Flowers of Evil

December 7, 2023 · 0 comments

By Andrew Osmond.

Anime is often compared to live-action cinema. If so, Flowers of Evil is the cultish indy film, whose moody images sing with the torments of alienated schoolkids. It has dollops of black comedy, moments of painful lyricism, and a real human sympathy under the cruelty.

Few other anime feel so likea live-action indie, for Flowers of Evil was filmed in live-action, with the animation painted on afterward. It’s reality, just a bit out of joint. The story – of one screwed-up teenager who falls under the thumb of another – is told subjectively, yet with the assurance that it could happen, and maybe has somewhere in the world.

In some ways, it’s familiar anime territory, about what happens when a boy meets a really strange girl. Takao Kasuga is the withdrawn schoolboy – contemptuous, with the arrogance of the deeply lonely, of his porn-watching, sex-joking “friends.” Kasuga reads poetry under the desk; his idol is Baudelaire, a melancholic, decadent Frenchman who wrote the book Flowers of Evil. The boy thinks reading Baudelaire makes him sensitive and deep, and he’s about to prove it’s possible to be a more pathetic wuss than Shinji in pre-Rebuild Evangelion.

One of Kasuga’s passions is pretty Saeki, a girl who sits a few desks from him. He’s sure that his feelings for her are pure and spiritual. That’s until Kasuga’s in the classroom alone, and a bag tumbles down from a shelf, containing Saeki’s gym clothes. In a slow, sweet moment of transgression, Kasuga grabs them, then flees.

Of course Kasuga is horrified by his crime. Surely he can take the clothes back, put things right? But (heh heh) it’s too late. Kasuga’s crime was seen by the class’s resident girl weirdo, Nakano. (Or it’s possible that Nakano didn’t see him, and made a shrewd guess when the theft was discovered.) Now Nakano lurks everywhere, hooking Kasuga by his guilt and gonads, toying with his fear of what she’ll do with his secret.

Soon she’s stripping Kasuga naked in the library, though that’s nothing compared to the psychological stripping she’ll give him. At times Nakamura is as clinical in her tortures as Hannibal Lecter; then she’ll bay like a banshee and overwhelm Kasuga like a monstrous rapist. It’s as if Britain’s gormless Adrian Mole had run into Elliot Page’s castrating avenger from Hard Candy.

Flowers of Evil’s rotoscoping highlights people’s small artless shifts and movements, like Kasuga scratching his bum in the first episode. It gives the story a woozily detached patina, though it’s far less trippy than, say, Richard Linklater’s film Waking Life. Some anime fans find the look repulsive, and a betrayal of animation; but then Flowers of Evil was directed by Hiroshi Nagahama, who’d worked for decades in more conventional anime, including the Mushi-shi series.

The drawn-over live-action makes most of the characters seem uglified – even Saeki smiles like an alien impersonating a girl. But with Nakano, it’s reversed. On first sight, she seems frumpy, dumpy; but as her role grows, she becomes alive and sensual, far outshining the other kids. Her gargoyle smiles are bad enough, but that’s nothing to her screams, full of frustrated hate and heat. Meanwhile her victim Kasuga is humanised by his eyes, darting in terror like a snared rabbit’s.

Much of the anime plays like a mordantly funny thriller, a mind game like Death Note. The bag of stolen gym clothes comes to feel like a ticking bomb; later, an empty room is as terrible as Smaug’s lair. The show is cruel, but doesn’t stereotype. It would have been easy, for example, to have made the pretty Saeki into a joke character, a bimbo. Instead she’s anything but.

Then there are the show’s stranger trimmings. Disembodied voices intone the poems of Baudelaire. There are furry, bristly black flowers with alien eyes; these first appear as drawings on Kasuga’s book, before popping up in dreams and surreal cutaways. Of course they illustrate Kasuga’s growing pains, his burgeoning, corrupt teen libido that Nakamura can smell on him so easily. There are glacial scenes of characters walking through town, asking us to feelthe difference as the emotional situation changes. One episode has Kasuga walking in a lover’s afterglow; minutes later, he’s marching to his seeming execution.

