Deviancy is in the Eye of the Beholder: Watching and Being Watched by “The Flowers of Evil”

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It’s all about the eyes. When people think anime, they think of the big, exaggerated eyes blown out of proportion to enhance a character’s appeal and expressiveness. It’s funny, then, that The Flowers of Evil (Aku no Hana), a show whose rotoscoping results in extremely unexaggerated eyes, levels a great deal of importance on its characters’ eyes and the way they use them, much more so than most anime. One could attribute this fact to the nature of rotoscoping itself, such that the way an actor uses their eyes will necessarily be more expressive and complex than something animated from scratch. However, the importance and the motif of “the eye” can be found in the original manga by Shuuzou Oshimi. Its titular “flower of evil” has a single, piercing eye, and individual panels often draw attention to a character’s eyes and their gaze. It is evident, then, that the anime adaptation’s director Hiroshi Nagahama picked up on the significance of this aspect of the story and chose to enhance it with rotoscoping, with results that are as lifelike as they are unnerving.

Nagahama chooses to begin his adaptation of The Flowers of Evil a day before the events of the manga’s first chapter. At this point, our main characters are barely acquaintances, merely classmates, and they have no reason to say a single word to each other. In a story that is punctuated alternately by quiet moments and deafening moments, its setup unfolds silently as an exchange of gazes. Kasuga’s interaction with Saeki is limited to staring, an activity in which he often indulges. Saeki is his muse, his Venus, his femme fatale—much more an ideal, a concept, a goal, than a person. Thus, although he is content to watch her from afar, he cannot meet her gaze and quickly turns his head whenever she looks back at him. The simple act of looking can bring into focus a detail that used to be in the background, or bring into existence something which had been previously ignored. To look is to become the subject, and to be looked at is to become the object; there is an intangible yet noticeable exchange of power that comes with staring. To look into another person’s eyes, however, can be an equalizing act of simultaneous strength and vulnerability, and it therefore can carry a world of expression. Saeki’s affections are made obvious later in the series, but from the first moment on the volleyball court it is obvious that her desire to meet Kasuga’s gaze is incompatible with his desire only to gaze. After all, objects don’t stare back.

[gg] look

It is ironic, then, that the inciting incident is an act of peeping not done by Kasuga to someone else, but to Kasuga by Nakamura. It must be understood that it wasn’t simply the act of stealing Saeki’s gym uniform that caused his flower to start blooming. He would have been able to fit that into his Baudelaire-fueled outlook, and his romantic notion of atonement would have strengthened his bond with his imaginary Saeki. Rather, it was the fact that he was caught doing it, that he was seen doing it, that proves to be the start of his undoing. Nakamura is present throughout the first episode, but she is ignored, relegated to the background, and literally out of focus until her confrontation with their teacher. Notice that she incenses him with her words, but stops him with her stare. When she confronts Kasuga on his bicycle, his initial reaction to her gaze is to turn away, as it was with Saeki. Nakamura, however, is able to make him turn around and meet her eyes. This is the first evidence of a mutual interest between Kasuga and Nakamura, and even a mutual understanding.

This is also the first time we see Nakamura’s habit of taking off her glasses when she is around Kasuga. It’s easy to interpret this as an act of shedding armor, and almost as an act of affection. She speaks so often of peeling away Kasuga’s skin that perhaps she is trying to lead by example. But glasses are also barriers to the eyes, and her removal of them serves to allow both of them to look at each other free of obstructions, literally and figuratively. She can see through Kasuga, and her admission of “I saw you” is not just referring to the way he absconded with Saeki’s clothes, but the perverted self within him. When she pushes Kasuga into Saeki at the library, she exploits his habit of looking away from Saeki’s eyes, so that his downturned head brushes against her breasts. She knows better than he does where his attention lies, and it is not with Saeki as a person.

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Kasuga’s attempts to get rid of the incriminating uniform are thwarted by the fourth main character and arguably the series’ “villain”: the town. Although it would seem more like a setting than a character, Oshimi and Nagahama both personify the town as an oppressive figure that traps the other characters within its circle of mountains. Characters are often framed by its rust-covered structures, or dwarfed by its slabs of concrete. The various OPs also reinforce the idea of the town as a character. The first three versions are named after the three students (Kasuga, Nakamura, and Saeki, respectively), while the fourth version is subtitled “Kiryu City, Gunma Prefecture,” the place where Oshimi grew up, where the raw footage was filmed, and where the story ostensibly takes place.

