What is the story of Flowers of Evil? What was there in it that captivated me, so that now, I feel compelled to write something down, to find its essence, so that it will not be lost, so that my reading of it will not have been a waste of time?
The story is about a coming together of a boy and a girl, but it is more like a violent clash, an explosion, a crashing confluence of mighty rivers, which washes everything away, leaving behind something fragile and delicate.
And it is the story of youth, defined more by its fears of drowning, than its yearning for greater, undefined freedom.
But it all slips away now.
What surprised me about this story was its portrayal of a passion which had all of the elements of fetishism, of sexual perversion, woman worship, depravity, but which never went there.
Picture this: a young girl sits on a chair. She is with a young boy in a secluded place, and she says to him: “I will be the one who decides on whether we have a pact. Understood?” Her legs are crossed, and she looks at him with cruel, mocking eyes. The boy, looking at her with wide-eyed wonder, drops onto his knees, and the word echoes in eternity: “Yes!”
Or another scene: The same girl, sitting on the same chair, has her hand upon the boy’s head, and says: “Keep thinking of ways to amuse me.” And he looks at her with dog-eyed loyalty. Then she says his name: “Kasuga.” He looks up at her. She lifts up her leg and places it upon his shoulder and says: “You are really enjoying yourself, aren’t you? You should thank me.” He, looking up at her, laughs.
There are many other scenes suggestive of a fetishistic relationship, scenes where she slaps him, and he falls, both of them laughing in mad glee, scenes where she verbally abuses him, where she exerts control over him. It all looks like the sexual perversity we call femdom, but, and this is a strange thing, it isn’t.
I am speaking here of the manga series called Flowers of Evil, or Aku no Hana, the story of two children who get caught up in a mad, death-inducing romance. The boy, Kasuga, is bookish and he is particularly captivated by Les Fleurs du Mal, a collection of poems by Baudelaire. Now, what do we know of Baudelaire, without having to look him up? I know him for a defiant streak in his poems, particularly, The Litanies of Satan, where he chants: “Satan, pity me in my sore distress!”, or his anguished cry: “Everyone must get drunk!” His was the teenage soul, still stuck in puberty, hurling itself against the iron bars of social convention, desperately searching for some kind of freedom, but only finding some kind of it in the oblivion of sex, intoxication and perversion.
What is a timid, shy Japanese boy doing with such a book? At first, it looks like he is only propping up a version of himself as someone different, or rather, better, more intelligent, more sensitive, than everyone around him. He lives in a small town, and certainly, anyone who has lived in a small town knows the quiet, creeping despair which can submerge the soul.
Then comes the moment of temptation: he is all alone in his classroom. Everyone has left, and he sees the worn gym clothes of the girl he fancies. There is a moral struggle. He makes it to the door, but then, slowly, inexorably, he turns around: to bury our senses in the body of another, to give in to the idea of their beauty, coupled with the idea of their bodily corruption: the odour of their sweat, the dirt of their body, to give in, to worship their dirt, their affluence, the bliss of surrender…
He hears a noise, and, taking the gym clothes, runs off in fear. Thus, begins the arc of the story which will carry him to the brink of destruction, and the long recovery.
For some time, he lives with his private shame and guilt, but then comes what might be viewed as a wonderful miracle, or a terrifying doom: he was seen in his idolatry by a girl: the girl no-one likes, the one who is always by herself, who is sulky, stupid, plain, and contemptuous – of teachers as well as of students: Nakamura. It might have been the only time she ever spoke to someone – but she tells him: “I saw what you did. If you want my silence, you must do as I say.”
Nakamura is cold, cruel, mischievous, and abusive, but, oddly enough, there is a strong tone of righteousness in her treatment of Kasuga who is labouring under the consciousness of sin. He is guilty, fearful, and always anxious. She is only amused, or impatient, totally untouched by any feeling of sympathy. In the beginning, their relationship is one of terror. Nakamura begins to loom over his mind, disintegrating under the weight of guilt and fear. She tortures him, bringing out of him, as she puts it, his inner pervert.
