In a way, it seems only fitting that Zexcs chose to bring a manga that revels in the ugliness of human nature with an incredibly ugly visual style. On the other, there’s no denying that Aku no Hana is a really, really ugly anime to look at. In a medium that’s dominated by sanitized images of teenagers as almost unfailingly pretty and flawless of feature perhaps that’s not such a bad thing, but it doesn’t make the experience any more pleasant.
The irony is, I was already torn about watching this series in the first place, having read the manga, because while it possesses a sort of dark brilliance it’s definitely not pleasant to read. And Zexcs have managed to overshadow that with an intrusive and almost total reliance on rotoscoping. Effectively they seem to be trying to mount a live-action adaptation of Oshimi Shuuzou’s manga without paying to do so, but the result is a bit of a visual nightmare – faces disappearing at a distance, ghastly character designs (even from a girl whose beauty is an essential plot point) – leaving me to wonder how much of this is intentionally jarring and how much of it is just plain ugly.
The man directing this weirdness is Nagahama Hiroshi, who brought the sublime Mushishi adaptation to the screen, and while there are elements of his spartan narrative and visual style that shine through, the experience is starkly different. The anime does a fine job of communicating the simmering unease in the story, the sense of impending disaster. As is the manga, the anime is by design an unpleasant place to be – following the mundane existence of tiresome adolescents and reveling in the restless unhappiness of its lead, Kasuga Takao (19 year-old newcomer Ueda Shinichirou, suitably naturalistic). A typically self-absorbed adolescent with delusions of grandeur, he absorbs himself in the poetry of Baudelaire and fosters a white-hot crush on class idol Saeki Nanako (Hikasa Youko).
Most of the premiere is spent obsessing over the minute details of Kasuga’s routine and of the dreary small town in which he lives, but we get a brief taste of the real driver of events in the story – Nakamura Sawa (Ise Mariya, a long way from Killua here) when she calls her teacher a “piece of shit” after he mocks her for handing in a blank math test. I think even if you hadn’t read the manga you’d have a pretty good idea from the premiere that some crazy shit is coming down the pike, and that’s a credit to Nagahama-sensei’s direction. The whole experience is unsettling, and I suppose the relentlessly displeasing visuals play into that. The question again is, how much of that is intentional and how much of it is just plain ugly?
It’s certainly no exaggeration to say I’m still torn about Aku no Hana. I didn’t have an especially strong desire to see the events of the manga – the reading of which is already an act of masochism – brought to life, and I don’t especially enjoy the visual experience of the anime. But it’s certainly about as far from anime formula as you’re going to get, and that counts for something. This entire production could hardly be more strange, and everyone is going to have to decide for themselves both whether they want to endure it and whether the results in anime form are artistic choices or incompetence.