Aku no Hana (The Flowers of Evil)

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There is no reason for anyone to love the way they’ve been raised in suburbia. It may not be dangerous, but that is not enough to make living there worthwhile. Suburbia is a world without values, where nothing is allowed to be good and worth devoting to. Some things are considered bad and off-limits – like drugs. Anything else though is ‘just a hobby’. No wonder this safe lifestyle doesn’t stop people from killing themselves – why live such a life, anyway?

No wonder, then, that suburbia has its share of ‘rebels’ who take symbols that seem to contradict suburbia. Then again, any person who finds something valueable is rebelling against suburbia – that’s why both the happy-go-lucky raver and the skull-laden metalhead are considered rebels of this landscape. Even the truly religious and the intellectual can be rebels in this world. Such passionate people will challenge the status quo since they will value something other than the suburban lifestyle.

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Notice the problem, though. Notice what’s the requirements for a true rebellion against suburbia – having values. Aku no Hana is the pseudo-rebel, the person who hates suburbia so much with all its emptiness yet cannot find anything of value to replace it with. It wrecks destruction, says naughty words and perhaps will pay lip-service to sexuality but in the end it has nothing to say. In the end, it is too weak to admit it’s exactly like the suburbia it hates and this lack of self-awareness is its destruction.

The anime fails in the same way the main character, Nakamura, fails. Nakamura hates the boring life she leads. I hate that way of life, too. Yet just because she claims she’s going ‘beyond the hill’, that she will tear down Kasuga’s walls to find something there doesn’t mean she actually will. It doesn’t mean her actions are directed at this venture. Actually, her actions are more like that of a sexual abuser rather than a tough life couch.

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Imagine if a man stripped a female of clothing, forced her to wear something and said this will somehow psychologically heal her and make her stronger, bring out the ‘real her’ or something equally fancy. Few of us would take it seriously. The moment the man will use force is the moment we will find him villainous, no matter how many rebellious slogans come out of his mouth. So why is it okay when a female does it?

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It’s an anime so engrossed in being different, so immersed in wanting to be unique that it doesn’t even try. It goes beyond the art style, which is ugly but not too hard to get used to. The backgrounds are fantastic. They go beyond the emptiness of suburbia, giving everything a rusty look of falling down and crumbling. We see something else besides boredom, that suburbia equals malaise and its lack of values is actually that depressing. As for the character design, it’s merely failed realism. None of them actually look like real people but more like distorted photographs. For a while it’s amusing, but not too much.

At first it starts off interesting with a view into the darkness and weirdness of random people. Quickly, though, it is obvious we’re supposed to side with Nakamura, view her as a tragic person lost in a world of dull people who just cannot realize how special she is. Too bad the creators missed that if anyone actually paid attention to her, they’d realize she should be in jail. No one cares how special you are when you abuse people. Look what happened to Watkins.

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True horror is realizing that something that’s horrible is also real, and perhaps more common than we think. Don’t be a pig and act like your mud is special. Show the viewers that what they consider deviant is actually normal. Horrify them with that. Instead, we see a small act of stupidity and teenage horniness being shoved in our faces like the creators just discovered the true darkness that lays at humanity’s heart.

If only they had enough empathy to realize that the true horror is realizing that all our rebelliousness is worth nothing if we’re cruel, that we’re excellent at swallowing our own Kool-Aid as we hide from how we hurt others. From the middle onwards, the series becomes nothing but a carnival of vomit. We see people being mean to each other, some preaching about the nastiness of suburbia and pushing someone to do things they don’t want because you and your rebellious self know what’s best for them. Hating suburbia is a good thing, but it’s the first step. This anime barely takes in, and merely wallows in the pre-packaged cliches of rebellion – like anti-capitalism music that you need to pay to hear.

1.5/5

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Markus Zusak – The Book Thief

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Do we need another Holocaust story?

The Holocaust was horrible. I doubt anyone will argue otherwise. Even those who claim it was nothing special are redundant. No massacre was as systematic and well-organized as this. The Holocaust comes with built-in emotional appeals, so you can’t blame me for being skeptic about The Book Thief. The fact that it’s for Young Adults, became popular and is narrated by Death makes everything worse. It looks like something that aims for the heart strings. It will manipulate you with tragedy and then give you some easy answer.

Only it’s not what happens. This is more like Fault in Our Stars. It’s a novel that feels like the result of harrowing research. Zusak writes like he’s trying to cope with believing that the Age of Social Catastrophe really happened. It’s not about a Holocaust. It’s about trying to come to terms with how reality shifted since WWII.

It was a nightmare. The Nazis, Pol Pot, the Russian Communism, the War – it sounds like an extinction event. It must’ve shook everyone. How does civilization continue from such a devastating event?

