Aku no Hana Episode 1: A Fateful Encounter [First Impressions]

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“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.

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Oh ya’ don’t say?

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.

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Takao smiling to himself after catching Nanako’s eye

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. 

Tenderfoot

Just another anime nerd with above average taste.

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10 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    I can’t believe you stole this opportunity from me! ;), I too was a cynic. The art style immediately threw me (probably because I’m so used to big bright eyes and pink gravity defying hair), but as the episode went on I actually came to like Zexcs innovations. I was shocked by how much people hated it! I’ll admit though, when Saeki is playing volleyball and there’s a girl in the background with a hilarious smile plastered across her frozen body and face, I couldn’t help but laugh. The world just feels so… dead. It’s like the characters are the only living thing in this painted world. But I digress.

    I actually loved the opening and ending songs! Hell, I’ve been playing that opening on loop for like two hours xD. I thought that it was really out of place at first, but after seeing how you’ve described it I can see exactly why they included it.

    And on a final note, I think you’re really going to love this anime. I read through the manga, just to see what it would be like n all, and anyone who read it is going to love seeing a ‘certain scene’ being acted out and rotoscoped! It (the entirety of the manga) gets pretty dark and I spent most of the time screaming ‘What?!’, but again, I think it’s going to be awesome and you’ll probably enjoy it.

    How could you take this away from me! ;)

    • Tenderfoot says:

      Sorry/not sorry for stealing this one from you! :P I hope you’ll at least enjoy my coverage of it to make up for it. I knew once I saw the creative team behind it that I just had to have it (I love Detroit Metal City and Mushishi).

      I agree that the animation takes a little time to get used to but I think it really works in the animes favor in the end. It’s an unconventional story, so why shouldn’t if have an unconventional animation style to match? Sometimes it does look awkward though, like the part you mentioned, and other times when you can tell that it’s just a long pause on a still frame and nothings moving.

      I’ve actually read a little less than half of what’s available of the manga so far, and you’re right that I do love it, and there are several scenes that I’m really looking forward to seeing (“a certain scene” included). When you think about the fact that actual people had to act all of this out already so they could animate over it, it just adds another level of messed-up-ness to it. There are definitely scenes that I think would be pretty uncomfortable to stage, even for an actor. Anyway, I’m really looking forward to seeing where they take it!

  2. Vantage says:

    *raises hand* I’m one of the people who prefer the original manga’s character designs – but not because the anime version is so drastically unique. I felt that the bishoujo look that Nakamura or Saeki was drawn with in the manga may have depicted them as pretty on the outside, but it provided a jarring juxtaposition to their true, twisted nature that made the series an even more groteque depiction of humanity and the loss of moral/social values. Character archetypes are savagely ripped apart at the seams, revealing what truly lies underneath.

    But hey, that’s just my two cents xD

    • Tenderfoot says:

      And hey! It’s a perfectly valid two cents. I can see where you’re coming from. Maybe it’s because when I think of stereotypically “pretty” characters, I think of anything by CLAMP or Sailor Moon or more typical “shoujo” titles (with all that long hair, sparkles, big eyes etc al), so that I don’t really see Nakamura or Saeki as being really bishoujo in the manga artwork. But that’s just my personal view. There are certain scenes in the manga that make them look very cute (? pretty? Idk) but a lot of the time for me they just look…plain. So far, I think the anime has done a good job in just one episode of making Saeki at least seem very pretty, in a more human/”real” way. Some of her smiles, like when she’s playing volleyball, were really charming, even to me.

      I would argue that, as long as the anime can still convey the base feelings behind those more “pretty” moments, the juxtaposition between that and their true natures will still be shocking. Maybe even more so, since those character archetypes being taken apart won’t look so much like archetypes, but real people, which for me I think is the more savage of the two. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see where the series goes from here :).

  3. Linzz says:

    Personally, I could have loved this show more if it only were made into a live action series instead of vectoring every actor that played that role. Although this kind of animation is new to me and I am kind of interested on how they manage to vector a lot of people and recorded those motions to use in an anime. It’s quite the great shock and it does look weird but that doesn’t really change the fact that this show is probably one of my most anticipated ones with deep mysteries.

    Still, this animation style doesn’t change the fact – no matter how unique it is – that a lot actually hated it and wished another production company had taken Aku no Hana instead. XDD

    The story sure is intriguing – too much – especially that flower yet to bloom. I haven’t really read the manga but as far as comments on the show is concerned, they say it started out great. So, I look forward for more of this.

