Film / Reviews

'The Flowers of Evil': Overacted, overblown and odd

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

“The Flowers of Evil” (“Les Fleurs du Mal”), an 1857 collection by poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), is now considered a masterpiece of French literature. But, shortly after its publication, French authorities, scandalized by its treatment of then-taboo topics like lesbianism and post-death decay, banned six of its poems while fining their author for offending public morals.

Strangely, “The Flowers of Evil” is the favorite book of Takao Kasuga (Kentaro Ito), a student in a rural junior high school and the hero of Noboru Iguchi’s eponymously titled film. No poet manque, Kasuga is a normal enough kid, if one with bad grades, nerdy pals and a hopeless crush on the class beauty, Nanako Saeki (Shiori Akita).

One day, Kasuga returns to class to fetch something and finds a bag containing Saeki’s gym clothes. He fondles and sniffs them and, hearing noises, runs away with them. Before he can return them, another classmate, the sly, cold-eyed Sawa Nakamura (Tina Tamashiro), tells him she witnessed the theft. “Make a contract with me,” she says.

The Flowers of Evil (Aku no Hana)
Rating
Run Time 127 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens SEPT. 27

Based on Shuzo Oshimi’s manga, “The Flowers of Evil” could have taken this “contractual relationship” in a comic direction similar to “Wolf Girl and Black Prince” (2016), a teen rom-com in which an arrogant guy unmasks a girl’s fake identity and forces her to become his “pet.” Love absurdly blooms.

But Iguchi, who clowned his way through such genre parodies as “RoboGeisha” (2009) and “Dead Sushi” (2012), takes a sincere, floridly manga-esque approach to his material. His young cast accordingly overacts furiously, if faithfully, to Mari Okada’s overheated script.

The disjunction between the film’s mundane provincial surface and the overblown romanticism of its story is borderline ridiculous. And yet there is a nightmarish logic to the proceedings for the hapless Kasuga, who has the misfortune to fall for both his victim (Saeki) and abuser (Nakamura).

How this comes to pass is decidedly odd, if consistent with Kasuga’s wishy-washy character. Though Nakamura beats and shames him, he comes to see her as a stormy embodiment of Baudelairean rebellion against bourgeois morality and propriety. (Scolded by a male teacher for getting a zero on a test, she calls the teacher a “s—- bug” in front of the flabbergasted class.) Abject fear becomes a meeting of minds — and something more.

But when Saeki expresses her admiration for Kasuga’s choice of reading material — and begins to date him, he is over the moon. Then, cornered into making a choice between the two girls, he howls like a wounded animal, which, in a sense, he is.

Thankfully, Kasuga distances himself from this romantic turbulence after he enters high school and begins to take up with a book-loving classmate, Aya Tokiwa (Marie Iitoyo). But his past is not yet done with him.

As Kasuga, Kentaro Ito is too bland and normal to be a believably Baudelairian rebel and outsider. Also, his “perversion” is less an ingrained preference than a childish impulse. And his torments of the soul come to look vastly inflated.

By contrast, Tina Tamashiro’s Nakamura may be a cartoon like every other character in the film, but her darkness and strangeness are no mere adolescent affectations. Similar to her performance as a terrified-but-spunky waitress in Mika Ninagawa’s horror/fantasy “Diner” (2019), Tamashiro projects a steely character in a willowy frame. Her flower of evil has strong roots.

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