Anyone who knows me is aware that I consider Aku no Hana the anime—or correspondingly, the first manga arc—as junk food. It is mindblowingly entertaining because of all its absurdities and complete lack of a foundation, but it is ultimately unsubstantial and unstimulating.
It is one thing to claim that a male is led on by a Faustian Devil through a vile sequence of blackmailing. It is another however to continue to follow along with the growing number of skeptical plot twists as if we were viewing a storyboard for Fifty Shades of Grey. No, Kasuga isn’t being led to enjoy the bliss of BDSM, but he’s led ball and chain by his “better half” under a very strained premise. Putting on her clothes is just, like, gross man, because there’s nothing further to explain the reasoning to accept this. Then there’s the added hilarity to the mix: being doused in water right in front of Saeki turns farcity into unintentional comedic gold.
Part of what contributes to Aku no Hana‘s poor storytelling is the lack of character development, backstory, or any motive. It is established that the duo are on edge with society and hate the phonies around them, but it is hardly explained why.
This is Catcher in the Rye in manga form. No, even Catcher in the Rye does not have rollercoaster plot twists and more than one bad character. Exaggerations and outlandish actions can only be reasonably accepted if there were something they were founded on. Heavy psychological character dramas rely on their characters being realistically portrayed.
Yet, for all its flaws, there is still something about the work that readers can empathize with. This is because of its raw content—a psychological line very few works attempt to draw. Kasuga’s on-edge with societal function is an idea fans can identify themselves with. People remain attached by what the work tries to do, regardless of how well it actually pulls it off. (Sound similar to Watamote, for example? It’s precisely the same.)
The second arc is where asspulls come to an end. More meaningful characterizaton is established, as one can more realistically discern Kasuga’s state of mind. He is now in a suffocatingly terse relationship with his parents, and has lost all ambition in his life—Nakamura’s actions in the final scene of the last arc make it obvious why. However, he tries to change for the better. Tokiwa, the newly introduced character this arc, has a personality not outrageous like Nakamura or Saeki’s, and she finds value in her life by conversing more and more with Kasuga.
He’s still super beta, but he reinforces her opinion and supports her no matter how she insecure she is. Tokiwa dreams to write, and she would not be able to continue her goals without Kasuga leading her on. Further yet, she supports him: he matures as an individual now able to look back and realize his errors. He begins to authentically communicate with his family now, and he even goes back and is able to apologize to the people he’s affected with firmly grounded beliefs. Most of all, their relationship is a mutual one—a real romance with soft spoken dialogue and well-founded conflicts.
Is the second arc really that much different? It may not seem like it, but the subtleties do wonders. Tokiwa doesn’t exactly have a backstory either, but her persona is infinitely more realistic and palpable because the story does not take on a life of its own. Plot twists no longer occur to blatantly sidecast character development, and more relationships are construed in order to enrich the setting. Pages fly by without a single word, no longer to emphasize grotesque actions but to express inner contemplation. Furthermore, progress is always on the move, and its languid pacing works wonders to build the melancholic atmosphere it aims for.
That said, it’s difficult to predict where Aku no Hana will go from here. The second arc could be merely an eye of the storm before we get down and dirty with even more inane asspulls. It could be a new turning point, and the story can concentrate on its relaxed pacing and growing characterization. I would argue Kasuga’s angst is far better represented in the second arc. While it may not make for as exciting a story because of the lack of ludicrous plot twists, Aku no Hana now achieves realism and identification on a scale the first arc can only dream of accomplishing. Let’s hope it lasts!