Flowers of Evil (TV)

Director Hiroshi Nagahama is certainly no stranger to polarizing material. Mushi-Shi is a solemn and thoughtful show in the same vein as Kino's Journey that some people find is the best sleep aid they've ever had. The Detroit Metal City OAV boasts a crowd who find its brutal, vulgar, savage comedy absolutely hilarious, while the other side simply finds it ugly as sin. What is consistent is Nagahama knows exactly what to do with the material he's given and the material he chooses is generally so off the beaten path that it can sometimes requires a machete to navigate through. Somewhere in-between the two series is Flowers of Evil, a title that deals with the both the emotional throes and quiet desperation of rebellious youth in a quiet town where anyone out of place is isolated and shunned.

It's safe to say there's hardly anything like this series. The animation drags up a style that hasn't been commonly utilized since the eighties. Its atmosphere occasionally evokes David Lynch, with hardly the use of dream logic or imagery David Lynch is known for. The entire experience sets out to create something lurid and disconcerting in an average, everyday world, which only makes it more uncomfortable.

Takeo Kasuga is a bookworm who casually blends into his group of nerdy friends. His debates with his buddies about such things as zombie movies are only interrupted when he stares longingly at his classmate Saeki and turns his face away in embarrassment when she notices. This portrait of an average high school student continues for most of the first episode until he returns to school to pick up a book he forgot and discovers Saeki's gym clothes have tumbled to floor. In an act of lust, he steals them and begins to fall down a very deep hole of delusion and denial.

His theft is seen by classmate Nakamura, a devious girl with demonic red hair and a smile that would creep out the Grinch. She promises not to out him as a pervert to his class in exchange for entering into a contract with her. The catch is he has to be honest with himself and to her about who he really is and he has to slowly pull off the mask he's created for society, or else face punishment that threatens to destroy his life.

What transpires is a love triangle that starts out almost like a film noir, oddly enough. Nakamura is obviously the femme fatale who wants to take Takeo on a trip to the dark side of things away from his "angel" Saeki, though Takeo states on multiple occasions that he wants Saeki to be his femme fatale, appearing to incorrectly use the phrase. It's a bit of foreshadowing, but not in the way you think it is. He commits what he feels is a terrible act that will ostracize him from his peers, and while having many opportunities to set things straight or get away with his act, his own temptations and ego drive him into walking a tightrope that constantly gets thinner.

Instead of going for the usual animation approach, the characters in the series are rotoscoped, with live-action footage traced into animation. The surroundings also seem to be footage of real places filtered and stylized. It takes some getting used to, but the makers thankfully give multiple long shots in the first episode to get the viewer acquainted with the style. The result is the characters have proper human expressions and movement, but they also have a certain jerkiness or blemish in how they look and move to make them feel a bit off to the viewer, a reaction that is likely intended. It takes what could easily be a live-action drama to a deeper visual level that only animation can accomplish. What's probably less intended is many of the shots where the characters are a fair distance away and their faces awkwardly disappear. It's used to good effect occasionally, but more than a few times, it's distracting and seems more like a cutscene from the old game Another World (AKA Out of This World). The buildings have the rusted signs and faded murals of a small town with the repetition of the same angles day after day as Takeo would experience it. The occasional animated scenery such as a stream will pop up now and then with an odd hyper realism to make the scene stand out from the rest of the episode.

If your barometer for a series' cast is that you like them, then Flowers of Evil might be a hard sell. It's a drama that seeks to be absolutely honest about the people who dwell within it, and initially they are the sort where their sympathetic sides are hard to find. Takeo's a hypocrite who usually tries to take the path of least resistance whenever he can. Nakamura is brash, unpleasant, and confrontational with everyone she has to deal with. The rougher edges of Saeki come into play later, but let's just say she has some genuinely surprising sides. But there is a method to all of this madness. The author of the manga makes a brief appearance as a still caricature at the end of every episode with short messages, and the most oddly resonant is, "Does this remind you of your own adolescence?" Unlike most nostalgia trips, the series cuts the halcyon days crap and gets to the awkward and  embarrassing parts of the teenage years some don't care to remember. The repressed sexual urges, the stifling fear of social rejection, and the arrogant philosophies and ideals made by teens without nearly enough experience to back them up. If Takeo's words and thoughts seem inconsistent and annoyingly pretentious, episode ten contains revelations you might want to see. It would be easy to dismiss these characters if there wasn't a piece or two of them that are relatable. If you find yourself completely unable to relate to anyone's experiences in this show, well, I envy you.

To Nagahama's credit, the characters are tuned at just the right level. Any further tweaks one way or the other would make them either unbelievable or unsalvageable as human beings. The series finds itself on a similarly controlled balance. The first two-thirds work on the level of a teenager going through severe emotional spikes. Occasionally assisted by a murmuring minimalist score that only breaks out when the feelings of the characters cannot be contained, it emphasizes that there's always some kind of emotion gnawing at the stomach of these teenagers, and it's often heightened to a level that feels beyond their control. The last four episodes don't take so much of a gigantic story turn as they simply bring a blast of cold reality to everyone. Their delusions removed, they find reality isn't as terrible as they fear it to be, though it isn't as kind as they would like, either. Their blinders are also removed to where they actually see everyone else as themselves and not through the fog of their personal angst.

This series inspires plenty of intelligent thoughts, so is it a masterpiece? Mostly. Obviously, it will turn many off through disgust or boredom, but it is carefully put together and everything has its place and purpose. It is a complete artistic expression, but it is not without a few missteps. Every episode's opening music theme is a rotating array of ironically peppy and standard J-Pop songs. They fit in a weird way, but on occasion, there will be a prologue that lasts up to five minutes or so that delicately sets the mood, and these songs are like a kid clashing cymbals while someone's trying to concentrate on painting a small detail. They greatly contrast the absolutely perfect ending theme that picks up the unsettled feelings the episode is laying down.

Another thing that drags it down a bit is the show maybe loves its scenes of quiet isolation too much. They're molded perfectly to convey  loneliness, dread, or even a special moment that is shared between two people when the entire world is sleeping. However, they are stretched to the point where almost half the content of an episode is two characters walking together. No matter how important of a moment it is, the time spent on it is rather excessive.

Also of note is the conclusion which doesn't quite stick its landing. Oh, it finds the right ending to the season, but instead of leaving it at that, the last five minutes act as a sales pitch for a second season that will likely never come. The flashes to the future promise something intriguing and even more daring, but like the opening themes, it is disruptive to the finale and it doesn't quite leave the story on the right thought.

All things considered, Flowers of Evil is a rewarding series for those who get hooked in. It has the trimmings of a title that would be considered "difficult," but it knows what it is and what it's doing, and doesn't mask its identity from the audience for the sake of self-importance. Obviously, it's not made to get a large following, but there are literally hundreds anime produced that cater to the masses, and if you're looking for something for that one that boldly declares itself as an individual, this is likely a title to treasure.


Popular Posts