Tag Archives: Nakamura

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

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Aku no Hana Episode 13: The Fallout

2 Jul

By: Stephanie Weirich

Well, it’s all over guys. OR IS IT? /dun dun dun!

Wait...What?

Wait…What?

But seriously, unless there ends up being a second season (which thus far has not been announced) Aku no Hana—that rousing story of a honey badger and her fellow deviant—has come to an end. And what about that ending, eh? Did you hate it? It’s ok if you hated it. Many, many, many people feel that same way. There are elements of it that are definitely hateable. As for me personally, I still don’t know exactly how I feel about it, but man, I give Hiroshi Nagahama and his whole crew credit for having the biggest, most pendulous and low hanging balls to ever gently brush the face of this earth (can you hear them gently whispering against the hot Tokyo pavement with each step, even now? I hear it in my very dreams).

Yeah, it's a bit like that.

Yeah, it’s a bit like that.

Seriously, regardless of whatever you might think about how the ending to this show went, it takes some sort of moxie to give your audience 12 episodes of a show that they think is building towards some sort of conclusion, only to reach the 13th and final episode only to reveal that all of that which they saw, all of that which they were invested in emotionally, yeah, well guess what? That was just set up. Set up for a season that may or may not already exist (has it been filmed? I have to believe it has been. They wouldn’t just shoot snippets would they? They’d shoot whole scenes and then make a montage right?) that has yet to be announced. Because that’s what actually happened, and if that pissed you off, you have every right to feel that way. But allow me to temper that hatred with an alternative viewpoint.

I know, I wanted to see it too you guys.

I know, I wanted to see it too you guys.

You may have noticed that I’m doing this a tad differently, and this is because I feel that this episode deserves to be handled differently. I usually have a recap of what happened in the episode, but I sort of feel like that’s a moot point when this entire episode can be summed up relatively easily. The summation is thus: boy sees girl’s room, boy reaches full understanding of the fragile state of girl’s emotions and psychology, boy has emotional catharsis and becomes a fully realized human being and gains purpose in his life, his purpose being to save the girl from herself. Girl then freaks the fuck out on boy. Uber cray cray montage happens and boy proposes new contract with girl. BOOM /drops mic. Now that we’ve got that, let’s get into a play by play dissection of the important bits, shall we?

Nakamura, you'll always be THE BEST

Nakamura, you’ll always be THE BEST

For me, the most interesting thing to ask when looking at that summation is: what about the girl? What is her role in the self-actualization of our main character? We have, after all, gotten all of our information about other characters through our following of Kasuga’s story. Our interpretation of both Nakamura and Saeki comes about due to how Kasuga perceives them and their actions/reactions to him and their surroundings. The previous episode and this one particularly are the only times where we get to see Nakamura as her own independent person, in her own words and surroundings. The picture we’re beginning to get is much sadder than one would expect. Nakamura is characterized by all that she isn’t, as opposed to what she is and this is conveyed through her room. A teenager’s bedroom is their one safe space and the one place they can feel comfortable truly expressing themselves. It is their psyche made manifest. What did we find in Nakamura’s room? Nothing. So very much nothing.

Well...This wasn't at all what I was expecting.

Well…This wasn’t at all what I was expecting.

Not even a bed. Instead, she just sleeps under a sheet on the floor, surrounded by nothing but bare furniture and a few items of clothing. There’s nothing on her walls but holes she’s punched in them.

Though to be fair, closet doors in Japan are actually made out of structurally unsound paper.

Though to be fair, closet doors in Japan are actually made out of structurally unsound paper.

Her only outlet is a journal Kasuga finds in a desk drawer where we see for the first time exactly how happy Kasuga’s potential deviancy made Nakamura. Throughout the show we’ve seen Nakamura’s attitude and behavior towards Kasuga as menacing, forceful and uncompromising but very rarely have we felt that she was experiencing actual joy. Through her own written words we see a girl who hated everything and everyone and was utterly alone whose world suddenly brightened at the prospect of finding someone like herself for the first time in her life. Her experiences with Kasuga, the time spent with him truly made her happy.

We totally know.

