Aku no Hana Final Wrap Up: Japanese Personhood and the Broken Educational System

28 Jul

By: Stephanie Weirich

aku-no-hana flower1stpic

What is concealed is the flower,
What is not concealed cannot be the flower.
-Ze-ami, 14th Century Noh Master

Greetings ladies and gents! So good to see you again. It’s great to be back here, talking about our favorite sex pervert show, Aku no Hana, isn’t it? And what exactly do I have for you today? Well, I figured it was about time to really get into this show and what it all meant, now that it’s over (maybe? I hope in my heart of hearts that there’s a second season, because if there isn’t, I WILL RUIN SOMEONE) and we can step back and look at the bigger picture. Is that agreeable to y’all? Well fucking ahoy then!

Oh, and for those of you joining us for the first time, this is going to be a very spoilery analysis of the series Aku no Hana. It’s a classic boy meets girl(s), steals some gym clothes from his crush, makes a contract with the human equivalent of a Honey Badger who catches him stealing said gym clothes and through her guidance he learns to stop worrying and love his perversion type story. Look here to find recaps of each episode if you’re so inclined. Also, this is all my personal opinion and I believe any piece of art can have multiple readings and interpretations, so your mileage with my analysis may vary. I am not saying that I am definitively right about anything I say herein. I am merely offering my interpretation. With that out of the way, let’s get all up in it!

Nakamura is ready

Nakamura is ready

You may have noticed I opened this up with a fancy quote from a super dead dude. Well, it’s because that super dead dude is speaking some invaluable truth about what it means to be nihonjin, or Japanese. I also think it very nicely gets at one of Aku no Hana’s core themes. That core theme being: how do we reconcile our inner self with the outside world when that outside world rejects all that we are? What do we conceal and why? What do we choose to show and why? It’s also a classic meditation on the concept of the individual vs. the group that has featured prominently in Japanese thought and writings for quite literally hundreds of years. Aku no Hana just happens to be the first modern series I have seen that tackles that divisive ideology right at the beginning, when the inner conflict between self and group begins: Junior High School.

It is important to realize why this aspect alone elevates Aku no Hana to the level of importance that it has. And for that importance to be conveyed, we need some background on the Japanese school system. I think that we here in the West, and in America in particular, have an idea that Japan’s school system is vastly superior to ours. We’ve been shown statistics about literacy and retention rates, test scores that trumpet their vastly more accomplished math and science understanding, and we’ve been shown images—especially in anime—of happy students, living idyllic school lives, all getting along as one big homogenous group. While there might be a sliver of truth to all of these representations, there is much more to it that’s being hidden behind the highly organized façade.

What do I mean, exactly? Yes, Japan has one of the highest literacy rates in the 1st world and education through Junior High is compulsory and the vast majority of students will continue onward to high school. However, that doesn’t mean that they all want to, it’s just a matter of meeting the rigid expectations of the society they live in and the parents that raised them. And yes, they do trump us in math and science, but much of that is owed to the Japanese educational style, which pushes rote memorization over actual learning. Math, and to a certain degree science, can very comfortably be mastered through rote memorization; however, when you look at scores in things like English, you find that this method of education has severe shortcomings. And yes, while there are happy students who get along, ijime, or bullying, is a facet of everyday school life that is carried out by both students and teachers who might feel as though a particular student is failing to fall in line with the needs of the group.

Pictured: Normal students

Pictured: Normal students

The Japanese educational system has a very traditional goal in mind that is best summed up through this handy quote from Arinori Mori: “Education in Japan is not intended to create people accomplished in the techniques of the arts and sciences, but rather to manufacture the persons required by the state.”. Who is Arinori Mori and why should this quote matter? Well, he was Japan’s first education minister who set the stage for what schools in Japan would be, and while on the surface, that ethos has changed over time from when he first said this all the way back in 1885, the truth of the matter is that the educational system hasn’t changed all that much in terms of the desired outcome for the students that it produces.

The basics of school socialization are thus: elementary schools teach children to be individuals. They are given a sort of attenuated freedom wherein they learn through play and dictate how and what they will focus on. They are the masters of their domain. There is very little pressure put upon them during this stage of their lives and they are mostly just allowed to be children. This is important, because it is the only time in their adolescence where they will freely be allowed to just act like kids. But why do I say attenuated freedom then? It’s because this is a freedom that is meted out by the adults in their lives, and thus it teaches them for the very first time to be dependent upon those acting in the state’s best interest. They both give that freedom, and then take it away.

