Flowers of Evil seems to stand outside anime, looking at it suspiciously, as it does its own thing. To be fair, it does exist within the same universe; this isn’t some avant-garde work that has nothing in common with it. But what’s refreshing about this series is how it takes the stock elements of a school series and then constantly corrupts them, makes them perverse. If Flowers of Evil doesn’t qualify as an all-out attack on the institution of the school anime, it’s simply because it’s still a part of that genre. Whereas before the emotions of characters have been normal, cute ones about growing up and first loves; now, everything that bubbles to the surface is nasty and dark. Instead of celebrating the “mono no aware” of youth or whatever, it sets out to corrupt that image through the subversion of school anime archetypes and its aesthetic daring (in its pacing and animation).
The story as done in another manner could seem like the beginning of a fun ecchi adventure. Kasuga has a crush on Saeki. One day he feels overwhelmed by his feelings and steals her gym uniform. However, Nakamura, a supremely anti-social classmate, catches him, and they enter into a contract together so his secret won’t be revealed. Taken at face level, that plot description could head into many directions, and be approached/portrayed in many different ways. What’s important is that this is a stock situation that can be molded into basically anything. This is a School Anime Template.
In Flowers of Evil, we get a clinic on genre deconstruction. All the elements that you’re familiar with, that you might latch on to, are either missing or deployed in a way that pushes them out of our comfort zones. You’re used to fun sidekicks who liven up the more dramatic moments? Our hero’s “best friend” is a non-entity who constantly annoys, picks on, or ignores Kasuga. You’re used to the most popular girl being basically perfect and somehow still having a crush on loser protagonist? Our hero’s “dream girl” is subjected to the madonna-whore complex, and reveals all her worst insecurities and comes out as pathetic as everyone else. You want slice of life trademarks such as the empty classroom after school, the walk home, roll call? Every single one of those is treated mundanely and shown in their utter banality (the 1st episode is basically all about this). You want crushes, some drama, something cute that goes down easy? Look somewhere else.
While that deconstruction is admirable and interesting, Flowers of Evil’s status as a masterpiece resides in its aesthetics. After a ton of rotoscope jokes, what we are left with is the work itself. Why is the aesthetic so essential to the effects of Flowers of Evil? I believe it’s another attempt by the creators to take what is cliché and obvious and de-familiarize it. You’ve seen shows with these same plot elements, but you haven’t seen it done this way. I believe that as anime fans, we’ve become used to certain things out of series, not only tonally, but also aesthetically. So, when something comes along that upends all the rules and conventions that we’re used to, it feels strange.
Flowers of Evil’s pacing is undeniably slow when compared to other Spring 2013 shows. However, I think most of the artistic forebears of this show aren’t to be found in anime, but, rather, Japanese live-action films such as Harmful Insect, All About Lily Chou-Chou or Nobody Knows. These are works that can be both understated and yet ferocious. Chou-Chou in particular is both incredibly serious and yet intensely poetic and often dreamlike, which are adjectives that can apply to Flowers of Evil as well. Time and time again the show will return to basic setups and images throughout the series, like they’re some kind of refrain, as it takes a break from the main narrative action. They often highlight the decaying nature of the town where the protagonists live in, and that seems to mirror the moral state of the characters. But, even then, I don’t feel this is an impossibly slow show – every episode is filled with incident, drama, even small bits of humor. Even the ostensible “slow” parts are not meant to be taken at face value, they’re valuable artistic choices. The slow walk home at the start of episode 8 is just as much of a bravura moment as the classroom freakout of episode 7. It’s beautiful and hypnotic in a way that most anime wouldn’t even dare. But it’s an absolutely essential moment: both characters need that space, that silence, to register what they’ve done. What I hope comes across is that the deliberate pacing isn’t there because the studio somehow failed to make it entertaining; it’s a valid choice for a certain mood and tone.
In a sea of homogenous anime, Flowers of Evil was always going to stand out. Like a sore thumb, it’s a reminder that just because it’s anime, it doesn’t have to be cute or moe or whatever else is popular right now. But it isn’t ugly. This is ultimately my biggest problem with the reception that this show has gotten. Not once did I find the rotoscoping to be ugly or dull or unimaginative. Aesthetically, this show is actually quite restrained. Its animation is mostly committed to capturing the mundane banality of the character’s life – empty city streets, darkened rooms, ambiguous facial expressions. The series’ genius is that it saves its stylistic coups; episode 7’s classroom freakout is so powerful because it comes as a release after episode after episode of restraint.
It’s possible that Flowers of Evil doesn’t add up to much in the final analysis. Is there a point to all this angst and creepiness outside of the subversion that I’ve outlined? It’s hard to tell. There are certain thematic strands that are explored throughout, but that might be a topic for another post. What’s certain is that a series like this in the current 2013 anime climate is an anomaly and its effects are powerful and singular enough to merit close analysis (not rash dismissal). Love it or hate it, Flowers of Evil has a way of getting under your skin.
How to Find It
This series has been licensed by Sentai Filmworks and it can be currently streamed through Crunchyroll.
Flowers of Evil (2013)