Thursday, June 13, 2013

Flowering Evil

In the seventh episode of The Flowers of Evil/惡の華, the currently airing adaptation of Shuzo OSHIMI's manga series of the same name, the show goes off the deep end by treating the teen-angst driven act of destruction as an almost religious experience. The sequence could easily the most beautiful thing I've seen in the last year, a moment out of time and space that neither looks like live action footage nor traditional animation, because... well, it's not quite either or. The entire series has been brought to life via rotoscoping, one of the oldest tricks in the animator's handbook, and while I myself had very mixed feelings about the process - particularly in the context of this show - the results that close episode 7 is one of the most awe-inspiring things I can remember. Without trying (or even needing to) explain how and why, anyone with a basic familiarity with animation should recognize how unusual and impressive this sequence is, and with it, for one glimmering moment in time, I felt all of my misgivings and disorientation with the show's unique visual style disappear. For the first time, I felt I finally understood what director Hiroshi NAGAHAMA saw in this unusual production method to begin with.

Episode 8 begins with a recap of the show's previous animated decadence... and then gives us a 6 minute scene in which two characters walk home at dawn. No dialog. No action. No deeper meaning that wasn't summed up in the first 30 seconds. I'm not exaggerating when I say "walking home in silence" compromised a third of the episode's content. Somewhere, David Lynch is holding his head in his hands and asking what the hell is going on, and he may or may not have even heard of the show. It's the single biggest act of professional trolling to the concept of animation actually being animated since the 24th broadcast episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, and seeing as how that entire moment remained untouched even in the "final" presentation - the Evangelion: Death compilation movie - I've always interpreted that as the director willfully extending his middle finger in the middle of what was, up until that moment, a long-con experiment with animation styles paying off in what could be the single worst way possible. A friend of mine defended the sequence as a  perfectly sedate visual representation of what it's like to come down from a severe emotional high - can't say he doesn't have a point, but if that's the case, I'm still left chasing the dragon that ended episode 7.

That inconsistency, far more than the style itself, is what keeps me increasingly fascinated - and frustrated - with The Flowers of Evil. Mrs. Kentai calls the show awful, and I don't think that's entirely fair. Meanwhile the staff of Anime News Network gave the first episode almost universal praise, and I don't think that's quite right either. No, the show represents something unusual - something new, perhaps? - and there are absolutely properties and experiences in this show that make it stand out from basically every other piece of animation created up until this moment in history. That's a good thing. The problem is as much as I'm fascinated by the results - and the reason behind them in the first place - I'm not convinced the choice works as often as it fails. And it's that very real sense of frustration that's kept me from saying anything up until now about it: For the first time in years, I'm staring a piece of art in the face right as it's unfolding, and I'm so incredibly torn about how I feel I was afraid I'd say something I'd regret.

Rotoscoping - that is, tracing live action footage to create a more "lifelike" piece of animation - is typically used to heighten reality in situations of obvious unreality; originally created by Max Fleischer in 1915, it served as the backbone for the now iconic Paramount Superman cartoons, and was - arguably - put to its best use by its creator in the 1939 Gulliver's Travels cartoon, which combined exaggerated cartoon caricature with a fully "realistic" character. It was a really interesting use of the technology, but I'd be lying if I said I had more than vaguely fond childhood memories of the film proper, and only remember it now for the painfully awful upscaled Blu-ray, which represents one of the single most dishonest uses of the words "High Definition".

The most fascinating examples of rotoscoped animation I'm aware of, however, are Ralph Bakshi's late 70s productions, with my personal favorite - Fire and Ice - using rotoscoped animation to bring a level of nuance and surreal life to impossibly idealized fantasy archetypes designed by modern illustration master Frank Frazetta. Bakshi's first film to use the technique to its fullest was American Pop, an experimental film driven by the history of America's love of Rock 'n' Roll, and a film in which the actions of its cast work towards a final goal of being exciting and larger than life. American Pop might be unique, even in Bakshi's canon, but the rotoscoping was used specifically to boil down the swagger and over the top personality that its passionate cast of musicians are meant to embody. In Bakshi's case, rotosocping was a way to bring the nuance of reality to the realm of fantasy, be it the polished work found in the utterly mesmerizing Weathertop battle sequence of Lord of the Rings, or the kinda-shitty, often jarringly low-tech tinted tracing of  the organ player in Wizards.

