Man, 2020 is a year that just keeps on getting wilder and wilder. Since I wrote the review for Crashing, protests for long-overdue police reforms and the need to address the underlying racial animosity in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have dominated the public consciousness. Side note, if you’re interested in some film-related takes on these, be sure to check out the articles by CJ Hughes and Kaysie Bekkela here on the website. All this on top of the still ongoing coronavirus epidemic, which is seeing a resurgence as various states are reopening. So yeah, shit’s fucked right now.
So with everything going on, I’m going to try and at least take your mind off the world’s ills while you read this. Also, don’t get complacent. Everyone should do something to help our fellow man during these trying times. Whether it’s protesting for policy reforms, donating to a good cause (I’ve set up a rolling donation to the Chicago Bail Fund), and/or learning more about the racial tensions that undercut our fellow citizens and how to ease them (again, check out some of the articles here on the site, they’ll give you a good place to start). In other words, do something positive both for yourself and for society.
Ok, so back to the actual review portion of the review. Seeing as I imagine you all have read the title by this point, the subject of this review is the anime cult classic FLCL (pronounced Fooly Cooly it turns out).
So What is FLCL?
So just what is FLCL? On the production side, FLCL is an OVA anime by the anime studio giant Gainax (most famous for Neon Genesis Evangelion) that aired from April 2000 through March 2001. The show was directed by first-time animation director Kazuya Tsurumaki and written by Yoji Enokido. Tsurumaki’s biggest previous work at Gainax at that point was the assistant animation director on Evangelion, while Enokido’s previous writing jobs included episodes of Evangelion and Sailor Moon. It was in 2003 when FLCL aired in the U.S., broadcast by the burgeoning anime sanctuary Adult Swim, where it attained cult status.
As for what FLCL is exactly, I’m still asking myself that. I even say that after watching the entire miniseries twice. If I had to try and sum it up for you, it would be a cartoonish surreal slice of life story about a young boy coming of age with a space opera in the background. As for what we see on screen, there are a bunch of robot fights, enough sexual symbolism it penis slaps you right in the face, a metric ton of puns, and all scored to copious amounts of rock and roll. That said, that description barely scratches the surface for everything that happens throughout FLCL.
Safe to say, out of all the shows I’ve reviewed so far for Off the Beaten Path, FLCL is easily the most out there. If anything comes close it would be Danger 5, but that’s like comparing an apple to a Dali painting of an orange.
A quick note about the cast before I continue. When I watch anime, except for shows by Shinichiro Watanabe (the man behind Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo), I only watched the subbed version. As such, when I list off the cast, I’m going to stick to the original Japanese voice actors since I can’t say anything about the dub acting.
That said, the principal cast includes the following. There’s Naota Nandaba, voiced by Jun Mizuki. He’s a 12-year-old boy with a chip on his shoulder who’s trying to appear more normal and mature than the insane world around him. There’s Mamimi Samejima, voiced by Izumi Kasagi. She’s a 17-year-old high school truant who was romantically attached to Naota’s older brother Tasuku and has since become unhealthily attached to Naota since Tasuku went to America. Rounding out the main cast is Haruko Haruhara, voiced by Mayumi Shintani. She is a 19(?) year old bass playing, Vespa driving, whirlwind of chaos who shakes up the world of FLCL when she bashes Naota in the head with her bass and starts battling the robots that emerge from his head (you heard me right). She may or may not be an alien with her separate agenda.
Some other prominent cast members include the following. There’s Canti, the silent robot with a TV for a head. After emerging from Naota’s skull, he becomes a fixture around the Nandaba household and a useful ally when more robots appear. There’s Kamon Nandaba (voiced by Suzuki Matsuo), Naota’s immature father who becomes infatuated with Haruko. There’s Eri Ninamori (voiced by Mika Ito), a classmate of Naota. Ninamori (as she’s referred to throughout) is the class president, has her own personal shit to deal with, and has a crush on Naota. There’s Commander Amarao (voiced by Koichi Okura), a military commander who has a history with Haruko and may offer the most straightforward explanation of what’s going on. That is if he knows what he’s talking about.
There are plenty more, but the characters I’ve mentioned so far have the most bearing on the plot, so I’ll move on for now.
So Why FLCL?
