Gazing into the Abyss – Aku no Hana

aku no hana

“The things we loathed become the things we love.” – Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs Du Mal

Manga Title: Aku no Hana (The Flowers of Evil)
Mangaka: Shuzo Oshimi
Genres: Psychological thriller, drama, bildungsroman
Demographic: Shounen

Storyboard:
Living in a small town where all the metal seems to be rusting and nothing much ever happens, the teenager Takao Kasuga trudges to  school each day. Kasuga considers himself different from others; being a reader of less known books (to his classmates anyway) such as Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs Du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) and not taking much interest in his friends’ mundane activities, he’s in a delusional world of his own – one that is crushed by just one decision.

aku no hana

Sawa Nakamura and Takao Kasuga

Forgetting his copy of  The Flowers of Evil in his desk, Kasuga returns to an empty classroom to get it and spots a bag of worn gym clothes that have been left behind. The bag belongs to Kasuga’s crush, Nanako Saeki, and against his own better judgment he grabs them, pulling them out. Hearing a sound behind him, he quickly conceals the fact that he is holding them and makes a getaway, still hanging onto the gym clothes.

aku no hana

I shouldn’t be doing this

Unknown to him, he was seen with the gym bag by Sawa Nakamura, a girl who sits directly behind him in class. At the start of the volume Nakamura swears at her teacher when he questions her about her low grades, and she’s considered to be strange by her classmates, who avoid her. Later that day she comes across Kasuga when he’s riding his bike and tells him she saw him take the clothes. Already guilt-stricken after running off with a girl’s sportswear, Kasuga falls into a panic at hearing this. Nakamura threatens that if he doesn’t take her on a ride over a nearby hill she’ll rat him out. Kasuga runs away, his mind sinking further into despair.

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Falling into despair

The following day the teacher announces that Saeki’s clothes have gone missing, which sparks off instant rumors of a pervert lurking around the school- possibly one of their own classmates. To top it off, Nakamura insists this time that Kasuga form a ‘contract’ with her in return for her silence. They start meeting daily and Nakamura slowly begins to reveal her less than wholesome motivations for threatening Kasuga.

She’s in no way trying to pull off a prank; Nakamura expresses that she feels a deep sadness within her and wants to release it on the world. Calling herself a deviant, she states that she wants to ‘peel Kasuga’s skin off’ and reveal the deviant lurking within him too.

A while after Kasuga comes across Saeki in the hall, and out of the blue he asks her out on a date, which she accepts.

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A date with Saeki

Nakamura overhears and decides to use this as an opportunity for Kasuga to reveal his inner self. Caught between the fear of being told on with its subsequent shame, and the consequences of following Nakamura’s directions, Kasuga reluctantly adheres to her wishes. And so the three main characters find themselves entangled in a triangle that involves their deepest inhibitions, fears and desires, whilst all about them – the flowers of evil are blossoming.

aku no hanaPencil Sketch:
Most of the first half of Aku no Hana focuses on the three characters introduced above. Kasuga seems idealistic at first, being somewhat more knowledgeable than his peers; he looks down on them and believes no one in the backwater town he lives could ever understand him. We later find that he’s quite weak-willed, filled with angst and easily coerced by the domineering and often cruel Nakamura.

Nakamura is forceful and controlling, literally pushing Kasuga into difficult situations. She confides in him that she hopes he is a true deviant who will ‘set the town on fire’. Though considering herself to be a deviant, instead of putting her thoughts into action, she by extension wants Kasuga to do it. She finds pleasure in seeing Kasuga doing perverted things, giving her a feeling that there is someone else in the world like her.

She presents herself as being the opposite of Kasuga – who mainly has delusions of grandeur from reading – and is only interested in action, in the release that can be found in expressing her inner turmoil outwardly.