Particularly in the latter case, the rotoscoping was used solely as a means to cut-costs on what was quickly becoming an out of control production, but Bakshi recognized the unique, bizarre charms of the process and deemed it worth turning into an artform in its own right. Rotoscoping popped up in a number of pieces of experimental 80s animation, including the borderline legendary armor-donning sequence in the Taarna short that ends Heavy Metal, and the raucous, over the top punk rock vitality featured in the "Born to Raise Hell" musical number of Rock and Rule. Sometimes single shots of rotoscoping will pop up in otherwise traditional animation - including one of the strangest moments in Robot Carnival's "Red Neck and Chicken Man" segment, itself an ode to both Disney's Night on Bald Mountain and The Headless Horseman. Speaking of Disney, some of the running loops in 101 Dalmations were rotoscoped too, because fuck man, dogs are complicated!

In all of these cases, the technique was used to take the "real" movement of a human being and transpose it into a larger than life exaggeration - the point wasn't quite to mimic humanity, but to take the animation representation of it to new artistic heights. Granted, some people who spend more time mulling over animation theory than myself are ready to argue that rotoscoping is a cheap, lazy method to "fake" animation - even motion capture used by films created entirely out of CG renders can be considered rotoscoped, in a sense. It certainly rubbed Pixar the wrong way hard enough that, after the 2007 oscar nominations it was up against used the technique, they released their next film (Ratatouille) with the disclaimer "100% Pure Animation - No Motion Capture!" in place of the typical live action equivalent of no animals being harmed and blah-blah look I love animals and ASPCA's all right, but unless we're watching APOCALYPSE NOW! again I feel like we've reached that point where we can probably just assume that all animals on camera are being treated better than their human counterparts. Unless Von Trier's involved, I guess.

To trace all this back to The Flowers of Evil, the TV series is taking those same tools honed by Bakshi and his contemporaries and doing something utterly drastic with them: Nagahama is using the creepy, Uncanny Valley qualities of the medium and turning it against its own audience. As I'm sure I've covered before (but can't remember when, so fuck it) the Uncanny Valley is a scientifically sound phenomenon where the closer to reality an artificial figure becomes - be it a CG render in a video game, a drawing traced from a photograph, or just an ordinary replicant come to murder your soul while you sleep with its unblinking eyes - the more those very subtle nuances that separate it from being a "real" person begin to freak us right the fuck out. Basically, it's the reason Real Dolls are more unsettling that GI Joe's - yeah, there's also that whole "lubricated orifices" wildcard to consider, but simply put, the fact that the former is meant to look realistic means we consciously realize how it doesn't. Comparatively speaking, a 12 inch figure with swivel joints and felt glued to his face just looks quaint and exaggerated.

On the off chance you've yet to see an episode of The Flowers of Evil, the show... looks like this:

Considering how amazingly... normal the original source manga looked, this fusion of 2D abstraction and unsettlingly real sense of perspective and body language are about the most traumatizing thing you'll see from Japan this side of Kanashimi no Belladonna. This being The Internet, most everyone who would have otherwise fallen into the target demographic for this bizarre anomoly took this as a personal offense and immediately got on YouTube to tell everyone how terrible the show was, even if they'd only seen a single screencap. I won't fault any of these people for this gut reaction, because I felt it too; even consciously knowing I was looking at something constructed to make me feel that way, I watched the entire first episode with one brow cocked and a grimmace on my face, wondering how the guy who directed Mushi-Shi and Detroit Metal City - two wildly different, but equally fascinating styles of traditional animation - could have made something so damned ugly!

And yet... that's kind of the whole point, I think. Shows in which attractive 2D characters deal with the trials and tribulations of secondary school are a dime a dozen, stretching into every potential demographic and genre possible - light drama, tragedy porn, zany sitcoms and everything in between. With this in mind, the omnipresence of "cute kids in school do something insubstantial for 20 minutes" card explains why The Flowers of Evil took such a drastic choice in its presentation; The Flowers of Evil isn't one of "those" shows. And I don't say that as a total dismissal, either - hell, I liked K-On!, and I thought School Days was an absolutely brilliant deconstruction of the idealized high school life. And if you didn't laugh at any point watching Azumanga Daioh!, you probably don't have a soul. Seriously dude, go to a doctor and have that shit checked.

