Guess who has opinions about the most controversial anime series of the year thus far? We do! Will you agree? Who knows, but if you’re already here you might as well read on and check it out. What more do you have to lose?
wendeego: This is the sum total of what I know about the Flowers of Evil manga–boy steals crush’s gym clothes, boy is caught by terrifying yet weirdly intriguing classmate, their relationship spirals down into madness and depravity. Otherwise, I haven’t even touched the thing, so don’t look to me as someone able to recognize where ZEXCS’s anime adaptation improves (or ruins) the source material. What I can do, on the other hand, is examine this thing on its own terms. Plenty of people on the internet have already blasted the Flowers of Evil adaptation as a disaster, an unrivaled travesty, the equivalent of Dio throwing his rival’s dog into an incinerator (thanks for that image, Shinmaru!) except that Dio is director Hiroshi Nagahama and Jojo’s dog Danny are the expectations of the populace and their hopes for a good adaptation. The series already has a lower rating on infamous ranking site MAL than a great many other shows that are far, far inferior in terms of their ambitions and overall execution. The question, then, is whether this frankly unprecedented surge of anger is justified, or whether it’s a blasphemy against nothing less than pure cinematic art! As it always is in these cases, this answer is probably somewhere in between.
To be honest, it should have been obvious that the Flowers of Evil anime was going to be different from the get-go. The staff made it clear early on that they did not intend to make a straight adaptation of the manga, instead creating their own take upon the material. In addition, it became pretty clear to anyone with good enough investigatory skills that the anime was going to use a form of rotoscoping for its visuals. Honestly, when I heard the news of the Flowers of Evil adaptation, I was excited. The director of Mushishi and Detroit Metal City, adapting one of the most twisted manga of recent years? Sign me up! As the days went by and the air date crept closer and closer, it became more and more clear to me that with the caliber of staff involved putting their stamp upon frankly fascinating source material, Flowers of Evil stood a good chance of being a masterpiece–either that, or a crushing disappointment.
I’ll be frank here: I didn’t hate Flowers of Evil. In fact, after mulling over the first episode I actually respect it quite a bit. It’s not perfect, the budget is obviously very limited and the much-heralded rotoscoping vacillates between being effective and hilariously offputting. That said, while plenty of people have expressed reservations about the art style I’m surprised that few people have pointed out that the set design is fantastic, or that the sound design is seriously great. The atmosphere in the series thus far is really top-notch, more reminiscent of something like American Beauty than something typically associated with anime. There’s a clear sense of malaise that pervades everything in the show, from the claustrophobic atmosphere to the banalities spat out by the protagonist and his classmates, to the fact that the very neighborhood the show takes place in is warped and degraded with rust. It’s simultaneously banal and unsettling, an amplification of the uncertainty that pervades our own lives.
I think people underestimate the purpose that rotoscoping serves as well. Plenty have said that Flowers of Evil should have been a live-action drama, or that it should have been a more traditional animated series, but I honestly think that it wouldn’t have made a very good fit for either. What I find really interesting here is how by striking a middle ground between these two extremes, the series actually opens itself to avenues that would be impossible otherwise. Granted, there are certainly limitations: the haphazard rotoscoping means that the wealth of individual expression possible in live action is compromised, while the possibilities for animated surreality are limited. But I can’t help but see the potential here of a series given weight by the hint of the real, while just enough removed from reality to be exaggerated and strange. Acting in J-drama can come off as forced or over-the-top, but through some feat of wizardry the rotoscoping in this episode made the exaggerations seem totally natural.
I say again that yes, I don’t feel comfortable labeling Flowers of Evil as a success or a failure as of yet. This first episode was obviously a calm before the storm, a chance to set the mood before plunging into the terrors the manga is known for. How well it handles itself in that circumstance will likely indicate where the series stands in my mind. That said, I think it’s significant that for better or worse, the scrappy spirit of the original manga is intact. Flowers of Evil does not care whether you like it or not. It does not care whether you are comfortable. There’s the sense that the staff are going to ride this crazy train to the end, on their own terms, and whether you tune in or not is entirely up to you. This is a show that is less about cultivating an audience and more about making an impact, and while I have serious reservations about this show’s future and whether ZEXCS is up to the task, I do think it’s encouraging that the staff are willing to embrace the source so whole-heartedly. Some have lamented that the anime has already made changes to the manga’s plotline, but if anything I’m excited for what’s coming up. If Nagahama and co. are willing to go this far, I’m almost certain that animating some of the manga’s more questionable content isn’t going to faze them at all. Whether the experiment succeeds or fails, I think we’re in for a wild ride–for better or worse.
illegenes: I would be lying if I said that Flowers of Evil wasn’t my most anticipated show of the season. I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t at least slightly jarred by the animation and rotoscoping of the show as well as the static OP and ED, which left an impact on me similar to the book itself. But the more I come to think about it, the more I realize – in the end, that’s kind of what it’s about, isn’t it? Deception of perception.
