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Aku no Hana Episode 8: The Longest Hand Holding in History

29 May

By: Stephanie Weirich

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Well, hello there! How are you this fine evening? You’re (I imagine) looking lovely. Oh, what’s that? You’re here for the Aku no Hana recap of episode 8? Well good. BECAUSE I WANT TO GIVE IT TO YOU. ALL NIGHT LONG. Cue my best David Caruso impression (I’m just screaming YEAH! And putting glasses on top of glasses on top of glasses until my face falls off).

This is my theme song.

But seriously, lets hop to it shall we?

Quick recap: Apparently, the makers of Aku no Hana agreed with me so completely about how awesome that last scene was in episode 7 that they decided to show it again. It was still fucking tits. They then proceeded to show Kasuga and Nakamura take the longest walk of shame in the history of the world. It went for so long, when I closed my eyes after watching it, I could still see them walking straight into eternity, hand in hand.

It begins...

It begins…

More...

More…

And more...

And more…

And even more...

And even more…

Just fucking go home already!

Just fucking go home already!

We then got to see the fallout of the Kasuga and Nakamura Classroom Destruction Blowout Super Fun Time, which all in all, was anticlimactic due to the fact that Kasuga managed to completely obscure his name with ink so no one knows that he actually did it. Saeki is crushed initially because her gym clothes have returned and she has to try to come to terms with the surely horrible things that happened to them while she didn’t have them in her possession.

Just...Maybe don't think about it too much?

Just…Maybe don’t think about it too much?

The entire classroom being vandalized thing is blamed on a non-existent pervert (nice job Nakamura) and there’s a school wide assembly announcing this as a safety issue and the whole school is sent home early. Kasuga and Nakamura meet after school, Nakamura is THRILLED at how shocked and disgusted her classmates were while Kasuga is a great deal more uneasy about the whole thing. This is when Saeki shows up, disrupting a rather suggestive moment (as she could interpret it). Kasuga says they should break up, she asks why. Kasuga then tries to run away when Saeki tells him that she knows he’s the one that vandalized the classroom and stole her gym clothes because he was bold enough to incorporate the cover painting from the copy of The Flowers of Evil that he gave Saeki into his sexual awakening/criminal act. DUN DUN DUN.

It sure was, Platonic Ideal!

It sure was, Platonic Ideal!

I honestly don’t have too much to say about this episode, which is probably owed to how terribly paced it was. While I appreciated the fact that they showed a true moment of shared intimacy between Kasuga and Nakamura, they did not need to spend 10 minutes on that shared moment. Especially when we’re at episode 8 of 13. It felt like a way to pad out the episode, and for what reason, I do not know. We’re approaching the end of the series, and I feel like things should be perpetually in motion, not treading water.

But hey, while we’re at it, lets talk about that moment.

Awww, that's sweet!

Awww, that’s sweet!

It’s important to note that this was the very first time Nakamura and Kasuga had physical contact that was truly and completely consensual. There was no power play, no aggression, no act of dominance, it was just a pure—and purely innocent—expression of affection that only comes from having experienced something monumental together. These two shared a moment. A moment that was truer and more honest than any other moment of their lives. They, while in the wanton thoroughs of mutual destruction, showed each other exactly who they both are. There was no pretense and no attempt to hide the rawness of their emotions and expectations. They both simply let go and acted only on their most natural impulses. That’s why that moment, that ending from the last episode, has as much impact as it does. We very rarely get to see how raw teenagers are, how mixed up their emotions and personalities are while they’re being assaulted by mandatory socialization, hormones and peer pressure. We rarely get to see them as human beings, on their own terms. And that scene of the two of them destroying everything that represents their daily lives was their chance to claim ownership of their own narrative. They got to write their own story right then and there, which is not something teenagers typically get to do.

