Flowers of Evil (2019) Review

Introduction

While most people will know Noboru Iguchi from crazy comical narratives like Robogeisha (2009), Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead (2012), and Dead Sushi (2013), it might come as a surprise that, since 2014, he has focused on more mainstream projects. In his latest project, he brings Shuzo Oshimi’s Manga The Flowers of Evil (2009-2014) to the silver screen.

Review

One day, after realizing Takao Kasuga (Kentaro Ito) forgot his book, Baudelaire’s Flower of Evil, at school, he returns to pick it up. He suddenly sees the gym bag of Nanako Saeki (Shiori Akita) is on the floor. Kasuga, who has been in love with Saeki for a long whole, cannot resist to open her gym-bag and smell Saeki’s gym-pants.

Suddenly, he hears something falling. Afraid of getting caught in the act, he runs away with her gym-bag. Unbeknownst to Kasuga, Sawa Nakamura (Tina Tamashiro), his classmate, has observed his act of stealing.

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The narrative of The Flowers of Evil is about nothing other than the process of coming-into-being as subject. While for most adolescents this process unfolds without much problems, the narrative focuses on individuals where this process of realizing oneself as subject occurs in a problematic way.

This aspect is most apparent in the narrative’s main character, Takao Kasuga, whose struggle situates at the very point where sexuality and subjectivity meet. In other words, his blossoming sexuality poses problems for his subjectivity. Thinking his desire for his muse Saeki is pure, his act of sniffing Saeki’s gym-pants confronts him with the sexual undercurrent of his desire. While Kasuga tries to repress this ‘perverse side’ of his desire, Nakamura, who observed his action of stealing Saeki’s gym-clothes, prohibit the denial of the sexual undercurrent of his desire, the last that marks his attraction to Saeki’s angelic presence.

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For Kasuga, sexuality is that what perverts the beauty of an idealistic romance and the purity of desire. Yet, sexuality, with all its perverse elements, is the most subjective element one can give in love. Without being able to give one’s sexuality, love remains confined within the imaginary field of idealization, a field where true subjectivity is not brought into play. That the acceptance of the sexual nature of desire proves to be difficult for Kasuga is partially function of the Japanese society he is born in. Due to subtle repressive nature of the Japanese discourse on sexuality, Kasuga is kept in a continuous struggle to accept the polymorph perverse nature of his desire. In more general terms, he struggles to accept the sexual reality of being a speaking human subject (Narra-note 1).

Every expression of sexual desire is, for Kasuga, marked by the dimension of sin (Psycho-note 1). Even the simple act of peeking into her décolletage – enjoying the sight of Saeki’s cleavage – is problematic due the sexuality’s association with sin. Sexuality equals perversity equals sin. The supposed sinfulness of his blossoming sexuality is what burdens Kasuga.

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What burdens Nakamura? Before touching upon on her subjective problem, we need to explore her relation with Kasuga. She forces Kasuga into a relation with her due to the fact that she knows of his transgressions, perverse transgressions Kasuga doesn’t want anyone to know. Knowledge gives her thus power. She uses this power in order to make Kasuga fully embrace the sexual nature that drives him, to fully embrace the polymorph perverse core of his desire and subjectivity.  She orders him, for instance, to write an essay about sexual arousal or forcing him to wear Saeki’s gym-wear on his first date with her.

It is in the act of forcing Kasuga to accept his perversion that one needs to situate Nakamura’s subjective problem: a problem of loneliness. This loneliness is a logical consequence of the way in which she position herself in the social field. This position is beautifully highlighted in her act of openly calling her teacher ‘shitbug’, hereby reducing him to a mere objectal existence, a position devoid of the authority a teacher is supposedly given (psycho-note 2). Her rebellious attitude has, besides giving herself a position of outsider, no other aim than to render the symbolic relation of student-teacher as powerless. Nevertheless, Nakamura’s act only function because these acts are grafted on/supported by the very student/teacher relation they aim to annul. Another effect of her act of calling people ‘shitbug’ concerns the uncovering of the hypocritical position of the human being as such, i.e. that our endless discourses on love and pureness hides the fact that we’re driven to enjoy the other’s body. The main intention of our discourses on love is, in other words, nothing but the repression of the sexual ground of our enjoyment.

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The true goal of Nakamura, a goal born from her lonely outsider position, is to make Kasuga accept his ‘perversion’ as she herself has done. Only by forcing him to accept the truth of human’s desire, only by creating him in her image, she can form a bond with him.

Saeki’s subjectivity problem only comes to the fore when her platonic relationship with Kasuga is problematized by his contract with Nakamura. When she tries to make Nakamura jealous, when she tries to make her envy her by stating that Kasuga is hers alone, the spectator is led to understand that she needs the lingering sense of other envying her in order to feel good about herself. As she has always got what she wanted, e.g. perfect scores, she cannot bear the idea of having lost what (i.e. a ‘perfect’ sugary romance) she has wanted (Narra-note 2, Narra-note 3).

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After highlighting Nakamura’s and Saeki’s subjective struggles, we can now highlight another thing Kasuga is confronted with. Unable to choose between the two girls, he is ultimately forced to confess the in-existence of his true self or to express the void he as subject is. In other words, he reveals that he does not know who he is and what or who he desires – a common problem in adolescence. Let us emphasize that Kasuga’s realization of being empty touches upon the Lacanian idea that subjectivity is a void and has no essence. We can thus say that Kasuga formulates, even though it troubles him, the very truth of subjectivity at the level of the symbolic. The actual problem of his subjective position is not thus void as such, but the lack of desire (which can cover the void).