Personal anecdote time! While living in Japan, I taught both elementary and junior high students. Most notably, I would teach at schools that fed into each other i.e. the elementary schools I taught at fed into the junior highs that I taught at. So I got to see these students grow from care-free children into completely shell shocked mini adults. This was owed solely to how completely different the elementary school experience was from the junior high experience. I one day was talking to one of my junior high co-teachers about how different the two were. She asked me what I meant and I said that in elementary school, the kids seemed to be having so much fun, that they seemed allowed to just enjoy themselves, whereas in junior high it was much more disciplined with many more rules. She agreed with this and said that children were allowed to have fun in elementary school because afterwards, they would be adults and their lives would be troublesome. When I asked her why that was the case, she sighed, shrugged and said shikataganai, or it can’t be helped. Junior high, she explained was when the kids were taught what it meant to be Japanese and that that was very important so that they could get along in society when they were no longer taken care of by schools and their parents. This was one of the more illuminating and sobering conversations I had while there. It also goes a long way towards explaining why junior high is a pivotal moment in the lives of Japanese kids and hence why it’s so important that Aku no Hana is examining this time period in such a provocative manner.

But what does it mean when we say it teaches them to be Japanese? That all goes back into the quote from Arinori Mori. Junior high is the first time they are socialized to be a cog in the social machine, as opposed to an individual who stands outside of it. They are taught that individuality, personal feelings and deep emotions are something that are important, but that it is equally important that all of that be kept inside. Individuality is meant to be relegated to your honne while your obligation to the group, and to a much larger extent the country that birthed you, is your tatemae. Your individuality is only worthy if it serves a larger goal, which means it only matters if it serves Japan. It is, if you want to be cynical about it, a way of subsuming personality with communal obligation. A way of replacing what individuality actually is with everything that it is not.

This is what I’m driving at with the quote I began this piece with. That true individuality, the true person that is to remain concealed is the flower. That which is not concealed—i.e. the personality shown to all others—cannot be the flower.

Which all brings us back to Aku no Hana (which, hey, all that evil blooming flower imagery really makes a lot more sense now doesn’t it?) and the struggles of both Kasuga and Nakamura. We’re dropped into the series at a pivotal time in Kasuga’s life, when he’s in the depths of his Nihonjin education. He should be dropping the artifice of childhood individuality and becoming what is expected of him. He should not be internalizing the esoteric rhetoric of French authors and pining for the Platonic Ideal that is Saeki. He should not be imagining himself to be special because of his reading habits and his perceived superiority to the group he belongs to. From the very first episode, while it doesn’t seem obvious, everything about Kasuga and his internal thoughts and behavior, his desires and picture of himself, are off. They deviate from the very set course that has been laid before him.

Subverting the dominant paradigm has never been so moist

Subverting the dominant paradigm has never been so moist

That flower that he conceals begins to bloom when he steals Saeki’s gym clothes. The flower becomes ever closer to bursting beyond the confines of Kasuga and subverting his reality and that of his entire town over the course of the series. Much of that is due to Nakamura and her I give zero fucks attitude and her unmitigated need to fall well outside of the expectations that are being thrust upon her at school. Nakamura, and to a slightly lesser extent Kasuga, want the flower that they conceal to be seen by all. They reject the idea that individuality should be hidden in favor of group, or state, allegiance.

As I touched on before in my recaps, Kasuga, Nakamura and Saeki are their own well defined characters, and at the same time, they are representatives of larger themes. Out of the three of them, Saeki is the Japanese ideal. She’s the good student, popular with her peers and teachers. She will make childish transgressions, as she does through her interest in Kasuga, but overall, she’ll grow up, get married and eventually die as she is expected to. She will be the ideal shakaijin, or social being. Nakamura on the other hand, represents the path of the outsider. She rejects the path that was determined for her—the path that was laid out for her before she ever came to exist. She doesn’t fit in with her peer group or amongst adults. She has no friends. She has no interest in being a part of any group—not her family, not her school, not her town, and certainly not Japan as a whole. She has no place in this world that she finds herself in. She is what you get if you’re Japanese and yet reject what it means to be Japanese—which is to say that she is not useful to the state because she declines to be a part of it.