I think this is especially important when it’s related to Japanese teenagers. As I’ve said before, junior high is when the Japanese begin the journey of becoming “Japanese”. It is just as, if not more important, for them to learn the rules and guidelines of their very rigid society as it is for them to learn about science or literature. What this really means is that the cycle of repression begins at this age. This is when they’re encouraged to act like adults, to put aside their individuality and completely conform to the group that is their class, and in doing so represent the larger group dynamic that is their school. There is very little attention paid to how they feel, to how they struggle, to how they might not be able to handle the pressure. Again, this is not something that is typically portrayed in Japanese media. We’re very used to the rose colored school life anime series, where everyone gets along and no one has any problems. It would not be an exaggeration to say that slice of life school days anime is typically pushing an ideal more than a reality. Just like how Glee does not accurately represent high school in the US, shows like Azumanga Daioh do not accurately represent high school in Japan.

Surprisingly, this is not what high school is like in Japan.

Surprisingly, this is not what high school is like in Japan.

Aku no Hana, however, gets much closer to the mark. Discipline issues in schools, as well as truly horrific cases of bullying, are becoming more widespread and more reported in Japan. I can tell you from personal experience that I had more Nakamura’s in my English classes than I had Chiyo-chans.

I foolishly thought all of my students would look just like this.

I foolishly thought all of my students would look just like this.

I experienced kids that would flip their desks, throw books and erasers at their classmates/friends, start shouting in the middle of a lesson, or just flat out get up and leave class without permission. I was completely unprepared for this, as were many of my teachers. There was a sense that this was all new behavior. That when they were kids, nothing like this had ever happened. I highly doubt that’s true, but I do think that as the world opens up through technology such as the internet and internationalization is continually forced upon Japan, these long held problems become more noticeable and are given more context and are thus forced out into the open where they have to be dealt with as opposed to ignored. This is why regardless of the missteps Aku no Hana may make when it comes to pacing or planning, I think it’s an essential show that shines a very bright light on the plight of teenagers in Japan in a way that is necessary RIGHT NOW. It is a way for those kids who can’t fit in, who don’t understand what role they’re supposed to play, who always feel left out of the group, to know that they aren’t alone. They’re just growing up in a society that is a bit clueless as to how that works. But that’s just my take.

Did you get something different out of this episode? Let me know in the comments!

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Aku no Hana Episode 5: Well do you, do ya do ya wanna? Be my platonic girlfriend?

8 May

By: Stephanie Weirich

So, episode 5 guys?

I love this picture so much, I wish I could base my entire life around it.

I love this picture so much, I wish I could base my entire life around it.

Let’s just get down to it since I’ve been away for a spell. Quick recap of what went down: Kasuga and Saeki had their date while Nakamura ran behind them making delightfully childish noises. Kasuga was still wearing Saeki’s gym clothes and feeling rather awkward and sweaty the entire time. He takes Saeki to his favorite bookstore, talks her ear off about books she’s never heard of and then buys Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil for her as a present. Nakamura then corners him, and tells him that his first wall will be torn down today, and that wall is in the form of him kissing Saeki before his date is over (obviously while still wearing her gym clothes). He doesn’t do this and instead confesses to Saeki and they enter into a “purely platonic” dating relationship (more on that later). This leads an agitated Nakamura to run up behind him and dump a bucket of water all over him, in the hopes of revealing to Saeki what he’s wearing underneath his clothes. When Kasuga confronts Nakamura about it, she tells him rather menacingly that she’ll take extra care to make sure that his relationship with Saeki works. End scene, cue (still) horrifying ending theme.

I really enjoyed this episode to be perfectly honest. There were so many things it did immensely well and I think that this episode is the one where the rotoscoping showed its worth, i.e. it’s much more serviceable for the story than traditional animation would have been.

The sweaty realism.  I LOVE IT.

The sweaty realism. I LOVE IT.

Namely, this episode highlighted the extreme awkwardness of Japanese teenagers and the strangeness of the dating scene in Japan. I’m sure if you’ve watched enough anime, you’ve seen the “shy, awkward boy goes on date with shy awkward girl and they talk about nothing because instead they’re too busy blushing themselves into a near coma and being terrified of making any physical contact with each other” trope. It’s ubiquitous. Sometimes you get the cool playboy or fearless girl thrown in there, but that’s usually limited to reverse harem and plain old harem, and they do not occur as often as the awkwardness. I’m also sure that if you’ve watched enough anime to notice it, you have also seen it enough times to be driven crazy by it. There have probably been many shouted “Come the fuck on and act like a normal person!” diatribes that you have hurled at the screen out of frustration. This is completely understandable, as it is a frustrating thing to behold and as awkward as most of us are in our adolescence, it doesn’t seem as completely clueless and puritanical as it does in anime or even J-Dramas.