We totally know.

This is why his behavior on the mountain, his rejection of both her and Saeki, brought her so low. It was a betrayal of her only bright spot of happiness, a betrayal of her very being that she thought was shared with Kasuga. His discovery of her final entry about not being able to go the other side of the mountain finally leads to Kasuga’s full understanding of both the situation he caused and of Nakamura herself.

The feels.  I HAVE THEM.

The feels. I HAVE THEM.

That is why he cries. He finally understands and it’s painful. Nakamura’s experience of the world and his now fully known betrayal of her breaks his heart, as well it should.

So does Kasuga.

So does Kasuga.

This is also why she reacts the way she does. She comes home to find the one person who mattered and who utterly sold her out reading her most personal thoughts and feelings and crying over it. He’s an interloper at this point and it’s a violation of her privacy and of the world she’s built around herself for protection. Of course she’s furious.

GAH!

GAH!

Her interpretation is that Kasuga thinks he can reappear in her life whenever he sees fit. It would seem as though he’s fucking with her and her wellbeing. She is absolutely justified in her anger at him in light of everything we have learned about her in this episode. How is she to know that Kasuga is serious this time? How is she to know that he fully understands her and her outlook, finally?

That is the face of abject heartbreak Kasuga.  LOOK AT IT.

That is the face of abject heartbreak Kasuga. LOOK AT IT.

I think it’s important to realize that Nakamura has her own walls, her own burdens to loose herself from and potentially, her tearing down of Kasuga’s walls was a way for her to tear down her own as well. Once Kasuga rejected her, the progress she made was rendered void.

I am not equipped to deal with this sort of anarchy.

I am not equipped to deal with this sort of anarchy.

Now that we’ve got that covered, let’s get back to Kasuga and what we see during his final confrontation with Nakamura. We start out with a pretty innocuous flashback of everything that’s happened between them, Hell, we even go all the way back to Kasuga’s childhood when Nakamura accuses him of living an empty life.

One thing this show didn't prepare me for: The appearance of fat babies.

One thing this show didn’t prepare me for: The appearance of fat babies.

Where this gets interesting, and where I think much of the hatred for this ending comes from lies within Kasuga’s “flash forward”. For those who have read the manga, this has to especially feel like a cheat as everything that is contained in that montage comes directly from the manga and is most likely material that they thought this series was going to cover in full. I know I did. I honestly thought they were going to get to one very specific event that was teased in that montage, but that was not the case. I don’t want to spoil anything for those that haven’t read the manga, but trust me when I say that things were going to get cray.

However, instead of getting to that craziness, we got 13 episodes of set up for it. You could say that this was due to poor pacing, but I don’t think so. I think Aku no Hana has, from the get go, been deliberately paced in the way it has and I think they took this approach to make it feel very much like French cinema. This would make sense, seeing as how the genesis of this series was Kasuga’s love of French philosophers. But why do I say it feels French? If you’ve ever watched a French film, one thing you may have noticed is the very slow and deliberate pacing and the way character is revealed through observed behavior as opposed to exposition. Many scenes in French films might seem extraneous at first and yet, as the film continues, we come to realize that those scenes where nothing seemed to be happening were actually showing us everything we needed to know about the characters and their motivations. Aku no Hana is very much in the same vein. So much of our understanding of these characters has come through what we’ve been shown, not what we’ve been told. So much of the focus has been placed on behavior and actions as opposed to dialogue. This ending is no different.

This conveys more than dialogue could.

This conveys more than dialogue could.

So how are we to interpret that montage then? Especially when it culminates in Kasuga turning the tables and asking Nakamura to make a contract with him? It could go one of a couple of ways. First is that it was all a preview for a forthcoming season and nothing more. The second, and the one that I think is vastly more interesting, is contingent on there NOT being another season. It’s entirely predicated on these 13 episodes being completely self-contained. What if that montage was Kasuga’s interpretation of where his and Nakamura’s relationship could go, now that he fully understands her and her experience? And what if by asking her to make a contract with him wherein she crawls out of the shithole that is their town and their experience of it with him is his rejection of that possibility? What if now, in a move that would distinctly separate the anime from the manga entirely, Kasuga is choosing a different future for himself and Nakamura, one where they save themselves by their own means as opposed to heading further down the path of “deviancy”? For me, personally, if the ending is viewed in that light, it changes things significantly as far as my perception of it is concerned. That’s an ending I can get behind. Whether that’s how it was meant to be interpreted remains to be seen, but a girl can dream.

