Retro Review: FLCL (Fooly Cooly)
Adult Swim just released their trailer for a second and third outing of the insanely hip anime FLCL. We take our tricked-out Vespa down memory lane to explore this mental millennial miniseries.
Before Adult Swim became home to Rick, Morty and a whole slew of animated fever dreams, it was Cartoon Network’s second attempt at creating a viable home for Japanese Anime. Toonami, their first attempt, was a mainly after school affair that rebroadcast Japan’s mainstream heavy hitters: Gundam, Sailor Moon, and DragonBall Z. It was moderately successful and had a rabid cult following. It cost me a relationship. I have zero regrets.
The youth-oriented action spectacles were fine and all, but fans wanted more. Adult Swim became the nighttime home for teen and adult oriented anime. In 2003, FLCL, a 6 part OVA (original video animation) from Gainax and Production IG hit. It was one of Adult Swim’s first major successes. Fooly Cooly was so popular that it aired several times, even showing up on Toonami’s midnight slot. It helped define Adult Swim as the place to go for eclectically hip, patently absurd, and intellectually intriguing animation.
Adult swim has announced a partnership with Production IG to bring FLCL back in 2 6-Episode continuations. It even is bringing back The Pillows, the Japanese punk-pop band that gave FLCL its signature sound. The big question on fan’s minds is: can a series so tied to a certain time and a certain aesthetic resonate a second time? We will look at the original experience and I will venture my own guess.
Naoto Nandaba is a young teen living in the made-up Japanese town of Mabase. He lives with his father and grandfather, who are both decidedly abnormal. One day he has a run-in with Haruka, a wild woman with a modified Vespa and a Rickenbacker Bass Guitar. By run in, I mean Haruka runs him over. She performs CPR on him, and then when that fails she gives him a whack on the noggin with her bass. It creates a horn-like wound that turns out to be a dimensional portal. Robots often come out of it, with Naota having very little say in the matter. And you thought puberty was a rough time for you!
Haruka reveals herself to be a galactic police-woman, here to investigate Mabase’s monolithic business: Medical Mechanica. Another shadowy operation, the Bureau for Interstellar Immigration, also has Naota and Medical Mechanica in its sights. The series follows Naota, Haruka, and Naota’s female friend Mamimi as they navigate life in this strange, strange world.
Rock and Roll Lifestyle
FLCL has a fast-paced, frenetic style. The animation is fluid and contorted. Characters twist and move in exaggerated ways. Perspective bends and warps on a whim. The soundtrack is provided by The Pillows, a Japanese band that uses a fusion of punk, pop, funk and rock. Their “all over the map” sound was perfect for the eclectic mayhem going on in FLCL.
Fooly Cooly feels very much like the time period that gave birth to it. Hip and visually aggressive; both a product of and a complaint against the mass consumerism that dominated the era. FLCL feels like a Mountain Dew commercial and the iPod Dancing Silhouettes took some really good acid. Naota is at once infatuated with and frustrated by Haruka, who espouses her cool anti-cultural-ism while being fully decked out in branded accessories.
It screams teenage rebellion. The B.I.I. is overblown adult bureaucracy while Medical Mechanica’s giant clothes iron represents the cultural elimination of free thought via “ironing out the wrinkles of the brain”. The constant enticements of Haruka and the B.I.I. play to Naota’s indecision with how to grapple with adulthood. Should he embrace his defiance of the game or become a full fledged player in it?
The main emotional thrust of the series is Naota’s adolescence. The women in Naota’s life constantly tantalize and confuse him. The eruption of increasingly bizarre monstrosities out of his head are shown to roughly correlate with his emotional and mental state. This lack of a firm control on his body and feelings are puberty writ large (and crazy). He bounces between cynicism and gallantry, unsure what tack to take with just about anything happening around him. These confounding principles of earnest idealism and aloof maturity are addressed with genuine care, despite how crazy everything else in FLCL is.
That was then, this is now.
Due to both the style and the substance of FLCL, it has an expiration date baked into it. I included a Kotaku article below that disagrees, stating that Fooly Cooly offers a message that can the viewer can enjoy over and over again as they age. I don’t find their premise compelling.
Japanese animation is borderline obsessed with adolescence and coming of age stories. That most manga/anime is marketed to 15 year old boys (Shonen) could be a big reason. Another could be that philosophical science fiction is their second biggest subject, and if you’ve seen Star Wars or Ender’s Game, you know sci-fi uses coming of age a whole lot too. Either way, that means that to get published/produced in Japan, you have to offer something new to the Shonen landscape. There have been a ton of new adolescent anime since 2000. Stories of FLCL’s ilk continue to evolve, as do the people that consume those stories.
That’s three strikes against FLCL 2+3 working. The story was for a generation that has grown up. Newcomers are sure to have different tastes. Being a cynical pawn complaining about Big Corporation X while downing their competitor’s stuff is not a good look these days. Lastly, FLCL’s style has been copied, superseded, and/or replaced.
Hope Springs Eternal
Production IG would have to thread one hell of a small needle. They’d have to tell a story that resonates with new viewers and also speaks to where their original fans are in their lives. I did love the original, though, and the company’s ability to come out of left field is well documented. Here’s to hoping. Who knows what colossal things could sprout from their heads?