The best anime have a heedless exhilaration to them, one borne of seeing creative people take great leaps and land squarely on their feet. Flowers of Evil has the heedlessness and maybe also some of the exhilaration; it's a thrill to see a show this ambitious and conceptually daring come out of an industry that's too often resorted to resting on its laurels. But it's overwhelmingly difficult to watch, paced with sadistic deliberation and lacking in any but the blackest of humors. I wouldn't blame anyone for saying they never wanted to watch it a second time. I will, though, say it would be a mistake to not watch it just once.
Some critics seem to be of the belief that in order for a show to be "good", it has to also not be any fun to watch, like choking down liver or broccoli. I rejected this particular bad penny a while back, but it keeps turning up, mostly as an argument in favor of work that is conceptually and intellectually ambitious but a chore to actually sit through in the first place. Evil has valid reasons for being the way it is, but whether or not the payoff is worth the effort is something I find myself stuck for an answer on. Is it bad form to say that I admired a show's intentions and found its technique and artistry superlative, but after a certain point I just wanted the damned thing to be over?
The beautiful and the damned
Evil is a mixture of psychological horror story, teenage-angst drama, and the blackest of humors, patterned closely after the manga it was derived from. In a small town somewhere in Japan, a meek young middle-schooler named Takao finds fulfillment in books. Among them is the Baudelaire volume from which the show derives its title, in which he sees the kind of wild, laughing-in-the-face-of-perversity spirit he would like to have himself. But without a plan to act it out, he's stuck just reading about it. He has a crush on Nanako, an A student with a broad smile and an indefatigably sunny disposition, but he only sees her in the most idealized terms — as his "muse", his "angel", not as an actual human being with frailties and difficulties.
On the extreme opposite side of the scale is Sawa, the girl who sits behind Takao in class, scores straight zeroes on tests, and whose uniformly foul attitude towards everyone and everything makes even the teachers uneasy around her. One night Sawa spies Takao giving into temptation and stealing Nanako's gym clothes, and proceeds to blackmail him with this knowledge. She's convinced that under that meek skin of his there's a "pervert" (like her) waiting to come out, and so manipulates Takao into doing things like going on a date with Nanako while wearing said gym outfit under his own clothes.
The more pressure Sawa puts on Takao and Nanako, the more Nanako reveals herself to be either a genuinely good person or a holy fool. If Takao did all these things out of his love for her, then that's all right, isn't it? But Takao feels stranded between both poles — he can't completely give in to the impulses Sawa is trying to squeeze out of him, and he can't tear himself away from his fascination with the darker and more Nietzschean extreme of emotion Baudelaire evoked in him. As Bob Dylan once put it, to live outside the law you must be honest, and he is not honest enough in that way — something that ends up ruining things for him with both girls, and possibly for himself as well.
It's good for you; it's not supposed to be fun
Laid out like that, the story sounds like the makings of a silly-supposed-to-be-sincere sex comedy. Evil plays out like anything but. Its dead-slow pacing and Brian Eno-esque ambient score are not the only tipoffs as to how serious its intentions are; there's also the animation itself. In a move that some have not applauded, the animation was not created by hand but rather rotoscoped over live-action footage and backgrounds — and not just for a few individual snippets of action, as was the case with Kids on the Slope, but for the entirety of the show. The effect is both one of added realism and added cold-bloodedness: the line for suspension of disbelief that exist with most animation has been moved to a different place here. It feels like a waking nightmare, neither reality nor dream. Part of the idea, I assume, was to distance the final product not just from the original material but from other anime productions, and in that respect it works: there really is no mistaking Evil for anything else out there.
But just because something is unique doesn't automatically make it good, let alone recommendable. What makes a show good is not how it does any one thing but how it delivers as a whole, and what makes it recommendable is how well it delivers that particular whole. It's tempting to tell people Evil is a "better" show than, say, One Piece, because of its uniqueness and its uncompromising attitude towards its material. To my mind this is wrong, not only because of differing criteria between viewers, but because it sets unrealistic standards for what any show tries to do in the first place. Evil may be conceptually and artistically better — or at least more ambitious — than your average shōnen beat-'em-up long-runner, but it's hard to make a case for it as aesthetically better, as something that is more worthwhile on every front and not just the ones that a critic teaches himself to hold in high esteem.
The toughest part about recommending this show is doing so knowing full well that most audiences are going to find it excruciating to just watch. I'm not talking about the visuals — they're creative and inventive — but rather the unrelieved tone of emotional torment that is sustained through most every second of the show. It does not help to say "well, that's the point", because in the mind of most viewers that only reinforces for them the idea that it's not worth seeing. Most people don't watch a show to have psychic wounds gratuitously inflicted on them, and the way Evil does it — not just once but over and over, without a shred of relief — doesn't make much of a case to the uninitiated as to why it would be worth it.
I don't believe a show, anime or otherwise, should feel forbidden from exploring extreme states of being. But there has to be something above and beyond simply seeing it executed on a technical level. Some of this may stem from the fact that the show only adapts part of the original comic, but to me that's not an explanation, it's an excuse. The one bit of emotional release we get at the end of the show (or season, if more is on the way) is handled less like release and just another extension of the same soul-pummeling we've already been subjected to for twelve other episodes.
On damning with faint praise
And yet, I know it's a mistake to dismiss Evil out of hand, because it dares to be something different, and that is a rare commodity these days. For one, there's the look of the show, an experiment I would like to see attempted again in other ways. Aside from it giving the goings-on a realistic undertone that a conventional animated production wouldn't have — not even one as conservatively constructed as, say, something from Studio Ghibli — it's another reminder that animation is a medium and not a genre, one which allows our disbelief to be suspended in different ways from live action. I wonder now what it would be like to watch the raw live-action footage used to derive the animation, one from which an entirely different version of the show could be prepared. I suspect it would be no less fascinating than this version.
What I find most problematic about Flowers of Evil, then, is not that it is such an angry, hurtful show to sit through, but that people who think highly of it will use that aspect of it as the best evidence of its value and seriousness. Evil is valuable, and I think anime would be all the poorer without it. Not all great achievements in a medium, not all masterworks, have to be fun. But sometimes I wonder if being fun is such a bad thing.