I'm going to miss you crazy kids you.

I’m going to miss you crazy kids you.

Anyway, that’s about it for this, our potentially final recap of Aku no Hana. I have to apologize a bit, as I know during these last few write-ups my cultural analysis has waned somewhat. I think this is due to the direction it took at the end and the fact that I honestly did not know how it was going to end and what it was all going to be building towards in regards to the message it wanted to send. But have no fear, now that it has concluded, I’ve got a much fuller picture and I am working on a longer piece about the series as a whole and what it’s all been about specifically regarding what it’s saying about being Japanese, so look forward to that in the very near future. And as always, let me know your thoughts on the ending and on the series as a whole! Toodle loo for now guys, but have no fear, we’ll talk soon!

Paging: visual metaphor.

Paging: visual metaphor.

Aku no Hana Episode 12: It’s About Family

25 Jun

By: Stephanie Weirich

vlcsnap-2013-06-25-20h52m06s129

Well guys, we’re just about ready to wrap this whole thing up. This was the penultimate episode of Aku no Hana, and unlike pretty much every other anime series that has EVER been made in the history of the medium, this one felt like it set up very little in way of a conclusion. This will probably be my shortest piece about the series, because if you watched the episode, you know that very little actually happened and I therefore have very little to talk about. So let’s just get INTO IT!

And so it hath been written

And so it hath been written

In typical Aku no Hana fashion, we pick up right where we left off: with Kasuga pouring his soul into an essay to Nakamura about his many failings as they played out in their relationship. The kid seemingly spent all night on it because the sun is rising when he finishes. We then get to see him go to school and be the very definition of an awkward middle school boy.

NOPE

NOPE

Pretty much everyone ignores Kasuga’s existence now, including Nakamura, who he painfully attempts to speak to. Nakamura continues to be all like this:

Seriously, just go the fuck away

Seriously, just go the fuck away

ALL THE TIME. The only person who seems to actually be aware of the spot Kasuga is in is Saeki’s best friend Ai, who confronts Kasuga’s “friends” about what his deal is. They, being the paragons of humanity that they’ve shown themselves to be talk about how creepy he is and how they don’t like him anymore (because guys with wicked unibrows and sex offender voices are the experts on creepiness).

Pictured: Experts on creepiness

Pictured: Experts on creepiness

We then get to see Kasuga chase Nakamura down after school in order to give her his surely epic essay. Nakamura, as you may have guessed, is having none of this shit so she keeps walking, completely ignoring Kasuga.

The words every girl is hoping to hear one day

The words every girl is hoping to hear one day

He then starts reading his essay aloud to her, which prompts her to RUN THE FUCK AWAY. Does this deter our man? Of course not, he just runs along behind her, shouting the contents of his essay at her now quickly receding back.

HEY, SO SORRY ABOUT EVERYTHING!

HEY, SO SORRY ABOUT EVERYTHING!

This continues until they run across an intersection and Kasuga narrowly avoids getting Froggered. As Kasuga lies on the pavement, pondering his many failures, Nakamura escapes.

It's a trap!

It’s a trap!

Kasuga then runs home and frantically digs up his class list, taking off again to Nakamura’s house so that he can leave his essay in her mail slot (NOT a euphemism). He’s thwarted though by Nakamura’s dad, who invites Kasuga in to talk after Kasuga apologizes for the trouble he caused a month ago (nice job Kasuga. You’ll be a man soon).

Attention: MANHOOD APPROACHING

Attention: MANHOOD APPROACHING

Nakamura’s father and Kasuga have a heart to heart, where we learn that Nakamura’s mother is no longer in the picture after her parents divorced when she was 5. Nakamura has, since then, been raised by her father and her delightfully ancient grandmother.

