Off the Beaten Path | FLCL

FLCL poster

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. Just 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), a surreal coming of age story about a boy who gets dragged into a space opera when an alien 20-year-old hits him in the head with a bass guitar.

Before I go further, I just want today something. FLCL is good. Damn good in fact. I’d go as far as saying it’s the best thing I’ve seen for Off the Beaten Path. 

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.

On FLCL‘s sheer uniqueness

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.

Still from FLCL episode Brittle Bullet
Haruko and Canti fighting a giant hand. You know, something totally ordinary

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 (which is not a ton) 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. It would just 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. Hell, 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. 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.

A poster of Naota from the DVD release

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.

What about the characters and story? 

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.

A poster of Haruko from the DVD release

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.

Best of all, it’s not just the main characters that are fun to watch. The supporting characters are also a blast 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 S1, 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. Every one 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.

A poster of Mamimi from the DVD release

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.

What about some other positives?

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. It’s just so chaotic that it’s easy to miss a lot about what’s happening while being fun to watch. 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.

What about some complaints?

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 is often 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. This is made more apparent since 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.

In Conclusion

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

My Episode Recommendations:

  1. Fooly Cooly: Highly Recommend
  2. Fire Starter: Highly Recommend
  3. Marquis de Carabas: Recommend
  4. Full Swing: Recommend
  5. Brittle Bullet: Highly Recommend
  6. FLCLimax: Highly Recommend

If You’re Interested in Watching FLCL

If you’re interested in watching FLCL, you can check out the subbed version on Hulu and the dubbed version on Adult Swim.

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

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