How to Build a Story: The Flowers of Evil (Part II)

Okay, last week we left the Flowers of Evil kids in the pits, as Acts I and II of the five that comprise the story resolve the first of the two back-to-back meta plots that drive the story. Basically, we have loser girl Nakamura who wants geek boy Kasuga who moons over cute girl Saeki. At the moment of crisis Kasuga has to choose between them, and although he’s been dating Saeki, he chooses Nakamura.

He and Nakamura decide to kill themselves together (it makes sense in context), but she betrays him. BOOM. Despite their plans he’s still alive, and so is she, but poor Kasuga, the woman he loves has betrayed him and he doesn’t know why.

Now it’s a tad bit more complex than Boy (Kasuga) meets Girl (Nakamura), Boy gets Girl, Boy loses Girl (Tragedy). Saeki played a large role in Acts I and II as well, and her plot line is exactly the same. Right? Girl (Saeki) meets Boy (Kasuga), Girl gets Boy, Girl loses Boy. In fact, it’s her despair at the end of her plot (it finishes Act I) that drives the outcome of Act II.

But both those are done now. Now we need a new meta-plot.

Well, Kasuga is at rock bottom. Literally. Nakamura has kicked him to the curb and he has no life without her. How can he go on? Where can he go from here?

Well, there’s no more down. He’s got to go up. Hmm … bottom to top. Did anyone say Rags to Riches? Here we go …

Act III: Doldrums
Three years later Kasuga and his parents live in a different town. After the humiliation of the festival, where Kasuga and Nakamura announced they would kill themselves together, his parents dared not show their faces in the old town. The town they live in now is actually much nicer than the old one, but they live in a shithole little apartment, and they look beaten down all the time. (There are dark smudges on his mom’s face that suggest literal beating. That may not be the meaning intended.)

As for Kasuga, so far as he is concerned, he is dead. He was ready to die with Nakamura that day three years ago. He saw nothing for himself going forward from that point. He still sees nothing in his future.

And yet, he still lives. Worse, he lives completely cut off from Nakamura, the girl he loves, and deep inside he daily bears the pain of her betrayal. Why did she push him aside? Weren’t they to be together forever in death?

Flowers of Evil, Volume 3: Oshimi, Shuzo: 9781935654483: Amazon.com: Books
Sawa Nakamura plays such a role in the story that she’s on the cover of a volume in which she does not appear. Just sayin’.

So he goes through the motions. He goes to school, where he isn’t much interested in anything. His classmates try to get him to do things, but he doesn’t care. He’s given everything away, has no books, no possessions, nothing physical from his previous life. He’s. Just. Not. Interested.

He’s so lost that when he is mugged he actually asks his muggers for how they can go on in life. Yes, he’s so lost he asks for life guidance from a couple guys who kick the crap out of him.

The five act structure is usually drawn as a sort of tent-like structure, with the first two acts called “rising action,” the third is the high point, and the last two “descending action,” but Flowers of Evil inverts that. It’s a V-shaped structure, and the bottom of the V is Act III. Kasuga is dead inside. So far as he is concerned he is living on borrowed time, and has no idea what to do with it. He might as well be dead, period.

One of his classmates at the new school is Tokiwa. She’s pretty, smart, and popular, just like Saeki. All the girls like Tokiwa and all the boys lust after her, but, alas, she has a boyfriend at another school. Oh, and she’s a redhead, just like Nakamura.

I’ll talk more about Tokiwa later, but you can see it already, right? She’s sort of like a combination of Saeki and Nakamura. Three guesses where the story goes from here and the first two don’t count.

One day Kasuga finds a used book shop. Given his current self-loathing he’d never go in there, but he spots Tokiwa inside, and when he goes in to check her out, she’s holding a copy of Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil. Right. The book that attracted Nakamura to him when she saw him reading it. In fact, the same edition.

You can draw the divide between Acts III and IV anywhere in the next 50-100 pages in the manga, but for me, this is it. This is the author telling us, the readers, that for Kasuga Tokiwa is The One no matter how long it takes Kasuga and Tokiwa to figure it out.

Formally speaking, it is the inciting incident that drives the Rags to Riches plot forward.

Well, if we’re moving forward, allons-y!

Act IV: The Tokiwa and Kasuga Show

Kasuga sees Tokiwa with The Flowers of Evil. They talk about books, which she loves, and which he loved before Nakamura broke him. She loans him books, and starts to see the depths of the secrets he hides when he has to explain that he has none to loan her but can’t tell her why.

They slowly become closer and closer, their relationship growing stronger because of their shared interest in books and the ideas they contain, what is sometimes called, “The Life of the Mind.”