Grandma, tell me about the Meiji Restoration again.

Grandma, tell me about the Meiji Restoration again.

Nakamura’s father confesses that he doesn’t understand his daughter, that she hardly speaks and when she does it’s nothing but cursing (totes obvs) and he asks Kasuga what his impression of Nakamura is. Kasuga admits that he doesn’t fully understand Nakamura, but that he really wants to and then my heart grew three sizes bigger.

We all do Kasuga.  We all do.

We all do Kasuga. We all do.

The episode ends with Kasuga approaching Nakamura’s bedroom door with extreme trepidation (of note: she spray painted Keep Out Shitheads on her door. Bless her heart). Cue danger music.

DUN DUN DUN!

DUN DUN DUN!

First I’d like to state that I was a big fan of the chase scene, mostly because I loved how it was shot. That was the good stuff. But really, as much as I would love to wax ecstatic about dem sweet visuals, the meat of this episode was obviously in Kasuga’s meeting with Nakamura’s father. This was an excellent—and much needed—scene. We’ve gotten a glimpse of both Saeki and Kasuga’s home lives, but no picture of the home that produced Nakamura. And rather than have something stereotypical (though I suppose you could make the argument that her coming from a broken home contributed to shaping her into the black hole of rage that she has become, I don’t think that’s solely to blame) such as an abusive family or even a neglectful one, we see that she has a father who is greatly concerned about his daughter’s wellbeing. A father who it would appear is patient and kind, who just wants to understand why his daughter is who she is.

And he's so affable!

And he’s so affable!

This is a rather harsh contrast to Kasuga’s parents who have essentially written him off as a lost cause since they discovered what he did to his classroom. They make no attempt to understand him, instead they bemoan the faulty job they did raising him, which has the effect of stripping him of any autonomy or personhood. He’s seen as a product of their faults, and as such, they have no desire to actually understand those faults because the truth might be unpleasant. It’s easier to ignore the darkness that rises up due to your inaction than it is to understand it, particularly when it relates to your children. Even when they initially discovered the truth about their son, they cared only about how it affected them, not about how he might be feeling or what his motives might be. There was no recognition of the potential struggles that he might be encountering in his daily life that would cause him to do what he did. There was only shame in themselves as parents, and then no effort made to address that OR to repair their broken relationship with their son.

It’s even more remarkable how Nakamura’s father deals with his daughter because we can imagine that the abuse she has hurled at him on a daily basis has been much worse than what Kasuga did. And yet in spite of that, he seems to want to reach his daughter in some way. He invites a friend of hers into his house, even after that friend was caught with her by the police half way up a mountain on a rainy night. He wants to know what that friend thinks of his daughter. He’s reaching out instead of shutting down, and that’s more than Kasuga’s parents can say for themselves.

You wanna hug it out bro?

You wanna hug it out bro?

I am also so incredibly thrilled to see Kasuga finally maturing into his own person. Whether or not that is ultimately tied to his flirting with deviancy is irrelevant. He’s becoming a fully-fledged human being. He took responsibility for his actions when he apologized to Nakamura’s father, which is not an easy task for any teenager to undertake, let alone a Japanese one. And then he goes and makes a deeply honest confession about his true desire to understand Nakamura. That takes moxie. That takes initiative. That takes individual desire. Kasuga is finally growing up, and he’s doing remarkably well. In this episode at least.

So what’s going to happen next? I honestly don’t know. Whatever happens though, this episode made me realize how much I’ve been pulling for Kasuga to grow as a character. This episode made inroads towards that, and for a series like this, that rich character development can do more in the long run than having an episode packed with rising action or plot points.

That’s about all I’ve got this time folks. Who else is excited for the finale? Let me know in the comments! Also, if you have a theory about how it will all end, throw that in there too as I would love to hear it! Until next time, matta ne!

...That you are the best.

…That you are the best.

Aku no Hana Episode 11: It’s Always Been Your Choice

18 Jun

By: Stephanie Weirich

TONIGHT.  YOU.

TONIGHT. YOU.

