High schooler Takao Kasuga has two ways of coping with life in the backwater known as Hikari City. Both should be innocent, but they turn out to be anything but. The first is books — the more esoteric and offbeat, the better, and that includes Charles Baudelaire’s poetry (which the title of this series references unambiguously). The second is his classmate Nanako Saeki — “my muse, my femme fatale,” as he rhapsodizes over her. So smitten is he for her, and so intoxicated has he become with Baudelaire’s hymns to lordly indecency, that when Nanako forgets her gym clothes at school one day he hastily swipes them and takes them home with him.
No, even he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s a lethal admixture of two normally incompatible impulses: a guilty conscience and an impulsive heart. Stealing Nanako’s shorts and tank top will take him the rest of his life to pay back; this he is positive of. And yet he went and did it all the same … and, worse, he finds out has a witness to his crime: Nakamura. This is not one of the other boys in his class, who rib him about his love of weird books and his moon-eyed feelings for Nanako. Nakamura is another girl, and if the text for Takao’s spirit is a hesitantly-read Baudelaire, hers is an enthusiastically-devoured Marquis de Sade.
What’s her story? At least in the first volume of The Flowers of Evil, we don’t find out: Nakamura explodes onto the page fully formed in her foul flowering, like Athena straight from the head of Zeus. When she gets a zero on a test (which she didn’t even bother to supply a single answer for), she enmires the teacher with language better suited to a dockworker … and stares him back down when he raises a hand to smack her back into line. She fits the textbook definition of a budding sociopath: she seems to be at a loss as to why other people aren’t just as impulsive and unempathic as she is.
Small wonder the hyper-moral Takao is such easy pickings for her. On cornering Takao after his “crime”, Nakamura makes a contract with him: she’ll agree to not tell anyone about the business with the gym clothes as long as he follows her orders to the letter — many of which involve doing things with Nanako’s gym clothes which leave him speechless. “You’re a pervert,” she insists, “and I must be a pervert too.” What she wants is something between a victim, a protégée, and a witness to her own variety of mind-crime. Takao seems primed to provide all of that and then some, especially after he sticks up for her when she’s accused of swiping someone else’s lunch money (the better to avoid her wrath, he tells himself).
Write up a plot like this in such blunt language and it comes off sounding like the storyline for one of those manga where horrible things involving lots of tentacles happen to schoolgirls. But Shuzo Oshimi (of Drifting Net Café) keeps this story focused on the mechanics of psychological manipulation and bullying, not the panopoly of perversities explored by any characters in it. (This is not one of the titles Vertical Inc. needs to put in shrinkwrap, although it’s definitely not for younger readers.) “I’ll peel off all the skin you’re hiding behind,” Nakamura tells Takao. “I want to see a real-deal genuine pervert raze this town with genuine perversion.” Why not just her? Because it doesn’t count that way for her: she wants to know she was able to get someone else to do it, and thus be not so alone. In a twisted way, this is her quest for companionship-of-a-kind. Better a companion in evil than no companion at all, and to her mind the only way to get someone like that in her life is to recruit them by force.
Anime and manga (and a fair slice of Japanese popular culture generally) seem to be far more obsessed with the “Madonna-whore” complex, and in a far more pronounced way, than analogous Western media are. Flowers of Evil is constructed from the same kind of template. A timid man with minimal prospects with women has his life upended when a woman of predatory sexuality comes along; this endangers his chances with another woman who’s far more upright and gentle. Sometimes it’s one guy and the “Madonna”, while a whole harem of far more aggressive women circle around him and try to steal him away. What remains consistent, though, is the male character being hapless and out of his element. Will he be able to man up, reject the bad girl, embrace the good girl (and protect her), and live happily ever after? Find out next episode.
From a Western standpoint, though, this makes for a downright regressive psychology of the sexes. I am not prepared to back this up with hard numbers, but I’d be willing to believe one sees in manga the above-mentioned dynamic far more often than one sees, say, the kind of balance between male and female that Joss Whedon put at the center of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This isn’t to say that it never happens, only that the polarization between the “good girls” and “bad girls” is a lot stronger and far less nuanced than we might be used to seeing elsewhere. If The Flowers of Evil can see past the mere invocation of its trope, it’ll be well worth the ride. For now, though, what we do have is still very good — a nihilistic teenaged take on the kind of games Shinya Tsukamoto depicted in A Snake of June. Even I wasn’t expecting to make a connection like that when I started this cunning little sleeper of a story.