(“I’ll show you the life of the mind!” John Goodman (as Charlie Meadows), in Barton Fink.)

Tokiwa dumps her boyfriend. He’s actually not a bad guy, but he gots to go.

Through this Kasuga has the memory of Nakamura haunting him. This isn’t one of those dumb, obvious stories where she shows up, physically or as some sort of spirit or dream, to taunt him, but he’s clearly tortured by the idea that if he opens up to Tokiwa about his past she will be disgusted. I mean, seriously, art from stolen panties? How could he look her in the eye after revealing his shameful past? She would despise him.

One day when they are swapping books, he finds a notebook on her shelf. It’s Tokiwa’s outline for a mystery novel. Deep down inside she wants to be a writer. He urges her to write the book, and she starts after he promises he will read it. This is vital to her – if he will read the book, she will write it.

I wish I had beta readers like that.

They continue growing together as well they can given that Kasuga won’t tell her anything about his old life, which he can’t. He’s falling in love with Tokiwa, but he still loves/hates Nakamura. His attraction to Nakamura a hugely more powerful emotion and it weighs him down, holds him back.

This gets ratcheted up when he runs into Saeki. She did six months in juvenile detainment for her arson, and, like Kasuga’s family, her family moved away from her shame. Now she’s a high schooler, too, still smart, still popular – her boyfriend looks like Kasuga – but not trapped in the role of her family’s princess anymore. She reminds him about Nakamura, who has also left their town, and she’s pretty nasty about it, really sticks the knife in deep and twists it. And then she skips off, out of his life and out of the story.

Act IV all comes together at once. Tokiwa finishes her book. She wants Kasuga to read it, as he promised. She is offering to open herself to him through the book.

And he can’t accept; he can’t let her open up to him until he can open up to her.

He goes to her room. She offers him her manuscript, all nicely printed out.

He sits her down and the whole story pours out of him … Nakamura, Saeki, suicide, panties, depravity, arson, all of it.

She snatches the manuscript away from him. “I can’t let you read this,” she cries.

His worst fears are coming true. She sees him for what he is, he thinks. A pervert. Lower than low. Scum.

She tears up the manuscript. “I have to write a different book,” she says. The book she wrote is too easy, too simple emotionally. It lacks any of the power of Kasuga’s story. It’s trite.

Oh, Kasuga? She accepts his past. She loves him. She’s always loved him. She always will. He did some bad things in junior high? To quote Sawa Nakamura, “So what?”

End of Act IV.

Act V: The Final Confrontation

Three more years down the road. Kasuga and Tokiwa are going to college together, majoring in literature. They are lovers. Tokiwa has finished that new book and it’s great: she wins a contest for new writers with it.

There’s only one thing hanging over them: the ghost of Nakamura. Inside Kasuga’s heart it may be 95% Tokiwa, but there’s still that part of him who loves/hates Nakamura.

One day Kasuga hears from an old friend of Saeki’s, Kinoshita. Kinoshita is the girl who got cut out, the fourth side of the Eternal Triangle of Saeki, Nakamura, and Kasuga, the girl who helped Saeki find Kasuga and Nakamura’s love shack and who ratted them out to the cops. She’s angry. She thinks Kasuga ruined all their lives.

She has a clue and she hands it over. Nakamura lives with her mom in a new town. The mom runs a diner.

That’s it. That’s all they have to go on.

Kasuga has to go. He has to face Nakamura one last time, find out why she betrayed him. And Tokiwa makes it clear she is going, too. She is Kasuga’s woman and she will stand by her man (and tell the world she loves him).

They go, and the new town is the same sort of shithole as their original town. In fact, I’d have to double check but I think the artist reused the same depressing art work for both towns.

It’s the kind of town that, when they ask for directions to a diner, there is only one. When they get there, it’s empty.

Nakamura arrives. She works for her mom at the diner. That’s it. That’s all she does. Her hair is black and long now, instead of red and short; in fact, she looks more like Saeki than she does her middle school self.

They go down to the beach. Kasuga asks her the question that has bothered him for half a decade now: Why did she push him away when they were going to kill themselves?

She doesn’t answer.

Kasuga turns away to leave. He’s fallen into his old pattern of being Nakamura’s dog.

Tokiwa breaks it up. “Tell him!” she begs.

Nakamura punches Kasuga in the face. Consistent with his behavior in middle school, he doesn’t fight back. She flails at him, pushing him into the surf.

Tokiwa jumps in to defend Kasuga. The three wrestle to exhaustion, afterward lie together in the sand, drying their wet clothes in the sun.

Right. It’s a symbolic rebirth. Got it in one.