I have a confession to make: I’m not a great authority on anime as a whole. I only really began to warm up to the medium in 2017 when I watched Ghost in The Shell. Since then, most of what anime I’ve seen has mostly been more popular fare like Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, One Punch Man, Akira, and a few others. All this to say that for all I know FLCL could be a highly popular property that any anime fan worth their salt knows about. FLCL could be the highest-profile show I’ve reviewed for you all. That said, I’m nearly a thousand words into this review and I only heard about FLCL a few weeks ago, so fuck it, I’m still going to review this.
As for why I’ve decided to review FLCL, the story is rather simple. Over the last month, the only narrative TV I’ve watched has been animated. Some were long term rewatches, like when I rewatched The Venture Bros for the first time since college (still holds up). Others were new shows that could fit the Off the Beaten Path mold, like Frisky Dingo, Kill La Kill, and Harley Quinn.
So there I was. It was a Tuesday evening, I was high, alone, and with nothing to do. I found FLCL on my Hulu watch list. Next thing I know, it’s three hours later and my mind had been, I don’t know. Caressed? Spooned maybe? The point is, I may have been confused about what the flying hell I had just watched, but I knew right from reading the intro blurb this animated acid trip was going to be my next Off the Beaten Path review.
My Thoughts on FLCL
So, just where to start with what makes FLCL so, indisputably FLCL? Like, what makes this short anime miniseries good? There’s a lot I could talk about, but I’ll stick to FLCL’s single greatest strength; it’s sheer uniqueness in identity.
Back in my review for Crashing, I described the show as rather vanilla. Mostly because it didn’t do much to separate itself from the sea of post Friends-“quirky 20-30 somethings live together and make it in the big city” sitcoms. FLCL, on the other hand, is a truly unique experience.
From what I know about anime (feel free to comment and tell me if I’m wrong), coming of age stories are one of the most popular umbrella genres, regardless of age. Hell, a lot of the anime I’ve seen recently that isn’t expressly cyber-punk is a coming of age story of some kind. FLCL sidles neatly into that tradition by having a story that at its base is a pretty typical coming of age story. Along the way, it creates one hell of a singular identity. Now the question is “how is it so unique?”.
For one, just the sheer level of surreal content on screen. Again, when will you ever see a show involve a kid getting brained by a Vespa driving manic pixie dream girl from space with a bass guitar, who then has to fight robots that emerge randomly from his head whenever he gets into emotionally compromising situations with a girl? And that’s just within the first 10 minutes of the show. Well, I mean, you could in theory see another show with all that. That said, it would either have to be one of the recent sequel miniseries of FLCL (they’re called FLCL Progressive and FLCL Alternative respectively), or just a straight rip-off.
If there’s a downside to this, it’s that the narrative can be hard to follow. I mean, I watched FLCL twice within three days, and I’m still trying to figure out just what the hell happened. And you know what, I bet I’ll still be confused after another two rewatches. And you know what, I can see this being hard on someone. For me at least, there’s enough rule of cool and rule of funny going on that I don’t mind, but I can understand if someone feels otherwise.
Even if you aren’t into surrealism though, it’s hard to deny just how fun the animation is. It’s another one of the things that makes FLCL so unique. I mean, good lord is the animation wild. Wild enough to match the narrative insanity and give it life. If anything, the surrealism wouldn’t hit nearly as hard if it wasn’t for the animation.
For example, watch the animation when Haruko is on screen. Whenever she is around, expect to see something completely ridiculous. On the calmer end of the spectrum, it could be a funny animation gimmick that adds to the feeling of surrealness. On the other end of the spectrum, it can be a straight-up meta art shift. It’s truly no holds barred.
Also, the animation is filled with youthful mirth and energetic imagination. This is even if the narrative content is darker, like whenever Mamimi is falling off the emotional deep end. I’m having a hard time thinking of another anime, if not animated show on the whole, that had animation so fun to watch. It’s no wonder the animators of The Legend of Korra were told to watch FLCL.
All that said, none of the animation or surrealism means much if the characters and stories aren’t interesting. In the case of FLCL, that burden falls more on the characters.