But first, let’s talk about what we know. We’re introduced to middle schooler Takao Kasugi, who for the most part, leads a relatively normal life. He has friends, he flunks some of his tests, and has a caring family. He walks to school and likes to read books – a lot of books. Kasugi also happens to have a crush on the teacher-favorite, all perfect star of the classroom, Nanako Saeki, and thinks of her as this pure idol who is meant just for him. The first episode doesn’t seem to suggest anything else, except that Kasugi’s life is about to take a change for the worse when he happens to stumble upon Saeki’s clothes when returning to school one day, and gives into a shameful impulse.
What does this really say? Not much! Or so we think. First impressions are everything, and Hiroshi Nagahama seems to understand that with this episode, which is frankly, all about first impressions. Humans, after all, are defined by the way they perceive the world around them. Our opinions are molded by the limitations of the eye – what we see and how we see it – and of the mind, and the way it has taken form through others’ teachings and opinions. We all have blind spots, sources of corruption and deceit. The world is an image that we take in, and since we take it in through a sliver of light and understanding, our own image of the world itself is a lie. We are taught to think that our instincts are natural, not falsified, when in fact, we are simply lying to ourselves. The world – and our own image – is a distortion of our own perception. But through cell phones, cameras, and the poetry of language and human signs, do we give beauty to the cage that we build with our mind and eyes. This is the world that we build, and it’s flawed as it is unique and set to fit the schemes of our own understandings.
Flowers of Evil then, is a reflection of this, both in soul and in appearance. In soul – Takao Kusugi assumes Nanako Saeki is pure. He assumes that she is perfectly, flawless, and kin to being divine. His narration assumes that Saeki has no real voice of her own – he gives her one himself. She is pretty, she gets good grades, and is good at sports; all perhaps true, but only seen in his point of view, not hers. In contrast, Sawa Nakamura is just there. She is defined by the one things she tells her teacher: You’re a piece of shit. Nakamura gives her own voice, and it’s not one of purity, but rather vileness. There are no assumptions here; Nakamura’s personality is ironically the clear backdrop against much of the peaceful and yet false innocence taking place in the episode.
In appearance is a different matter altogether, which makes it even more important as a functionality. If Flowers of Evil is minimalistic in storytelling (and aces in atmospheric buildup), it is only emphasized through clean, irregular, but fluid animation. We have to understand that anime is both a medium and an experience; animation is the flesh, and the storytelling is the core. Whereas live action is limited by real constraints – physics, the camera, acting and style – animation is an instrument that allows for creativity and freedom. The camera can go anywhere; the facial expressions, twisted or deliberately exaggerated to fit certain moods. Subject matter can be manipulated through shape, color, pattern – the world of animation is limitless, formed only in the hand of its creator. With that in mind, Flowers of Evil decides not to opt for flowery imagery. It’s extremely simple, almost crude. But it’s through this designated style that we realize that Evil‘s animation only emphasizes the core, or the the storytelling. The world we see is limited by certain assumptions we have intrinsically built in order to make process things a little easier. Nagahama tells us that our presumptions are bullshit. They cannot be held to understand Flower of Evil‘s ideas; mixing the two would be like mixing oil and water. We are forced to strip away that sense of security, and thus, Evil‘s animation is made to make us uncomfortable. It’s made to tell us that the world isn’t as pretty or simple as we think it is. That our scope is indeed, very limited. It’s also a message to the characters themselves, who move easily through static imagery and detailed setting pictures. The character move realistically because they are in some way, a distorted representation of us. At the same time, they are within their own world, riddled with inconsistencies and misrepresentation, which is shown through the altered design and style of the show itself.
Is this a bad or a good thing? It’s too early to tell. But to say that the change in animation was unnecessary would be a superficial and limited understanding of what Nagahama is trying to do – which in essence, is what he’s trying to prove. The truth is, Flowers of Evil is very much a personal statement if not a deliberate one, both to the audience and to itself. In a world where we assume things on a fragile system of overly complicated mechanics; in a media where style is praised over substance, Flowers of Evil is a backlash. It is an argument that is upheld by the tools that it fights against. It is presented as a work of internal and external struggle – where characters are fighting with their own limitations of understanding, and where we are forced to fight with our own preconceptions of what the world – and the idea of ‘beauty’ – should be. If that’s something worth yelling about, then so be it. But the fact is that whether you like it or not, Flowers of Evil has already left an impact on you. Should you decide to release yourself from the cave and see an outside world of cruel reality, then you might be rewarded (you might not!). But I think Flowers of Evil is a message about the potential of animation, a warning for us to remember what sort of power it can hold over us and its creator. That’s my ticket to what’s hopefully a smooth ride for the rest of the show; hopefully, it’ll be yours too.
- Steven is unfortunately on the bad end of a stomach bug at the moment, so he was unable to complete his (pretty damn excited) reactions to this episode. Look forwards to his comments and more next week!
- kuromitsu over on animesuki (best known for actually having read Shinsekai Yori in its original language!) took the care to provide a rough summing-up of an interview of both the series director Nagahama as well as Oshimi, the original author of the manga. It’s pretty illuminating, and also clear evidence that both director and mangaka are on the same page regarding fucking with the audience.
- Meanwhile, as Celeste pointed out on Twitter, the ED song of Flowers of Evil is actually a remix of an older song by the same band. You can check it out here–it’s pretty neat!