So, if that’s been your reaction to love, anime style, then you are in luck with Aku no Hana, because it looked all of that business in the eye and said “fuck right off with that noise, imma tell it like it is.” And then it does. And it makes me so happy.

Nakamura is happy too.

Nakamura is happy too.

See, dating in Japan is a very strange thing. There is very little socialization that occurs in that respect and much of that lack of socialization comes back to how the school system is set up. I know, that sounds strange, but bear with me here. Once students enter Junior High their homeroom teachers do home visits, meaning they go to the homes of each of their students, introduce themselves, bring gifts and ask the parents to entrust their child to them. The parents, for their part, accept the presents, serve tea and snacks and say “yoroshiku” for the year which roughly translates to in this context to: “Please, take care of my child as though you are their parent”. Because in all actuality, that teacher will spend more time with their kid then they will as that kid’s parent. Teachers are expected to teach their students things that we would typically think parents should teach them, including morality (those classes are a doozy, let me tell you). However, while they have sexual education classes in high schools, that does not necessarily cover dating advice and the popular magazines that do give dating advice are not to be trusted (much like how you shouldn’t trust Cosmo when they tell you to give a blowjob with your teeth). What I’m trying to say here is that teachers are ill equipped to teach their students about dating protocol and thus students are relying upon friends, books, manga, anime, J-Dramas, etc and those have very little idea of what to teach about dating either or they are limited in what they can show (for instance, you never see “real” kisses in J-Drama because it’s considered too risqué).

Tie this all into the very archaic gender roles that Japan is still mired in—it’s very much like Mad Men over there in terms of how women are treated—and you get a hot mess of awkwardness. You can see this in how Kasuga treats Saeki, versus how he treats Nakamura. Saeki as a girl is, for Kasuga, not a real person. She has no personality, no desires of her own, and no free will. She is an idealized angel meant only for him for whatever desires and purposes he may have. One gets the impression that should Saeki reveal herself to be just as perverted as he is, he would cease to have any interest in her because then she would actually be a real person. Nakamura is completely outside of this paradigm. She doesn’t care one way or the other about what’s expected of her as a girl, and because Kasuga has no romantic interest in her, he doesn’t treat her like one. She’s exempt. This is also why it’s so fascinating to see her as the person in power as she consistently emasculates Kasuga in every way possible. Whether or not this is, in and of itself, a derogatory statement on women of a certain kind and their ability to essentially castrate men remains to be seen (I’m reserving my judgment until the series is over).

Now, back to the awkwardness. Just look at this:

You skinny little puppy you.

You skinny little puppy you.

That’s beautiful. That’s so realistic, it breaks my heart. That’s the true face of adolescent Japanese boys when faced with uncomfortable interactions, specifically when faced with romantic interactions. Kasuga, and most boys in general, have no idea how to approach the girls that they like, they have no idea what to do with them on dates, they don’t know what to talk about (it should go without saying that this is a natural byproduct of any society that imparts upon its youth that the two genders are fundamentally different and therefore have no common ground. It tends to lead to a lack of understanding about each other). Dating in Japan is not a fun thing. It’s a high stress dance of confusion and embarrassment. It’s walking silently next to one another, it’s girls saying “Please, let me learn more about you so that we can have common ground” without the boys ever wanting to do the same, it’s a comedy of errors. It’s why Kasuga asks Saeki to be his platonic girlfriend.

What every girl is longing to hear.

What every girl is longing to hear.

They can date, and it can be completely chaste, and that way, he can still be in love with her, and yet not spoil her by being intimate, and thus, she can remain less than a person to him. The reality of the situation, of Saeki and what she might want out of any relationship, never has to occur to Kasuga, as it doesn’t have to occur to any adolescent boy in Japan (and possibly the world at large). I would argue that this one episode reflects the strange reality of dating in Japan better than any other anime series or J-Drama I have ever seen.