Sure there is a loose story that could be described as a space opera. Namely, there is Haruko’s quest to free the intergalactic pirate lord Atomsk from the clutches of the enigmatic local industry leader Medical Mechanica. Whether it’s out of love for Atomsk, to attain his god-like powers or both is unclear. That story though doesn’t really kick in until episode four when Amarao shows up on the scene, and even then that’s just background window dressing.
In the foreground is a nominal slice of life story about immature individuals who need to grow up. This is where the real meat of the series is, and for me at least why I’ll keep coming back to FLCL.
Throughout the six episodes that make up FLCL, we not only get to know the principal characters but follow them as they achieve a new level of maturity. Naota ends up in a healthy place, mature enough to know he doesn’t need to compare himself to his brother and that he can appreciate being a kid while he’s a kid. Mamimi learns to let go of her obsession with Tasuku and Naota and move on with her life, letting the young boy go while recognizing he isn’t just a younger version of his older brother. Haruko, despite being rather misanthropic underneath her bubbly exterior, bonds with Naota enough that she bears him no ill will when he foils her plans and leaves him behind so he can grow up like a normal kid.
Everyone ends up in a better place, and it’s satisfying to watch. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that these people are in turn fairly relatable. Fucked up in a fucked up world, sure, but still relatable.
Also, it doesn’t hurt that the supporting characters are also fun to watch. My favorite is Junko Miyaji. She is Naota and Ninamori’s teacher who is a nervous wreck and subject to the funniest misfortunes. Ninamori, the satellite third love interest, and her group of friends always provide a laugh. Naota’s immature and lecherous manchild of a father Kamon is always up to some wacky shenanigans. Even the nominally serious Amarao and his government goons aren’t immune from acting childish in amusing ways. It’s just a fun cast of characters all around.
The more I think about, the pacing of FLCL is on point. Besides Love, Death & Robots, every show I’ve reviewed for Off the Beaten Path has had seasons of at most eight episodes, with the majority sitting at six episodes per season, FLCL included. Everyone has sagged narratively at some point, with Marquis de Carabas arguably being the weak link for FLCL. And that includes the other half-hour shows. Out of all of them, I think FLCL is the most consistent. Granted, this could change on a rewatch. That said it doesn’t change the fact FLCL is so packed with cartoony gags and off the wall humor that you’re never going to be bored.
Normally for a show like this, I’d talk about the writing. In this case however, I don’t have a lot to say. This is largely because no matter which version of FLCL I watch, I’m going to miss a lot of the subtext due to not being fluent in Japanese. Which in this case is a shame, because from what I’ve read, FLCL is full of innuendo-laden wordplay and next level puns that are hard to translate at best. What I can tell though is that it is tightly written, even with the language barrier.
If I have any problems with the writing on the narrative and character front, it’s that I prefer the slice of life episodes that mark the first half of the season. Namely, I like the wacky yet deep character portraits they establish that aren’t concerned with an ongoing narrative other than personal growth. That’s not to say I don’t like the story-driven back half of the season. Like, those episodes can mine some thematic depths and feature incredible set pieces that a pure slice of life story can’t reach. I just lowkey wish Tsurumaki and Enokido stuck with one or the other.
Lastly, I’d be kicking myself if I didn’t at least mention the score and soundtrack. The music, provided by Shinkichi Mitsumune and rock band The Pillows, is one hell of a scene setter. It’s truly the soul of FLCL, matching the narrative and animated tempo while accentuating both. Also, it doesn’t hurt the alternative rock music of The Pillows, you know, rocks. I still have some songs stuck in my head. The only other anime that I can think of that matches how well the music goes here in FLCL are the shows of Shinichiro Watanabe. And you know what? That’s saying something since Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo have some of the most memorable scores in all of television.
Before I fully talk about the cons of FLCL, I want to mention one low key aspect of why FLCL is good that isn’t about being unique. Namely, FLCL is hella rewatchable. For one, it’s so chaotic that it’s easy to miss a lot about what’s happening. On top of that, it’s so chaotic in a way that it’s a fun watch. In other words, it’s an entertaining gift that keeps on giving. Plus, a short runtime doesn’t hurt. Like I said earlier, I was able to watch the whole show twice in three days. Pretty easily in fact.
When it comes to my complaints about the show I’ve already talked about, there’s not a lot to talk about. If anything has been consistent across my two watches, it’s that I don’t like the editing around the commercial breaks. It always feels like the break is one second two early. It’s weird, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s just a Hulu thing.
