By Shuzo Oshimi. Released in Japan as “Aku no Hana” by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Bessatsu Shonen Magazine. Released in North America by Vertical.
Sometimes you get one of those series coming down the pike where you know, based on your own personal tastes, you’re going to both love it *and* hate it. I sort of felt that way when I heard about Flowers of Evil. It’s somewhat twisted, which appeals to me, and also has a very distinctive cover, which Vertical has adapted well from the original Japanese. On the other hand, it features that classic beloved-in-Japan but not-so-much-here “weak male lead”, which tends to frustrate me quite a bit more than it probably should. If I’m going to be identifying with characters in stories I read, I’d like them to be less aggravating, thanks. In addition, I’d read the author’s Drifting Net Cafe on JManga, and found it riveting yet thoroughly unpleasant.
(Note that the typeface for the cover title has changed between releasing the above picture to retailers and actually coming out – Vertical has a lot of last-minute changes to spruce up their covers, mostly for the better.)
After reading Flowers of Evil 1, I’m prepared to hang in there for the long haul. As with Drifting Net Cafe, riveting is the adjective I find myself using to describe it. The plot itself is not the most original – outcast girl blackmails weak male guy, who’s interested in pretty-yet-unapproachable other girl – but as ever, it’s not the plot that matters so much as what the author does with it. Takao is an *interesting* weak male lead. His obsession with Baudelaire – particularly Flowers of Evil, his collection of poetry from which this manga gets its title – is interesting, but mostly as he almost uses it as a psychological crutch. I read important books, he thinks, so I am better than the people around me. It’s the teen intellectual approach, and god knows I did it myself a bit when I was in high school.
Most of the characterization in this volume goes to Takao. The object of his affection, Nanako, gets a little bit of oblique development towards the end – I liked her discomfort as the other classmates were accusing Nakamura, and she and Takao do actually look like a nice couple. We’re still mostly seeing her through his eyes, though. As for Nakamura, the girl on the front cover… I still don’t quite know what to make of her. She seems to enjoy manipulating Takao for her own amusement, but is that all there is? In this case, the fact that we can’t see what she’s thinking is what drives us on. Is she simply bored with life? Does she have feelings for Takao (something he accuses her of towards the end, and which she very quickly rips apart)? Is she simply enjoying having power over someone, in the way that many teenagers find they love? Or is she trying to get Takao to mature, to develop into a stronger man?
I notice how much I wrote above about how teenagers think. This first volume deals with that subject a lot. What is considered to be perverse, what can you say or not say around your friends… how much you’re allowed to show how puberty is changing you. Takao is actually, compared to some of the freaks we’ve seen in other shonen manga, a rather mild case, but because this is a fairly realistic plotline, it hits closer to home. Likewise, Nakamura seems to have a few perversions of her own. (I like the flush she gets as she’s stripping him in the school library. That and the ending where she screams at him shows that she’s not controlling her emotions as well as we think.) The combination of nostalgia and discomfort drives Flowers of Evil, and it’s done well enough that I absolutely want to see what happens next. Even if I may squirm a bit.