The Flowers of Evil is either pushing those audiences away, or kicking them in the pills and daring them to keep watching, depending on how you want to view director Nagahama's intentionally unattractive style. The air of grim filth continues into the rusting, rotten background pallets and often minimalist sound design that's not too dissimilar to the average methodically paced live action Japanese arthouse drama. With a few (intentionally) uncharacteristic visual flourishes in episode 5, the Flowers of Evil TV series eschews as many of the fantastic and vibrant explosions of fun in its contemporaries, and it does it specifically to make you fell slightly worse about yourself. The slug-like pacing, asymmetrical character designs, and the groaning instrumental soundtrack all work together to create a thoroughly unpleasant, emotionally desolate atmosphere. It's all the grungy, dour symbolism of FLCL's soul crushing town, but without any of the whimsy that Gainax infused to make their return to adolescent frustrations somewhat palatable.

The most natural comparison one could make is probably A Scanner Darkly. Personally I expect others to make that connection, it seems obvious at first even, but reject it. Yes, both use rotoscoping as a way to unnerve and disorient the audience, but A Scanner Darkly itself is a science fiction story in which the very boundaries between reality and paranoia are constantly thrown into question.The Flowers of Evil is undeniably a story tied to the rejection of normalicy and psychopathic dissonance, but the universe this story takes place in is very much our own. It even gives us a specific place where it all happens (though not until much later on), quelling in part any question as to if this tale is set in "our" world or some fictionalized parody of reality.

That said, the unpleasant atmosphere is... kind of inconsistent. As others far more experienced in these areas have already pointed out, one of the biggest problems with this unique rotoscoped "look" is that, on medium and (especially) far shots, characters become all but indiscernible with essentially no recognizable features. For a show with a distinctly pointed focus on characterization - for all intents and purposes, there's exactly three lead personalities and their development is the only thing the show has to offer - literally turning your protagonist into an indistinct blob isn't helping to make your point. The fact that Nakamura has a different hair color than the other two characters almost feels like it's cheating, but - to be fair, that was true in the manga as well, and its' reasonably neutral, cute art style doesn't have any of the problems with consistency its adaptation does.

Another oddity was the fact that the first two episodes of the TV series feature Kasuga actually reading poems by Baudelaire himself. It's an interesting idea, using Kasuga's inspiration to fuse with the original material... but it stops suddenly and never re-appears, despite his continued lionization of Baudelaire. I don't mind an adaptation bringing relevant art into the fray, but to start it and then not go back to the idea feels like a bit of a cop-out... or maybe Baudelaire isn't nearly as relevant to this new original work's story as its own hero seems to think it is?

If this were the only issue with the show's presentation I wouldn't be so upset with it, but the above cap was chosen for a reason: That intentionally chosen screenshot above is from the rage-inducing scene that opens episode 8, and is literally six minutes straight of scrawled, vaguely humanoid blobs walking hand in hand in total silence as the sun rises. As another professional in this area is quick to point out, the very nature of rotoscoping is boiling "real" action down to its base elements in a way that's simpler and thus faster for the brain to interpret, and while this pacing might seem more natural in a live action drama, seeing it rotoscoped with that same methodical, slow-as-a-slug pacing sometimes on material that's literally a single background for several seconds at a time, just feels cheap and ugly by comparison. Pacing in film is an art, not a science, and I won't claim that what's done here is wrong, but the fact that I'm willing to compare it to the now legendary dick-move of animation trolling committed nearly 20 years ago in Evangelion should say something about how unusual it is.

I won't pretend I know Baudelaire from a hole in my ass - the reading in the first two episodes of his  poetry is the first I've heard of it, and knowing how I tend to hate older romance-language translation cadence I'll probably never get much else out of it anyway - but if there's one thing I'm all too familiar with, it's the hopelessness of adolescence, and how latching onto something that sounds world-shattering and smartly adult can change your whole outlook on the world. Suddenly life isn't a coursing cesspool of raging hormones, emotional retardation and intellectual boredom; you become something better, something more intelligent and worthwhile that the sacks of worthless meat around you. You become - through no lack of having anything else to compare yourself to - an individual. You wrap yourself in that knowledge, in that fascination, that fetish only you know about and you use it to convince yourself you're better, that you'll leave this aching, disgusting world of ordinary people and become something better than your own life. This is an almost universal reaction because it's as much societal as it is chemical. The wishy-washy definition of what decisions are and aren't acceptable for adolescents to make are a bitch like that.