That said, I can easily see the reasons why people wouldn’t like FLCL. First and foremost, I can see some people finding the sexual content off-putting, and that’s on top of the typical fanservicey outfits the school age girls wear. In particular, the way Mamimi and Haruko act around Naota can often be straight-up sexual harassment. On the one hand, Mamimi is unhealthily sublimating her sexual frustration onto Naota because he’s Tasuku’s brother despite him being 12. On the other hand, Haruko essentially stalks Naota and constantly antagonizes him in a flirtatious manner. Plus, over time it becomes clear Haruko is manipulating Naota out of some ulterior motive.
It helps that the show doesn’t portray this as positive. Funny sometimes, but at its core rather fucked up. For one, the love interest that nominally wins, in the end, is Ninamori. In particular, she’s the one who has the healthiest relationship with Naota and treats him as an actual person. That doesn’t change the fact seeing it can be too squicky for people. And you know what, I don’t blame them.
But enough about FLCL on the whole, let’s get into the episodes themselves.
My Thoughts on the Episodes
Episode One: Fooly Cooly
Out of all the pilot episodes I’ve seen so far, Fooly Cooly is up there with the best of them. Sure, it’s not the best. That honor still belongs to I Danced for Hitler!. Doesn’t change the fact Fooly Cooly is one hell of a ride. Granted, it looked fairly normal for a coming of age anime for about the first 2 minutes. That is until Haruko shows up to run over Naota and gives him CPR. Then all bets are off.
Is it a perfect pilot episode? No, there are some bits I’m not overly crazy about, mostly about the robot fight at the end – I’m confused about the threat of the severed hand and what it means, but that’s fairly minor. On the whole, Fooly Cooly is the best litmus test for whether or not you’d like FLCL. It establishes all of the main cast while introducing us to the psychedelia that is Naota’s life in Mabase. If you like what you see, you’re in for a treat. If you aren’t, well, I don’t know what to tell you.
My Recommendation: Highly Recommend
Episode Two: Fire Starter
If Fooly Cooly is a Naota episode, then Fire Starter is the Mamimi episode. It’s here, on top of what we see in the last episode, where we get to understand just how bleak Mamimi’s life is. She’s bullied by her classmates and potentially homeless, pining for the boy she considers to be the best thing to ever happen to her. Add on top of that her not being able to fully distinguish reality from her game at her lowest (I mean, it seems obvious from context clues she’s the arsonist) and we got a chain-smoking teenager in need of help. Don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t change the fact that Mamimi’s treatment of Naota is problematic. It just adds dimension.
We also see that Naota and Mamimi are foils for each other in regards to their maturity levels. On the one hand, Naota is an immature kid who’s trying to act more mature. On the other hand, Mamimi is a young adult who retreats to child-like fantasy when the going gets rough. And what’s more, they grow as characters by the end of the episode. In this case, Naota matures enough to empathize with Mamimi and realize she is more than just an annoyance, but a human being who desperately needs help and friendship. As for Mamimi, that’ll take another rewatch to divine, so another watch is inevitable.
Safe to say, I wasn’t expecting something quite this emotionally complex out of a show whose bread and butter are surreal boner jokes. That’s not to say the episode is entirely dour. It’s actually quite fun. There’s an epic robot fight, Haruko antagonizing Naota for all she’s worth, the works. It’s just that couched within all the fun insanity, there’s a surprisingly deep character piece that I appreciate the more I think about it.
My Recommendation: Highly Recommend
Episode Three: Marquis de Carabas
Out of the three slice of life episodes that make up the first half of FLCL, this one, Marquis de Carabas, is probably the most divisive. Not to say that it’s bad, but I can understand why people think this is the weak link of FLCL. If you’re confused, let me explain why I think this.
Like Fire Starter, Marquis de Carabas is an episode that is focused more on one of the ancillary cast. In this case, it’s Naota’s classmate and third love interest Ninamori. Also, like in Fire Starter, we see what makes Ninamori tick; she’s stuck in the middle of a highly public separation (her father is the mayor of Mabase) and is trying to hold it together alone. We see that she and Naota are pretty similar. Namely, they both try to act more mature than they are, alone in a sea of perceived and real immaturity. It’s kind of sweet, even with Ninamori trying to blackmail Naota into being in a play she rigged for her own reasons (aka to get her parents together and to connect with Naota).
