Aku no Hana Episode 1: A Fateful Encounter [First Impressions]
“The flower bloomed”
Summary: Takao Kasuga life is boring. Each day passes much like the one before, an endless cycle of going to school, coming home, sleeping, and then starting it all over again. Instead of doing the things that his friends do, Takao focuses his time on reading literature instead, in particular Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal. But something inside him is reaching its breaking point, and a flower of evil is about to bloom.
Impression: If you’re looking for a scathing review, let me tell you right off the bat that you wont find it here. As you might know, Aku no Hana was the spring anime that I was looking forward to the most, so much so that I even went so far as to shot-gun the show in order to insure that I would get to cover it. It’s a decision that I don’t regret. Because despite the shit storm (more like shit hurricane) that its character designs and unique animation style caused, I believe that Aku no Hana will do what very few adaptions have the chance to do. And that is exceed its source material, and become something greater.
Before I go into the animation/character design stuff and why you should maybe take Nakamura’s advice and “Shut up, you piece of shit”, let’s talk about the actual episode first. Aku no Hana get’s off to a very slow start which, like many aspects of the anime, is very deliberately done. This ain’t your normal rose-colored high school life full of sparkles, this is something much closer to reality. The empty and soul-sucking monotony with which Takao goes through each day seeps out of every pore of the episode, from his listless school life, to the lonely and abandoned scenery, right down to the haunting musical score. The first episode does a superb job at creating an atmosphere of boredom, desolation, but also manages to create just the slightest undercurrent of tension and foreboding. As we watch the episode unfold, so to do we watch the “flower of evil” slowly start to grow. With just those few scenes, and some great sound effects, we get the sense that something more sinister is going on. It goes a long way in starting to create some of the darkness that will become more prominent as the series goes on.
The only bright spots to Takao’s day come from watching his idol, his muse, his femme fatal, Nanako Saeki, and from reading the kind of high-brow literature that your average high school student wouldn’t willingly touch with a ten foot pole. Nanako is a bright, happy girl, and Takao covets her from afar. Not in a sexual way, mind you, as he get’s very upset when his friend starts to talk about her pubic hair, but more as an unobtainable object whose purity is beyond reproach coughjustlikecertainanimefanscough. While so far we’ve only seen Nanako through Takao’s gaze, our other female main flies under his radar until almost the end of the episode. Nakamura, the strange girl who sits behind Takao, is most certainly not afraid to say anything, to anyone. She tells her teacher to basically fuck off when he announces that she got the lowest grade on her math test, and it gives us one of first glimpses of what the show is going to really be about. Her words cause her teacher’s professional, friendly mask to slip and we see some of the evil that lives inside him when he starts to raise his hand to slap her. Nakamura’s intense stare makes the teacher catch himself in time, but there’s something deeply disturbing about seeing someone in a position of relative power of others lose it to that extent.
The ending of the episode was the highlight of the whole affair for me, as Takao goes back to school to retrieve his forgotten book. As he muses over Nanako, it becomes sort of apparent that one of the reasons he’s reading Fleurs du mal in the first place is to impress people, namely Nanako. But he admits to himself that she probably doesn’t even know that he’s reading it. As he stands in the empty classroom, a noise shocks him out of his thoughts, and he finds that a gym bag has fallen on the floor. But not just any gym back. Nanako’s gym back. As the flower slowly blooms, its single eye finally opening, mirroring Takao’s own widening eyes as things reach a fever pitch. The ending music comes in and we’re left with a sense of dread. One can only hope that the second episode will continue the firsts trend of taking things slowly (to many anime these days rush, trying to fit to many things into the first one or two episodes), and that it will only continue to build on what has been shown to us thus far.