While the date between Kasuga and Saeki reflects dating amongst the youth of Japan in general, Nakamura once again brings some perspective to how ridiculous all of the stress is by saying “Save your confessions for when you’re older”. This should be a time when Kasuga and Saeki are enjoying themselves, when they’re two people who like each other enjoying each other’s company, when they’re two sexually curious kids who aren’t freaking out about a kiss (seriously Kasuga, calm down. It’s just a kiss, she’s not asking you to rape Saeki). Instead, Kasuga is confessing his platonic love and Saeki is crying from how touched she is all the while, neither one of them is actually getting to know the other or truly enjoying the situation they’ve found themselves in. And Nakamura has no time for that shit, and she doesn’t think Kasuga should either. God bless her.

No. Fucks. Are. Given.

No. Fucks. Are. Given.

I could easily write at least 10 pages about everything that’s going on in this episode, but I’ll leave it here for now (also, there are some ideas here that I want to expand into standalone pieces for you guys, so I wouldn’t want to spoil that all here in this one). Also, I apologize if this is scattered, the cold medicine is inside of my head, bringing the cloudiness.

Anywho, let me know your take on this episode in the comments!

Aku no Hana: The Breakdown

21 Apr

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By: Stephanie Weirich

So. Guys. Aku no Hana, yes? Yes.

You’ve either watched this show, or you haven’t, and chances are, if you haven’t but you’re at all active in the otaku community, you’ve heard talk of it. Mostly angry talk. Furious, FUCK EVERYTHING IN LIFE talk. That’s right, this show is the absolute most reviled show of the season.

If you’re a reasonable individual who has managed to escape all rumblings surrounding Aku no Hana, you might be asking yourself why. The why is really quite simple. And it’s because it looks like this:

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And this:

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Did you just instinctively recoil at the hideousness of these characters? Did you maybe utter a sound that denotes grotesquery? I hope you did. Because I think you’re supposed to.

The basic plot of Aku no Hana is this: a boy named Kasuga who’s living in a dying Japanese town is really, super, incredibly into the works of the French poet Baudelaire. Specifically his definitive work, Les Fleur De Mal, a.k.a Aku no Hana, a.k.a The Flowers of Evil. He spends his days in a high schooler’s typical malaise, hanging out with his strange and not very bright friends while secretly reading The Flowers of Evil. He’s also secretly in love with the class beauty Saeki.

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As he reads his book, and allows himself to be taken away by Baudelaire’s meditations on sexual evil, a hairy black flower is shown growing within him. This flower fully bursts into terrifying bloom when he finds himself in his homeroom classroom after hours and he just happens to end up stealing Saeki’s gym clothes. He makes this face while doing it:

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Unfortunately for him, he’s caught by a scrappy, angry lass by the name of Nakamura.

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She actually hates everything. She calls their teacher a shithead in the middle of class. She glares at him like she would gladly turn his face skin into a tortilla and use it to eat the rest of him as tacos. She’s the last person anyone would want to be in debt to. And poor Kasuga has found himself in that terrible position.

But is it really poor Kasuga? Afterall, he did steal the gym clothes of his crush after fondling them in a clearly sexual manner. He has no real remorse about doing it. He only has remorse about being outed and having everyone in his class despise him for being a pervert. He could give Saeki back her clothes, he could apologize, he could take responsibility, but instead, he makes a contract with the angriest girl in the world to avoid being found out. All in all, Kasuga is kind of a piece of shit. The sexual evil of puberty that lies at his very core is in full bloom.
This is why I think you’re supposed to find the animation horrible—disgusting even. Because these kids are terrible. They’re going through puberty, which is also terrible. And they’re doing it within a culture that has some serious issues with sexuality.