As for why I think people would consider Marquis de Carabas, it’s because of the role Ninamori plays in the overarching narrative going forward. In particular, her lack of a role. If you’re more interested in the plot side of things, it’s easy to see this episode as being filler. That said, as a slice of life story about two young kids trying to navigate love and growing up, it’s delightful.
My Recommendation: Recommend
Episode Four: Full Swing
With Full Swing, we’re at the back half of the season, and the plot is starting to kick in. Amarao shows up, Haruko knocks a satellite out of orbit, and Naota has to step up and save the day. Couched within this though is Naota’s biggest opportunity for character growth yet; to step out of Tasuku’s shadow.
It starts pretty regularly at first. In this case, Tasuku’s formal baseball team is being destroyed by Haruko on the field, and they need a wringer. Unsurprisingly, Naota can’t (or won’t) live up to his brother’s example, even after a sexually confusing batting lesson from Haruko. Later though, Naota is given a chance to prove himself. Here, it’s batting a giant satellite that looks like a baseball, using a Gibson Flying V guitar Haruko extracted from his head, to save the town. And you know what, he succeeds. It’s pretty telling this is when Mamimi starts to question her relationship with Naota, now that he’s separating himself from Tasuku.
If I have any complaints about Full Swing, it’s that I’m not quite sure what the Kamon drama is about. Nominally it’s about Kamon’s failure to aid in Haruko’s quest by not being able to produce a N.O. tunnel, but I’m still unsure just what was going on. That said, it’s still fun to watch, even if it leaves you scratching your head more often than normal. It’s mostly because of all this that I consider Full Swing the weakest episode of FLCL.
My Recommendation: Recommend
Episode Five: Brittle Bullet
Five episodes in, it’s about time we get to the “guns as phallic proxies” episode with Brittle Bullet. Gunfights permeate this episode. On the lower end, there’s a childish airsoft fight between Naota and Kamon over Haruko’s affections. On the other end of the spectrum, Haruko and Canti fight the largest Medical Mechanica robot yet. Simply put, it’s a kaiju sized hand clad in a hat and trenchcoat that has a gun for each finger that emerges when Mamimi soundly rejects Naota’s advances. It’s hella symbolic and hella fun to watch.
Plus, Haruko flying in on her bass to fight the behemoth like a Playboy Bunny Silver Surfer is just straight awesome.
Speaking of Haruko, the enigma of what Haruko is becomes deeper and more convoluted. She has a history with Amarao. She’s clearly a dangerous being without a care for humanity. She’s also after Atomsk for a reason that’s not clear yet. And after Brittle Bullet, she’s gone, leaving Naota without either Mamimi or Haruko. It’s one hell of a fun episode.
My Recommendation: Highly Recommend
Episode Six: FLCLimax
In FLCLimax, everything comes full circle. Everyone grows up. Haruko, back from her weeks-long absence from the Nadaba home, leaves Earth without anger to continue her chase for Atomsk when the pirate lord escapes from Medical Mechanica and flees into space. Mamimi, after witnessing the effects her revenge has had, finally grows up herself. She not only acknowledges that Tasuku is gone, but that Naota is his own person. This leads her to leave Mabase to become a photographer and start a new life. Naota, despondent after her absence, confesses his love for Haruko after a pitched battle in the sky. Sure, he gets rejected, but he learns a more valuable lesson. Namely, that being a kid isn’t a bad thing. It’s something to be treasured.
Befitting the (at the time) series finale, all the loose ends end up tied. It makes sense then FLCLimax makes the most sense on a narrative level. Granted, it’s still very confusing, but it at least gives us answers. And all that is wrapped up in the most action-packed and stylish episode yet. Like its title, it’s more than a fitting climax for FLCL.
My Recommendation: Highly Recommend
Alright, so that’s my review of FLCL. Sorry for going on and on and on, especially compared to previous reviews, but there’s a lot to talk about with this show, and I’ve only barely scratched the surface. I’ll just leave this for you patient readers. FLCL is a truly singular experience. Do yourselves and give it a try.
My Recommendation: Highly Recommend