Saturday, January 19, 2013

Manhwa Intervention in: Flowers of Evil

Manhwa is always going to be a little more fucked up than their manga counterpart, especially in subjects pertaining sexuality and general sanity. Case in point: Goong, wherein, spoiler alert, toward the end, they have on-screen sex, despite the Goong's previously tame tones. Shoujo manga the likes of Hot Gimmick, whose contents actually veer more questionably, can only reward fans with the Inappropriate Touches.

Flowers of Evil, boys and girls, is batshit, and definitely not safe for work.

Title: Flowers of Evil
Author & Artist: Lee Hyeon-Sook

Let me clarify that. Warning: incest, dubious consent. Here is the conversation I had one hour ago:

Devil me: stop me when I get into kill-me-now-kill-me-with-fire territory, okay?

Angel me: oh, you mean five paragraphs ago.

This post, on the other hand is safe for work, so don't go reporting it and all.

Synopsis: Twin brother and sister Se-Joon and Se-Wa are beautiful if not very sociable, and they sleep in the same bed. Their parents tell the more socially adept Se-Joon to stop indulging Se-Wa in her clingy possessive ways.

Se-Wa seems dependent on Se-Joon and their connection. She reasons that as all others are impure, they should not touch the twins. Thus begins the cycle of Se-Joon attempting to integrate himself with society, the miniature version of which is high school and a girlfriend, and Se-Wa pulling him back and trapping him with her. Both intentionally and accidentally, she only has to hurt herself and Se-Joon comes running, because he also ends up choosing her every time. At one point, that Se-Joon goes to his girlfriend's house to presumably have sex is seen as ultimate betrayal, as he becomes tainted.

Flowers of Evil follows Se-Wa's point of view religiously, a smartly evocative choice considering her whiplashes of emotion and her tunnel vision. Consequently the series is also extremely dramatic and divisive. Whether or not you read through to the end depends on your being able to identify with Se-Wa, perhaps not in that you share with her any characteristic, but in that you root for her romance with Se-Joon as that is her all-consuming purpose in the beginning.

Warning: discussion of incest

Flowers of Evil in my opinion, can counter the current deluge of big brother little sister(s) incest anime more effectively than your average heartwarming family drama can. It demonstrates why culture remains fascinated with incestuous relationships, especially ones between close siblings. But they are not always siblings, because the key word here is "close."

Writing about Supernatural fanfiction, Tosenberger surmises that incest between brothers Sam and Dean intensifies the concept of romance. An isolated family, possibly with complications that are kept secret to outsiders, is the cornerstone of incest. The factor is absolute claustrophobia: they have no one but themselves; it's always been them together, against the world. The constant proximity, note, is not forced. The ultimate ideal romance is that lovers choose each other time and again even when more normalized choices present themselves, which also explains a common trope of incest narratives, in which gentler outside forces are met with more resistance. The incest is compromised because it's fragile in the face of societal acceptance.

(Another note: I could have, like Tosenberger, used Gothic references, but the fact remains that this was the essay that introduced me to incest narratives. And so very intrinsic are manga readers and fanfiction writers linked.)

All these elements are present here: the family hides Se-Wa's heart condition, her transplant having been medically unethical; the twins distance themselves from others, even their parents; Se-Joon does choose Se-Wa, doesn't go through with sex with his girlfriend, and ends up asking a distraught Se-Wa for forgiveness. The angst associated with incest and Flowers of Evil derives mainly from the mutual psychological torture and the breaking apart of Se-Wa's world as she knows it, the forcibly opening up of that world.

Their relationship is unhealthy, perhaps not so much due to the actual incest as due to the fact that Se-Joon and Se-Wa make each other lesser versions of themselves, do not make each other happy. On one occasion, Se-Wa sabotages Se-Joon's girlfriend's medicine. And in retaliation to Se-Joon's leaving her, she demands that he commits suicide, to which he responds by walking into traffic. Se-Joon is no slouch himself, injuring the person who so much as touches Se-Wa and attempting to murder anyone who threaten their relationship. The very attraction of incest turns its downfall, in this case at least, because its consummation means seclusion and regression. Se-Wa's childhood friend "Sung-chan" who makes Se-Wa laugh and almost rescues both twins is portrayed much more favorably than Se-Joon. Unsurprisingly, Se-Joon views his warm influence as the ultimate threat.

Making Flowers of Evil even more problematic is another aspect of incest as romantic love, which many identify with the union of body and soul, and in the case of incest, in blood. Twins are in this way as closest to that ideal as possible. Romantic love is also associated with breaking barriers, the decisive act in incest to that purpose is sexual intercourse, so not only does consummation of that love mean regression, the manhwa consciously builds its climax toward the consummation. The very premise of incest ties it to titillation, which many understandably find objectionable.

Yet, Flowers of Evil, unabashed in its angst, reveling in the genre's pitfalls, is the method through which to understand incest in fiction. Inspecting incest is quintessential to inspecting it. By contrast, another exploration of the same theme, Koi Kaze, deftly countering critical scrutiny by presenting a tale of two people in love who happen to be siblings, is not, because incest in fiction is essentially a narrative kink, not a realistic, sincere love story. Koi Kaze addresses incest in fiction; Flowers of Evil epitomizes it.

On another note, the creator, Lee Hyeon-Sook, is undoubtedly a Se-Joon/Se-Wa shipper. Her chapter illustrations all depict the pair together, albeit with somewhat inadvisable Christian invocations, so even though the manhwa cautions against incest as par course, it has the connotations reinforced throughout, that incest is beautiful, and pure. This, by the way, is one reason to read Flowers of Evil: it is utterly gorgeous. Hyeon-Sook's lines are clean and sweeping, and her panels are uniquely minimalist, in that both interior furniture and page layout is sparse. As with the typical manhwa, more attention is paid to the hair and the clothes; the eyes, being more stylized, steal the focus. Hyeon-Sook's art stands out as actually achieving the elegance many manhwa seek.

(I wanted to post every week. My having neglected to last Friday just highlights the fact that I have no responsibility whatsoever and that last week was a shit show of jet lag and holiday debauchery.)

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