. And chief among those positives is that this show is instantly visually memorable. And unless and until rotoscoping becomes more common in anime, this show will be easily identifiable just by its visuals. Dare I say that puts it in the same category as Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Monogatari? Unfortunately it does. 

Unfortunately? Because it doesn’t feel like it deserves that kind of recognition. It’s just rotoscoping after all. The artwork styles in those other shows are famous because they represent a significant shift in anime art style, are the archetype of a particular style, or establish a particular style. There’s nothing new about rotoscoping. It’s just that this show is as visually recognizable as those famous shows. And so it will remain until more rotoscoping shows are created. Even thereafter it likely will be remembered as one of the first anime to utilize the technique. The show automatically becomes more memorable simply because of this strange choice of technique. For better or worse, Aku no Hana has made its visual mark on the anime world.

Story

Rating: 4

This show’s story basically is another iteration of praise for nonconformity. This is the chief reason for the feelings of anger I felt while watching this show.

And not because I don’t like nonconformity. Personally, if I see 100 people in a room, and I see one among them doing something different just because everyone else is doing the same thing, then I’ll like that person. And I’d be the second in that room not conforming. These characters have a certain appeal because of that, to me particularly. But apart from that, nonconformity is a fixture in the world of anime. Anime fans are naturally nonconformist, “counterculture.” We like it that way. Thus this show’s themes have immense appeal among the intended audience.

What makes me angry is that people are not this way. I won’t stray too far into this, as it it gets into real life too much, and I always say I won’t discuss the real world here. But the more I see of the world, the more I see people demanding conformity (in one form or another depending on the era), and then I see art like this, and I’m frustrated knowing that, somewhere and at some time, the same people that created or liked this show will eventually take part in that conformity. This moment in time I find myself in (2021) is particularly marked by this “conformity,” and it’s disappointing to imagine how easily people’s dreams of nonconformity have dissolved and blown away like dust in the wind. I imagine all eras of human history are like that to some extent, but I simply find it frustrating generally. If you’re nonconforming, than have a good reason and stand by it. But I stray. 

Another problem I have with this show’s themes is the equating of “good” behavior with conformity and “bad” behavior with freedom from those constraints. Eons of history and the multitudes of moralists, ethicists, prophets, philosophers, etc., have debated this topic. And history has shown that “good” things tend to be life-giving and fulfilling, while “bad” things tend to be life-taking and destructive. To do good is to be free, to do evil is to be subjugated. But when societies becomes involved, we begin to view these things as “constraints” versus “freedoms,” and we lose sight of the point of knowing the difference between good and evil. So I reject that premise, that doing evil is liberating, every time I see it in literature and life.

One thing the story is not wrong about is people’s natural inclination to evil. Nakamura notes several times that Kasuga has “walls” or “layers” around his heart, concealing a “deviant” inner self. While lots of people have viewed this in lots of different ways over the centuries and have come to different conclusions about it, it is generally known that people are corrupted as we are now; imperfect. So in a sense, the writer, speaking through Nakamura, touches on an interesting and true point here. In that way, it could be argued that Nakamura is the only one who knows the “truth” here, which could be a very important point in this story. 

She’s watching you.

The only thing I disagree with Nakamura (and the author) about this is that good is not clad over the innate evil. This evil is a corruption. The true self is good. It could not have been otherwise, because evil can only destroy, not create, and therefore something could not be created through evil. I won’t proceed any further down the philosophical or metaphysical path here, so I will simply say that I think Nakamura (and the author) is on an interesting track here, but is just a little off in her (his) conclusions.

