Reviewby Carlo Santos, Nov 11th 2013
The Flowers of Evil
Middle-schooler Takao Kasuga has grown disenchanted with his small-town life, so at last he's joining forces wholeheartedly with troublemaker and longtime tormentor Sawa Nakamura. Armed with a tank of gasoline and a lighter, the two of them embark on a suicidal plan to ruin the local summer festival—but it seems the "flower of evil" in Kasuga's heart isn't ready to bloom yet. Eventually Kasuga moves to a new town, and begins an uneventful high school career. However, one of the school's most attractive students, Tokiwa, has caught Kasuga's eye. When he runs into her at a bookstore and discovers that they share a common interest, the two form an unlikely friendship. Kasuga's classmates become intensely jealous, and they warn him that Tokiwa already has a boyfriend. What will become of Kasuga and Tokiwa's relationship—and what will become of the darkness that still lurks in his heart?
Volume 7 marks a great leap forward for The Flowers of Evil: after 33 chapters of middle-school turmoil, the series shifts to a new timeframe, a new setting, and new supporting characters. Before it can do that, however, it has to finish out the Nakamura arc, which arrives at a fairly logical conclusion. If one's existence so far has been a downward spiral of depravity, then the extreme limit of that is make an attempt on one's own life—and to take out as many bystanders as possible in the process.
Suffice to say, this self-destructive plan causes the volume to open with a bang. And just as shocking is the way it transitions to the new storyline: there is no grim aftermath, no gazing at the trainwreck of Kasuga's youth, not even a schmaltzy redemption scene where he admits to the error of his ways. It simply jumps into Kasuga's new school life, a jarring effect that leaves readers on edge.
Unfortunately, this daring move is immediately followed by the some of the series' most conservative storytelling yet. As a high-schooler, Kasuga has apparently reverted to his shy, self-conscious persona, often embarrassed in the presence of classmates and conforming to the minimum requirements of social activity (he goes out to karaoke with friends, but doesn't sing). Maybe this is another way of defying reader expectations: surely Kasuga's going to go off the rails again at his new school, right? Instead, he's practically normal. But normal isn't what makes stories interesting, so for about a chapter and a half, this series turns into a pitiful shoegazing experience.
Kasuga's encounter with Tokiwa is the catalyst that spins the gears of the new story arc, and at last the dark psychological edge starts to resurface. In any other story, a meeting between a soft-hearted guy and a likable girl is meant to be cute. Yet when these two cross paths over Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil—the book that started Kasuga down his self-destructive path in the first place—it's clear that the story has other ideas. Will Kasuga's rekindled interest in reading open him up to a world of dangerous thoughts, or will Tokiwa be a calming influence and keep Kasuga from plunging into another intellectual nightmare? And what about that yet-unseen boyfriend? Unfortunately, the drama is being saved for future chapters, and this volume only covers the buildup where Kasuga and Tokiwa start to grow close. The story remains in low gear, but at least it's going somewhere—with Kasuga taking a more subtle approach to his second chance at love.
Just as Kasuga's mindset has become more sophisticated in the story, so has Shuzo Oshimi's artwork evolved with each passing chapter. Any hints of anatomical stiffness or school-comedy exaggeration are gone; in fact, the poses of the students in class are so natural that they're part of the reason the middle chapters are boring. Attentive eyes will also notice how Oshimi does all the little things that make a big difference: minor touches of hand-drawn shading, delicate lines that add expressiveness to the characters' faces, even realistic details in the backgrounds. Kasuga's new hometown is more urban than the last one, with carefully researched cityscapes adding an extra dimension of realism. The panels are laid out in rectangles and neatly sectioned off, reflecting the new, "normal" life that Kasuga is trying to lead, and a number of silent panels also hold the story to a quiet, laid-back pace. However, these constraints go out the window in the one Kasuga/Nakamura chapter: intense closeups, collages of overlapping images, and full-page spreads evoke the drama necessary to close out that particular story arc.
Even though The Flowers of Evil often deals in complex, conflicted emotions, the dialogue manages to stay quite simple. As expected, Kasuga lets out a few swears and angry-teenager clichés when he lashes out at society, but the rest of the book is about capturing the natural chitchat of school-aged youth. The English translation manages to be colloquial without being cheesy, and even brings out the subtle differences between each character: Kasuga is the most neutral and polite in his speech, while his male classmates employ more slang; Tokiwa has a couple of cute mannerisms ("Nyahahaha!"), and there's even a run-in with some dirty-mouthed street punks. The occasional sound effects are handled just as smoothly, with the original Japanese text staying intact and the appropriate translations placed next to each sound.
For most of the series, The Flowers of Evil has been about the story above all else: roiling emotions, impressionable minds, and nihilism taken to the extreme, while the average-to-decent art was simply there as a storytelling tool. In this volume, however, the story takes a nosedive—the protagonist basically gets trapped in a dull slice-of-life scenario for a couple of chapters—and it's the art, more nuanced and evolved than before, that shines. Whether portraying the madness of a summer festival gone wrong, or the laid-back calm of everyday life, the visuals contribute just as much to the story as what the characters say and do. But don't think that series has completely flip-flopped just because of this state of affairs. There's a new girl in Kasuga's life, and their uncertain relationship suggests that the story may be headed to new dramatic heights—and depths.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B+
+ Delicate, nuanced artwork is perfectly suited to the slice-of-life mood. A change in setting allows the story to develop in new, intriguing ways.
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