Most importantly, and relevant to this discussion, the town also has eyes. Comically, Kasuga keeps running into people whenever he thinks he’s found a place to safely dispose of the uniform, but he also runs away from an abandoned alley that would seem to be the perfect hiding place. We could chalk this up to nerves, but he also may have sensed that not only the townspeople, but the town itself was watching his every move. The town is old, rusty, and suffocating—a conglomeration of small businesses, gossip circles, and societal pressures—and an entity which stares without allowing any reciprocation. Kasuga, tired and frustrated, eventually envisions the town as nothing but a collection of wandering eyes. But the town’s voyeuristic presence is evident as early as the first episode, where a circular traffic mirror catches Kasuga and his friends in its sight. A large unblinking eye, it bears witness to the moments when Kasuga tears himself away from the other guys. Similar mirrors also appear when Saeki admits that she barely knows anything about Kasuga, who appears so distant in the reflection that he can hardly be seen. One appears again at the end of Kasuga and Nakamura’s slow procession away from the defaced 2-1 classroom. Finally, even Kasuga’s dream of the town includes the mirror from the first episode, although this time he briefly meets its gaze. Much later in the story, Oshimi gives the mountains eyes as well, as if they were surveillance cameras decorating the bars of a cage.

[gg] mirrors

The development of Kasuga and Nakamura’s relationship reveals itself through the way they look at each other. When Nakamura strips Kasuga bare, her glasses fall off. When she leads him to the riverbank, she removes her glasses. When she follows his date with Saeki, her glasses are nowhere to be found. Most of these interactions are face-to-face as well, with Nakamura exerting her dominance over him either by towering over his supine figure, clutching his face between her hands, or pinning him against a bathroom stall. Nakamura and Kasuga spend a lot of time looking at each other, much more so than Saeki and Kasuga. When Saeki finally talks to Kasuga after his defense of Nakamura, her eyes flutter up and down, side to side. This coquettish behavior sets Kasuga’s affections ablaze, enough so that he is able to pack her clothes away (the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” is appropriate), but even that is soon undone by Nakamura’s boldness. Many of his moments with Saeki also happen side by side, not face to face. When they walk on their date, when he confesses on the park bench, and when he visits her in her room, they are next to each other, but only occasionally looking at each other, and more rarely looking into each other’s eyes. The contrast between Nakamura and Saeki is evident both by how they look at Kasuga and how Kasuga in turn looks at them.

For instance, the scene in which Kasuga asks Saeki out on a date mirrors the scene when Kasuga finds Nakamura on the bike path. In both cases, he finds the girl by happenstance, the girl initiates the conversation, and it ends with the girl behind Kasuga, her hands wrapped around his waist. Nakamura reveals that she knows about Kasuga’s secret and draws his gaze towards hers. Saeki accepts his date request, but Kasuga is unable to turn his head completely to meet her eyes. Instead, his gaze is led forward to where Nakamura stands as he gets caught in her sinister stare. He’s standing a flight of stairs above her, and he’s being embraced by his muse, but Kasuga still recoils at the sight of Nakamura’s gaze. The power she wields needs no words. She can see right through them.

[gg] nakamura

As Kasuga’s relationships with both girls develop, the way they look at each other also develops. Nakamura’s glasses are not only a defense that can be lowered; they can also be raised. When Kasuga disappoints her with his lack of resolve in episode 7, she puts on her glasses before walking out the door. When Kasuga abandons her in episode 10, she spends the rest of the series with her glasses on, until they are forced off her in the very last scene. On the other hand, as Kasuga and Saeki’s relationship deteriorates, they are able to look at each other more comfortably. Compare the way Kasuga confesses to Saeki, sheepishly side by side on a park bench, to how they break up, face to face with direct eye contact.

