Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Flowers of Evil
Sub.Blu-Ray - Complete Collection
Kasuga is different from his classmates, different from everyone in his town. Unlike his boring peers, he is an intellectual - he reads difficult poetry, and longs for escape from his dreary existence. The one bright spot in his world is his beautiful classmate Saeki, a girl he knows is just as pure and angelic as he imagines her to be. Unfortunately, Kasuga himself is not pure - and when he's caught stealing Saeki's gym clothes by his sadistic classmate Nakamura, Kasuga's journey into perversion and evil begins. The flower bloomed. It was terribly afraid of the wind…
The Flowers of Evil is not an easy show to watch. It's slow, heavy, and oppressive, at times almost physically uncomfortable. It unwinds stressfully, building a tension you can feel in your bones, like the memory of an unkind comment you wish could take back. It's not “fun” - it is not media as light entertainment, it is media as sharp experience. And in spite of that - or, actually, because of that - it is a triumph. The Flowers of Evil is one of the best shows you will never want to watch again.
Arriving in 2013, The Flowers of Evil was one of several shows that year (along with My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU and Watamote) that didn't lionize the teenage loner, as is so common in anime, but instead harshly interrogated it. Its protagonist Kasuga thinks of himself as a philosopher, an artist - he reads difficult poetry and reveres Baudelaire, complaining to himself how no one in his crummy little town could possibly understand him. When his friends tell him he's no better than them, he counters with a petulant “Wrong! I read books! Do you even understand literature?” He knows he is better than those around him, and feels constantly constricted by the withered edges of his run-down home.
Outside of his poetry, the one thing Kasuga idolizes is his classmate Saeki. He doesn't see her as a person - though he clearly possesses feelings for her, he refers to her as his “muse,” and harshly protests any implication that she might have unlovely human attributes or sexual urges of any kind. But when Kasuga finds himself alone with Saeki's gym clothes after school, his own human urges take over, and he steals her uniform. And when his strange classmate Nakamura announces she saw him steal them, and that this clearly demonstrates he's a sick pervert who must now do everything she asks him to, Kasuga's agonizing journey into shame, self-scouring, and the search for a human identity begins. His pain is our pain - as each turn of the narrative brings him to a new moment of awkward drama, we wince and grind our teeth, but can't look away. It is a horror story told one agonizing adolescent embarrassment at a time.
The Flowers of Evil is a show about outsiders, intimacy, invasion, youth. Its characters are all obsessed with who they are and how they appear, and can't define themselves without the aid of others telling them who they're supposed to be. Nakamura demands constant, petty sacrifices of self-image from Kasuga, poking at his limits, determined to make him into someone who validates her own feelings of isolation and disconnect. And Kasuga in turn capitulates to her bullying, his self-styled identity as the poet-king too false and fragile to withstand the conviction of a deeply unhappy person who's far more strong-willed than himself. In fact, Kasuga even secretly welcomes it - though his internal monologues lament the wretchedness of his situation, it's clear that on some level he revels in the awful struggle he is making of his life (“I'll spend the rest of my life atoning for my crime!”), and embraces the thought of being defined by another. By the end of the show, even Saeki is proven to be far less than the others have built her up to be - though Kasuga sees her as a perfect person, in The Flowers of Evil, everyone is empty, everyone is hurting, everyone needs to be told that they are worth loving. That they are unique. That they are whole. Anxiety and self-doubt are everywhere, and in the mind of an insecure teenager, the future just looks like an endless expansion of the present's oppressive pain. “Sometimes I think there's nothing over those mountains,” Nakamura muses, doubting the one thing that gives meaning to her senseless isolation. “Maybe that's where the world ends, and everything else is just an inky black mess that goes on forever.”
The direction, pacing, and overall production of The Flowers of Evil do tremendous work in articulating and validating the mindspace of these characters. Though Kasuga's paranoid internal monologue is a constant, it's really through the aesthetics that Flowers of Evil tells its story. Characters are framed from sidelong, repeated angles, with the environment of Kasuga's hometown acting as a main character in its own right. The protagonists appear as distant figures spied on through mirrors and around street corners, and specific repeated shots help hammer in the monotony of Kasuga's world. The controversial choice of rotoscoping the show's characters is alternately off-putting and beautiful, but it certainly works - there's a sterility and uncomfortable intimacy to these designs that would be difficult to achieve in either full animation or traditional live action. The show makes great use of its designs by alternating its alienating distant shots with a bevy of uncomfortable close-ups, as well as both high- and low-angle shots intended to evoke shame, paranoia, or even triumph. And the beautiful backgrounds make Kasuga's protestations about his town tangibly real - his town looks like a dirty watercolor left out in the rain, a beautiful squalor that perfectly mirrors his mental space. The visual world of Flowers of Evil is the poetic desolation Kasuga seeks.
