Eat. Sleep. Reproduce. Eat. Sleep. Reproduce. Eat. Sleep. Reproduce. Eat. Sleep. Reproduce.
An oppressive sense of tedium grips the town in Aku no Hana. The townsfolk, both young and old, shuffle to and fro through their dreary, depressing lives, blissfully unaware of the metaphysical prison they’ve entrapped themselves in (Eat. Sleep. Reproduce). To compound matters, the third step (Reproduce.) is muted. Actually, no. The situation is even worse than one might expect. The third step involves sex, which is taboo. Sex is sinful. It is a potential source of play, and playing can be subversive. Playing might even upset the order of things (Eat. Sleep. Reproduce.). So at the center of Aku no Hana lies two kindred souls, Kasuga and Nakamura, and yet at the same time, ironically, they couldn’t be more different.
Both children recognize the tedium in their daily lives, but Kasuga is a hypocrite. He isn’t, however, a malicious hypocrite. He is a hypocrite only because he is too stupid to recognize the blatant hypocrisy in his own actions. Kasuga’s story almost begins like a parody of your typical affected teenager ranting on Tumblr. Oh, woe is me. No one in this pathetic town understands the depth of my soul or the brilliance of the French poetry I make sure to read in plain view of all my classmates – this way, the others can see how different and ostensibly more sophisticated I am.
No, bestie, don’t even try to grab at my book. You – yes, you — wouldn’t understand it anyway. What’s ironically funny, however, is that for all this Otherness that our Holden – or perhaps Werther – ascribes himself, Kasuga so painfully wishes he could insert himself into the same tedium that haunts his classmates (Eat. Sleep. Reproduce.). In reality, Kasuga is as mundane as they come, and so are his dreams and desires, his concerns and fears. He yearns for Saeki, the cutest, most popular girl in class, but since the “Reproduce” function is muted – because sex is repressed – this desire becomes warped by platonic, ultimately naïve ideals of purity that is often associated with love. What Kasuga doesn’t recognize is that this abstract ideality of true love flagrantly defies the imperative to reproduce. If he never consumes Saeki carnally, the reproductive function is never fulfilled. Nevertheless, Kasuga fails to recognize this conflicting duality, and what results is a pathetic and impotent masculinity.
It is no wonder, therefore, that Kasuga emotionally flagellates himself for a sexual crime as juvenile as stealing Saeki’s P.E. uniforms; they’re not even panties. In all likelihood, they’ve long since lost any hint of her scent, but here’s a kid who thinks he’s condemned to the deepest circles of hell for the most pathetic example of masculine impulsivity. Granted, the other extreme (rape) is immeasurably worse; you could casually say, “At least that’s all he did; plus, it was still wrong and somewhat perverted to steal a girl’s P.E. uniforms.” Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s not entirely Kasuga’s fault that he thinks he’s some sort of sexual deviant now just because he dared to possess two pieces of sweaty clothing. His entire class, including his teacher, plays a big part in keeping up the game of sexual repression by continually exaggerating the gravity of Kasuga’s thievery.
The two flimsy garments must then become symbolic; they become symbolic of Saeki’s flesh. Like some twisted anime version of The Silence of the Lambs, Kasuga goes from coveting Saeki to donning her “skin.” Not willingly, of course; the first time he wore her “skin,” he had to be physically forced–… no, sexually assaulted by Nakamura into putting on Saeki’s P.E. uniform. Afterward, Kasuga and Nakamura remain briefly motionless, with the latter on top as if she had been riding him sexually. Both are breathing hard as if they’ve just had sex, and symbolically, perhaps they did. Because the “Reproduce” function has become so muted, so saddled with the weight of sin, everything related to sex has to become a simulacrum instead. Kasuga truly desires Saeki’s body, but the best he can do is to metaphorically don her “skin.” Nakamura wants to assert her dominance over Kasuga by freeing him from his own psychosexual repression, but she merely strips him naked and forces him into Saeki’s “skin” (I am by no means asserting that the sexual assault we see in episode 2 is somehow “no big deal,” but despite being a horrific act in itself, I hope we can sensibly agree that it is not rape.). But before I continue on about Kasuga, Nakamura deserves some attention for she is arguably the protagonist of the story.