Up until now, all of this reads like a romping tale. Again, the elements are there for your standard sexual fantasy. It is an easy trope: boy engages in private fetishistic worship of feminine articles. He is caught in the act and blackmailed. In the standard sexual fantasy, the girl forces him to assume sexual postures, ostensibly for her amusement, but in reality, for the amusement of the constructor of the fantasy. There is something else at play in Flowers of Evil.
One sees it for the first time in the first climax of the story. For some time, Nakamura has blackmailed Kasuga, forcing him to do outrageous things. Eventually, he collapses and begs her to reveal everything, but only to the girl whose gym clothes he stole. She smiles, pats his face (he is on his knees) and says “Sure. Meet me at the school gate at midnight.” He does so and, entering the classroom, the first moment of crisis occurs.
This crisis reveals something rather shocking about Nakamura. Of course, we have had some glimpses before. The cold mask had cracked, on occasion, welling forth the mad screams of despair. but, that night in the classroom, it comes out in a way which shocks Kasuga into his first realisation about Nakamura.
Nakamura is not well-read and she seems to have no cultural attainments whatsoever. However, for the first time, Kasuga realises: What he has always been reading about, in the poems of Baudelaire, the French decadents, the surrealists, here it is now, far greater than what can be imagined from second-hand reading, in the person of this wild, mischievous, desperate girl. He has to make a choice: does he remain “one of them,” one of the squares, or does he go with her?
Well, of course, he goes with her, otherwise, there would be no story. From now on, step-by-step, with some initial hesitancy, but then with more reckless abandon, he surrenders himself to Nakamura. But again, it never goes down the fetishistic route, that is, the route of sexual formalism.
The keyword here is “Hentai.” In the beginning, this is translated as “pervert.” Nakamura taunts Kasuga for being a pervert, and she says that she too is a pervert, and certainly, their relationship becomes increasingly perverse, but not in a sexual sense. If it did, if it were channelled into the standard routines of sexual fetishism, you might get another version of Fifty Shades of Grey, which, in my philistinism, I will say I have not seen, but I know with certainty that it is dull, dull, dull. But Hentai can also mean “abnormal,” and this seems to be closer to what Nakamura is.
It is not unusual, I think, for teenagers to think that no one understands them, or that they see things which no one else can see. As far as I understand, for these teenagers, there are a variety of sub-cultures in which their frustrations are channelled, and their tastes and understandings are formed. They have their music, their books (as with Kasuga), their fashions, their friends. Nakamura has none of these things. Kasuga realises more and more: this is the real deal. Nakamura is really different, and she is really alone.
In the beginning, his surrender to Nakamura is motivated by pity, as well as pride. But, as he enters her world, more and more – to the detriment of both their souls, he begins to taste something of the giddy, blissful delight of self-annihilation. Linked together by abandon, they both begin spiralling out of control, and, for the first time, we as the readers realise: this is real. This sort of thing happens. There is a strange force which is unleashed when two young souls fuse in defiance of the world around them, like nuclear fission, a force of chaos which is difficult to comprehend, though it makes itself known in the news headlines: school shootings, murder, suicide.
There is also something romantic about it, the idea of the doomed couple: their mutual surrender has taken them to giddy heights, from which vanishing truths may be glimpsed, and then comes the tragedy.
And then comes the slow and painful process of recovery. That is the second half of the story. In the desolation, Kasuga still haunted by the memory of Nakamura, begins, sometimes nudged forward by Providence, to find himself again, and everything is understood in the light of Beauty.
So, at least one of the things I took away from this experience is the idea that sexual perversion, femdom, woman worship… no matter how extreme it gets, is but a stale imitation. It lacks vitality and meaning. It is tiresome and dull. That is only when compared to the spontaneous, ephemeral relationship between two lost souls, finding, for the briefest glorious burst, freedom, beauty, and truth in each other. What to speak of the spiritual relationships of which even that is but a reflection? That still remains far, far away.
Flowers of Evil is a manga book written and drawn by Shuzo Oshimi, and available in several volumes from Vertical Inc. It can also be read online.