Rotoscope and You: The Flowers of Evil

The Flowers of Evil is one of those anime that creates powerful responses in people, and not all of them are good. For one thing, in tone and content it’s manifestly adult even though the characters are kids. And the protagonist, Sawa Nakamura – I said the protagonist, not the central character – is a piece of work it’s very difficult to like.

That’s okay. She’s not there to be liked. But she’s not the sort of character people like to like, either. So she provokes a mixed response in viewers, and a mixed response is not what the broadcasting companies are looking for. They want Big Audience Numbers, and if you want to be asking tough philosophical questions in anime, you’ll be wanting to slip some mechas or magical girls up in there.

It was also disliked because the director, Hiroshi Nagahama, made the deliberate choice to use Rotoscope to shoot the series.

As a writer I liked The Flowers of Evil for reasons I’ve already talked about, but as an animator I was fascinated by it because of the Rotoscoping. And since I talk too damned much about writing and not enough about animating, let’s have at it.

Rotoscope is actually a fairly expensive process where you shoot reference footage in live action and then animate by tracing the live action footage onto animation cels. The result is movement that is hyper-realistic by the standard of animation. That’s actually a pretty low bar, but if you’re used to the ways animators can play fast-and-loose with the human form, it can be a little disconcerting.

Nagahama was criticized for this stylistic choice. I imagine one of his critics was his producer, who didn’t care for the cost. But I’m sure Nagahama just said, “Yeah, well, whatever.” He’d already made Mushishi, and was tapped to turn Jungi Ito’s Uzumaki into an anime, so it doesn’t seem to have wrecked his career any.

But there are other, more legitimate, criticisms as well. One thing Rotoscope does not do is capture the look and feel of animation: I mean, if you’re working from life action footage, why not just make the darned series live action? (They did make a feature film from it. I imagine it blows; the story is too complex for seventy minutes.)

Another thing is that it moves some of the creative load and some of the creative choices from the animator to the actor. Right? The live action reference for Nakamura, Tina Tamashiro, has to MOVE like Nakamura, and ultimately she, not the animator, decides how that is. That can lead to a disconnect in the presentation if the animator and actor have different visions of the character. They have to be 100% on the same page.

There aren’t a lot of times where I’d argue Rotoscope is right for anime. You see it in a few places in Shinichiro Watanabe’s Kids on the Slope: Kids is a show about musicians and Watanabe wanted to get their performances right. Okay, that works. There might have been some in FLCL, since there was all sorts of stuff in FLCL, but I’d have to go back and watch it again to be sure.

That’s a task I’d like to take on. Someone double dog dare me, please!

ANYWAY, there might be some in FLCL because FLCL was a deliberate melange of styles, the better to freak out the squares with. And that was FLCL’s bag: let’s freak everyone out.

But neither of those was wholly Rotoscoped. They used it for effect and moved on.

This is one of those places, though, I think. I really liked The Flowers of Evil, anime and manga both, and in the case of the anime I can tell you why I think Rotoscope was an inspired choice. Ready? Three, two, one, let’s go:

From left, Nakamura, Kasuga, and Saeki’s back. Look at the photorealistic background.

Remember, The Flowers of Evil is about kids who are trapped in nowhere town going nowhere with no sense of a future. I’ve made the comparison with The Last Picture Show (the book by Larry McMurtry and the film by Peter Bogdonovich) before and I’ll make it again: both have that sense of underlying desperation.

Our kids – Nakamura, Kasuga, and Saeki – are alienated from that life.

Boom! That’s it right there. By Rotoscoping them Nagahama is saying, “These kids are REAL. They don’t belong in an animated film.” That’s the contrast that makes it work. The film is animated but the actors are real.

At the same time, though, they ARE animated. Nagahama, like the author of the manga, Shuzo Oshimi, uses photo-realistic backgrounds, literally working from reference photography. But because it’s animation the background is perfectly still in a way that real-life backgrounds can never be.

So that background is there, perfectly still and quiet, and here are the characters moving around in front of it. They look divorced from the background, as though they are not quite on the same plane.

Because they aren’t, you know. In animation the drawings of the characters lie on top of the background.

And that’s what’s just right for the choice of this technique for this topic and this story: The kids ARE divorced from the background, their home town. They are IN it but they are not OF it.

By using Rotoscope Nagahama separated the characters from their background, and that gave the series the same feel as the manga: the sense that these kids were totally alienated.

In the manga we learn later on that all three of them manage to physically get away, but the anime doesn’t cover that territory. So instead of sending them physically away, Nagahama gives them the sense of being psychologically distant, and he did that with the choice of Rotoscope as the animation technique.

Damn, I need to see Mushishi. It’s been on my list forever,

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

2 thoughts on “Rotoscope and You: The Flowers of Evil

  1. Your posts is very observant. I’m not a very big fan of rotoscoping myself most of the time, but am always curious when directors decide to use it. One rotoscoping film you might find interesting is Loving Vincent. It is completely painted.

    Liked by 1 person

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