At first it seems that Saeki is the victim of Nakamura and Kasuga’s perverted intentions (though Kasuga is mostly being manipulated a little too easily by Nakamura). Herself a beautiful honors student, talented and showing great promise, it’s obvious that’s she’s being unwillingly groomed by her parents into a role she doesn’t truly want. Her own frustration with this is subtle at first, however it’s revealed more fully as the plot develops.

Inking:
Aku no Hana is a brooding tale about the angst of not just growing up, but of existence itself. Kasuga, Nakamura and Saeki all represent relevant examples of individuals whose bottled-up feelings finally come to the surface, and what happens as a result. The manga isn’t philosophical about these issues either; no in-depth theories are presented to explain the characters’ actions – Aku no Hana merely chronicles them powerfully, and the rest is left up to the reader.

Doodles:
I initially watched Aku no Hana when it was released as a 13 episode anime series and started reading the manga afterwards. Whilst attaining an even darker feel than the manga it’s pretty true to the source material. The anime was directed by Hiroshi Nagahama (director of both seasons of Mushishi) and uses rotoscoping techniques that give it a unique feel.

What is your opinion of this manga? Can you recommend another manga in a similar genre that you enjoyed?

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Down a Different Rabbit Hole – Deadman Wonderland

Shiro.(Deadman.Wonderland).full.960776“We’re all mad here.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

Manga Title: Deadman Wonderland
Author/Artist: Jinsei Kataoka/Kazuma Kondou
Genres: Action, Biopunk, Science Fantasy, Psychological
Demographic: Shounen

Unlike Alice, Ganta Igarashi finds himself in a nightmare when he steps into Deadman Wonderland. The story takes place in the year 2023 in Tokyo, which has been nearly destroyed and two-thirds of it has sunk into the ocean after an earthquake ten years before. One day while Ganta is attending class at  junior high-school, a mysterious being known as the Red Man appears. He massacres Ganta’s classmates and inexplicably plunges a shard of red rock into Ganta’s chest.

Deadman Wonderland manga

The Red Man

Being the only survivor of the incident and not having a valid alibi, Ganta is given a mock trial and shunted off to the creepy prison called Deadman Wonderland.

Deadman Wonderland mangaAfter arriving for only a short while he realizes that this is no ordinary prison; the inmates are dangerous criminals, and the wardens who keep watch over them are sometimes even more psychotic.

deadman wonderland manga

Vicious wardens

Placed on death row, Ganta is fitted with a collar that slowly releases poison. To escape death he must eat a piece of candy every three days which acts as an antidote to the poison. The entire place runs on a credit system called cast points, the equivalent of money in DW, and just about anything can be bought with these cast points – from food and necessities all the way up to the candy which is the most expensive.

Later Ganta meets some other inmates, and learns all this information from them. He also comes across an enigmatic girl named Shiro who claims to be his childhood friend. Having the uncanny ability to move around freely in DW, Shiro seems to understand what Ganta is thinking without him even saying it. She comes across as sweet but crazy and has some badass martial arts moves at the same time. The mystery of her and Ganta’s relationship is a pivotal part of the storyline.

deadman wonderland manga

Ganta and Shiro

Ganta initially accepts that he needs to suck up to the vicious inmates and violent guards to survive, a decision that doesn’t sit well with him despite his helplessness.

deadman wonderland manga

Unfriendly inmates

To add to his miseries the director of DW has it in for him and initially tries to eliminate him. In order to gain cast points to purchase a candy, Ganta enters a DW event called the Dog Race. The race basically consists of inmates running a deadly obstacle course, loaded with lethal weapons and traps, to reach the other side. It’s an event that’s open to the public, inviting people to watch a live slaughter that they’re told isn’t real, but everyone secretly knows is. The winner is given 100 000 cast points – just the amount Ganta needs to purchase a candy to postpone his death.

