Anime Review: FLCL

In a town that seems so completely ordinary, young Naota meets a bizarre woman who claims she’s a space alien. She has a penchant for hitting him with things, whether it’s with her Vespa scooter or with a bass guitar, Naota always has some sort of bump on his head. But imagine his surprise when a robot springs from that bump! So begins a whacky, nonsensical sequence of events that puts the fate of the planet in the hands of one disillusioned teenager and his sociopathic… maid?

Plot

FLCL does not have the greatest plot exposition. It moves from one episode to another without much continuity, and many events that happen seem out of place and utterly bizarre. If you’re the type of person who has to understand absolutely everything about what’s going on… good luck. FLCL is just one big loud, crude, whacked out hallucination where the emphasis isn’t on telling a story, but rather on changing the way we can experience it.

There’s a lot of satire of the subdued, jaded adult world where nothing holds any kind of wonder. Despite the giant robot battles that begin to occur more and more frequently, Naota continues to insist that his town is “ordinary.” Traditional age roles are inverted for many characters as director Tsurumaki Kazuya explores, among other things, how they deal with the responsibilities of adulthood. In this capacity, FLCL is actually rather critical of both sides, embracing neither childish naivete nor grown-up cynicism. Through the use of its humor, the series also has a certain disrespect for tradition.

The series also explores sexual frustration, turning it into a comedic device. It gets us to laugh at our shortcomings, showing that “coming of age” doesn’t have to mean moving from childhood into adulthood. For all the seemingly inexplicable events that take place, there’s just as much measured, intended subtext that melts sublimely into the on-screen action. FLCL plays on many levels of the consciousness (yet never quite takes itself seriously), and that’s why it can get away with being so unruly on the surface.

Though FLCL does make use of a surprising amount of thematic elements, the series is best enjoyed when you just let yourself go along for the ride. And it is a ride, complete with startling imagery, savage noises, and a pace that frquently changes speed without notice. But beyond mere sensory stimulation, FLCL plays on many of the emotions that an adolescent might experience. Certainly, this is not done in a direct manner, but part of the pandemonium that plays out on screen invokes the confusion and frustration that many teens go through as they slowly become adults.

Throughout all this, FLCL maintains its impishness, never passing up an opportunity for a sexual pun or a self-aware rib at the anime industry. That, in the end, is why I enjoy this series so much. It’s not pretentious, nor is it made for intellectuals, but it can back up its antics with genuinely relevant content. So, as I’ve mentioned, it doesn’t have the greatest exposition. But in a work like this, it really doesn’t matter. Each scene carries such a sense of excitement, wonder, and occasion that it’s enough just to let each episode osmose into your brain – it really is that good.

Characters

There is a good amount of adolescent vs. adult conflict going on, which the characters reflect through their various relationships. However, there is a bit of a role reversal between the grown-ups and the children, with the younger cast taking on more responsibility and world-weariness. It took a bit of thinking for me to hit on that realization, but each character is used in some clever way to reflect the age dynamic.

Haruko works well as a figure of intrigue, especially because we can see that she’s driven by ulterior motives early on. Although Haruko’s goals become central to the story after the introduction of Amarao, the mystery element is maintained until the end. In this way, you’re never really sure where her allegiance is, and that adds an extra stratum of complexity to her character. Actually, the revelations concerning Haruko’s intentions are pretty startling. It’s a case of a reversal of expectations, which makes the last episode feel all the more hectic. Beyond that, though, the growth of Haruko’s character has a marked effect on Naota, who eventually grows somewhat dependent on her.

Naota is the other main character, a kid who is wholly disillusioned with the world, and doesn’t act with the typical naivete that is expected of early teenagers. He’s hounded by the memory of his brother Tasuku, and seems to be living in his shadow. Maybe he’s bitter that almost everyone around him seems to be in touch with their “inner child” but he’s left alone.

He, through his mindset and characterization, represents one of the viewpoints relating to the adult/child theme. His cynicism, joylessness, and defeated attitude is a counterpoint to Haruko’s otherworldliness and spontaneity, as well as Mamimi’s careless simplicity. As the protagonist, his character needs the balance provided by the other two as a means to grow. The self-conflict – and self-discovery – that he goes through carry across FLCL‘s big ideas thanks to the intelligence of the creative team.

Samejima Mamimi is Tasuku’s ex-girlfriend – he left her behind to go play baseball in the U.S. She’s as confused as anyone else, not knowing where to place her affections or how to act. It doesn’t seem like she has a home, and she’s constantly harrassed by her peers. She finds solace in her relationship with Naota, who she has mentally substituted for her lost boyfriend.

Mamimi is only a part of a complex web of relationships, but I think she’s best understood as a girl who is unsure of how to get herself out of the dregs of life. She could be treated as a counterpart to Naota, but Haruko’s role has a bigger impact in that respect. Her character perhaps becomes more accessible when taken for a symbol of the past. Mamimi is very much stuck in her own past, and this is a cause of tension for Naota.

The series really treats each cast member equally, giving even the supporting cast plenty of screen time. Although it’s not always clear what purpose each character serves (in terms of story progression), they are written with a close attention to detail, and their nuanced personalities really come out as the series progresses. Naota and Mamimi see the most development – at the end, their views of the world around them are almost broken down completely. It’s rare to find such deep characters in anime, let alone so many of them.

Technical

There’s a lot of innovation and experimentation behind FLCL, including shifts in animation style and some elaborate sequences that can only be done via CG. The CG visuals actually work very nicely, and are indistinguishable from normal cel-painted images. Sadamoto Yoshiyuki provides the character designs, and comes up with a rather conservative looking cast. His mechanical creations, on the other hand, are wildly imaginative and completely unrestrained.

The design aspect of FLCL is, in a word, sensational. Tsurumaki and company throw subtlety out the window when it comes to the action sets, which are as alive and as frenzied as anything I’ve seen. In contrast are the measured scenic compositions, especially the early minutes of the second episode, which are subdued but undeniably atmospheric. FLCL is, frequently, an audiovisual smorgasbord. But like the surprise gourmet food hidden in a Las Vegas buffet, you’ll also be ambushed at times with some genuine virtuosity.

The sound design also deserves some attention – there is a very coherent theme to the series, and a lot of it is associated with the audio. The sound effects are well-realized and the voice acting is superb, but it’s the soundtrack provided by The Pillows that really steals the show. The indy-sounding J-Rock group adds a lot of that experimental feel to FLCL, and does a surprisingly good job of playing up the intended emotion of each scene. I seriously doubt we will ever see another production as good all around as this one.