Nakamura never answers the question, but it no longer matters. The fight was cathartic; the sore spot in Kasuga’s heart is healed now. He and Takiwa can go forward together as one.

“Don’t ever come back,” Nakamura says. They don’t need to. They won’t.

Fin

It’s brilliant. It works, even though the big question – Why did Nakamura betray Kasuga? – is never resolved, I think it works because of the way the story comes out.

Remember, at the start, the big three – Saeki, Kasuga, and Nakamura – all wanted out of their shitty lives in that shithole of a town.

Tokiwa is a separate question, since she’s not driven the same way as the others. But she’s easy. She gets everything she wants. She’s a success as a writer and she loves a man who loves her back, and with Nakamura finally out of the picture, he loves her with all his heart. If she wants more out of life, no one mentions it.

Okay, the big three:

Saeki is more than a bit of a prick, but she’s gotten what she wants: she’s out of their old town, she’s still popular, and with time in juvie on her record she’s no longer trapped/stifled by the role of the young princess of her family. She is free to be whomever she wants, and given what she’s running from, it makes sense that she’s a little nasty now. She’s herself. She’s happy.

Kasuga is whole. He is devoted to Tokiwa and no longer has to hold anything back from her. He, too, is free of their old town; he’s got a good life ahead of him, a future so bright he has to wear shades. Happy? Butt yeah! He’s got a place to look forward toward, a wonderful life with a wonderful, talented woman whom he loves as much as she loves him.

Start of Act III: Rags. End of Act V: Riches. Boom. Meta-plot two complete.

But Nakamura is the price that has to be paid for everyone else’s good fortune. They’ve all gone to the restaurant of life and someone has to pick up the tab. It’s Nakamura. She is trapped in another shithole town just like the one they left, the one they all wanted so badly to get out of, and there is nowhere else she can go, not and still be Nakamura.

One of the things that makes the Lord of the Rings such a great story was that even at the happy ending happiness is not free and someone has to pay the piper. Sam becomes mayor of Hobbiton, Pippin the Thain, Merry the Master of Brandybuck, Aragorn the king, married to the beautiful Arwen Evenstar, all of them heroes, popular, happy.

But Frodo ends up paying the price for all the happiness in the rest of the world. He is PTSD to the eyes: on certain nights he lays clutching the Star of Galadriel, haunted by the memories of being stabbed by Nazgul, by the pain the destruction of the One Ring brought him. Frodo can’t live with it, so, at a very young age, he goes down to the Grey Havens and across the sea. Everyone else is happy. He pays for their happiness with his pain.

In Flowers of Evil all the pain is on Nakamura. She pays in sadness for the happiness that Kasuga and Saeki and Tokiwa have. Her plot is Tragedy, too, and unlike the others, she has no future.

I imagine one day her mother will come home and find Nakamura hanging from the balcony, or with her head in the oven, or in the bath with her wrists cut. I don’t think she’d mess with easy deaths like pills. Remember, she was going to burn herself. Cutting her wrists and watching the blood run out of her into the warm, warm water is totally Nakamura.

There will not be a note. Nakamura does not do explanation.

I think Flowers of Evil is a great story. I don’t think it’s perfect; there are problems with a couple of the characters. Tokiwa is so totally Mary Sue her name might as well be マリス- (Yah, that’s marisu–); she’s almost a perfect amalgam of Kasuga’s love of art and literature, Saeki’s looks and personality, and Nakamura’s strength of will (and red hair). What she is is less a character and more the pot of gold at the end of Kasuga’s rainbow.

And Kasuga himself is almost entirely passive. In a four omnibus volume (eleven tankoban) work, he makes decisions for himself exactly twice: when he steals the girls’ panties to impress Nakamura, and when he decides he has to tell Tokiwa about his past. That’s it.

Of course, those are key points in the story and it’s his story, so it makes sense that he take control at those points.

The rest of the time, though, someone, either Nakamura or Tokiwa, tells him what to do, even at the critical moment at the end when it’s Tokiwa who insists Nakamura answer him. In fact, one of the things that contributes to his lethargy in Act III is that there’s no one to tell him what to do.

It’s hard to see where he goes from the end of the story, because his story is done. Husband and father … but who knows where else?

But it’s a fabulous story, fabulously constructed and executed. It was a very personal work for the manga artist, Shuzo Oshimi: many of the backgrounds are from his own home town, and Nakamura is based on a girl he knew in school. He put it all in, and let it all hang out. It’s happy and it’s sad, and it punches as hard as Nakamura herself.

Two meta-plots glued end-to-end and slid into a five-act structure. Pretty clever. Going to read that again sometime soon, I am. It’s worth it.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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