deadman wonderland manga

Slice and dice

The Red Man also reveals himself to be in the facility too, and we find out he is called the Wretched Egg and that the prison is like a holding cell for the Wretched Egg as well, going by the name of the Mother Goose system. Encountering the Red Man once more, this time he speaks to Ganta, referring to him by the name Woodpecker. Enraged by memories of the Red Man butchering his classmates, Ganta lashes out at him with what little power he has – and reveals that he has a kind of dormant ability within him which is released. Unleashing a blast of energy on the Red Man, he withdraws, leaving Ganta to ponder what this bizarre gift is.

deadman wonderland manga

Ganta’s ability

DW is a fast-paced, intense and in-your-face kind of manga that doesn’t let up. The art is engrossing, and from the blood-splattered details of the Red Man’s carnage to the depictions of the cute Shiro, there’s not a dull moment. Although the plot unfolds gradually and there is quite a lot of information to process in the first volume, it’s gradually expounded on over the latter volumes.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about DW is its characters; similar to the cast of a freaky circus show, they come in all shapes and sizes and not one is flat or boring.

deadman wonderland manga

The cast

Ganta’s growth is awesome to read as he goes from servility to eventually expressing his true feelings and showing himself to be pretty self-sacrificing despite initial impressions.

Deadman Wonderland is truly like falling down a different rabbit hole – a place where nothing is as it seems and where surviving is literally all in the blood.

What is your opinion of this manga? Can you recommend another manga in a similar genre that you enjoyed?

She Lives on Cat Street

Cat.Street2

Manga Title: Cat Street
Mangaka: Yoko Kamio
Genres: Drama, Romance, Slice of Life
Demographic: Shoujo

In a similar way that our protagonist Keito Aoyama finds herself in a world quite different from what she expected – so did I after beginning to read Cat Street. Despite the title, this manga doesn’t involve cats like Nineteen, Twenty-One, but is rather about a haven where human strays akin to cats go.

The story follows Keito, a 16 year old girl who has become withdrawn from her family and social circles because of an emotional incident that occurred when she was young. From when she was small, Keito was pushed by her mother to be a child actress, and her mom was so focused on Keito’s success that she neglected the ordinary, basic social needs her daughter had. Shunting her from one audition to the next, Keito’s childhood was scarred by loneliness and longing for the simple things that most other kids have.

Missing out...

Missing out…

Eventually securing a part in a well-known musical, she worked hard to help a new friend of hers, who was also aspiring to be a famous child actress. Something occurred between them that froze Keito emotionally and physically, and on the day of her performance she stood motionless on the stage, unable to carry on.

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Frozen…

From there, her subsequent life as a teenager went downhill; she isolated herself from people at school, having a reputation as ‘the child actress that froze up on stage’. She also became estranged from her mother and sister, who took her silence and anti-social behavior for arrogance. In this traumatizing situation, Keito meets a man out of the blue one day.

He introduces her to El Liston, a free-school where the students come and go as they please and aren’t bound by ordinary school regulations (wish there had been one in my neighborhood). Initially reluctant, she’s befriended by the amiable Rei Saeki, a boy who’s quite upfront with her about what he thinks of her situation and invites her to go to El Liston once again. Persuaded, she gives it another try and meets up with people that are very similar to her there. All these teenagers have become ‘strays’ from society due to various emotional circumstances.

Keito, Kouichi, Momiji, Rei

Keito, Kouichi, Momiji, Rei

For the first time, Keito begins to have experiences she yearned for as a child – walking home with friends, chatting, hanging out, watching the sunset and barbecuing. She also notices the internal turmoil her peers have gone through, and comes to a deeper understanding of them and herself in the process. She starts changing, coming out of her shell in a slow transformation that’s touching to read.

laughed

The art is truly shoujo in style – the girls are drawn with large eyes and pupils, whereas the boys are portrayed slightly more realistically and are all handsome. Yoko Kamio (also the mangaka behind the popular Boys over Flowers) adds her own individual touch to each volume with cute personal anecdotes drawn in the side panel that are really amusing.

Yoko's thoughts

Yoko’s thoughts

One aspect that stuck out strongly is that the focus in Cat Street is mainly on the characters and their development. I found this kind of character driven story to be a refreshing change too. You start to get into Keito’s inner world and thinking right away; her struggles, emotions and the personal backgrounds of all the characters play a major part in the story.