Zusak creates a character whose own story could somehow encompass this mess. His protagonist isn’t a Jew or a slave in the Gulag. This would make his book too specific. She’s also not a person from the highest echelon of society, for whom death was a complete shocker. Liesel is somewhere in the middle. She knows what death is and she knows what happiness is. She doesn’t know what so much death is.

Zusak wants to prod into what grief is. He’s trying to come to terms with it and while the story doesn’t rely on ass-pulled happy endings, it’s less dark than Green’s famous novel about cancer. People die and bad stuff happens, but Zusak’s attempts at staying optimism aren’t convincing. They sound like denial of tragedy rather than confronting it.

Hans’ character is the worst bit. He’s like Atticus, remaining moral and good-willing no matter how terrible things are. We don’t get a reason why he’s like this. He’s an angelic figure at reads more like Zusak convincing himself that there were good Germans,

You don’t need Jew-loving Germans to make us sympathize with them. A bolder move would be to show us the German who either bought into Nazism, or just cared only about his own skin. This would be harder to do, but more insightful. Zusak already chose to tell the story about Germans and not Jews, for a change. Despite all their power, the Nazis were the losers and their story wasn’t heard. The novel reminds us that there was more in that time period besides dying Jews and the assholes who ran the camps.

Hans is better than Atticus, though. Around the middle Zusak lets him fall like he should. In fact, Zusak puts a lot of characters through breakdowns and allows each to have his own way of coping. He doesn’t manage to create a convincing enough psychology. His characters are too quirky. They stick to their quirks rather than reveal new things about their personality. Still, he gives each of them their own way of coping. It’s hard to write a convincing psychology, but an honest attempt gives extra points.

He also avoids the trope of showing a happy life that’s followed by a tragedy. That’s easy to do. Zusak’s Himmel Street isn’t a happy world of quirky people who are happy despite being poor. It’s a world of ups and downs, childish fights, hunger and friendship. It’s often disconnected from the big story of WWII but isn’t that the point? While war goes on, people are trying to live as usual.

It’s also interesting to see a 21st century view of war applied to WWII. There are no heroes and villains in this war. It’s just people doing their job. People are afraid of bombs, but don’t care much who they’re fighting against. War is ugly, regardless of which side you on. Thankfully, Zusak doesn’t take the leap to conclude there’s a grand conspiracy at works. He avoids ranting about fat white men smoking cigars, planning to bomb children for their own amusement.

His take on Hitler though, is a mess. He obscures his view in a children’s book. It’s either a cop-out or a clever way of saying how childish it is to paint Hitler as some senseless bad guy. There are some philosophizing about words, but they don’t lead to anywhere. Books are pretty important, words have power but is war the result of the failure of words? Or can war be caused by and solved by words? Zusak knows that portraying the Nazis as hating books is a straw man. Mein Kampf is their Bible. Where does he draw the line? He raises questions but never explores them enough to help me come to answer of my own. It’s just there.

While the idea of Death narrating the story is pretty cool, it’s also not used to its advantage. Death’s tone is interesting. Current Western society (and a lot of cultures in general) despise death and view it as the most terrible thing. Check the panic around the idea that everyone has the right to die. Death’s tone is not cruel but almost detached. It’s a sad inevitability that we must accept.

There’s not much insight beyond this. Death is a psychopomp, but not much else. It’s not even a new spin. The problem is that death is presented as this general thing. There are various causes of death and we treat each of them differently. It would be better if Zusak used this to make Death more complex. Suicide, war, old age – we react differently to those deaths. Digimon Tamers gave us an original spin by personoficating suicide specifically. Zusak had a chance to portray all kinds of deaths, but instead it’s monolithic.

The stylized prose also doesn’t always work. Zusak knows what he wants. He’s trying to be poetic by creating a rhythm and separaitng paragraphs. His descriptions are sensual and not precise. Cliches still attack him. The weather is always mentioned, which is such a redundant technique that it doesn’t matter how much purpose it has. The poetic style also often leads to more telling than showing. While there are interesting reactions to disaster, in general the characters don’t have enough to do. We’re being told about them, and they end up more quirky than humane.

It would’ve worked if Zusak was more determined what kind of book this was. If the whole thing was supposed to be pseudo-poetic all the way, then the occasional ‘manipulative’ moment could be excused. If your whole story is one large poem, everything will probably be exaggarated and an angelic figure like Hans would be easier to swallow. Too often the poetic stylings cover up the characters instead of revealing them.

It’s an interesting enough book that doesn’t justify the hype, but doesn’t deserve to be lumped as another brain-dead best seller. It resorts to failed tricks as much as it has original ideas. It reads more like an interesting experiment by a writer who has a great book in him, rather than a hack who can only pull the heart strings. Hopefully, the sales will make Zusak take his craft more seriously.

3 stolen books out of 5