[gg] saeki

This attention to detail regarding body language and eye contact would simply amount to good, well-directed performances in a lesser story, but the thematic elements of The Flowers of Evil lead to a different conclusion based around one of its most central questions, namely, “What is perversion/deviancy?” Flowers of Evil definitely wants the audience to answer that for themselves, but an easier, less obtuse question would be, “Where is deviancy found?” That answer lies in the dichotomy of the seen and the unseen. Socialization, on a fundamental level, involves learning the difference between behavior which is accepted by society and behavior which is not—behavior which can be seen and that which cannot. Most of this occurs when we are young, and most of it happens by trial-and-error. But when a boy learns that he shouldn’t pick his nose in public, that doesn’t mean that the boy stops picking his nose. His unseen acts of nose-picking are left unpunished, so he may conclude that the act in itself is fine, and it is only when he is seen doing it that it is considered bad or “deviant.” Fast-forward to adolescence, and the situation is much more complicated. Shame may even be felt concerning acts which happen behind closed doors, and public sexual behavior is generally what comes to mind when the word “perversion” is brought up. Since sexual awakening is paired with societal suppression, even though Kasuga may think himself uncommonly chaste among his peers, he is still drawn inevitably towards Saeki’s uniform. Yet his deviant act only truly becomes such when it is witnessed (by Nakamura) and then exposed (via evidence).

Sexuality, deviancy, and nudity also become inexorably intertwined during adolescence. Nakamura is well aware of this and uses it to (literally) expose Kasuga as a pervert to others and to himself. When she assaults him in the library, it is her first attack against the wall of pretenses that Kasuga had constructed out of his books. She doesn’t necessarily want to see Kasuga naked, but she wants him to see himself naked, and then, more shamefully, to see himself dressed in Saeki’s uniform. When he wears Saeki’s uniform, it becomes a state of nakedness beyond simple nudity, such that when Nakamura douses him with water, he covers himself and runs from Saeki as if his clothes had fallen off. When Nakamura strips him for Saeki, the gym uniform is still clinging phantasmically to his skin. But for all of her obsession about exposing Kasuga, Nakamura herself rarely opens up. She is content to say things about Kasuga, about Saeki, or about others in general, but we almost never get any reflection about herself. When we do get it, it is either bizarre or mechanical (“My hands smell nice today,” “I live over there”). She is perceived as weird by her classmates, but she keeps to herself and seems to want to stay out of sight for the most part. Her outbursts at the teacher and Kinoshita, while bold, seem to stem from a desire to be removed from the center of attention. She only selectively opens up when she is around Kasuga, and even then that is an environment in which she establishes complete control. Her walls are even thicker than Kasuga’s, which is why his reading her diary so upsets her. It’s one of the most pivotal moments in the entire story, as we finally get to see from her perspective (and Nagahama, appropriately, recaps the prior events from her point of view).

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We’re all deviants when we’re unseen. We all do disgusting things or have disgusting thoughts. The problem with adolescence is that nobody is told this, and even if they are, the new-found strangeness of their bodies and societal pressures against deviant behavior are much stronger forces. Nakamura at first believes herself to be the only deviant, so when she stumbles upon Kasuga’s unseen behavior, she believes that she has found a kindred spirit. By twisting standards around, she tries to embrace her deviancy by having Kasuga embrace his with kinetic, romantic, and hormone-driven fervor. Although they might be deviants, at least they won’t be shit-eaters like everyone else in town. But this is why the town is the villain. Because this boring, rusty, oppressive town that watches, that listens, that judges—even this town is full of deviants. The flower of evil blooms in everyone. It’s a town full of flowers, and the inevitable tragedy of The Flowers of Evil occurs once Nakamura and Kasuga realize that all of those shit-eaters are deviants as well. So what does that make them?

The Flowers of Evil is all about the seen and the unseen, the watchers and the watched, armor and nakedness. We see our own flower of evil, but rarely anybody else’s. This may be a necessary construct for society to function, but when kids don’t know any better, their flower can drain them like a weed. Kasuga’s saga unfolds as a kind of “worst-case scenario” for puberty, but it’s also hardly unique or unbelievable. It’s twisted and lonely, but also empowering. The flower of evil may only see inward into oneself or into the flower of another person, but eventually, with time, it can lead to an understanding of the grander and more beautiful scale of existence. In the meantime, however, as the anime draws to its close, Kasuga and Nakamura have only themselves as confidants and contractees.  They can look into each other for as long as they want, because they know what they see in themselves, while we, the audience, already see how this story is going to end.

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