Takao is a middle school student who views life with all its rules and structure somewhat oddly. This could largely be due to his love of reading books such as Les Fleurs du Mal, also known as The Flowers of Evil. It has led him to look down on most of the world and its pointlessness. Still, there are exceptions, most notably a girl named Saeki in his class whom he has a crush on. One day when he is alone in the classroom after school, he discovers that she forgot her school uniform, and in a panic on a whim he ends up stealing it. This causes quite a ruckus, and he is wracked by guilt. However, he then encounters a major issue in that it seems that a girl named Nakamura seems to have seen him take it. However, far from being disgusted with him, she’s actually rather pleased. She demands that he enter into a contract with her to do whatever she asks of him, and hence not feeling he has much of a choice he does. It turns out that Nakamura like him also looks down on the pointlessness of the world. However, her approach to dealing with it is far from Takao’s simple indifference, in that its much more violent.
A lot of stories focus on getting a reader invested in the plot and characters, telling larger than life tales about exaggerated characters. Stories that trend toward this direction generally explain everything pretty clearly and though tastes may differ they are pretty universal in what they convey. There are other stories that focus more on pulling empathy out of the reader, to make them not just understand what a character is going through, but have them feel it, and have them care not as much about where the plot of a story is going, but rather what emotions its invoking in the characters. Stories about angst, especially teen angst, generally lean very heavily towards the latter of these two, and Aku no Hana I think even of the genre especially leans really heavily on pulling empathy out of a reader. The thing with works that focus on empathy though, is that because they forgo simply explaining things to try to have the reader experience things that can’t be easily conveyed through just words through putting themselves into the shoes of the main character, when this fails it really fails. I think that at some point in the story, the main character lost me, and though I understood his story, I lost the ability to empathize with him.
I could empathize with Takao looking down at the world around them and keeping a distance from it in order to avoid having to acknowledge how it doesn’t meet his expectations. I could empathize with him feeling empty and wanting to attach to other things to find meaning. I could empathize with him wanting to escape the current world through any means necessary to find a world beyond it that may have more meaning. I could empathize with coming to the realization that nothing like that exists, and as a result feeling like a ghost who doesn’t see any point in life but also doesn’t want to die. But that’s where my ability to understand and connect with the character ended, or maybe I never properly understood him in the first place and was simply projecting in my empathy regarding the previously mentioned matters. I couldn’t really empathize nor really understand how he made it past that, nor where he found the motivation to face life head on and keep living, with the particular moment he does this and crushes the metaphorical flower of evil especially being unclear, and really making my understanding of what the flower was supposed to represent unclear as well. I don’t understand why he decides to stop running, to confront things, and start living a life that involves more living. I don’t see where this character growth suddenly came from, it seemed incredibly abrupt and random. To a degree I am happy for him, but as it simply doesn’t make that much sense to me, it hence doesn’t have as much of an impact as everything else he experienced, which makes me especially disappointed in that I feel that this is supposed to be the highlight of the manga. I understand him wanting to be truthful with Aya and to finish things properly with everything that happened in his past, because it’s impossible to avoid such things forever and they have a habit of coming up when you least want them to. I don’t understand when and how he decided that his past was something that he had evolved past and now it was simply a mental roadblock he had to overcome at some point in order to keep living life as the new him. I suppose that it also why I do not understand his confrontation in that regard helps him get over everything, especially such that it leads to everything suddenly going to being normal and everyone arriving at the overtly happy ending with not a shred of lingering angst. Though I suppose as a major fan of happy endings, even if I don’t understand it I’ll take it and I’m satisfied. Rather, I’m really fond of Tokiwa so I would even say I really like the ending. Still, at some point the character lost me, and hence I kind of feel like the work as a whole was lost to me.
Now that doesn’t mean I think the work was written badly. Rather I think it was written quite well, with it being paced pretty well with good framing on important scenes, which combined with the realistic but still kind of elegant art style resulting in it being stunning and unsettling at times. But I think in terms of being more than a simple story, in actually trying to convey something, I feel that during the second half it largely didn’t do that well, and in the end I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to take from this. This may well just be a me problem, but ultimately my own experience with the work is all I’m trying to convey here, take it or leave it.
A work about growing up that though well written, ends feeling very muddled.
I generally watch the anime before reading the manga when it exists, but the art style for the anime adaptation was so off putting I didn’t with this.