The Importance of “Aku no Hana”
Aku no Hana’s anime adaptation is important. I don’t know if it’s good yet. It certainly has the potential to be a good, if not exemplary anime given its source material, but there’s no way to know that after one episode. Nonetheless, it is important, because it’s making a lot of people ask fundamental questions about what this medium means to them.
I think a lot of people realize that anime is not simply cartoons produced in Japan. Anime is a vehicle for long-form narratives told through animation. It’s not the only vehicle, but so far it’s the largest one we have. Here in the West, such stories are mostly told through live action (Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, etc.), which is fine, but it limits the kinds of stories that can be told and told well. The possibilities of animation far exceed live action, because what can be drawn is limitless when compared to what can be recreated with real people and real sets. This is not to say that cartoons are therefore superior to live action, because both are perfectly fine mediums, but many people have been conditioned to perceive animation as only appropriate for children’s entertainment or for comedy. Truthfully, it allows for so much more freedom than that! Even anime rarely takes advantage of those possibilities, but it at least makes some effort with some frequency.
So why am I talking about the endless potential of animation when Aku no Hana’s rotoscoping more closely resembles live action than any other anime currently or previously airing?
Simply put, aesthetics matter. In the visual sphere, presentation is more important than anything else, and the way in which a story and characters are visually framed will have complete influence over how viewers perceive the story and characters. I’ll give you two examples.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most successful anime franchises of all time, yet at its heart it is an incredibly misanthropic portrayal of a humanity which wishes for annihilation, and it is moreover a scathing attempt to lash out at the anime otaku whom director Hideaki Anno both identified with and hated. Promises of fanservice in the show only existed to be subverted, and superficially appealing characters are revealed over the course of the show to be flawed and damaged, often beyond repair. Yet Evangelion’s ultimate irony is that Anno, by creating perfectly deceptive characters, created the perfect characters for otaku to latch onto. People didn’t care that Rei was a clone of the protagonist’s mother, or that Asuka was riddled with crippling insecurities. It was enough for them to be visually and superficially appealing (Rei’s so stoic! Asuka’s so hot-blooded!). Evangelion is one of my favorite shows, and I think its subsequent cultural impact is fascinating, but I always have to wonder whether its millions of fans all understand what it was trying to do.
A more modern example would be Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which also takes cues from Evangelion by putting hopelessly cute and appealing characters into horrific situations. It’s a sadistic story, but figures and movies are still being made, because the characters are all cute girls. I also like Madoka, and in general I can appreciate a dissonance between form and function, but anime as a whole seems so reluctant to get away from using its crutches, such as the old Disney trick of big, vulnerable eyes framing uniformly cute faces. Madoka is particularly egregious with its use of sameface—our heroines instead must be told apart by their hairstyles or eye color. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this aesthetic, but it’s an extremely safe avenue of design, and it risks blandness in the absence of direction that can sufficiently flesh out the characters. Ideally, with all of the possibilities afforded by the pen, shouldn’t a character’s appearance work in tandem with the way they are written? If we’re going to assume that anime can be art (I know, you can start laughing now), then its conventions need to be explored and challenged. Aku no Hana seems to be doing this.
The brilliantly ironic part is that the setup of Aku no Hana could not be more stereotypical. Our protagonist is a (junior) high school student whose life becomes entwined with two girls in his class, one of whom is his crush, and one of whom forms a “contract” with him. It could be the start of a fun, wacky slice-of-life comedy/drama, if not for the fact that one of the girls is an unpredictable sociopath, a truly unknown entity who consistently defies expectations and, by doing so, fascinates the audience (her introduction in the first episode is a good example). Our protagonist is no saint either: an aloof bookworm who believes himself to be better than his peers, yet who is dragged into darkness by his own cowardice and curiosity. This is a story about the salvation within desperation, about a strange beauty which comes from the ugliness of perversion. It isn’t a grand metaphysical tragedy. It’s a story about the way we choose to present ourselves, and peeling away the lies which come with it.
Anime high school is an idealization far removed from reality. Aku no Hana’s setting is not reality either, but it is a reaction to reality, not a complete dismissal of it. Backgrounds are lush but stark. Signs are bent. Lights are dirty. Sidewalks are cracked. People fade in and out of view. The world feels lived-in, palpable, yet fluid and dreamlike. Indeed, much of the story will unfold like a nightmare for Takao, and it shouldn’t be surprising that Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal was a seminal work in a movement, symbolism, which found inspiration in dreams. Viewers on both sides are mistaking rotoscoping as a means of achieving realism, but Aku no Hana’s vision is closer to surrealism, a distorted reality which uses familiarity as a weapon. If you would bear with a silly analogy, your typical anime is more like a caricature, while Aku no Hana is more like a funhouse mirror. It exaggerates some things and obscures others, but it’s still a mirror.
I was looking forward to watching Aku no Hana, because I already enjoy the manga, but I never expected to be so legitimately excited about this adaptation. I was shocked by its aesthetic. I tuned everything out when I watched it. I got chills when the ED kicked in. Towards the beginning of this year, watching shows like Mawaru Penguindrum and Steins;Gate rekindled my enjoyment of the medium, but watching this first episode of Aku no Hana yesterday set something ablaze within me. I can’t wait to see what else this show burns.