Side note here. I realize that Japan can give the impression of being a pervert’s wonderland. And to some extent, that’s true, but not in the way you might think. Much of this is deeply entrenched in the concept of tatemae and honne: your public and private face. These concepts deeply inform much of Japanese cultural and social norms. You have the face and opinion that you present to the public—the façade you are obligated to show—and then you have your true desires. Very often, these are entirely counter to one another. So while your tatemae might be the respectable head of a company, your honne might be to dress as a baby and have a woman feed you with a bottle. But one is never supposed to interfere with the other. Specifically, your honne is never supposed to taint your tatemae. Trying to wholly separate these two is taxing, unbelievably so, and it leads to a LOT of weirdness. This makes the implications of sex and what it means within Japanese culture difficult to pin down. While the country is littered with host and hostess clubs and love hotels and porn vending machines, they have extremely strict censorship laws. You will never see an entire penis in Japanese pornography (incidentally, this is what gave birth to the beast that we all know and love: tentacle porn). The average age that a Japanese teenager experiences their first kiss is 19. They have one of the lowest birth rates in the 1st world. Sex is something that’s always lurking in the background, but rarely confronted. All in all, it’s intensely problematic, particularly for teenagers. I can tell you that that doesn’t stop them from being obsessed with it, just like teenagers from any other country. I cannot tell you how many times I had Junior High students ask me if I liked to play the sex. True story.

What I’m getting at here is that Aku no Hana is saying something important about puberty and the sexual messiness that it inspires and how problematic that can be when you’re a stupid kid who is nothing but a wet pile of hormones and misguided impulses. It’s truly a shame that that wealth of subtext is being overlooked so that otaku can scream about how hideous the art is.

Which, while I’m at it, the art isn’t terrible. At least not the background art. It’s actually stunningly beautiful and completely true to life. I mean, look at it:

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It’s fucking gorgeous! The detail knocks the wind out of me and brings back fond memories of living in a town that looked quite similar to this one. That illustrated realism, in combination with the rotoscoped realism lends itself entirely to the oppressive tone of the whole show.

Because yeah, this show—where in admittedly a lot hasn’t happened—is ominous. One could even say creepy. I haven’t read the manga, so I could not tell you why that is or what’s going to become of it all, but I can tell you that this show succeeds at mood and atmosphere.

The director of this show, Hiroshi Nagahama, when approached to adapt the manga into an anime, originally said no. He didn’t see the point in creating an animated version of the manga. He thought it was a creative waste and unnecessary since the manga already existed (this is a guy after my own heart). Eventually, he acquiesced, but only in order to do something experimental that reflected the awfulness of the characters and the situations that they find themselves in. Hence the rotoscoping technique. The manga creator, Shūzō Oshimi, was totally into this shit. Bless his heart.

This creative experiment is part of why I love this show so much, only 2 episodes in. The larger part of it is because it harkens back to the spirit of what brought me to anime in the first place: the sense that I had never seen anything like this before. Anime was an art form that filled me with a delight that only truly new things bring. The style, the stories, the distinct difference of it all was something I couldn’t tear myself from. Aku no Hana has that same feeling. It’s a sign of a potential sea change.

So to the haters, I want to ask, why you so mad bro? If you want to watch traditional anime that plays it safe and delivers characters with hair that defy all laws of gravity and color theory who stare at you with huge dewy eyes, well there are huge amounts of that out there. You could literally watch any other show airing this season and get that fix. And Aku no Hana doesn’t give a fuck about what you want from it, because it’s going to be what it is, which is something completely new.

Which also plays into my biggest issue with the complaints about this series: the Western entitlement of it all. Here’s the thing you always need to remember—the Japanese do not care about you. They do not care about selling their products to you, particularly as it pertains to their entertainment. They create art for themselves, period. And for them, this is a medium that’s been around for generations and Aku no Hana is something that’s genuinely revolutionary within the context of anime. They have every right to want to push anime, as a medium, forward leaps and bounds by creating a show like this. And they don’t care whether you like it or not. It would be like the Japanese complaining about Ulysses because it’s not like light novels or any other book out there. It’s all about context guys.

And I for one, am going to ride this through to the end.

Which, speaking of ends, that ending theme guys. HOLY SHIT. I can’t even. I’mma find it and post it. That’s a threat.

If you disagree, agree, or feel something in between those feelings, let me know in my inbox!

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