FEATURE: What Makes The Existential Dread Of Flowers of Evil Work So Well?
The flower bloomed
Flowers of Evil is a story that grapples with difficult material: adolescent perversion, bullying, depression, and self-harm. But when the anime adaptation aired in the spring of 2013, the topic du jour was the rotoscoping. Director Hiroshi Nagahama and crew made the decision not to simply replicate the character designs from the manga but to adapt them via an aesthetic designed to make the viewer uncomfortable. The final character models, based on real-life actors playing the parts in each scene, evoke the uncanny valley between fleshy humans and simple, noseless anime characters. Critics couldn’t make up their minds: was the Flowers of Evil anime "an utter trainwreck?" A masterpiece that looks and sounds like no other anime ever made? Or a bundle of great ideas foiled — or, perversely, strengthened — by bad execution?
With the passage of time, we can look back on Flowers of Evil as it was, rather than what it could or should have been. For instance, we can discuss how wild it is that they managed to convince both Noko, the lead vocalist of underground rock band Shinsei Kamattechan, and Mariko Goto, lead vocalist of jazz-punk band Midori, to guest on the show’s theme song. We can discuss how the show predicts Nagahama’s future career, with later projects like The Reflection and Uzumaki stretching the boundaries of what is traditionally considered “anime.” But today, we’re going to talk about how the series develops its setting: a small town in Gunma prefecture surrounded by mountains.
Flowers of Evil’s backgrounds were created by Studio Pablo, one of the most famous background art studios of the past decade. Their sizable body of work includes contributions to shows like Penguindrum, Revue Starlight, and Sonny Boy. But nothing else they’ve ever done looks as worn, rusty, and scummy as their work on Flowers of Evil. This is not a story set in the exciting Tokyo neighborhoods or picturesque tourist spots of other Japanese anime. It lacks the nostalgic haze that livens up FLCL’s crappy town of Mabase. The signs are bent. The metal is rusty. The roads are dark. It’s an old town, a dying town. A town that, in the eyes of the protagonist Kasuga, is festering with evil.
Each shot in the first episode is framed in the most oppressive way possible. Here, Kasuga is framed through the iron bars of a fence. There, Kasuga and his friends are held within the reflection of a traffic mirror pole. The structure of the episode itself is repetitive, so as to drive home the banality of each day. The same city landmarks repeat. Even Kasuga himself notices, taking a moment at the doors of his school to look away toward the mountains. What lies beyond those mountains? In the anime adaptation’s 13 episodes, the viewer will never find out.
It’s not hard to recognize and even sympathize with Kasuga’s feelings of alienation. Unfortunately, Kasuga is a jerk. He believes himself to be better than his classmates because he’s read Charles Baudelaire. He crushes helplessly on his classmate Saeki, revering her as a saint, but then steals her gym clothes and wails about it. Depending on your perspective, you might see Kasuga as awful, sympathetic, or even ridiculous. But he is understandable because, from the very first episode, we are taught to see the world through his eyes. The rust, the back alleys, the faded brown signs. The environments of Flowers of Evil reflect an outlook. They are the show’s ace in the hole, an empathy generation device constructed through careful world-building. It is through this world that we learn the stakes.
Flowers of Evil is a horror story. There are no monsters or killers. The horror is far more banal. It is the horror that Kasuga feels as he walks the same route to school each day. It is the horror that torments Kasuga’s tormentor and friend Nakamura as she futilely looks beyond the mountains surrounding their town. They act out because they are horny teenagers, but also because they are afraid. The fear that drives them is the fear of suffocation. The fear that the world is a locked box and that there is no other option but to die without ever being understood. That in the spring of youth, there will be nothing else.
It’s a distinctly adolescent nihilism, the fear that nothing will ever matter. It’s a fear I can’t help but remember from my own teenage years — the feeling of walking through a dark train tunnel, futilely searching for the exit while knowing you might never make it to the end. Flowers of Evil grapples directly with this nihilism but refuses to be defined by it. The world built by Studio Pablo, Hiroshi Nagahama, and his crew is infected by Kasuga’s fears and biases, but it is not his. With time we learn that his crush Saeki is not a saint but an ordinary person. We learn that Kasuga and Nakamura, who are convinced nobody will ever understand them, are capable through great effort of understanding each other and sharing each other’s joy. Were the Flowers of Evil anime renewed for a second or third season, we would learn that the story of the comic is not a tragedy but a coming of age story.
The ultimate cruelty of the Flowers of Evil anime adaptation is that we were never given that second or third season. Kasuga and Nakamura remain trapped by those mountains, left hanging between liberty and despair. I couldn’t help but be frustrated when I first saw the show’s final episode. Now, I think about the mountains surrounding my own life. The melting of the ice caps, the instability of democracy in the United States and abroad, the societal inequality that enriches a few and abandons many more to suffer and die. Just like the last episode of Flowers of Evil is haunted by flashes of future catharsis deferred, the years in which we live are stalked by visions of an ending. I remind myself: surrounded by those mountains, Kasuga and Nakamura are friends. Is that enough? I don’t know.
What’s your favorite anime that made you feel bad? Are you excited for Hiroshi Nagahama’s new series Uzumaki? Have you listened to Mariko Goto’s wild album Aratamemashite, hajimemashite, Midori desu? Let us know in the comments!
Adam W is a Features Writer at Crunchyroll. When he isn't thinking about Shinsei Kamattechan, he sporadically contributes with a loose coalition of friends to a blog called Isn't it Electrifying? You can find him on Twitter at: @wendeego
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