By being made of magic and profanity

By being made of magic and profanity

Which brings us to Kasuga. Kasuga is caught between these two possibilities. He is, when the series opens, on the right path from what anyone can tell. He goes to school, he enjoys time with his parents, and he has friends and a girl he likes. Internally though, his thoughts align with Nakamura. He reads French literature that no one else in town reads or understands. He considers himself smarter than his peers, his parents, and the other townspeople. In Kasuga’s mind, he’s an individual. But this is all fine, because his honne and his tatemae are kept separate, as they should be. He can still climb the ladder to Japanese personhood. Once he steals Saeki’s gym clothes and is caught by Nakamura, that possibility gets further from his reach. When Nakamura becomes a fixture in his life that moves increasingly towards the center of it, he deviates further and further from that predetermined path that Saeki represents towards the path less traveled that Nakamura embodies.

This is what truly makes Kasuga and Nakamura “deviants”. It’s not the sexual overtones of the story, though that is a form of deviancy. It’s the deviation from expected societal and cultural norms that truly categorizes them as deviants. Nakamura believes that Kasuga is the kind of deviant that can be so bad, he can actually destroy the town that they live in. She expects him to upend the social order to such an extreme degree that it can never recover. This goes a long ways towards showing exactly how dangerous deviancy is considered in Japan. Plainly put, if there were more Nakamura’ in Japanese society, said society would cease to function as it does. The paradigm would shift, and a new society would be born. There would be a trial by fire if Nakamura had her way (because that lady wants to burn EVERYTHING).

One of the main reasons that Kasuga is so important and why it is that we’re following this story through his perspective is because of the path that he ultimately comes to represent. This is especially true if we consider the finale to be the series finale and not a season finale (because again, there has been no second season announcement made yet). In those final moments, wherein Kasuga sees all that could be for Nakamura and himself if they continue down her path, he rejects it and proposes something different. He represents the ability to normalize deviancy within the context of Japanese society. Rather than burning everything to the ground, he proposes that they drag themselves out of the shithole that is their town by their own means. He decides that they must set their own destiny—one that is neither the expected path that Saeki represents or the path of utter destruction that Nakamura represents. Kasuga embodies a sense of deviancy that reshapes the society that bred them, I would go so far as to say that what Kasuga represents is a necessary inevitability in regards to Japanese personhood.

Pictured: Self Actualization

Pictured: Self Actualization

Before we can get into exactly why Kasuga is so important, there’s something that needs to be addressed. One thing that Aku no Hana goes to great pains to show is how dilapidated Kasuga, Nakamura and Saeki’s town is. Every scene features run down and rusted out buildings, weeds overtaking asphalt, signs falling to ruins. Everything is dying. This is a very specific visual metaphor meant to represent the state of Japan as a whole. If Nakamura and Kasuga had made it outside of their town the night they tried to get to “the beyond”, Nakamura would have most likely flown into a delightfully foulmouthed rage when she was greeted by a town that was almost exactly like the one she had just left. Contrary to what we might think about Japan based upon pictures of Tokyo, the majority of Japan’s small towns and cities look like the town shown in Aku no Hana. It’s easy to forget that Japan is largely comprised of farming and fishing villages and that things are completely different outside of the large showcase cities like Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto. And just as those cities are seductive for us, they are infinitely more so to much of Japan’s youth. The kids that can’t fit in within these towns eventually leave and head to bigger cities, thus contributing to the perpetual decline of their hometowns. The students I taught in the small farming town I lived in that had any talent or who were event slightly different from their peers very emphatically talked about moving to Tokyo as soon as they were able to. They felt that if there was any place for them to belong in Japan, it would have to be a larger, less conservative city. So while I didn’t live in the town that is depicted in Aku no Hana, I lived in a town that was eerily similar to it. It was a town that was equally difficult on its children and having students that couldn’t cope with the huge amounts of pressure put upon them by their families and the school system was an everyday occurrence.

