by Carlo Santos,

The Flowers of Evil

GN 5

The Flowers of Evil GN 5
Takao Kasuga's life has been a mess ever since he "accidentally" stole the gym clothes of his crush, Nanako Saeki. Class creep Sawa Nakamura was the sole witness to the crime, and she's been blackmailing Kasuga ever since. Because of Nakamura's meddling, Kasuga finally got a chance to go out with Saeki, but she's also learned his terrible secret. Meanwhile, Kasuga is drawn to Nakamura's twisted, rebellious attitude, and in an effort to impress her, he's stolen the panties of the girls in class and stored them in a secret hideout. Saeki soon realizes what's going on, but she can't bring herself to turn in the two mischief-makers. As summer vacation arrives, Kasuga and Nakamura plot new ways to freak out the residents of their small town, but a jealous Saeki resorts to desperate measures to win back Kasuga's attention ...

When it comes to the high school love triangles, no series twists the concept quite like The Flowers of Evil. Between Kasuga's ill-advised descent into perversion, and Nakamura's wanton lashing-out at society, these two characters provide enough case study material for an entire team of would-be psychologists. But the third leg of the triangle, Saeki, has been largely ignored so far—a quiet, kindly figure meant to symbolize all that is pure-hearted and "normal" in this story. But Volume 5 reveals the neuroses lurking behind that mask of normalcy ... and at last, it can be said that Saeki is just as twisted as the other main characters. How's that for a shock?

Like the volume before it, this one gets off to a slow start, beginning with the uneasy consequences of Kasuga's panty theft. The early chapters are drifting, low-key affairs, where Kasuga and Nakamura play mindless pranks with their supply of lingerie, while Saeki—already vaguely aware of the situation—grows increasingly suspicious of Kasuga and starts tailing him after school. These drifting moments, however, end up planting the seeds of the drama that is to come. During a conversation with a more rational classmate ("If you know what Kasuga's up to, you should turn him in!"), Saeki's personality flaws come to light—she foolishly still sees Kasuga as the innocent boy who asked her out, she confuses infatuation and interest with genuine love, and she longs for him because she's never met any other non-conformist in her life. Having a lot of muddled adolescent thoughts is one thing, but to put them into action ... that's what the volume's second half is for.

Who'd have ever thought that crazed, misanthropic Nakamura would at one point be the least important character in the triangle? But that's exactly what happens when this volume hits its high point—Saeki steals the show by calling out Kasuga and trying to seduce him in a completely unexpected situation. In any ordinary romantic comedy, this is the part where the male protagonist becomes the hero: the girl of his dreams has finally fallen for him, it's an emotional and carnal victory, everybody cheer! But Flowers of Evil reveals adolescent sexuality for what it really is: desperate, awkward, even embarrassing. The final dramatic blow comes when Nakamura shows up in the last chapter and, in level-headed fashion, exposes all the weaknesses of Saeki's psyche. The perfect goody-goody who always got her way by being pretty and smart is shocked to find that the logic of her world doesn't work on social deviants. These unpredictable, emotional mind games are what make the story irresistible.

As the characters have developed throughout the series, so has the art, and old problems like stiff poses and expressions have become a thing of the past. Indeed, the pivotal scene in this volume is all about physical movement—Saeki cuddling up to Kasuga, his face contorting with panic, their bodies falling atop each other—and the artwork is sure-handed enough to pull it off. Meanwhile, the series' more relaxed moments are just as effective, especially in landscape shots where quiet, small-town details belie the madness within. (It would be better, though, if the backgrounds didn't make such heavy use of copy-and-pasted photos.) Simple, straightforward layouts, wordless panels, and everyday character designs also add to the unusual contrast—it may look like a calm, slice-of-life series at first glance, but the contents are anything but. Another type of visual contrast is also at work: anything that happens in Kasuga and Nakamura's hideout is heavily shaded in gray, obviously because it's dark in there, but also as a metaphor for their "shady" activities as opposed to the bright, summery world outside. It may be a rudimentary technique, but one that surely gets the point across.

Dialogue also plays a part in conveying the series' message, but in less direct fashion. In fact, it's often the things left unsaid that define the story: Saeki offers herself to Kasuga, but never mentions the feelings of inadequacy behind her actions; Nakamura orders Kasuga around (and he gladly complies), but they never discuss their master-and-slave relationship outright. If anything, the writing purposely remains simple, and trying to figure out what the characters really mean is left as an exercise for the reader. This makes the story easy to breeze through, while still carrying some deep, head-spinning thoughts within. A no-nonsense translation and minimal changes to the sound effects (all the Japanese text remains intact, with English equivalents placed nearby) also help to preserve the story's meaning.

In this volume, The Flowers of Evil proves that it still has the ability to shock, even if we already know about Kasuga's capacity for perversion and Nakamura's sadistic streak. Those two can plot all the disruptive activities they want, but when the quintessential "good girl" goes out of control, that's when the story really takes a wild turn. It takes a few chapters to get there, but the wait is worth it. Using a calm, delicate slice-of-life style, this series lets out a deranged scream, showing how even a clean outward appearance can hide a horrific mess within. And getting lost in that mess, seeing how low these characters can go, is wondrously addictive. How could anyone settle for regular high school love triangles after this?

Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B

+ More disturbing psychological twists await in this volume, while the improved artwork brings out the desperation of youth gone wrong.
The first couple of chapters feel too relaxed and directionless—the story doesn't really heat up until about halfway through.

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Production Info:
Story & Art: Shūzō Oshimi

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