All right guys, we’re getting down to the wire here! We’ve got 2 episodes left of Aku no Hana after this one and the feeling of trepidation is starting to swell within me. Where are we going? Where will this all end? Will Kasuga ever get to transcend his emo-ness? Will Nakamura burn the world down finally? Will Saeki realize that she’s out of her league and should pack it in? Your guess is as good as mine folks, but before all that, let’s get to the recap!

We're back....in the car again.

We’re back….in the car again.

So we start out in the car again. It’s still just as awkward. And then we get to have a lot of jumping around in time in order to fill us all in on the repercussions of Kasuga’s and Nakamura’s attempted escape. The bulk of the episode takes place in the present, which is one month after the events of the previous one. Summer is here, everything sucks and is boiling hot and there are even swimsuits in this episode for everyone who wanted to see that (Fanservice amirite?).

Hey gurl, lemme holla atcha.

Hey gurl, lemme holla atcha.

Kasuga looks like a shell of himself, and he’s clearly being ignored by his former friends, while he ignores Saeki’s existence and Nakamura…Well, Nakamura is probably thinking about drowning everyone in fire and poop. But either way, she’s totes ignoring Kasuga. She also is floating around aimlessly in the lap lanes until she’s rudely disturbed by the gym coach blowing his whistle at her repeatedly.

Nihilism bro.  It's heady.

Nihilism bro. It’s heady.

In typical Nakamura fashion, she steals his damn whistle and asks him if he thinks he’s a stupid pigeon and then she takes off in the middle of gym class because YOLO.

YOLOLOLOLOLOL

YOLOLOLOLOLOL

We get some more flashbacks from Kasuga about how his mother and father took the news of what he did to his classroom and essentially, Kasuga did what every Japanese boy does in these situations: stay stone silent and stare at an undetermined point until everyone stops talking. Just like what you’re supposed to do when pursued by a T-Rex. So he’s got that covered, just in case the situation arises. While Kasuga perfects his silence, his mother weeps and blames herself and her husband for Kasuga’s current state while his father very calmly attempts to wrest the truth about things from him.

You know they can still see you right?

You know they can still see you right?

That shit doesn’t happen though, because authority can suck it. Back in the present time, Saeki breaks up with Kasuga after her friend forces a confrontation between the two of them and Kasuga just apologizes for everything. Well done Saeki, well done.

In Japan, awkward handshakes end all relationships

In Japan, awkward handshakes end all relationships

We then also get to see how Kasuga’s home life is faring after everything that has gone down and turns out that now his parents are giving him the silent treatment, because that’s how that should be done. Kasuga excuses himself from the table without eating, heads to his room and pukes in a bag. He has now officially become every goth girl I knew in high school, high minded (yet totally misunderstood) reading habits and all.

Love.  Love will tear us apart.  Again.

Love. Love will tear us apart. Again.

Kasuga’s goal here is to die a pathetic and inevitable death “like a desert tree”. Again, if he was constantly listening to the Smiths and burning incense to cover up the smell of cigarettes, this would be my life in high school.

Does anyone else smell cloves?

Does anyone else smell cloves?

Anyway, all of that malnourishment leads to some pretty wicked fever dreams which brings us to my favorite moment of the episode.

I LIKE THIS VERY MUCH

I LIKE THIS VERY MUCH

Kasuga has a dream that he’s wandering through the town, and as he wanders, the landscape begins to change. The sky becomes increasingly red, which then leads to flames and underfoot, evil flowers bloom, all watching his slowly paced trip through his dying (and now burning) town.

It's like the poster for "Midnight in Paris" but with more burning.

It’s like the poster for “Midnight in Paris” but with more burning.

He eventually comes upon Nakamura, and as they talk, everything around them disapppears—the flames are gone and the flowers uproot themselves in a swirling tangle that circles Nakamura—which is a none too subtle visual metaphor for Nakamura’s place at the center of Kasuga’s life.

Fancy finding you amidst all of this fire.

Fancy finding you amidst all of this fire.

In this dream, Nakamura shows some real humanity and while choking back tears tells Kasuga that he ultimately disappointed her by clinging so desperately to his walls and refusing to show his true nature. She calls him a liar before brokenheartedly walking away from him.

