Fresh off my editorial we begin 2013′s spring anime season. Aku no Hana is the first series from our picks to premiere, and what a premiere it was. I knew there was something about this series I knew I was going to like. After watching episode one of Aku no Hana, I know exactly what it is. In spite of that I will warn viewers with the following… Aku no Hana is certainly not for everybody.
The first episode starts with our protagonist walking to school — like every other anime set in a school — alongside other students. The students have casual conversations about school, about what after school activities they will engage in, among other things. As our protagonist Takao Kasuga approaches his homeroom class, his friend Yamada catches up to him and the opening sequence kicks in. This opening theme is one of the first indications of how “unconventional” this series is. After the sequence, Kasuga and his friends all chat amicably in class about games and as they notice Kasuga’s indifference on the subject, his friend Yamada joshes him about it. During English class Kasuga finally shows empathy when his classmate, the very pretty Nanako Saeki reads a sentence aloud. Kasuga never turns his eyes away from her.
During PE, Kasuga is still very much concentrated on Saeki’s “skills” as she plays volleyball. His fixation halts when Saeki notices him, and Kasuga timidly turns his gaze away. Afterwards, Kasuga and his friends are all trudging back to class when they overhear the girls changing. Yamada tries to sneak a peek yet fails. In Math class, as the students take a pop quiz, Kasuga drifts away for the first [of several] time. His mind wanders into another plane of existence when he starts to recite a poem from his favorite poetry book, Les Fleurs du Mal. The teacher snaps him out of it when he asks for the quiz to be turned in. Later that day as they walk home, Kasuga explains how comedy and horror are both the same thing. His reasoning is that the two emotions come from the emotion of surprise. Yamada points out if he read it in a text somewhere, and Kasuga reaffirms it’s simply common knowledge.
The gang all plan on stopping at their friend Kojima’s to read “volume 8,” however, Kasuga declines. He decides to go by the bookstore instead. Once there, Kasuga immerses himself into complicated literature for hours until nightfall. Later that night at home during dinner Kasuga asks his father if he owns Breton’s The Key of the Fields (Andre Breton, I presume). His father says he might, which comforts Kasuga as he was going to purchase a copy but didn’t. His mother offers him seconds, he turns them down and instead heads for his bedroom. Once again, Kasuga spirits away into an altered state of mind while reading more french poetry (the french must be that good). His mind this time filled with thoughts of Saeki. The images in his mind are accompanied by an ominous rattling coming from what looks like a black hair ball. This thing creeps in and out of scene while Kasuga reads. Unfortunately for him, his mother disrupts his daydream and urges him to shower.
The next day as Kasuga walks to school again, we see either the same footage from the beginning of the episode or a very similar take. Upon arriving at the school grounds Kasuga stares into the distance. The hair ball from before makes an entrance again rattling louder and louder as if it was getting close to something. Math Teacher Shimoyama starts to pass back the test results in class. One by one, the students pick up their results. After picking up his exam, Yamada asks Kasuga how he did. Kasuga refuses to show him and this in turn causes Yamada to take his Fleurs du Mal poetry book. In the meantime Saeki picks up her test results and everybody including Kasuga focuses on her. She happens to have the highest score for a second time consecutively. As Saeki is praised by her friends, Kasuga can’t help but stare, and Saeki catches him doing it again. Kasuga looks away smiling.
Teacher Shimoyama calls up the girl sitting behind Kasuga to pick up her test. Her name is Sawa Nakamura. She is scorned by Shimoyama since she scored a zero for a second consecutive time. He asks her what the hell she’s doing in school, to which she responds; “Shut up, you piece of sh*t.” There is suddenly a thick heavy atmosphere in the classroom followed by a long awkward pause. After a few seconds, Shimoyama tempestuously demands respect from Nakamura. All she does is simply give him a piercing glare. Shimoyama sees this and demands her to meet him in the office after school. Kasuga and the rest of the class watch in disbelief, and Kasuga feels intimidated as he watches her walk back to her seat. Nakamura sits behind Kasuga in class.
After school, the boys walk home and discuss what happened. Yamada admits he would never date Nakamura even if she was the last girl on the planet. Kasuga mocks him by telling him he’s not that much better, and the two begin an argument. They’re interrupted by Kojima who admits to wishing he was dating Saeki. Kojima states that Saeki “hairy” in certain parts, and hearing this enrages Kasuga. The other two boys watch and wonder if Kasuga is in love with Saeki, to which he denies abashedly. Kasuga suddenly remembers leaving his favorite book back in class and rushes to pick it up. Deep in thought he admits to being more than just in love with Saeki since the previous school year. She is his “muse, his “femme fatale.” Kasuga arrives to the classroom and picks up his poetry book. The rattling hair ball creature from before “blooms” as it opens its eyes while Kasuga notices something that belongs to Saeki drop on the floor behind him.
The reason why I mentioned this Aku no Hana adaptation will not appeal to everybody is simple: there are many elements here that can be considered risky; insomuch they might just turn a regular viewer away from the screen. One of the many I have already noticed plenty of individuals pointing out is the striking animation surrounding the characters. The style used here is rotoscoping and it involves animators tracing over frame by frame of live action footage. In this case the characters being rotoscoped accentuates the intoxicating, [almost] suffocating atmosphere. It also adds hyperrealism both visually and philosophically. The characters have no faces from far away, yet up close look (except their noses) and behave as humanly possible; creating this borderline unwieldy look which some might consider droopy, yet others will see the intention behind it. That aside from the rather slow writing in this episode, will most likely cause some to loathe this adaptation intensely and feel betrayed his/her favorite manga was savagely defiled.
That being said, I can see that happening and I can agree to a certain degree. Nonetheless, I still can’t hate Aku no Hana for doing exactly that. This adaptation succeeds in setting itself apart from its pedigree of the formulaic awkward boy-meets-girl-in-a-school-setting that plagues the anime series which base themselves off said premise. I must also greatly praise director Hiroshi Nagahama for taking such a risky leap of faith. Nagahama follows this in the footsteps of his Mushishi adaptation back in 2005. Here he incorporates several tricks he used in Mushishi, such as the long pauses, concentrated takes on the surroundings, a certain level of unspoken tension and enigma throughout, and rendering the anime atypical enough to categorize into a single genre.
That furball or whatever it is adds surrealism, as well as the rotoscoping technique. And what about the ending theme “A Last Flower” that sounds right out of a horror film? Nagahama is also fully backed by screenwriter Aki Itami who adapted Mushishi with Nagahama. Itami also seems to understand the complex vision of an auteur trying to make something unconventional out of a conventional setting. Itami’s writing embodies meaningful symbolism through Nagahama’s vision. It takes two to tango and that is more than proven here.
By the way, I noticed the striking differences in character design between the anime and manga. It’s funny how the anime goes against the rather iconoclastic setting of the story in a much more upfront bearing than the manga.