Either way, it’s both interesting and frustrating to see these themes in an anime. Frustrating partly for the reasons mentioned above about nonconformity, but also because these themes are bandied about a lot in literature, and are usually poorly handled. It takes a lot of knowledge about morality, ethics, etc., logic even, and certainly history, to have a very solid grasp of these complicated issues. Most people are not equipped to discuss them in a fruitful manner; I myself admit I do not have a full grasp on these issues. So on a very basic level, you have an author writing about something he’s not completely familiar with. It’s the proverbial “playing with fire.” I would not be qualified to sit down and write a treatise on spaceflight. Nor are most people qualified to sit down and moralize in front of an audience. Whenever an author tries to deal with an issue he or she is not qualified to discuss, it usually impacts the final product negatively. Imagine all that science fiction you’ve seen. The “fiction” part is relevant of course, but some of it is total nonsense! But when we see a sci-fi show that actually makes an effort to get some of the science correct, we remark that and esteem that show a bit more for it. It’s similar here, just the opposite way around.

Still, while noting the story is about evil, it’s cleverly woven and the writing is good. The live-action drama feel is strong with the story and the dialogue, but it works well enough regardless of that. And it’s interesting. You feel for these people on a certain level, and you want to see how it turns out. So it’s engaging, to be sure.

Unfortunately, I think it turns out somewhere between very bad and very blah. The anime only covers part of the original manga, so there’s a lot that’s left out following Kasuga’s intrusion into Nakamura’s room and diary. We get a brief glimpse of some future events in a rapid flash of frames right at the end of episode 13, and based on that and the information I have about the manga, things get worse before they get better for Kasuga, Nakamura, and Saeki. Once they do get better, they’re adults and no longer their puberty-affected middle school selves, and things just kinda sorta resolve. The end.

So it’s a story about children growing up, bucking societal expectations, and making bad choices along the way. It sounds a bit ordinary doesn’t it? It is, and that ordinariness is glaring, and it impacts this anime very heavily. For all that could’ve been interesting in this story, it just ends up feeling like young people having young people problems. Heartfelt, real, but ordinary.

Overall: 5

Ordinariness clothed in “extraordinariness” is an interesting idea for this show, given its themes of superficiality hiding an inner and secret ugliness. Where the animation at first looks unique, we discover that it’s actually a fairly simple technique that almost anybody with any animation drawing experience could pull off. While the characters feel very real and easily relatable, they end up feeling way overdramatic and not very unique. And even though the story tries to delve into a deep philosophical issue, it ultimately only scratches the surface of a very big philosophical iceberg. This show looks and feels like way more than it actually is.

On the other hand, I do not mind it simply for not being all that it could have been. I don’t mind it too much for its ordinariness. I feel intrigued, almost amused, by the ironic parallel that a show about something hiding beneath a nice outward appearance is actually kind of ordinary beneath a lot of superficial interesting features. It makes me wonder if, somewhere in the back of these artists’ and writers’ minds, they were trying to create that effect intentionally. I doubt that’s the case, the the small possibility that it is causes me to raise an eyebrow and brings a wry smile to my face.

But on the whole, I don’t like this show. It’s about bad stuff. I get it, middle schoolers go through this stuff, and people have to learn to distinguish the good from the bad, the enlivening from the destructive, the edifying from the pathological. I can understand why a story about such parts of people’s lives can be of interest to a writer. But I don’t have to watch it. I can only be so interested in watching people ruin their lives, even if I imagine I could have done the same things as I remember back to younger days. Its relevance doesn’t alone make it interesting. Evil is relevant. That doesn’t make it interesting.

The music is disturbing. It’s intended to be. It works. Enough said.

So this show will pull you all over the place. It’s kind of heartfelt, but then kind of blah. It’s kind of visually interesting, then again it’s not. It kind of draws you into it, but then you find there’s nothing there. It has a certain kind of beauty, but probably mostly just in the minds of the artists involved. So go ahead, go see what’s beyond the mountains outside of town, watch this show. But don’t expect to find much there. Some things can only be learned by experience. Or rather, certain kinds of people can only certain things by experience. Perhaps a lot of us are that way as anime fans, and it’s ironic that such a thing appears in this show. Perhaps, beneath it all, maybe there is something deeper there. But I’ll leave it to your imagination, just as Nakamura can only imagine what lies beyond the mountains.


The following images are for comparison. The actual live-action footage stills were filmed for the rotoscoping.

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