As far as openings and ending themes go, I can’t say that I love either of them, but then again I think that’s the point. The opening sounds…like really horrible karaoke. The kind where the singer is so sincere (and possibly black out levels of drunk) and so off-key that you become embarrassed for them. I think that the opening is the same way. It’s designed to make you feel uncomfortable, just like so many other things about the show. The ending is scary. There’s no better way to put it. The creepy robotic child-like voices, its strange cadences, just everything about it screams “don’t listen to this alone, or in the dark, or anytime after 9 p.m”. It’s the perfect ending actually. It matches the challenging nature of the series to a T by giving us an equally challenging song to end things on.
Now, as to the animation and character designs. As you might know, even if you’re not a fan of the manga or even had no intentions of watching that anime, the visuals of the shows (except for the backgrounds) caused a huge fuss. The character designs look almost nothing like what they look like in the manga, and the entire show is rotoscoped (a technique where a shot is first filmed with live actors and then the animation is done by tracing over that frame by frame). This leads to Aku no Hana looking nothing like your typical anime. It’s very realistic; faces, bodies, and clothing gain details the closer they are to the camera (just like they would if you were seeing them in real life), characters are almost in constant, fidgety motion, and sometimes, yes, they don’t look like movie stars or idols (just like real people). It takes about a minute to get used to watching, but it is certainly no way, no how, never in a million years as bad as everyone is making it out to be.
This show does an incredible job of building an atmosphere in just one episode that the manga never did, one that I think will only help the series, but instead of focusing on that, people are getting upset because the characters don’t exactly like they did in the manga? Because they don’t look “anime” enough? (True story: I saw a post floating around of a picture of Nakamura redone with more anime-looking eyes and hair with the caption “if only”. That kind of makes me sick.) It’s almost as if by suddenly making these characters look more real, by giving them real human actions (like how every time Takao is caught staring at Nanako he glances away and then secretly smiles to himself, or how he scratches his butt in the morning, or rubs sleep out of his eyes, or any of the great, subtle, human traits he has), its taken away some kind of security blanket that people have held on to. No longer can they distance themselves from the horrible events and actions the characters take by saying “Oh well they look like cartoons, this isn’t real”. Now it’s in your face, defying you to look away, to look away from the harsh reality of the world it’s created. And it’s only going to get better once things start to pick up. With a more realistic approach, scenes that were creepy in the manga, will be downright terrifying in this style.
It just saddens me that instead of embracing all of the great things about this show (detailed backgrounds, great music, its own unique visual style, good voice acting, its atmosphere) fans are getting stuck on the fact that the characters don’t look exactly the way that they want them too. If you want it to be just like the manga, go read the manga. There are certain things that work well in that format, and there are certain things that can only be done in an animated format. To restrict the one in order to make it more like the other is senseless and cruel. And let’s be real here for a second: it’s not like the art and character designs in the manga are the fucking greatest things in the world. I mean how many people read that manga for the art and not the story? Probably like less than 5%. As far as artistry goes, the manga is pretty sub-par, with its strangely boxy designs and odd sense of proportions.
I guess my point is, if you don’t like it, because the character designs aren’t your cup of tea, or you don’t like the rotoscoping, that’s fine (I’ll be the first to admit that content-wise and visually, this show isn’t for everyone). That’s your right. But don’t complain about it like it’s the end of the world. Don’t drive up pre-order sales of the DVD and then cancel said order so that the people making the show lose money. Don’t immediately give it a 1 on MAL after only one episode has aired so that it becomes the worst-rated currently airing show. Just move on. Or better yet, maybe try and see past what you didn’t like about it the first time and try to see why being different doesn’t have to equal being bad.
Final Thought: If you’re interested in dipping your toes into some of Charles Baudelaire’s poems or the actual book of Fleurs du mal (or maybe you want to do some more serious research into them in order to see how it influences Takao and the rest of the show) look no further than Fleursdumal.org It has the complete book online, in several different editions, and with a multitude of different translations into English as well as the original French. There are even some audio recordings of certain poems being read, mainly in French but there are some English ones as well. It’s a great resource, one that I know I’ll be using a lot in the next couple of weeks as I cover this anime.
Possibility of Blogging: Hell Frickin’ Yeah
Possibility of Watching: Duh.