There you go, breaking my heart again.

There you go, breaking my heart again.

He wakes up panting, reinvigorated with purpose because he knows how Nakamura feels. He knows that Nakamura shouldn’t be left alone in her pursuit of something beyond what this town has to offer. He knows that Saeki can live on happily without him. And so he resolves to write all of this out for Nakamura, and thus make amends.

That's the spirit!

That’s the spirit!

Ultimately, this episode is just continuing the themes that were at the forefront of the previous episode making them much clearer for Kasuga and the viewer. Kasuga got so close to embracing his true nature and living out his true deviancy and then he backed off because he couldn’t commit. He couldn’t do it for himself. He had no clear purpose and no tenacity to see anything through while Nakamura most certainly did/does. While he needed the true catalyst of Nakamura to push him further along on his own path, what he truly needs, what Nakamura truly wants him to do is to realize that HE wants to take that path with her. As forceful as she has been, she wants a companion. She wants an equal. And Kasuga is no good to her if he can’t realize that he wants to be that person. He has to decide to end his own world for the sake of moving onto something better.

vlcsnap-2013-06-18-20h51m50s38

It was also necessary for him to realize that being with Saeki platonically or not would only forever tie him to normalcy. It would, whether they stayed together for years or had a brief school days relationship, put him further on the path towards the kind of life that is encouraged in Japan. And this is the kind of life that he’s subconsciously been rejecting all along. He’s right when he realizes that Saeki can and will be happy without him, because that is the life she wants and deserves. And there’s no judgment there; it’s just that that’s not the life for Kasuga. This is an incredibly important moment for Kasuga. This realization fully pushes Kasuga towards to point of no return. He is finally, FINALLY, making a decision on his own and is committed to carrying it out with his own hands, for better or worse. And that is a huge, character changing moment. I’m sort of proud of the guy, to be honest.

YES.  LET THE AWARENESS CARRY YOU FORWARD.

YES. LET THE AWARENESS CARRY YOU FORWARD.

I want to talk a bit about Kasuga’s parents and their treatment of their only child in light of his obvious problems, but that’s a longer piece that I’m still mulling over that will most likely appear in my much longer recap of this show as a whole. But for now let’s just say that I don’t think the best solution for dealing with a troubled child is to bemoan how it’s your fault as a parent and then follow that up by essentially acting as though that admission is enough, and their kid just has to deal with all emotional fallout on their own, with no parental guidance. Needless to say, this is also something that I’m rather familiar with after teaching kids in this age range and being privy to parent/teacher meetings about the most troubled of students. Much of the time, when the parents had reached the point of personally giving up on dealing with a difficult child, their next solution was to demand that the school and the kid’s homeroom teacher take responsibility and finish suitably molding them into a full-fledged Japanese adult. There were more parents than I was comfortable with who seemed all too ready to wash their hands of their difficult children in favor of the schools raising them in whatever way they could. Expect more on this topic at a later date.

Yeah, that's totally helping the situation right now.

Yeah, that’s totally helping the situation right now.

So that’s about it guys. We’re almost done with this crazy ride and we’ll all get to be together when we see where it takes us in the next two episodes. Oh, and one last time, let me sing the praises of that dream sequence. It was beautiful I tells ya! Beautiful! In your face people who hate the visuals of my beloved Aku no Hana! IN YOUR FACE!

Look at it!  FOREVER!

Look at it! FOREVER!

Do you disagree, agree, fall somewhere in between? Or did you get something completely different out of this episode? Let me hear it in the comments!

Aku no Hana Episode 10: What Do We Mean When We Say Deviant?

12 Jun

By: Stephanie Weirich

vlcsnap-2013-06-11-20h45m24s142

Guys. GUYS. I have something to say, and I’m just going to come right out and say it, finally—I am not a fan of Saeki. There it is. I’m not going to take it back; however, I will most definitely hash out why I feel that way, so have no fear. But I’ll just start out by saying that this episode managed to bring to the forefront many of my significant issues with her character.

But before all that, let’s get to the recap!

