Like any medium, anime is rife with successes and failures. Some titles go on to become internationally acclaimed. Others fall into benign obscurity. And others still end up outright reviled. Flowers of Evil falls (unfortunately) into the last category.
Flowers of Evil -- or Aku no Hana -- was one of the most discussed releases of 2013. However, it was a hot topic for all the wrong reasons. Between the artistic style, the unlikeable cast of characters and the subject matter, viewers found little with the series to praise, and more than enough to criticize. However -- and despite overwhelming initial response -- Flowers of Evil is a title with plenty to offer.
Flowers of Evil follows middle schooler Kasuga Takao. Quiet by nature, Kasuga has few friends, a penchant for reading -- especially Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal -- and a romantic infatuation with Saeki Nanako, the most popular girl in his class. After school one day, Kasuga steals Saeki's gym uniform. He is witnessed by Nakamura Sawa, the class's surly misfit. Under threat of revealing what he's done, she blackmails Kasuga into entering a contract with her. Although he's subjected to several psychological games, Kasuga comes to form a significant bond with Nakamura as the story progresses.
Looking at the plot alone, Flowers of Evil has a great deal in common with most coming-of-age narratives. However, the series is actually far removed from almost every preceding coming-of-age anime on a number of levels.
Flowers of Evil is the first anime series to be animated using only rotoscoping techniques. Rotoscoping is an animation process wherein an animator traces over live motion footage frame by frame. Once compiled, the resultant action appears more fluid and lifelike. Innovative as it was, the choice to render the series via rotoscoping proved controversial, particularly with fans of the original manga. Some of the harsher critics of the series found the rotoscoping effect not only off-putting but even comedic, consequently undermining the narrative.
While the animation style is at the forefront of most of the series' criticisms, viewers were also taken aback by Flowers of Evil's disquieting, overtly adult subject matter and unlikeable core cast. That said, for all of their negative reception, each of these devices works together to create a compelling (if disconcerting) narrative the likes of which puts even today's most popular titles to shame.
It's true that Flowers of Evil is a coming-of-age story. However, it has much more in common thematically with a psychological thriller than a typical school-based drama. The games to which Nakamura subjects Kasuga are creepy and genuinely disturbing. An especially upsetting example occurred when Nakamura forced Kasuga to wear Saeki's gym clothes -- the very same clothes he stole -- under his own while on a date with Saeki. Disconcerting as these events are, they force both Kasuga and Nakamura into situations where their true natures are revealed, subsequently creating a story that's darkly human and insidiously gripping.
Additionally, Flowers of Evil hosts a principal cast that, while not necessarily likable, feels more authentically human. People in the real world are not always likable. It's hardly a pioneering concept, but it bears repeating: real human beings are complicated -- and the core characters of Flowers of Evil are meant to encapsulate and display that complexity, even the dislikable parts. What's more, it's no accident that the creative team behind the series employed a style of animation meant to look more realistic to depict characters who are supposed to emulate real people -- even if their actions can be extremely disturbing.
Much like Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, the anime adaptation of Flowers of Evil was very much a victim of its time. The series was unfairly panned and has had to struggle to gain its well-deserved legitimacy for the better part of a decade. The subject matter may well leave viewers unsettled, while the rotoscoping animation style can prove polarizing if not flatly objectionable. Nonetheless, Flowers of Evil is a story that incorporates the best parts of numerous -- seemingly disparate -- genres, delivering them in a way that's essential for audiences to experience.