Stories about psychological drama tend to be my bread-and-butter with regards to anime and manga, but I’ve realized over the years that it’s a genre with its own set of noticeable issues. Namely, a pattern where series that fall under this genre can drown too much in their own angst or have cynicism levels so high that the story regurgitates on itself and becomes pretentious. Today’s review, The Flowers of Evil, falls under said genre quite well, but does it end up falling to the traps of this genre? Let’s find out.
The Flowers of Evil was written and drawn by Shuzo Oshimi and ran in Bessatsu Shounen Magazine from 2009 to 2014. The manga received an anime adaptation that aired in spring of 2013, and was infamous for its usage of rotoscoping animation rather than utilizing the manga’s character designs. Oshimi has created many manga since his debut in 2001, and his other titles include Midnight Paranoia Star, Sweet Poolside, and Drifting Net Cafe.
Takao Kasuga is a rather average, if not somewhat weak-willed, student in his late middle school years. Kasuga spends the better part of his days reading classical literature and being teased by his friends for his crush on his classmate Nanako Saeki. One day, after returning to his classroom after school to retrieve his copy of Le Fleurs du Mal, Kasuga finds that Saeki has left her gym uniform in the classroom. On impulse, Kasuga steals her gym clothes, while unknown to him his classmate Sawa Nakamura witnessed his deeds. Nakamura, infamous for her aloof nature and openly stand-offish attitude towards teachers, proceeds to blackmail Nakamura the next day as he bikes home from school. Nakamura forces Kasuga into a ‘contract’ with her, wherein she repeatedly and sadistically humiliates Kasuga, whose mindset grows more and more corrupted by Nakamura’s influence.
The Flowers of Evil is a rather dark and cynical take on a shounen romance/coming of age tale. Rather than having a more typical “awkward boy meets rambunctious girl and wacky shenanigans ensue” sort of plot, Flowers of Evil instead seems to question what would happen if a mentally ill girl decided to kick around her emotionally vulnerable classmate. As a result, Flowers is as fascinating as it is cringe-inducing, as Nakamura drags Kasuga down the rabbit hole of juvenile pranks and adolescent hatred of the world. Oshimi also explores concepts such as sexuality and general social awkwardness, without turning the story into hypersexual smut-filled drivel or creepy otaku-pandering mess. At times, the story can dive rather deeply into its cynicism, which results in some pretentious inner debates courtesy of Kasuga (I question if this was intentional), but thankfully the manga pulls itself back up without wallowing in itself too much.
The second half of The Flowers of Evil deviates significantly tone-wise from its first half, but not necessarily in a bad way. The second half focuses more on Kasuga’s high school years, wherein he is haunted by his past involvement with Nakamura. Bad writing would likely turn this second act into a huge angst-fest, but Oshimi chose to spin it in another direction. Thematically, Kasuga’s high school years instead focus more on a gradual emotional recovery for himself as he rediscovers his enjoyment in life and realizes that he must face his past, not run from it. I was pleasantly surprised by the direction the rest of the story took, especially with how cynical the first half could get, and my general past experiences with psychological manga that kept to one tone for the entire run. The Flowers of Evil manages to be quite unique, with the way it turns many romance and coming of age storytelling methods on their heads.
What helps The Flowers of Evil carve its own niche in its genre are its characters. Nakamura, in particular, feels like a massive middle finger to many “manic-pixie-dream-girl” characters present in so many manga up to this day. Her treatment of Kasuga, while exaggerated, never feels like something to laugh at, and the way she twists Kasuga’s mindset to see the world as a hopeless mess is unsettling at first, and grows to become outright terrifying. Saeki is also of note character-wise, as she seems to rip on the “homely, traditional, girl next door” archetype by having her own set of issues come to light and manifest in a terrifying yet poignant manner. Kasuga himself feels a bit more like a down-to-Earth protagonist compared to other shounen characters, which makes it easier to sympathize with him, and makes Nakamura’s treatment of him all the harder to swallow.
Pros: The manga tells a rather dark and twisted story of adolescent sexuality, romance, and general coming-of-age while avoiding being overtly smutty or otaku pandering. The second half of the manga avoids dipping too far into cynicism and focuses instead on a sort of healing process while avoiding running from the past. Overall the manga manages to have compelling ideas and twists on a shounen romance tale without feeling like a sadist story towards its protagonist.
Cons: Nakamura’s general treatment of Kasuga can get rather cringe worthy at times. Parts of the manga, specifically Kasuga’s internal psychological debates, come off as overly angst-filled or pretentious. While the end of the manga ties up most of the story’s conflicts, characters like Saeki and even Nakamura herself don’t really get a karmic return for some of their actions.
The Flowers of Evil is published in the U.S. by Vertical Inc. I was impressed by Oshimi’s refreshing take on many shounen romance and coming of age conventions, and even how he managed to spin a solid story that gradually does a 180 in terms of tone while still being engaging. I would highly recommend this manga if you’d prefer something a bit more refined and not too angsty compared too many titles in the same genre.