Warning: Aku no Hana has heavy subjects in its narrative, such as suicide, violence and sexual assault.
Aku no Hana (Flowers of Evil) by Shūzō Oshimi is a complex series (both the manga and anime) to describe to people. The main character is noted as either being a terrible person in the worse moments and a malleable pushover in his best moments. Out of the two female leads, you have a decadent pervert who seems full of hate and scorn, and a popular girl who is willing to be abused and to abuse others. The anime adaption is often critiqued for showing this story through rotoscope. A story that contains eroticism, attempted suicide, themes of mental health, assault, and a resolution that I understand doesn’t satisfy many as it is left for the reader to decide.
And I fully enjoy it.
All as the flowers of evil slowly bloom.
For all its parts it is a story full of terrible people doing terrible things, and those people happen to be our main characters. Maybe because of that description… I have always loved Aku no Hana as a sort of modern masterpiece. I could perhaps write piece after piece on the entirety of the series (and I still might?). But I will try to leave this one as a broad overview. A somewhat concrete starting point for anything else I might do.
Now Aku no Hana takes its name from the book of collected poems written by 19th-century poet Charles Baudelaire titled Les Fleurs Du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). The book relies heavily on female imagery serving as symbolism, as well the what we can call scarring ones soul. Bringing yourself to societal lows to avoid conformist boredom and thus rising above the chosen mundane lives of those who do conform.
I sadly do not have the time to examine in its totality how many different ways Baudelaire’s work relates to Aku no Hana. But it works well as a perfect summation of the road the characters end up on and what their drive is. Now when approaching Aku no Hana let us be clear about one thing, there are no good characters for the majority of the series (despite what a lot of people think there is a good character but not until the latter half). No, we are forced to follow degenerates in what is a struggle of adolescent boredom and isolationism. And more importantly, forced happiness.
For a brief primer on what the series covers, it follows middle school bookworm Takao Kasuga. Kasuga’s favorite book happens to be Les Fleur Du Mal. His a crush on the popular and attractive girl Nanako Saeki, results in him stealing her gym clothes. A crime witnessed by the normally quiet and rude Sawa Nakamura.
Nakamura proceeds to blackmail Kasuga into entering a contract with her to do whatever she wants or she will expose his secret. Kasuga’s dread of this outcome ramps up as he has luckily begun to date Saeki and doesn’t want to jeopardize it. What begins as a story about bullying though, quickly changes as he starts to enjoy his time with Nakamura. Her deviancy and social disdain resonating with him on a hidden level he was not aware of himself. Meanwhile Nakamura begins to become appreciative of how perverted and wicked Kasuga secretly is, causing her to finally feels less alone but ultimately deciding that no matter what her loneliness will return. This boils up the feelings in Saeki, who is confused as to why he would want to spend all his time with Nakamura.
Now, all this brings in a huge theme of the series. That is the shell created by forced happiness (which in term can be read as social conformity). Nakamura repressed her terrible side until she met Kasuga. This repression and eventual freedom is exhilarating for her. The titular flowers of evil begin to bloom in them all. Nakamura calls those who conform, who hide their flowers, shit bugs and looks down on them. Because to her the evil that she and Kasuga demonstrate through the series is the evil that everyone has but never acts on. Kasuga is shown delighting in the new avenues that Nakamura shows him after a while. He no longer is a shit eater. He is above it now. Kasuga can see the world for what it is for his flower is blooming. This dynamic of savior and devotee is what ends up creating a relationship where all of their actions are for each other. Codependency of the degenerate perverted duo makes their interactions… so amazing to view! Sorry if that is a bit morbid; but the series presents it in such an encapsulating new way that you can’t help but want to see where the madness that Nakamura spreads to a willing Kasuga takes them.
Kasuga, who’s perception is slowly warped and that is why I think that the rotoscope works for it. Rotoscope is an animation technique in which animators draw over pre-filmed footage. It is commonly used to portray more lifelike movement and a bit of a surreal feeling.
But for Aku no Hana the rotoscope is meant to capture the conflict of perception for the characters. How as people we exist as 2D personas on complex 3D rigs. The intricacy of human interaction is displayed in full alongside the fake layer of conformity. It shows the mundane slow moments that traditional media skips over. In essence, it shows how boring not only life, but you are. Painting over actions, interactions, and chores like we all do. These activities also highlight Nakamura‘s loneliness and the loneliness of the simple act of existing has for some.
Aku no Hana asks what do we consider knowing another person? Just because you work or go to school with someone, does it mean you know them?
In any other story, Nakamura would be a manic pixie dream girl. She would swoop into the life of our main character and teach him the strength of who is on the inside. Complete with whimsy and playful charm.
But she is not.
Nakamura seems cruel yet loving to Kasuga. She cares for no one who doesn’t add to her enjoyment. Those who degrade themselves for her pleasure. Those with a fear of a single sin (social guffaw) running their entire life socially. The fear that everything is terrible but you wouldn’t want it any worse, so every minor error is crushing. The fear of being damaged goods. The allure of giving into to temptation but the drawback of being socially scoured for it. The strength of the narrative is that Kasuga is repugnant if you don’t pay attention to the sub-story of him being pitiful.
Nakamura is the anti-manic pixie dream girl. She is a character filled with teenage angst but also semi self-realization.
And it all ties well into the flowers that they each have. The act of flowers blooming, of young teens growing, is traditionally a beautiful one. It is considered a massive moment of growth leading to ones true and adapted self. So what if what blooms is terrifying? Full of constant hatred and a desire for violence? A need to embarrass or abuse all those around it?
What if the flower that we grow into is rotten at its very core?
I am not going to spoil Aku no Hana’s ending. It is a grim and raw story that thrives on watching someone turned sour and questioning themself. But I will say that the ending has a satisfaction unique to itself. Where you can see a young man who‘s journey let him realize he was perverted and broken. That he had someone who emboldened him to be horrid, another person who believed he was more than what he was tempted to do, and a person who believes in his future.
I can’t recommend Aku no Hana for everyone. But I say if you would like to enjoy something very different, given its genre and mediums, check it out. The anime is a bit easier to enjoy as it doesn’t have some of the more heavy moments of the manga, but the manga’s story is fuller and has an amazing ending.
Just be ready for what lies ahead.