I’ve not watched a lot of anime lately as you can probably tell. Too much coming out of Japan these days is tripe littered with moe faces, slice of life without any comedy, or harem shows. Mostly all of that rolled together into a sticky-bun of awful. Ever since summer, though, Aku no Hana has been on my radar. The premise and title card were intriguing enough to stay buried in my mind until recently when, trapped by the snows of winter, I pulled it out and finally watched it. I was not disappointed. If there were a single word to describe Aku no Hana, it would be visceral.

Aku-no-Hana

The simplistic plot of the currently one-season anime is as follows. An introverted and socially awkward middle-schooler by the name of Kasuga has a crush on the class beauty Saeki. He considers her his muse and goddess after having feelings for her for over a year, but he cannot approach her. His love of old and obscure books, in particular, Les Fleurs du mal by Charles Baudelaire, makes him feel at once above the world and yet not worthy of it. One evening, he returns to his classroom to retrieve his forgotten book and finds Saeki’s gym clothes on the floor. In a moment of weakness he steals them and takes them home. However, the social outcast girl Nakamura has witnessed his crime and blackmails him into making a contract with her such that she can expose him for the true pervert she assumes him to be. What follows is a series of increasingly cruel events that take place between all of these characters.

Aku-no-Hana-1-1Before delving into a spoiler filled analysis, I’d like to give a review of the show for you. Go watch it. No, really, right now. If you have any predisposition to psychological morality plays or just Japanese literary motifs in general, go find this show and devour it. Throughout it’s run, Aku no Hana keeps the viewer in an almost constant state of feeling the same gut rending anxiety that Kasuga has. It’s a feeling that sits in your stomach like a stone, weighing you down with the same social pressure and mounting animalistic tension that he feels. It’s an effect achieved through the almost insane decision to animate Aku no Hana using rotoscoping (filming live actors and then tracing their outlines into animation). A lot of fans of the mange became infuriated by the choice to not go full “anime” even after the author said that he loved it, and I can see why. The almost, but not quite, realism of the show balances the real and imagined vices whirling around in Kasuga’s adolescent mind, it heightens beauty and twists ugliness to uncomfortable levels. Really, if they had gone all anime, it would have been as empathetic, but if they had gone live action, it would have felt like a soap opera.

Aku no Hana is at its core, though, an expression of what it is like to be an adolescent boy in Japan, or honestly, in any western culture. The choices presented to him and his attitudes on life mirror that which every boy must go through to get a man. Kasuga, though, seems to choose all the wrong paths along his journey, making his not a journey to manhood, but a journey to depravity. The anime, as of this writing, only covers the first half of Kasuga’s middle-school years and there very much should be a second season to cover the ultimate conclusion of his actions. I know not of any plans to make a second season a reality yet, but it would be a disservice to the Japanese arts to not have one. Aku no Hana is more akin to the works of classical literature it sets as one of its own motifs than it does anything else that it shares a media genre with. The morals are complex, the choices overwhelming, the atmosphere almost oppressive, and the experience a twist of the gut.  Go see it now.

Analysis (contains anime & manga spoilers)
This is the bit that has been chewing me up for the last couple of days. Like I previously stated, Aku no Hana is more a novel in animated form than it is an anime. The complex worlds with simple answers that animes typically portray are absent here. Instead we have a simple world with a bottomless chasm of answers and questions.

Truly, though, Kasuga’s journey through the story is that of one descending from the highest order of being to the lowest. At the beginning of the show, Kasuga is shown to seek the high and pure. Though a social anomaly, he wishes to be joined to those around him, to accept their ideals and morrés. His attraction to Saeki represents this. Smart, beautiful, and popular, she is everything that society (his class) idealizes. However, he knows enough about himself to acknowledge that beneath his exterior lurks sin and perversion, something that he wants to conceal from everyone else.

Nakamura, on the other hand, represents unapologetic animal desires. She says in class the things that everyone else would like to say, but know that they cannot. She does the things that she wants without consideration for the consequences. As long as it brings her pleasure or relief, she does it. This attitude brings her scorn from the rest of the class as it not only clashes with their morals, but shows them what their inner selves desire, something they find uncomfortable and wish to ignore.

aku_no_hana_02_4Kasuga, then, when he shows his moment of weakness to his own base desires, no matter how much he tries to justify them to himself, opens himself up to Nakamura. She sees in him the desire to jettison the outer façade, the mask of society and to do whatever it is he wants. Kasuga cannot admit this to himself though, and tries desperately to cling to society through Saeki. His desires though are mimicked by Nakamura’s continual blackmail until he finally breaks down and joins her in the destruction of their classroom and therefore their sense of society.

