I’d never heard of Will Sharpe until I discovered Flowers on Netflix, the exquisitely dark ‘comedy drama’ about ‘home, family, and mental illness’ that Sharpe wrote, directed and stars in. I’ve just finished the final episode featuring Sharpe as the young Japanese character Shun, who comes to live in the bizarre world of the very British and quite mad Flowers family. And I have this distinct feeling that the series was written for me.
Sharpe is British but has Japanese heritage, and lived in Japan until he was about 8. He cites stylised comedy routines on Japanese TV as one of his influences, and I’m guessing that the loud, slapstick routines of The Drifters might’ve been one of them because I can see that same brand of self deprecating, physical, stylised comedy in Shun’s stiff backed bows, his sudden vocal gesticulations, and densely detailed scatalogical humour. I loved The Drifters as a kid.
Sharpe’s depiction of Shun is controversial though. Shun lives in a Hobbiton-like shack on the grounds of the Flowers’ home. He’s the illustrator to father Maurice Flower’s darkly disturbing children’s books.
Maurice’s failed attempt at hanging himself is the first scene we encounter, and throughout the first series, Shun is treated like the side-kick, while being mostly a caricature of an emasculated man with an unconvincing Japanese accent.
If I didn’t know better, I’d be railing at the stereotypes, but I understood instantly what Sharpe was doing with Shun. Like Sharpe, I left Japan when I was about 7, and if I were to depict a Japanese person, I’d be like Shun, a caricature. What Shun represents, at least to me, is the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility to be ourselves, to be true, when we straddle difference. That difference might be cultural, but in this series, the difference is mental illness.
After Maurice’s failed suicide attempt, Series 1 delves deeply into depression. In Series 2, the woolly coats are replaced by vibrant coloured shorts and cotton dresses, as the story shifts to daughter Amy’s bipolar episodes – visceral, florid, bold, edgy, and there’s something life affirming in these scenes. I suspect that’s because there’s little attempt to judge, to heal, to even to understand her illness. She’s just allowed to be, well, completely mad.
When Amy is crying and screaming that she hates herself and wants to die because she’s a horrible person, her family and girlfriend sit with her on the floor, telling her they love her. But like a good joke, it’s all in the timing and delivery. There’s a sense of desperation in their voices, as if they’re clinging onto the words out of fear so that ‘I love you’ seems hollowed out, devoid of meaning. Which makes sense to me.
Love is implicit in families, no matter how fucked up, and saying ‘I love you’ seems pointlessly excessive, more Hollywood and not quite British…or Japanese. By making ‘I love you’ feel lame, love makes no demands on them (demands to recover, demands to explain), which opens up a space for Amy and her family to just be. I felt like they were all just being held in that mad, chaotic space.
Sharpe had already made his view of love clear near the end of the first series when Maurice, inarticulate with suffering, tries to explain his depression to his wife Deborah. ‘It’s like an invisible monster with no shape, no form but it’s loud and fierce and it never ends.’ When Deborah suggests, ‘maybe love is how we defeat this monster together…’, Maurice replies, ‘love makes it worse.’
I’d have to agree. When my depression sets in, and like Maurice, ‘I wake up and the first thing I think of is killing myself,’ I know that love makes the pain worse. And the more love, the worse it feels because there’s more love to disappoint and betray.
Which is why many people with mental illness isolate themselves, just like the Flowers who live at the end of a forest and endless cornfield. Sharpe’s vision of the Flowers’ universe is so complete – there’s no sense of time or the rest of the world, neighbours are invisible, and the part fairy tale, part Gothic setting entertain ‘real’ and imagined ghosts. The family live together with their wild creative pursuits (son Donald and his inventions, Amy and her music) but are incapable of connecting without acting vile. Sharpe’s vision of their isolation is so clear to me. It’s like he created the scenes from the blurry images inside my head.
But it’s the final episode of Series 2 that touched me most. It’s an epilogue in the form of a prologue, and tells the story of when Shun arrives at the Flowers’ house from Japan. He brings with him a ton of gifts like daifuku and yukata, but mostly emotional baggage.
Later, showing Maurice his illustrations, Shun tells Maurice, ‘I like dark’. Shun goes on, ‘you help me, start again…because you feel…difference. Difference, alive and dead. So small. But if you can hold…’
Yes, the difference between alive and dead is small, and ‘if you can hold’, is a sentiment worth clinging to, but that’s not what I’m clinging to.
There’s another difference Shun’s referring to. I know that difference. It’s the difference we feel because of our mental illness. Those of us who’ve failed to die brand ourselves as different. And it’s difficult, perhaps impossible to be true to this difference.
And for someone like me who has a lot of dark inside, I feel like Shun’s final words, ‘if you can hold…’ is a invitation to just hold my darkness, to hold my difference and be true, even for a moment. I feel like Sharpe, through the gift of his imagination, has given me a place where I can.
Flowers is a British series now showing on Netflix in Australia. There are 2 seasons