Like Kasuga, Nakamura recognizes the tedious cycle of her organic existence (Eat. Sleep. Reproduce.), but unlike Kasuga, she doesn’t desire to become a part of it. She doesn’t wish to submit to her society’s normative gaze. Instead, she wants to play. Nakamura is remarkable in that she recognizes the hypocrisy in the world around her. Everyone tiptoes around sex, but in the end, all their words and actions amount to the same basic desire to fuck and reproduce. It’s the hypocrisy, however, all this putting on airs about pervertedness and sinfulness that ignores any sort of genuine human connection, that seems to disgust her. For Nakamura, therefore, freedom – true psychosexual freedom – lies beyond this paradoxical entanglement between sin and sex.
The idea of play and sex should go hand-in-hand, but because sinfulness casts a pall over the entire discussion of play and sex, society begins to delineate between normative sex and deviant sex. For Nakamura, therefore, your typical, vanilla, penis-in-vagina sex no longer constitutes play. It is no longer subversive. While it is still a sin for children of hers and Kasuga’s age to engage in such behaviors, such behaviors are still within the bounds of society’s normative gaze. Nakamura’s quest for psychosexual freedom is thus twofold: (1) derive sexual pleasure but (2) do so through actions that fall outside the scope of the hegemonic power relations exhibited through penis-in-vagina sex.
Nakamura’s first notable action in the anime is to defy not just an authority figure, but a male authority figure. This is an important precursor to her almost BDSM-like dominance of Kasuga later in the narrative. Essentially, Nakamura could pretend to go against society’s wishes by pursuing penis-in-vagina sex, but in the long run, she’d only be conforming to the organic imperatives (Eat. Sleep. Reproduce.) that she finds so mundane. Her freedom – her psychosexual freedom – therefore lies in sexual acts in which she remains firmly in control.
(At this point, I should iterate that I’m merely being descriptive and not prescriptive. In suggesting that penis-in-vagina sex echoes the hegemonic power relations between males and females, I am not at all declaring that penis-in-vagina sex is somehow wrong nor am I tacitly approving of Nakamura’s behavior. She is, in my eyes, a monster, but that is irrelevant to her role as the protagonist in the story. In other words, nobody gives a damn what you do in the bedroom.)
A contrast can easily be drawn between Kasuga and Nakamura. The former constantly bemoans his sinful act of stealing Saeki’s P.E. clothes, but he never discards them (my first thought was to just burn the soiled garments). He continues to hide his crime on a bookshelf as if it was some kind of porno. And indeed, when he secludes himself to his room, Kasuga spreads Saeki’s P.E. clothes out on his bed, then assumes his position over them as if he’s truly on top of the object of his desires. But he’s clearly not, which only makes his emotional self-torture all the more pathetic. He’s so held back by his shame and guilt that he gazes not at a girl’s naked body, but her metaphorical skin. His actions are some parts creepy, but mostly onanistic. He sees himself as some serious sexual deviant, when he is hardly any different than any other boy his age other than the fact that he’s tenfold more pretentious.
Nakamura thus recognizes a target in which she can subdue and toy with through her own intense psychoses. She recognizes the irony in Kasuga’s self-professed deviancy; she’s unimpressed but also intrigued because Kasuga’s such a pushover that he can be emotionally manipulated. And thus she abuses and goads him outside of his own comfort zone, projecting her own urges for psychosexual freedom through his actions. She doesn’t desire the pleasure of literal sex itself, but rather, she desires the ability to feel pleasure on her own terms. So through this dominance of Kasuga, Nakamura is really showing Kasuga what sexual deviancy is all about. After all, re-examine Kasuga’s possession of Saeki’s P.E. uniform. Yes, stealing is a crime, but it is not a sexual crime per se. Ignoring the act of thievery involved for just a moment, what is actually morally wrong about it? For that matter, what is actually wrong about anyone possessing another person’s clothing? We’re not even talking about undergarments. We’re only talking about a P.E. uniform, and although it is certainly true that burumas are sexualized in certain Japanese subcultures, again, what makes that perverted? Could it be that the possession of Saeki’s uniform is only perverted because the “transgressor” derives sexual pleasure beyond the normative means of penis-in-vagina sex?