Yoko also has a wonderful ‘less is more’ style in her narrative; she doesn’t reveal too much at once and there are plenty of short sentences inserted perfectly that come across powerfully.

In all, Cat Street is like a journey to a different realm. It goes deeper into the heart and innermost thoughts of a girl coming out of hiding, exposing her faults as well as her good points with the friends alongside her. They’re all growing, changing, becoming closer and less and less like strays – on Cat Street.

– Thanks so much to Blue Variance for this suggestion! Check out her awesome anime and cooking blog Itadakimasu Anime here!

What is your opinion of this manga? Can you recommend another manga in a similar genre that you enjoyed?

Play the Liar Game

liar game cover

Manga Title: Liar Game
Mangaka: Shinobu Kaitani
Genres: Psychological thriller, mystery, drama
Demographic: Seinen

I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading Liar Game; the title immediately made me think of survival games and their ilk, so I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t one. Still, the main protagonist Nao Kanzaki finds herself in a situation not very different from a survival game – one where she needs to win by deception.

Nao Kanzaki

Nao Kanzaki

Two elements got my attention after only reading a little of Liar game: the first was its great pacing, introducing one challenge after the next in the mysterious game, and the second was how perfectly opposite the two main characters are and their unlikely team up that’s fun to read.

Nao finds an invitation in a package that comes in the mail, telling her that by breaking the seal she’s already consented to join the ‘Liar Game’. It immediately makes a mess of her life as she’s not used to dealing with complex situations, not to mention scams. Her personality is what could best be described as honest to a fault, and her honesty (though praiseworthy) ends up getting her in all kinds of trouble.

A real dilemma

A real dilemma

There are some loopholes in the logic behind the rules of the Liar Game, so some suspension of disbelief is necessary. The company behind the Liar Game gives the players 100 million yen each, which is collected in a month. During this time they’re given an opponent, who has the exact same amount of money and who they can attempt to steal from. The money they have can be used for any purpose, but the exact sum needs to be given back – therefore if you haven’t taken your opponent’s money you end up with nothing, or in debt to the Liar Game’s personnel if you’ve had your money stolen.

Folks from the Liar Game office

Folks from the Liar Game office

Initially Nao decides to just sit on the money till the month is over and have nothing more to do with it. Problems arise when it turns out that her opponent doesn’t see things the same way and succeeds in swindling her out of her money cunningly. Eventually it dawns on her that this is what the Liar Game is all about: who can lie artfully enough to get the other player’s money.

Nao's opponent

Nao’s opponent

At her wits end, and after receiving a suspicious suggestion from another individual, she seeks help from a con man who was recently released from prison. His name is Shinichi Akiyama, a master of disguise, and literally the polar opposite of Nao – calm, calculating and brimming with confidence. He’s initially unwilling to help Nao, having just been released from prison, but decides to after being impressed by her sincerity (he asks her to not leave the spot as he makes his getaway and she stays right there for nearly a day).

Shinichi Akiyama

Shinichi Akiyama

The unlikely duo team up to try retrieve Nao’s money by doing something she is not so good at – lying and psychological manipulation.

As I mentioned, the unique character team up and fast pacing of Liar Game give it an attention grabbing edge. Also the challenges that face the pair and the innovative and surprising techniques that both of them come up with to deal with them are an enjoyable read.

 

The players

The players

The art’s straightforward, but delivers a good solid impression; particularly some of the characters’ facial expressions are pretty creepy. At each stage of the Liar Game the plot thickens as different ‘games’ emerge. I felt really involved in the process; trying to guess what would happen next and figure out the puzzles the team is faced with. Liar Game initially seems quite simple, but ends up having complex twists and turns – a decent thriller that will keep you on your toes!

What is your opinion of this manga? Can you recommend another manga in a similar genre that you enjoyed?