Throughout Kasuga’s middle-school years, he follows a path of rejecting one philosophy after another until he reaches the black abyss he feels to be within himself. Both he and Nakamura are searching for “the other-side” or their own paradise. At first, Kasugae believes that his paradise can be found in the divine. In this, he sees Saeki as a goddess, and angel. If only he can keep the precepts of society, then he can achieve heaven. However, his sins keep him from this, but only because he allows them to. If at any point he had confessed his sin to Saeki, then perhaps all would have been forgiven and Nakamura’s hold on him would have been broken. Instead, he hold it in, compiling his sins until he rejects Saeki’s divine nature all together. As a true person, she becomes no better than anyone else. In a sense, he kills god to be released from his guilt.

This then, shifts paradise to “over the mountains”. Beyond the world that man has built, the town, lies nature. Nakamura was seeking this at the start when she asks Kasuga to take her over the mountains and out of the world of people. Throughout the rest of the anime, the two of them attempt to do this, but ultimately fail. Trying desperately on a bicycle, on their own power, to get over the mountain, they are instead pummeled by rain and the elements, discovering that without money or supplies, they are helpless. When Saeki finds them in the rain, Nakamura exposes Kasuga to her, literally. At this point, Kasuga finds within himself only emptiness. Without society he is helpless, but to be pulled only by his animalistic desire is to be a puppet. He rejects both Saeki and Nakamura and abandons the mountain.

However, in the manga continuation, Kasuga ultimately cannot take the strain of pretending to be with Saeki, to be one with society and decides that his own desires are worth destroying others for. He convinces Nakamura to join him in finding “the other side” within the town. In a hut, representing existentialism, he sinks deeper into depravity. He drinks beer, lusts after Nakamura, experiences bestial release in being beaten, and ultimately has sex with Saeki all within the hut, but none of it brings him satisfaction. He cannot find wholeness there and so when Saeki burns it all down, he is left with only himself.

Seeking paradise within themselves, Nakamura and Kasuga ultimately realize that if the only remaining place is in their own soul and if they are no better than anyone else, then paradise does not exist at all. The only thing that remains is death and so make a suicide pact which nearly succeeds. It is the end of a journey that could have been averted if Kasuga had only confessed, a journey of individualism and Hedonism taken to extremes. One that ends in nihilism, a realisation that life is meaningless. But is it? The audience knows that the conclusions of Nakamura and Kasuga are insanity, though we can empathize with their every decision and wish, as we have all had the same wants and desires before in our lives. They chose to honor them and we chose to defer to society or religion. Would Kasuga be better off if he had chosen Saeki’s god over Nakamura’s Mephistopheles? Is he more of a human at the beginning of the show or at the end? Those are questions that Aku no Hana asks but does not answer that makes this a show worthy of being called literature.

gg_aku_no_hana_-_01_88c4aa88-mkv_snapshot_16-58_2013-04-06_15-02-49Ultimately, though, Aku no Hana is a show without love. No character, not even Kasuga’s parents show love for anyone else. Love is not a concept that exists in that world. Kasuga and Nakamura are selfish in their desire to destroy society to find their own paradise. Nakamura only uses Kasuga to not feel alone in her journey. Saeki only does that which she feels is expected over her, she never loves Kasuga, she only loves being in love and the freedom from responsibility that Kasuga represents. The classmates of these three only care for their own interests and rain mockery and cruelty on those who defy the social order. Kasuga’s father, seeing him in distress, remarks only “he must be at that age” and returns to his TV. His mother only wants him to behave so that she is not seen as not doing her motherly duty. No character ever reaches out to another in love, no empathy is shared, no charity is shown, no true frienship is given. There is only self. There is only darkness.

In the end, the questions about Kasuga, Saeki, and Nakamura that are not yet answered make a deep statement about the world they, and by extension, we live in. The animation style shows us that this is fantasy, yet this is also our world. Our own answers to these questions make us who we are and shape our being. If you want to experience this as well, go watch Aku no Hana.

Rating: ★★★★½

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