This is why I say that Kasuga represents a necessary inevitability in Japanese personhood. As pessimistic as it may sound, there are certain societal conventions and cultural traditions that are holding the Japanese back. The very rigid pressure put upon children is chief among them. While the school system is very adept at churning out soldiers of Japanese industry—cogs in a well ordered machine—It is not adept at creating individuals with critical thinking skills and the ability to assess much needed change in a broken system. The Japanese educational system creates followers, not leaders, and while this has worked for generations, Japan is currently reaching a point where they desperately need leaders to change the course that they are on. They need people like Kasuga. They need people who will reject the current social order and work to devise a solution that best serves the country. They need citizens that will reject the standard idea of servitude towards the country that has been at the forefront all of this time, and learn to ACTUALLY serve the country in a dynamic and truly useful capacity. By creating cogs all of these years, the educational system has done a great disservice to the country as a whole. And it is necessary to change that path—to end the all-encompassing decay creeping across the country—RIGHT NOW.

This is a risky proposition though, as the concept of true, outward facing individuality is one that Japan has had a long and contentious history with. We see how risky it is through the way Kasuga, Nakamura and Saeki’s parents relate to them. Saeki’s parents are shown briefly, but in the glimpses we catch it’s obvious that they approve of their daughter because she is the ideal child. Nakamura’s father is outright confused as to why his daughter is the way she is. Nakamura is so different, so aggressive, that it leads to a sort of caring confusion. Kasuga’s parents on the other hand, completely reject him once they know what he’s been up to with Nakamura. They blame themselves, they believe that they raised him wrong; they eventually fall silent and cease to interact with him thinking him a lost cause. This is because Kasuga represents the riskiest path of all: the path of new beginnings. He is on a path that completely changes his life’s predetermined course and travels through unknown territory. And as we all know, change, true change, can be an utterly terrifying prospect purely because of the element of the unknown that it represents.

This is what it might look like

This is what it might look like

Kasuga’s true purpose within the scope of Aku no Hana, is to show everyone that the flower he has been concealing is one of personal individuality and his existence is one that declares that this is a type of flower that should not be concealed. It should be what is open and accessible to all. Each person should allow their flower to bloom beyond the confines of themselves. Each person has an individual within them that should—and needs to be—let out. For the good of all. Kasuga shows us that we’re all a little bit deviant and it’s time that we all knew it. Because that deviancy has the power to change the world as we know it.

So there it is folks! My final wrap up of Aku no Hana. I guess the tl;dr summation is that this show is totes a masterpiece of the trials and tribulations of youth denied its pursuit of potential and freedom. But why say that when I can spend 4,000 words getting DEEP INSIDE THIS THING. I hope that this has shed some light on the more important themes of Aku no Hana as I see them, or at the very least, I hope you enjoyed this and the series.

If you did enjoy this and want to know more about anything I have talked about here in regards to the educational system and Japanese societal constructs, have no fear! The next piece I have planned for you guys is a recommended reading list to get you started on your own path towards integrated knowledge about Japan. So watch this space next weekend for that!

And as always, if you disagree with anything I’ve written (or agree for that matter) please let me know in the comments! Until next week, matta ne!

I know Kasuga, I miss you too

I know Kasuga, I miss you too

7 Responses to “Aku no Hana Final Wrap Up: Japanese Personhood and the Broken Educational System”

  1. jv July 28, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

    Definitely enjoyed reading 🙂

  2. OCASM August 4, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

    This is great. Never thought about it from this angle.

  3. Vrai October 28, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

    A moment for a slow clap from me. I’m always pleased to see anyone dig deep into the undercurrents of popular culture, and the first person perspective adds a uniquely compelling element. I myself didn’t finish AnH, being more interested in the abstract ideas than invested in the characters, but I fully respect it as a daring and important addition to the anime canon.
    All of this is a longwinded way of saying well done, hope you’re feeling better, and I’m looking forward to future posts.

  4. Frank Hecker January 12, 2014 at 7:28 pm #

    My sincere apologies for commenting so long after the post. I’ve only recently started watching anime, just finished a marathon of Aku no Hana, and as is my wont I then went and read a bunch of online reviews of it. After reading two or three dozen reviews I can safely say that yours were by a significant margin the most intelligent and insightful. I especially appreciate the fact that you brought experience to your writing beyond just the experience of watching other anime.

    • entropypieplate July 6, 2014 at 6:56 pm #

      Hi! Thank you so very much for your kind comment! I apologize for the delay in my response, I sort of fell of the face of the planet for a bit. Again, thank you so much for reading and commenting. I can’t promise to be consistent with my output, but I do hope to at least consistently put out thoughtful pieces.

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