In framing this rather strange triangle-relation, Iguchi also touches upon pressing problem in Japanese society: the failure of adults to take the complexity of the inner life of adolescents serious and the lack of parents to even try to hear what they’re adolescents are saying as well as what they are not saying. The very ordinariness of Kasuga is very important in evoking that the struggle of youth often – too often – remains hidden until it’s too late. This mundane-ness is furthermore instrumental in highlighting that those seemingly mundane struggles of youth are quite often experiences-d by these youths as true identity and even existential problems (Narra-note 4 (spoiler)).

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The cinematography of The Flowers Of Evil is, in contrast the content of the narrative, anti-dramatic. Devoid of any true cinematographical flourish, Noboru Iguchi frames Kasuga’s coming-into-being with a mix of fixed shots, fluid spatial movement and fluid following movement. Yet, the cinematographical mix is not entirely without special touches. The first special touch concerns the use of subtle trembling shots, often applied to empower Kasuga’s mental strain. Sadly, due to the irregular use of this tremble, the empowering effect of this cinematographical touch remains rather limited. The other touches concern the use of subtle zoom-ins, which are often used to emphasize/empower Kasuga’s emotions, and the use of slow-motion as a way to highlight Kasuga’s perception of Saeki’s beauty.

Besides the cinematographical touches, there is another element that aims to evoke Kasuga’s subjective position: the voice-over. The use of the voice-over, beyond revealing Kasuga as main-character, gives the spectator insight into his mind and in how his mind colours his perception of his environment. The reason why this voice-over is so effective needs to be situated in its evocative power, in its ability to evoke his changing Kasuga’s subjective position.

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While there are some exceptions – music as merely mood setting, music is also applied to resonate Kasuga’s experience. Musical accompaniment is very effective in evoking Kasuga’s experience due to the subtle way in which these pieces are integrated in the unfolding of the narrative. Be it romantic, be it tensive, be it dramatic, the spectator is always able to subtly sense the emotional state of Kasuga.

Even though the acting is good overall, there are some moments that suffer from over-dramatic acting (Acting-note 1). In this respect, The Flowers of Evil suffers from being a little bit too faithful to the manga. Luckily, these moments, even if they feel odd and slightly out of place, do not problematize the genuine emotions the whole of the cast is able to evoke.

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Nevertheless, the ability of The Flowers Of Evil to be gripping and be touching depends also on an external factor: one’s own experiences as adolescent. If the narrative does not echo any aspect of one’s own experiences of struggle as adolescent, the narrative could feel overblown and overly dramatic. For those spectators who meet echoes of their own struggles of sexuality and subjectivity The Flowers of Evil will be a great and moving experience.

The Flowers Of Evil is, despite some changes at the level of the narrative, a very faithful live-action rendition of the manga that, just like the manga, unearths the struggle that the blossoming of one’s polymorph perverse sexuality can have on one’s process of coming-into-being in a beautiful way. Noboru Iguchi and Mari Okada, who wrote the screenplay, have crafted a dramatic narrative that strikingly reveals sexuality as a rupture the subject needs to find a know-how for and subtly urges adults to take the inner world of adolescents more seriously. Both created a narrative that is truly able, due to the good performances of the main actors/actresses, to echo the spectator’s adolescent struggles in a meaningful and touching way.

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Notes

Psycho-note 1: Sin can only be understood as a subjective state that problematizes every ordinary expression of sexual desire.

Psycho-note 2: It is, in other words, only because the symbolic structure of teacher-student relation subsists that Nakamura can keep defying its authority. Nakamura’s true purpose is thus not the destruction of this relation, because such destruction would annul the condition that gives her acts their impact. 

Narra-note 1: When Saeki says that whatever he did while thinking about her is not perverse, she actually means that his sexual desire for her should not be considered perverse.

Narra-note 2: After the birth of a more genuine bond between Kasuga and Nakamura, Saeki suddenly exposes her sexual desire to him. By undressing herself in front of him and asking him to have sex with her, Saeki bursts the angelic image Kasuga has of her and reveals herself as a sexually desiring being.

Narra-note 3: Eventually, Nakamura befriends Saeki. She threatens Kasuga with uncovering Saeki‘s “ugly” hidden perverse side to him. In other words, she threatens to destroy the idealistic image, i.e. the image of purity and innocence, Kasugi has of his muse Saeki.

Narra-note 4: In the final part of the narrative, several years after the ‘incident’, Kasuga befriends Aya (Marie Iitoyo). Kasuga only truly forces himself in Aya’s life when he ‘forces’ Aya to let him read her unfinished novel.

That Aya eventually decides to turn her notes into a novel is caused by Kasuga’s comments in general and the fact that he recognizes himself in her yet-to-be-finished novel. Her decision can also be read as the moment where the romance between both really begins.

Eventually, Aya comes to realize that she’s empty too. She realizes that, beyond her conforming with the image of her friends, an undefined emptiness remains. This realization also coincides with Aya’s questioning of her desire.

Aya and Kasuga’s love, albeit not explicitly evoked, is based on the mutual acceptance of their subjective emptiness. This kind of love is far more radical than any kind of ‘love’ that came before.

Acting-note 1: While each performance is great, the performance that stands out the most in the narrative is Shiori Akita’s performance.

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