House of 1000 Manga
The Flowers of Evil
by Shaenon K. Garrity,
The Flowers of Evil
How I would like you, Night! without those stars
Whose light speaks a language I know!
For I seek emptiness, darkness, and nudity!
-Charles Baudelaire, “Obsession”
Hentai (“pervert/perverted”) is one of the most common vocabulary words in shonen manga. American readers who don't speak any other Japanese at least pick up hentai and kawaii. When manga characters use it, it's a catchall epithet that can describe anything from totally vanilla sexual desire (“You kissed me! Pervert!”) to kinks like BDSM, cross-dressing, and body pillows to actual crimes like stalking and stealing underwear. (It's also used as a slur against gay and trans characters, a usage that's thankfully become less common in recent years.)
But is any of this material really perverted? Even the panty theft? Usually, in shonen manga, hentai behavior is played for comedy, as titillating but basically harmless sexual acting-out. And what's perverted about that? Perversion doesn't lie in stealing panties. It lies in the reason for stealing them, the dark secret need that turns emotion into obsession. That's the driving insight behind Shūzō Oshimi's Flowers of Evil, which has to be the most unsettling manga ever serialized in Bessatsu Shonen Magazine (although Bessatsu Shonen also runs Attack on Titan, which is pretty messed up in its own way).
Flowers of Evil takes its title and its themes from Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal, a collection of decadent poetry that got its author and publisher arrested for violating public decency in 19th-century France. As the manga opens, middle-schooler Kasuga is reading Fleurs du mal in class and, perhaps, imagining that a little decadence would improve his dull life. A bookworm who clings to classical novels and European poetry the way Doinel in The 400 Blows worships Balzac, Kasuga privately fancies himself an intellectual. But his exterior life consists of being shunned, flunking tests, and daydreaming about cute, popular honor student Saeki.
One day, in a fit of…something…Kasuga sneaks into the girls’ locker room and steals Saeki's gym clothes. In another manga, this would be a funny moment of hentai weakness. Not here. Not by a long shot. Instead, Kasuga's theft is witnessed by another girl, Nakamura. And Nakamura is delighted.
This girl Nakamura is a piece of work. Everyone at school gives her a wide berth, and the manga itself seems to hold her in a kind of frightened awe. Totally withdrawn, she ignores her classmates and teachers, leaves her schoolwork blank, and communicates, if pressed, in a volley of foul-mouthed insults. The Japanese edition of the first volume bore a cover image of Nakamura with an enormous word balloon containing her favorite epithet, which Vertical translates as “shitbug.” In his author notes, Oshimi says he based her on a Real Girl, which is a terrifying thought.
Nakamura is thrilled by the idea that she's found a fellow “pervert,” and when she uses the word she isn't talking about sex. Not in the usual sense, at least. “I'll peel it all off,” she says. “All the skin you're hiding behind.” She proceeds to blackmail Kasuga into committing further “perverted” acts at her command. In the manga's creepiest early scene, Nakamura makes Kasuga wear Saeki's stolen gym clothes under his clothing…on a date with Saeki. Now that's kink that would make your standard panty-sniffing manga character blush.
Through the early chapters, Kasuga goes along with Nakamura's schemes reluctantly, weeping and blushing like a girl in a hentai dating-sim game. Is he really the freak Nakamura wants him to be, or just a horny kid who stole some gym clothes? What's interesting about Flowers of Evil is that it understands the difference. The latter is harmless; the former threatens the very fabric of the small town where Kasuga and Nakamura live. (Oshimi based the setting on his hometown in rural, mountainous Gunma Prefecture, and it has a specificity unusual in teen manga; anyone who grew up in a small town where there isn't much to do but hang out in vacant lots or the local McDonald's will feel a twinge of recognition.)
Things start to happen. Nakamura's manipulations have the unexpected effect of bringing Kasuga and Saeki closer together, and they even start dating. Nakamura deals with her jealousy by doubling down on her torture of Kasuga. Then, at the close of Volume 2, Kasuga cracks. Embracing Nakamura's aggressive, foul-minded brand of nihilism, he joins her in an orgy of destruction in their classroom. Later on, characters will engage in physical sex—and sexual assault—but this scene, in which Kasuga and Nakamura remain fully clothed and never touch, is the most intensely sexual in the manga.
And then…it goes on. One of the truly jaw-dropping things about Flowers of Evil is that it doesn't back down; when you think it's gone as far as a manga aimed at teenagers will go into the sticky lower depths of the soul, it descends again. And yes, there is sex, and violence, and panty-stealing, but those are just expressions of the inner rot that takes hold of the characters. Soon Kasuga, Nakamura, and Saeki are caught in a romantic triangle driven not by love or sex so much as by nihilistic fantasy. Oshimi mentions that one of his influences was the 1971 French film Don't Deliver Us from Evil, based on the infamous Parker-Hume murder case in New Zealand (also the inspiration for Peter Jackson's better-known 1994 film Heavenly Creatures). Together, people can descend so much faster into obsession and madness than they ever could alone, and Oshimi explores the process by which isolated teenagers can form their own private kingdom, then push each other to unthinkable extremes—even to death.
And that's the first half of Flowers of Evil.
The second half is almost a separate manga, except that it grows inexorably from the first. Without giving too much away, the central question changes from, “How far will Kasuga go?” to, “Where will he go from here?” Now in high school, Kasuga has the chance to start over and build a new future for himself, a third option between dull conformity and self-immolating rebellion. Or maybe he doesn't have a choice at all, and his actions in middle school planted seeds of evil that he can never uproot.
Oshimi's art starts out somewhat awkward and uneven—the characters’ heads are frequently too big for their bodies—but gets more assured, detailed, and imaginative. Later in the series, he experiments with symbolist fantasy sequences and expressionistic glimpses into the characters’ inner lives. His faces get better and better as he learns to draw the complex emotions driving the story. It's never a gorgeous manga, but as Oshimi gets a handle on his material it becomes fascinating to look at. The visual tension subtly ramps up as the manga goes on.
Flowers of Evil is still running in Japan, and the characters’ fates are still up in the air. Will Kasuga find a place for himself in the world? Is there even a place for someone like Nakamura? Or will nihilism win out in the end? I don't know. All I can say is that in my career as a professional nerd I've encountered more than my share of ero-guru, heta-uma, and straight-up pornography, and this shonen manga is one of the most perverted manga I've ever read.
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