As a teen, you're more often than not pretentious asshole who doesn't actually know shit about shit, and to whom the act of growing up and accepting that you aren't what you think you are is the most grotesque, painful, and humiliating thing you'll ever know. It's unfortunate, but also totally natural - perhaps even unavoidable. Most people who watched the first episode of The Flowers of Evil didn't know this yet, but the whole damn show is about tearing those illusions down to ashes and bones, showing you how uninteresting and common Kasuga - and by way of the way we interpret stories, the viewer, really is. The Flowers of Evil is amazing because it's about facing all the pain, all the frustration, and all the hopelessness that entails, with the likelihood of a happy ending - or even justified catharsis - being so remote that the show might as well come with a bottle of anti-depressants. It isn't pretty, and the show is designed from the ground on up to make that material as aesthetically ugly as humanly possible.

Truth be told, there's another reason I love it, and that's the delicious way in which it's completely destroyed the typical tropes of  late 90s/early 00s ero-anime tropes, particularly those cemented by the Pink Pineapple/Elf "Oyaji Trilogy" that began with Isaku. The following paragraph is going to contain some spoilers, since I can't actually explain what about this show I like properly without using an actual example. If you haven't seen episode 7 yet, consider skipping this next bit, and come back when the text returns to normal:

Just before the scene that so enamoured me, there's a wonderful exchange between the blackmailer Nakamura - who wants the antihero Kasuga to remove his mask and show the whole world the dark monster lurking within him - in which she reveals the only way to atone for his "sin" is to own it, and expose himself as the heinous, perverted shit-worm that they both know he is. Kasuga breaks down and begs her to just let him go back to his normal, awkward, uninteresting life... and and Nakamura loses hope. She - and I'm paraphrasing, to a degree at least - looks Kasuga in the eye and tells him "I was wrong about you. You just wanted sex... like everyone else. What a disappointment."

To clarify this, Nakamura isn't anti-sex, not exactly - she was eager to hear from both sides after he went to Saeki's house to (she assumed) fuck her brains out, and hope to piece together another side of Kasuga's true self, whatever that may be. She's just against the coddling, simplistic desires that drive everyone around her to be satisfied with normal, shallow happiness - something she herself is unable to feel due to traumas never fully explained, and thus rejects as being anything but a manufactured fantasy. Her torture and abuse - almost all of it emotional in nature - is to draw out whatever true deviant lurks beneath the bland face of a normal young teenager; sex itself isn't perverse, it's normal, thus sex itself means nothing to her. It literally took the rhythm and escalating gratuity perfected by Shuusaku - basically, the pornographic equivalent to a shitty slasher movie - and made it about everything but sex. Some people see this as a cop-out. I see it as a work of the original author's understanding of those underlying universal themes, which - in turn - were used to create shows like Shuusaku in the first place.

She wanted to see something violent. Something depraved. Something shocking. She thought it all meant something... and it's this realization that Kasuga can't run from his own desires that catalyses the beautiful, transformative release that affirmed my love for this unusual series, and fully reveals the core idea of The Flowers of Evil: That only by accepting those unpleasant realities we hide from ourselves will we ever be free to feel anything beyond the trite realities of puppy love and undefined teen angst. It's certainly a simplified, fatalistic notion - but it's one Nakamura firmly believes in, and even now as I draw ever closer to my third decade alive, it's not one I'm entirely convinced is without merit.