The series was based, on a manga by Shuzo Oshimi, originally published in Bessatsu Shonen magazine and published in English in four hefty volumes by Vertical Comics. Oshimi’s notes on the manga make clear the setting, if not the events, came directly from his childhood. The story takes place in Kiryu, a small town which Kasuga and Nakamura both loathe.

“It was once prosperous, but has declined,” Oshimi says of Kiryu. “All the iron in the city is rusted, storefronts are shuttered, and if you live there, it weighs on your heart. In that environment, my middle school self was boiled down into thick jelly. I was even worse off than Kasuga.” He also recalls, “I had nowhere to go so I was constantly hitting up the few bookstores in town, where I’d stand between the bookshelves and read as many paperbacks as I could manage.” Like Kasuga, Oshimi developed an early love of poetry.

Also like Kasuga, Oshimi was far from pure-hearted. According to his confession, he attempted something far more sordid than stealing a classmate’s sports kit, though he failed (and wasn’t caught).  He writes, “The idea of ‘pervert’ has the aspect of shoving things we don’t understand in a box so we can feel better about ourselves. But the truth is that more of less every human has some perversion hidden away in their hearts. I’d be perfectly happy to have people read this manga and just think, ‘Ew, what a pervert,’ but if anyone stops even a moment just to wonder ‘What does perversion mean to me?’ then I’m really glad to have created this work.”

As mentioned earlier, the director of the anime version was Hiroshi Nagahama, who’d worked in anime for decades. He started at Madhouse, working on the 1990 fantasy video series Record of Lodoss War and the judo show Yawara!, from an early strip by Naoki Urasawa. “At the time,” Nagahama told Anime News Network, “I got 160 yen for one Yawara! cel and 210 yen for a Lodoss cel. For that 210 yen, one cel I worked on was a large dragon. I worked on (its) scales for days.”

From that start, Nagahama had multiple credits on Revolutionary Girl Utena, including conceptual design; he drew image boards of such settings as “The Forest of Duels.” From there, his credits ranged from directing Guilty Crown episodes to his series director debut. That was the aforementioned Mushi-shi, a mellow supernatural series with an almost matter-of-fact sense of wonder.

In the Anime News Network interview, Nagahama remembers he was asked to adapt Flowers of Evil by King Records. However, he replied that what the manga conveyed could not be conveyed in animation. After a month of coaxing, Nagahama said it could only be adapted through rotoscoping, which was expensive and might get blowback from viewers. Nonetheless, Nagahama said, the idea was accepted.

“I still don’t know how we made it happen or how I made (Flowers of Evil),” Nagahama said (this was in 2019). “I have partial fragments of a memory of making it. I only have images that have nothing to do with animation, like looking through the lens of a camera.” The live action took about three months; the overall production schedule was about double that for a normal anime series.

The Japanator website reported on a convention panel where Nagahama explained why he pushed for rotoscoping. “I read (the manga) and I thought what is being depicted is something realistic and close to our daily lives, so I thought rotoscoping is the way to go.” Asked why he didn’t make a live-action version, Nagahama suggested rotoscoping was a way “to depict fiction and connect it to our world,” different from watching actors.

In the panel, Nagahama also said he knew there would be criticism of the series, even before it aired. “People were saying it looks creepy, but I think it’s better to feel something than nothing at all… Say in five years it’ll be on rental or on Blu-ray… People then can check it out and say, ‘Hey this was that creepy anime on TV.’ There’s so much anime in Japan and few titles leave an impact on the viewer. I didn’t want to create something that doesn’t leave an impact.”

Since then, Flowers of Evil has also been adapted as a live-action film (2019), with a script by Mari Okada, known for her many anime writing credits and for directing the film Maquia. Nagahama also worked on the long-gestating version of Junji Ito’s horror strip Uzumaki using techniques that are plainly far from Flower of Evil… and yet the atmosphere is so similar that it’s uncanny.

Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Flowers of Evil is released by Anime Limited.

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