The Flowers of Evil (vols. 1-3) by Shuzo Oshimi, translated by Paul Starr
October is National Bullying Prevention Month – do you know where your children are … and what they’re doing? Check out this newly translated series for how not to behave.
At Hikari City South Middle School, Takao Kasuga is bored and failing. He’d rather read French poet Charles Baudelaire (whose single collection, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), obviously inspired the manga title) than study for any math test. Meanwhile, Nanako Saeki, the embodiment of perfection for the love-lorn Kasuga, is again lauded for her highest score in the class, while class pariah Sawa Nakamura is singled out for her zero-score, to which she merely curses back at the teacher, rendering him helpless with apoplectic rage. The stage is set for a frightening, triangulated tragedy of teenage horrors.
In volume 1, Kasuga discovers Saeki’s gym clothes on the floor of their empty classroom and in a moment of worshipful, testosterone-filled weakness (the smell of her shampoo just does him in), he steals his beloved’s uniform. Nakamura, always looming, sees all … and she’s going to make sure Kasuga will suffer for his deviant theft. Once friendless, Nakamura has a victim to control. Once hopeless, Kasuga is shocked when Saeki not only notices him, but actually seems to admire him.
Volume 2 opens with Kasuga and Saeki out on their first date … with Kasuga forced to wear Saeki’s gym uniform under his clothes per Nakamura’s perverse threats of exposure. The young lovebirds share a few happy moments in an old bookstore as he opens up about his bookish devotions. He explains, not without irony, about ‘surrealism’ to a wide-eyed Saeki before he buys her her own copy of Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil. In spite of (… or should that be, because of?) Nakamura’s twisted machinations, Kasuga and Saeki’s new relationship surprisingly progresses.
Although she often doesn’t understand his strange behavior, Saeki’s attachment to Kasuga deepens in volume 3. Nakamura continues to use Kasuga’s guilt-crazed shame to further incite his excitable outbursts and desperate self-flagellation. The strange threesome become further embroiled in each others’ strange lives, culminating in a dark, outrageous confrontation in which Kasuga is literally stripped of all pretense and posturing.
Already a major hit in his native Japan, Shuzo Oshimi is a master of discomfiting manipulation himself. From panel to panel, his middle schoolers can instantly go from wide-eyed innocence to utterly creepy (with some of the most shockingly abusive vocabulary I’ve come across in books targeted for youthful readers). As the narrative grows ever more disturbing, Oshimi interrupts his chapters with unexpectedly chatty little reminiscences, random moments of inspiration, fluff-filled instances of books and films he’s read and watched. The repetitive juxtaposition of freaky to cutesy is instantly jarring, exponentially increasing the shudder-factor.
Halloween is fast approaching – forget zombies and werewolves … these middle-schoolers will surely scare you plenty. Be warned: just like that inevitable train-wreck, you won’t be able to turn away.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult
Published: 2012 (United States)