We pick up where we left off last week, with Kasuga and Nakamura heading into the mountains—or, as Nakamura refers to it “The Beyond”—after the fallout that was Kasuga’s mother discovering what he did to his classroom. This ride was good because we actually, for the first time, got to see Nakamura open up just a tiny bit and be something other than her usual head strong, abrasive, physically and verbally abusive self. She was downright vulnerable when she told Kasuga that she always wondered if the world just ended at the mountains with nothing at all beyond their dying town.

I mean, maybe?

I mean, maybe?

It was a short lived moment though because when Kasuga tries to commiserate she shuts that shit down immediately by calling him an idiot, AS YOU DO.

C'mon man.  PAY ATTENTION.

C’mon man. PAY ATTENTION.

We also get to see Saeki, who skips out on dinner under the pretense of buying stationary (yeah, no, that seems totally legit at 7 or 8 at night in the middle of a home cooked meal, yeah, you’re doing a great job there) but really, she’s figured out that Nakamura and Kasuga have run away together and so she has to get in on that hot, angsty action because otherwise it just wouldn’t be a party.

No seriously, GREAT JOB

No seriously, GREAT JOB

Cue torrential downpour, forcing Kasuga and Nakamura to take cover on the side of a mountain road to wait for the rain to clear before they continue their journey. Saeki also continues her hot pursuit until, SURPRISE, the 3 maudlin teenagers find each other again.

Don't we all have parents?  Who worry about us?

Don’t we all have parents? Who worry about us?

This scene was a long time coming and I’m glad it finally happened. These 3 have a bevy of issues that only a good old fashioned tear drenched shouting match can really hash out. Oh, and one of them has to be naked and as usual it’s Kasuga. Because Nakamura ripped his clothes off, that’s why. Duh. But really, the content of this emotional catharsis was excellent. We got to see Saeki plead with Kasuga to stay with her and essentially make her into his own girlfriend version of Nakamura (which shows a vast misunderstanding of Kasuga’s and Nakamura’s relationship on Saeki’s part) while Nakamura very calmly makes it clear that Kasuga needs to make a decision and that he shouldn’t “fuck with my expectations”.

DON'T

DON’T

Kasuga, for his part, has some pretty profound revelations about his own expectations for Saeki, his lack of worth to Nakamura and his belief that while he might be empty and despicable, he doesn’t deserve to choose between either of these girls. And before the police break up this shindig, Nakamura makes a face that actually broke my heart. The episode ended with probably the most awkward ride in a police car ever put on film, and I’m saying that as a person who watched “Cops” A LOT.

Really officer, I'll tell you anything if you just get me out of this car.

Really officer, I’ll tell you anything if you just get me out of this car.

So, needless to say, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes in this episode that I think is incredibly important to the show as a whole. One of those things is the parsing out of what the term “deviant” means within the world of Aku no Hana. For some time now, it’s been easy to tie that term explicitly to sexual deviancy but as the series marches onward towards its conclusion it’s becoming more apparent that deviant here doesn’t exactly mean what we think it does. Yes, both Nakamura and Kasuga are deviants, but in this sense it’s more tied to how they subvert the rigid social paradigm that’s been thrust upon them. The act of resistance to societal norms and by extension the very act of acting out against what is expected of them as members of Japanese society is a deviant act. As I’ve covered before, if you’re Japanese and you stand out from the crowd and attempt to assert any individuality amongst your peer group, your life is going to be exceedingly difficult. You’re going to be singled out by your teachers. You’re going to be targeted by your peers. You’re going to be a social Pariah and there is very little you can do to change this (If you’re looking for some extra-curricular reading that goes a long way towards explaining the culture of institutionalized ijime or bullying in Japan I highly recommend “Shutting out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation” by Michael Zielenziger. It’s an eye opening account of how and why kids become Hikikomori amongst other topics that are highly relevant to most of my posts about Aku no Hana). This philosophy has already been demonstrated by how Nakamura is treated by her classmates and by how quickly everyone turned on Kasuga when he dared to stand up for her. And really, a lot of what Nakamura says in this episode relates much more to this concept of deviancy than it does to the concept as explicitly sexual. She desperately wants to travel to “The Beyond”—an undefined world beyond the confines of her existence in this town.

