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Takao Kasuga's high school life has been a wreck ever since he "accidentally" stole the gym clothes of his crush, Nanako Saeki. The class weirdo and troublemaker, Sawa Nakamura, is the only one who knows Kasuga's secret, and she's been blackmailing him ever since. Kasuga and Nakamura have reached a new low after violently trashing their classroom after school, and as news of the vandalism spreads among friends and family, Kasuga's conscience weighs on him more and more. Meanwhile, Saeki—who's been going out with Kasuga for a while now—is wondering what the deal is with him and Nakamura. Who is the real object of Kasuga's infatuation? All he wants is to get away from a situation that's gotten out of control ... but first he will have to confront the guilt that's become too big to hide.
Takao Kasuga hasn't yet killed a man just to watch him die—but he's certainly committed enough foul deeds, with his tormentor Nakamura often pulling the strings. But watching a smart, well-intentioned kid fall into a web of sin doesn't really start to get fun until the consequences come back to bite him ... which is exactly what happens in Volume 3 of The Flowers of Evil. However, the characters also behave in ways that are illogical or even unlikable—so the entertainment value of witnessing Kasuga's train-wreck life is somewhat dampened by a story that can be hard to digest. The artwork isn't always up to the task of bringing the characters to life, either. But make no mistake: The Flowers of Evil offers such a stark, pessimistic look at human nature that it's still impossible to ignore.
The first half of this volume sees the series clinging to its last vestiges of a "normal" school tale—Kasuga walks into class trying to look innocent, while Nakamura sneers and snickers and Saeki seems none the wiser. But soon enough, the story momentum picks up as people start to piece the clues together. Embarrassing dates and goofy pranks? Forget that, this is real trouble that Kasuga has gotten into. His desperate attempt to run away from his troubles leads to a riveting second half, culminating in a rain-soaked screaming match between Kasuga, Nakamura and Saeki. Most interestingly, the series sets up the love triangle such that neither the ideal beauty nor the bad girl seems like a particularly wise option. Choose Saeki, and Kasuga chooses a life of conformity surrounded by townies who are too dumb to understand his intellectual ways; choose Nakamura, and he finally breaks free of society's chains, but at the price of his sanity and conscience. There are many adolescent dramas out there, but none of them twists the genre quite like this.
However, readers may also end up paying the price of their own sanity in trying to understand the characters. Yes, people often do irrational things in real life, but some of what happens here is just head-scratchingly weird: Saeki keeps trying to forgive Kasuga when any sane girl would have given up on him, while Nakamura's goals as an agent of chaos continue to be defined by vague metaphors like "peeling off the skin" of Kasuga's existence. Is she really that much of a wild-card, or is it a cover-up for a character who hasn't been fully fleshed out? And of course, some of the things Nakamura does are just plain hard to stomach, like when she "exposes" Kasuga in front of Saeki—with all the focus on the dark side of one's personality, it's inevitable that the series has to push the boundaries of good taste to make its point.
In addition to a story that isn't always appealing, The Flowers of Evil also has issues with less-than-stellar art—clearly manga-ka Shūzō Oshimi is better at writing than drawing. Character anatomy isn't as awkward as it was in the very first chapters, but there are still moments where a full-body shot reveals misaligned proportions or a stiff, unrealistic pose. Fortunately, most of the story is taken up by close-ups and dialogue scenes, making it easier to overlook these shortcomings. The visuals also fare better when it comes to subtler details, like the views of Kasuga's semi-rural hometown and the smooth, simple page layouts. Indeed, wordless panels often help to space out the action and control the pacing in this volume, and the characters' facial expressions alone tell much of the story. It's one thing for the kids to say how they feel, but to see the shock on Kasuga's face, or Nakamura's contempt for everyone around her, is more effective than any line of dialogue.
As one can imagine, then, this is a series that doesn't clog itself up with words. The characters speak to each other in simple terms, yet that simplicity still leads to some pretty deep thoughts on the futility of modern life. (However, Kasuga proves in the rainstorm scene that those deep thoughts can also border on the pretentious—although that's probably the point.) On the other end of the spectrum is Nakamura's vulgar tongue, and her bluntness is often strong enough to drive the entire storyline forward, not just one particular conversation. In addition to keeping the dialogue straightforward, this translation also leaves the sound effects in the original Japanese, with English equivalents placed in small letters next to each one. What doesn't work quite as well, however, is the sudden change of font in the speech bubbles whenever someone is shouting. Although it adds variety, the effect can be jarring to eyes that are used to reading all dialogue in the standard "comic font."
By now, it's clear that the main characters in The Flowers of Evil are seriously messed up—but in Volume 3, we finally get to see what happens when other people uncover that mess. The consequences of Kasuga and Nakamura's shenanigans start to catch up with them, leading up to a dramatic second half where Kasuga has no choice but to confront his shame. And who knows what'll happen after that? How funny to think that a simple school-life scenario, with a well-balanced trio of characters, and can lead to such disturbing musings on how youth can take a wrong turn. Never mind the hit-or-miss artwork or the sometimes nonsensical behavior—this is a work where the flaws are part of the beauty, and make it all the more memorable.
Overall : B+
Story : A-
Art : C+
+ A morbid portrayal of youth that's as compelling as ever, with bad behavior and its consequences, acts of desperation, and a love triangle with no happy ending.
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