Beyond the shots themselves, Flowers of Evil's pacing is, to put it mildly, measured to the point of insanity. How many shows would spend half an episode simply tracking its characters as they trudge wordlessly through the streets and alleys of their town? One episode might ring with inspiring, cathartic speeches on youth and identity (“Tell me these things! I'll accept you!”), while the next contains barely ten sentences. And yet in the context of Flowers of Evil, these endless, wordless sequences are actually perfectly appropriate, and even some of the highlights of the show. They provide necessary relief, releasing the tension the show is constantly building. The Flowers of Evil's understanding of tension and release is painted not across single episodes, but across the tapestry of the whole production - it has absolute confidence, and moves like a symphony, with repeated visual refrains building in intensity as they rise and subside.
These lengthy segments of building and ebbing tension wouldn't work at all without Flowers of Evil's equally tremendous soundtrack. The Flowers of Evil uses a combination of invasive ambient noise (hushed conversations, the rustling of the blooming flowers, creaking doors and hinges) and tense single chords to alternately evoke longing, anxiety, exhaustion, or fear. Gentle, isolated piano keys strike softly over extended, building electronic tones, and as every episode ends, the haunting spoken-word ending song casts a heavy veil over the events to come. The production of this show is so carefully and effectively composed that it's no surprise The Flowers of Evil comes from the same director as Mushishi, though the two shows couldn't be more different in narrative content.
Fortunately, The Flowers of Evil isn't all heavy, or at least doesn't permanently trap you in its characters' headspace. Though Flowers of Evil uses its production to evoke the anxious personal worlds they are living in, the show itself is actually positioned somewhere beyond that young perspective. Its sense of humor and affection for the trials of youth come through in the way it constantly places outsiders in the camera frame, often staring in either confusion or mild amusement at the protagonists as they go about their youthful, self-important dramas. It'll show up in the way Kasuga collapses in a yodeling heap at Nakamura's appearance, or the camera focusing on a couple walking their dog as Kasuga flails past in anguish, or the choice to depict Kasuga having a bucket of water dumped on him from not one, not two, but somewhere around twelve separate angles. The show is a dark and heavy thing, but if there's a light at the end of the tunnel, it's most clearly seen in the direction's cheeky ways of undercutting how seriously its protagonists take their teenage struggles.
Not to say that The Flowers of Evil doesn't take its characters seriously. All of its beautiful execution, all of its heartfelt speeches, all of its slow-building suspense - everything this show constructs works in service of demonstrating the personal truth of the fears and anxieties these characters live with. Because the viewer is trapped so completely in the heads of Kasuga, Nakamura, and Saeki, their pleas to “see what's on the other side of the mountain” or “be made beautiful” ring painfully true. And because the show is so wincingly effective at evoking the tension of their lives, when the release comes, it is a staggeringly cathartic experience. The Flowers of Evil builds up to moments of true, unquestionable beauty throughout its run - scenes like Kasuga and Nakamura desecrating their classroom, Saeki's plea for understanding to Kasuga's bedroom, or Kasuga's dream-walk through the flowers are as beautiful and emotionally charged as anything this medium can produce. Growing up is a painful experience, and discovering your identity can be an agonizing trial, but those brief moments of understanding in a sea of missed connections shimmer like gold.
I have very little to complain about regarding The Flowers of Evil. Occasionally, I felt the show's tendency to shift to complete freeze-frames for several seconds drew too much attention to itself. The subtitles of the blu-ray edition are an obtrusive, old-school yellow, and the disc comes with no extras. There is no English language track, so your only choice is to listen to the fantastic, harrowing performances by this show's Japanese leads, performances ably matched by the physical acting rotoscoping demands. The show ends with a cathartic montage and an unbearably cruel “Part 1: End” instead of a true conclusion, begging the existence of a sequel that may never come. I hope these complaints sound as niggling and insignificant as I intend them to.
The Flowers of Evil is one of the best shows of recent years, an absurdly confident mood piece with a uniquely effective aesthetic and a true understanding of and sympathy for the emotional trials of youth. It should be watched by anyone interested in the potential of animation for conveying human truth.
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : A+
Music : A+
+ A staggering work with an almost painfully effective control of atmosphere; wonderful direction, sound design, and performances; a one-of-a-kind production.
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