Nakamura is thus a true sexual deviant because she not only derives sexual pleasure without the literal act of sex, but she relishes the opportunity to defy the imperative to reproduce. Her emotional enjoyment even implicitly defies the hegemonic power relations in place by having a female domineer over a male. Of course, Nakamura’s relationship with Kasuga is hardly ideal. It is, as previously hinted at, abusive and monstrous. We are looking at the idea of “different strokes for different folks” taken to a logical extreme; a sense that these characters are a match for each other because of the mutual personality flaws causing them to feel the rejection of normal society (although Kasuga so badly desires to become a part of it).
In the seventh episode, Nakamura dares Kasuga to “confess.” Normally – at least normally in Catholicism, anyway –, you confess to your crimes so that you may repent. You confess so that you may reflect on the wrongness of your actions. In fact, this is how Kasuga sees it. He feels the guilt and shame of hiding his “transgressions” from Saeki, and wishes to absolve himself of at least the crime of secrecy. Kasuga is nevertheless so pathetic, however, that he begs Nakamura to confess for him. Nakamura, however, sees the idea of confession differently. She instead brings him to the classroom that they share as students, and dares him to confess his crimes by writing it down on the classroom blackboard. For both of them, the classroom is symbolic; it is a courtroom where a teacher serves as the arbitrator of right and wrong while a jury of their peers judges their every actions. For Nakamura, then, the confession isn’t a chance to repent, but a proud proclamation of her deviancy in a sexually-repressed society. She wields the power of the written word, through Kasuga’s body initially but she eventually joins in as well, against society’s repression and censorship of sex, and confesses all over the classroom, a place of judgment. Yes, it is Kasuga who wore Saeki’s P.E. uniform, but it is Nakamura who made him commit the transgressive act. His confession is therefore hers, and it is no coincidence that the chaotic spraying of ink as if it was a bodily fluid results in both children lying motionless together in the middle of the classroom as if they had just had sex.
If Nakamura bullies Kasuga (this is not to downplay any of her more extreme actions), it’s because the latter needs a reality check. His idealized love for Saeki (“She is my muse. My femme fatale.”) is unsustainably one-sided, and thus inevitably doomed for catastrophe. In saying that, I’m not claiming that Saeki can’t feel any affection for him, but she doesn’t see him. More importantly, however, he doesn’t see her. She’s just an ideal, a concept that he hopes in his heart of hearts that she’ll complete him — that she’ll make him feel alive in this dreary, depressing town. In reality, she’s just another girl with her own set of problems. But can Nakamura be any better for Kasuga? Can he find any happiness in embracing her misanthropic nihilism? It remains to be seen how their romance will play out (I haven’t read the manga series), but it would be hard to imagine that Saeki could ever induce in Kasuga that same sense of euphoria he felt during his “confession” at the end of the seventh episode. On the other hand, Nakamura sees him for what he really is: a lonely, sexually repressed soul. The only problem — hell, the main crux of the narrative — is that she’s not mature enough to guide him to psychosexual freedom without crossing some serious boundaries. So what’s the bottom line if Kasuga and Nakamura are truly destined for one another? Ultimately, human relationships are inherently awkward, fraught with mutual incomprehension and terror, yet worth pursuing anyways.
With all that being said, depiction is not – is never – the same as endorsement. Whether Nakamura’s actions will work for all people in all relationships is not relevant. Whether her actions are ‘moral’ is not relevant. Art is descriptive, not prescriptive.