Today we look at another new release from everyone's favorite manga publisher, Vertical. Does this rank up there alongside Twin Spica and Sakuran?
THE FLOWERS OF EVIL (Aku no Hana), by Shuzo Oshimi. First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2012.
PLOT: Takao Kasuga is like many teenagers. He lives in a nondescript town and attends a nondescript middle school, and Takao's only escape from it all is through reading, especially through pretentious, existential works like the poetry of Baudelaire. Well...it's not the only escape. There's also his burning crush on Nanako Saeki, the cutest girl on class, that he has all but put on a pedastal to adore.
In a moment of hormonal weakness, Takao steals Nanako's dirty gym uniform. He is horrified and ashamed of his action, and hopes to either return it without notice or to stash it away and forget the whole thing. He might have made either option work, but the problem is that his action did not go unnoticed. He is confronted by Nakamura, a seemingly quiet girl who uses this opportunity to take control of Takao through blackmail and abuse. In spite of everything, Takao manages to get a date with Nanako, but Nakamura has her own plans to make Takao suffer through it.
STORY: This is one messed-up little drama. That's not a slight, mind you, but if you're not prepared it could be a bit shocking and it can go to almost ridiculous extremes.
Takao is kind of refreshing as a lead, in that he's rather realistically flawed. Takao is a pretentious little thing, believing himself to be smarter and better than his peers because he dares to read things like Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil in public. He so clearly wants to be perceived as special and different, even if those efforts only end up alienating him from his classmates. As the story progress, we see Takao struggle with keeping his pure, idealized notions of Nanako seperate from his baser, hormonally driven urges, personified in the stolen uniform. Takao wants to believe that he can be morally better than people becuase he understands the darkness of the human soul, but after the theft he begins to understand that only now does he begin to understand the darker urges that can drive a person, and the torment of trying to keep those urges hidden from the world.
Nakamura is something entirely different, though. To the rest of the world, she is quiet verging on anonymous. When alone with Takao, she reveals her true self: a forceful, vulgar, abusive young woman determined to make Takao and the world realizes what a true pervert he is so as to destroy the peacefulness of the town with the scandal. She's practically a sadist, slapping Takao around and demeaning him constantly, clearly enjoying herself and even blushing a little when she gets on a roll, as if she's turning herself on. Her being a sadist would certainly explain some things, because the motivation for her actions are a mystery at this point.
This is a fairly intimate drama, centered around the main trio of Takao, Nakamura, and Nanako. With these three, we see the extension of Takao's moral dilemma, between that of innocence (Nanako) and wickedness (Nakamura). It's fascinating to watch Takao pull himself between these extremes, all while trying to maintain a facade of normality. The pacing is taut, as Takao fears that every little thing will either reveal his crime or give Nakamura new ammunition and the reader can practically taste his fear and nervousness. This strange tension builds up to a cliffhanger of an ending.
Schoolroom drama is something that's been done to death in manga, but Flowers of Evil found a way to give a strange new twist. It's made compelling through interestingly, realistically flawed leads and making the drama less about who's dating who and more about the moral tug-of-war for one hapless kid's sanity.
ART: Oshimi's character designs are fairly realistic, with a lot of variety, roundness, and dimension to their forms. He also puts a lot of effort into the details, things like the swish of someone's hair, the folds of their clothes, even the shading of light on a 3-dimensional body. They're also very expressive, and this is demonstrated best on Nakamura, with the way her neutral expression morphs into one of her cruel smiles or sudden fury. The panels tend to be on the small side, so it's actually kind of impressive how fine the details are in the backgrounds.
A compelling story deserves good art, and Oshimi does deliver. Even if a lot of it is spent with a bunch of talking heads, he puts effort and detail into the art to make it as appealing to the eye as it is to the mind.
PRESENTATION: Nothing to see here, folks.
This is a fascinating and dark little drama that only promises to get darker and stranger as it goes along, and I for one want to see just how far down this moral rabbit hole they will go.
This series is published in the USA by Vertical. This series is ongoing in Japan, with 6 volumes available. 3 volumes have been published so far, and all are currently in print.
You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!
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