    • Tenderfoot says:

      I don’t know if live-action would have been a good route for this to go down. There are certain upcoming scenes, and even some this episode, that unless you’re like the worlds best actor there’s just no way you’d be able to pull it off seriously and not have it become 100% cheese and/or horrible. And while it is sad that so many people hate it so much (which just seems like such a waste of energy to me. There’s a lot of better things to hate out there) I’m still glad that at least a handful will keep watching.

  4. MCAL says:

    I have no problem with the fact that the animation and art are different than the manga. That isn’t the problem. The problem is a majority (There are several exceptions) of the time everything just looks horrendously ugly. Saeko is a character whose beauty is a plot point, but how am I supposed to believe that when 90% of the time she looks like an ogre, someone who looks like they had plastic surgery gone awry. And how can I immerse myself into the atmosphere if I’m laughing every three minutes. It just doesn’t work. So no I don’t mind that Aku no Hana anime is different. However, I do mind that it doesn’t like good at all.

  5. Tenderfoot says:

    Whether something is “ugly” or not is subjective, not objective. I think Francis Bacon’s paintings are ugly, but hey, you might think they’re the most beautiful things in the world. It’s up to the viewer to decide what he or she finds ugly or not. You think “everything looks horrendously ugly” (even the backgrounds? or do you really mean to say “the characters”?), and that’s fine because that’s your opinion, but don’t assume that everyone thinks so as well. For my part, I think that (just like Bacon’s paintings) the so-called “ugliness” of the show is a very purposeful decision in order to challenge the viewer and to better tell the story the anime is set on telling.

    As to Saeki; of allll the characters so far, I think she’s been presented to us as the most beautiful. I won’t say that sometimes her face doesn’t look a bit weird, but that happens sooo often in anime, when the budget fails, or the animation is shit, or someone was just plain lazy (see: Magi, that one episode of Psycho-Pass (actually a lot of Psycho-pass), and countless others). How many anime can you think of, from recent years, that have 100% flawless animation from start to finish, with 0 derpy faces, even in background characters, or shots where the face is relatively small? That haven’t been touched-up for the Blu-ray/DVD release? That can’t be a very big number. Yes, there are certain cherry-picked screenshots of her (as well as other characters) floating around that don’t look that great, but I think of the time she’s been on screen, she’s been the most consistently beautiful. Keep in mind also that this was only one episode, and that Saeki has probably had about three minutes total of screen time. How do you know that they aren’t or can’t make her look “pretty”, by whatever your standard of pretty is?

  6. Mikey says:

    I’ll be honest. I laughed… a lot. That doesn’t bode well for this series. I respect that the director is saying screw you to the haters, but I have to wonder why he thought the animation style would work well with the a majority (Not all of course) of the audience. And why he would hide the character designs for the show until the first episode aired? Not only does that sound strange on paper, it gives the haters more fuel. Also wouldn’t it cost more money to rotoscope? Doesn’t that hurt the production even more. I’m giving this episode a 6/10. Everything else was fine, but the character modeling couldn’t let me take what was happening seriously. Although, the haters are seriously unreasonable.

  7. Noc says:

    I don’t mind the art style. Things can be drawn however the staff likes, and that won’t really impact my feelings on a show (actually it usually helps it, I love nothing if not a variety of art styles- that’s my big problem with companies like KyoANi and JC staff…but never mind that).

    But the animation. My goodness, the animation. As an animator, I’m not saying it’s bad because it’s something different, I’m saying it’s bad because it’s wrong according to everything I’ve been taught. There’s a big unwritten rule when it comes to 2D animation, even when rotoscoping is involved, and that is to avoid mimicking actual human actions perfectly. Why? Because it doesn’t look right! The human body makes dozens of tiny movements every millisecond that the normal eye doesn’t even pick up. Trying to fit those into every single frame of animation is just not a good way to go. Everything looks way too bizarre- too real, and yet too fake because it’s a digitally produced picture trying to do reality’s job. I’m not exactly sure who they were trying to get to, the audience or the animators by making some of us break this rule while the rest watch?

    When I’m a little less jarred by this blatant dismissal of animation guidelines, I’m going to come back and watch this show with all the tolerance I can muster. The realistic art style is refreshing and I’m sure that the story will be something good, so I really want to like it if I can. But for now, maybe I’ll go check out the manga.

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