I'd go on - I'd love to talk about why I think Nakamura is so drawn to Kasuga - but that would be spoiling volumes of the manga not yet available through official channels, and at this rate, the TV series will never get to that moment of clarity anyway. As of this writing, episode 10 has aired and been simulcast on Crunchy Roll, with 13 episodes promised in total. (Sentai Filmworks has already announced the North American home video/digital rights, but there's no firm date set beyond "2013", and no confirmation of a Blu-ray either.) Without getting into major spoiler territory, I'll say that the first 33 chapters of the original Flowers of Evil manga tell a beautiful tragedy from start to finish; the fact that the author keeps going, however, is a tragedy unto itself, at least if everything up through chapter 45 is any indication. At the glacial pace the anime adaptation has chosen, there's simply no way it'll get to the end of Kasuga and Nakamura's story proper - we'll get to a big, shocking moment I'm sure - the adaptation would be a bit of a waste if it didn't get there - but not to the end itself.

I'm slightly sad knowing that the show's refusal to create anything marketable, no pop singles, no "cute" character designs to make figures from, nothing that would convince anyone but the most die-hard of manga fans [or wholly atypical anime fans] to spend exorbitant amounts on merchandise and super-expensive import Blu-rays... in short, there's no way in hell we're getting a second season. Much like Shigurui, we're going to get a literal adaptation of part of the story, and that's all we're going to get. Maybe once the TV series is over we'll have a chance to go over what might have been, to say nothing of what will happen in the 11th hour [which is, all things considered, where most of the show's "HOLY SHI-" moments are going to be found].

In short, The Flowers of Evil is a triumph more for its ghastly reflection of dark, youthful ignorance than it is for its stilted animation or occasionally awkward pacing, but in a frustrating way both of those flaws solely exist to prop up the ugly, honest fascination of self-loathing and distorted notions of romanticism the story has to deliver. If the idea interests you but the art style keeps it at arms length - something I myself struggled with for a while - I'd not hesitate to recommend the manga, which is available up to volume 6 through Vertical in North America, with volume 7 due in October. All of the self-hatred, none of the awkward sliding-scale in art quality and pacing frustrations. Whatever medium you choose, buckle up... it likely going to be both much better, and less fun than you're expecting it to be.

EDIT: Fixed a few paragraphs for clarity, accuracy and spelling... I so need an editor.


Kevin P. said...

I'm not sure whether I love this show or not, but I can't stop watching it either way (it's given me something besides Shingeki no Kyojin to follow obsessively on Crunchyroll). When it grabs you it really grabs you. And while I can understand the backlash, having been subjected to Western animation styles for most of my life the style here doesn't bother me in the least.

That said, I've not read the manga, not yet at least. I've finally taken the plunge into proper Japanese lessons, and the first volume (imported) is ready and waiting for my puny reading skills to catch up to it.

Torgo25 said...

Minor correction: rotoscoping was invented by Max Fleischer, not Ralph Bakshi.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Kevin: I watched the first episode of ATTACK ON TITAN and was immediately let down. It wasn't bad, exactly, but it's by far the least impressive thing Tersurou ARAKI has directed. Besides, hot-blooded action shows like this are better watched in multi-episode sittings. I'm sure it's the old-school nth-gen VHS fansub mentality talking, but I'd much rather watch 3 or 4 episodes of an action series in a row than go piece-meal once a week.

By "manga", did you mean FLOWERS or TITAN? If it's the former, Vertical's translated the first half-dozen volumes, which will (incidentally) probably be right around where the TV series cuts off...

Torgo25: Ah! I did word that incredibly poorly: I knew damn well that Bakshi didn't create rotoscoping (101 Dalmations came out, what, 15 years before Wizards? ), but he did refine it and use it as an intentionally jarring effect in ways that no other cartoonist probably ever would have.

Fleischer created the technique; Bakshi weaponized it. That's what I was trying to say before vagueness and exhaustion took over. I've added a paragraph I had penciled in at one point back in to clarify.

Kevin P. said...

Kentai: I've read TITAN up to the end of what's available translated, and have the first volume in Japanese, along with first volume of FLOWERS (which I haven't read) and a few others. The kanji in both is glossed, so as soon as my grammar expands beyond the most basic of basic I'll be making some sort of go at them.

The TITAN anime is mostly what I expected, though the more graphic violence and outright grotesqueness of the manga is... missed. I stupidly watched all the available episodes (9 of them at the time) in a sitting, which makes the wait for new eps seem interminable. It's not a brilliant show, or even great, but I've enjoyed it well enough thus far. I'm not sure how it will hold up in single episode bits, though, as I'm so used to reading (and now watching) it en masse.