If I could select but one of any anime program from the previous year to be seen by someone, even in some kind of forced eyelid A Clockwork Orange style approach, it would be The Flowers of Evil.
At times seemingly more methodical than flowing molasses in the dead of winter, it is a vessel of dread as a most highly distilled emotion. It is an excruciating journey of youthful unease and personal torment. And I adored looking forward to it each and every week it was airing.
(This article is part six of a six part series featuring my favorite anime productions of 2013; consider reading the others!)
Anime High School is dead. Long live Anime High School.
…Or something like that. It’s been a refreshing year for it at any rate, since it usually hangs out in this borderline magical escapist fantasy land with only the more occasional exception. And The Flowers of Evil is a multi hundred pound gorilla of an exception.
Appropriate for a series named for it, The Flowers of Evil follows Takao Kasuga, a modern middle school student whose most favorite book in the world is Charles Baudelaire’s 19th century poetry collection Les Fleurs du mal. Takao even has a little framed portrait of Baudelaire in his bedroom.
In his own time, the poet was actually prosecuted under the Second French Empire for this book, under outrage aux bonnes mœurs, which is to say “an insult to public decency.” A half dozen of the entries were then embargoed by french law completely for nearly one hundred years. A harsh, bitingly critical collection commenting on then present France and indulging in matters of the immense decadence and livid sexual eroticism, it became a influential work in the development of the Symbolism and Modernism artistic movements and continues to have callbacks to this day.
Takao then, like many his age, has a crush on one of his classmates: The smart and popular Nanako Saeki, who he has admired from afar but finds himself unable to give voice to his feelings. He forgets his treasured copy of Baudelaire’s book at school one day, and hurries back to retrieve it. In the process, he stumbles upon Nanako’s gym uniform, and in a fit of unthinking panic due to noise and the circumstances of being in the classroom after hours, he ends up taking the gym uniform home with him in a flustered rush. And thus begins the first of a long series of chain reactions and personal torments resulting from this single frantic act.
While he could be very easily blown off by some in the same way one may dismiss a character like Shinji Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion due to not being “man enough” or the like, I found Kasuga’s struggles of terrors and angst to be quite compelling due to what he is. He is, well, as another character in this series would so bluntly say, a rather particular kind of shithead.
He ties up so much of his identity with this incredibly romantic literary notion of a favorite old book with a notorious history and sordid reputation that he makes a point to love so dearly. He has disparaging mental remarks towards others having never read it, for them not understanding how wonderful it is and how in turn he wishes for so much more than them and this town. He has virtually no friends due to being the sort of person who really only develops ones out of proximity, and even those he does he still internally remarks about them not knowing the greatness of Baudelaire.
He lives the fantasy that he wraps these mental coils and gymnastics around to levels where they are actually taken to a self consuming extreme we as viewers get to see explored thoroughly and painfully. Everything about how he processes the world revolves around this association with the book, and how special or extreme or philosophically deep he considers himself for being one who “gets” it. It is an insular, disdainful, loathing filled existence, and yet not actively so. It can not be, because that would require actual effort in making self aware choices and having an identity that is not merely the lazy decision of using a media product to occupy a human husk of flesh in lieu of developing ones own.
It is the catastrophic collisions of this practice then, how he thinks of the world of his small town as so awful in his mental prison and yet over time then struggling with the outward expression of those notions one way or the other because it would not be what society or his muse would want to think of him. He thinks himself a kind of deviant norm shattering titan, and yet is also a massively small coward, and it makes for a fascinating series of character studies as he works through these issues with both himself and others.
If you have been around the internet anime circles long enough, you have certainly more than already heard of the fiery blowback this series caused when its art direction was revealed. For anyone else examining these screenshots for the first time, The Flowers of Evil is a rotoscoped production, created via live action human actors and sets portraying all the scenes and later going back and drawing over them frame by frame. For many of the characters, even several of the leads, their voices were also dubbed by separate individuals than those portraying the physical bodies. It not only very closely walks the edge of the whole “Uncanny Valley” concept, but it outright embraces it and runs as far as it possibly can go with the idea to great thematic and visual flair.
So much of this show references concepts like dropping ones mask and hiding or expressing your true self around others, and so some of that inherent wobbliness and that sense of something being real, and yet not, that comes from the manner of the rotoscoping and redubbing was really compelling and wholly effective in carrying the show to me. Despite all the hellbent rage and seething complaints from many anime fans on the internet that it did not look like the source material manga, to have such a strong sense of purpose of visual drive and confidence in its artistic choices was an immense treat from start to finish. I could not possibly imagine the show being able to weave its spell as strongly any other way.
It is slow and stuttery, at times feeling like the equivalent of calling someone up yet saying nothing and then immediately hanging up in a frantic panic. And I think it captured the essence of that aspect of angst remarkably well in its vice grip. A lot of shows, when they want angst, just have the characters whine and complain verbally non stop. Which, of course, is definitely a means of exploring the expression of their concerns and hangups, be it as characters or thematically or what have you. This production took on the aspect of quietness though, those angsty moments where you are the most silent and yet thinking and processing about so much that can’t really be captured in raw words. Internal storms and blubbering chaotic mental gymnastics that do not necessarily have dialogue or even monologue qualities. The seemingly unending and ceaseless tormented bricks of the weight and terror you are to yourself, to the very mind you occupy, and yet on the surface appearing fine, if not meek and mild.
There’s a lot more of that in real adolescence, and yet it is an immensely difficult thing to properly handle and execute upon as a production. I can see why so much effort was taken to acquire Hiroshi Nagahama (he of Mushishi fame) for directing this project and why it was felt he would have been so appropriate to handle it, as my understanding is he turned the role down a few times. It takes serious talent to pull off the raw amount of nearly silent sequences in this series and to have me basically riveted to my seat for the whole time. Two scenes in particular would already rank as immensely memorable and enduring classic anime moments to be remembered for many years to come.
The Flowers of Evil was incredibly messy and splendidly beautiful and excruciatingly slow and yet scorchingly explosive.
And, especially given the incredibly large backlash against its art style and boycotts against the series, I don’t think we’ll see anything like it for quite a long time.