The Spring 2013 anime season has just recently started, and I’m sure many of you have been taking a look at some of the fantastic shows that have been airing like Suisei no Gargantia, Devil Survivor 2 The Animation, and Date A Live. But another show might have flown under your radar, a show named Aku no Hana (Flowers of Evil). It’s a series that is based on a manga of the same name and written and drawn by Oshimi Shuuzou. And if you didn’t miss out on it, you might have noticed something incredibly strange about the show’s character designs and animation.
Well, the reason that all the characters look and move differently is very simple. Zexcs, the studio behind the Aku no Hana anime, as well as other shows like Sukitte Ii na yo, Da Capo, and Densetsu no Yuusha no Densetsu, employed a technique known as rotoscoping largely as a means of character animation and design. To those not in the know, rotoscoping is a technique where animators trace over footage (usually something filmed in live action), frame by frame, for any number of purposes in media.
But rotoscoping is by far not a new technique. In fact, the technique known as rotoscoping was invented by Max Fleischer for his series Out of the Inkwell beginning around 1915, with his brother Dave Fleischer dressed in a clown outfit for the live-film reference for Koko the Clown. Max Fleischer patented the method in 1917. Since then, the technique has been employed by many studios and film crews including Walt Disney, Leon Schlesinger Productions, Ralph Bakshi, Filmation, and even the film crew behind The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. The technique was also famously used in several music videos from the 1980s, including a-ha’s “Take On Me.”
Since then, Smoking Car Productions invented a digital version of the process, and Bob Sabiston developed a computer assisted “interpolated rotoscoping” process, which has since been famously employed in Richard Linkletter’s films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Anyway, that’s it for the history lesson.
Rotoscoping in anime is actually used a lot more than most people would think. Most of the time the technique is only used as a means to study the way that the body moves in order to more accurately portray the motions. A recent and well-done use of rotoscoping occurred in the show Sakamichi no Apollon, known to us English-speaking folks as Kids on the Slope.
Now, Aku no Hana’s use of rotoscoping has been the focal point of many discussions since its airing on April 5th. Many viewers feel that the way the studio went about the animation was lazy, or that it isn’t true to the manga, or that it just doesn’t look right. Well, they’re not all wrong. Because the studio used human body models, the characters of course aren’t going to have the same builds as those in the manga. In fact, they’re not really even close. Additionally, a lot of moments in the first episode really seem to point to laziness on the part of the studio, in terms of animation anyway. Repeated frames are abound, including the clip where two people’s faces seem to appear out of nowhere.
However, one thing that I personally feel cannot be denied as successful about the studio’s use of rotoscoping in Aku no Hana is the fantastic and uncomfortably appropriate atmosphere that it creates. To those of us who have read the manga, while we may be uncomfortable with how the characters look and move, it can’t be denied that the rotoscoped animation creates an awkward, dark feeling that is just… too right. Combine that with the strange dissonance between the quality of the background art and that of the characters themselves, the atmosphere itself just begins to fit more and more.
To be honest, I’m not even sure if another art style would have fit quite as right. Even if they had tried to follow the style of a different dark anime such as Another, Shiki, Elfen Lied, or Gantz, I don’t think it would have quite the same fit. Does that mean that I feel the method that they’ve chosen is right? No, not really. Rotoscoping itself is all well and good, and I have no issues with it. But there is a right way to do it, and it feels like they missed out on that lesson. The complete lack of shading and depth on the characters is definitely overshadowed by the fact that all of the backgrounds are incredibly well-done and drawn out. But that’s what happens when you bring in a completely separate studio solely to do the background art. As a side note, much love to Studio PABLO for the fantastic work that they or at least some members of their team did on the backgrounds in this and many other shows including Katanagatari and Mawaru Penguindrum, two personal favorites of mine.
But that’s beside the point. Does the eerily perfect atmosphere given by the rotoscoped characters and uncomfortable disconnect between character and background outweigh the fact that the characters themselves look like cheap paste-ins for what could have otherwise been a beautifully done production? I’m not sure. We’ll have to leave that for the viewership to decide, and that’s something that can really only be decided on as the Spring 2013 anime season carries on.
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