We're all coming with you

We’re all coming with you

She very clearly states that this isn’t about traveling or seeing the world—this is about subverting a staid existence, about shaking up a social order that is causing her and Kasuga’s lives to stagnate. For Nakamura, “deviancy” is the only way past a traditional Japanese existence. The town, and her place in it by extension, is dying. There is no future for someone like Nakamura in a town like this. There might be no place for Nakamura in all of Japan, period.

He sure is.  He sure is.

He sure is. He sure is.

So what about Kasuga? It’s the same and yet different for him. While this concept of deviancy still applies, his is also imbued with a highly sexual context due to ALL of the business that has transpired with Saeki. But it seems as though that was all more a means to an end then it was a diehard sexual perversion. The end for Kasuga in this case being an escape from his highly ritualized and mundane existence. While the seed of social deviancy was planted by his highly erudite (i.e. French) reading habits, it was Nakamura that fully caused that flower to bloom. In a very real way, Nakamura has done exactly what she promised to do: knock down the walls Kasuga hides himself in. It may not be what he, or us as the audience expected, but it is what’s happened. His genuine breakdown in this episode is a reflection of that. He might not fully be aware of it as of yet, but his subconscious at least realizes how important Nakamura has become to him and his personal journey. He’s also realized that he was never prepared to face the reality of Saeki (thank the lord) and that it’s wrong for the two of them to be together as such. Nakamura is the one and only woman who could possibly exist at the center of his world. She is, when it comes right down to it, the realest thing he has ever known and the fact that he hasn’t yet fully realized that and doesn’t think that he deserves to be with her on this mutual journey is the root of Nakamura’s heartbreak at the end of this episode.

Don't mind me, I've just got something in my eye.

Don’t mind me, I’ve just got something in my eye.

It is important to keep this concept of deviancy in context as it relates to Japanese society. The desire to be an individual who fully controls their destiny is one that much of the Western world, particularly the U.S., takes for granted. It’s been bred into our very genes because AMURRICA FUCK YEAH! This is most definitely not the case in Japan and as such, it’s understandable for us as foreign viewers to be highly frustrated with the experience of watching Aku no Hana. So while there is nothing twisted about much of what Kasuga and Nakamura ACTUALLY want from their lives, it is very much twisted within the society they come from. I also think that within the context of the series, Shūzō Oshimi is attempting to, in some regard, normalize that desire and show that it should be the default desire for each person’s life path, as opposed to being an act of deviancy.

NEVER

NEVER

And that all brings me to Saeki’s role in this little drama. Saeki represents Japan’s ideal of normalcy. She is the good girl with the good grades who does everything correctly. She is destined to grow up, get married, have a child and live out her days in relative peace. This is but a puberty inspired blip on her life’s radar. But in the context of Aku no Hana, it’s Saeki that’s the most deviant, in regards to what she represents to Kasuga. If Nakamura represents the path towards fully realized individuality, then Saeki represents the path towards stifling normalcy. She is more of the same for Kasuga, a known reality, while Nakamura is an unknown future. Saeki has no real reason to pine for Kasuga to the degree that she does and as much as she claims to want to understand him and his reasons for doing everything he has done, her readiness to “normalize” his deviancy is highly suspect and I would attribute it more than anything to her jealousy of Nakamura’s ability to be an individual. Saeki can only aspire to be something more than she is, but at the end of the day, she’s fully aware that she will never be anything more than normal. Which in this case, in the twisted world of Aku no Hana, actually makes her highly deviant.

The existential angst.  I CAN TASTE IT.

The existential angst. I CAN TASTE IT.

So Nakamura. Kasuga. Keep doing what you’re doing like you’re doing it for TV.

Yeah, that's the good shit.

Yeah, that’s the good shit.

But that’s just my interpretation guys. Please, feel free to disagree with me in the comments or just let me know what you thought of this episode!

(Also, man, anime penis is a rare animal. My jaw literally fell off of my face when Kasuga got pantsed.)

O_____O

O_____O