You can’t get her out of your head.
FLCL (pronounced “fooly cooly”) made a huge splash when it aired a few years ago on Adult Swim, and it’s since become well known among fans as something of an animation landmark. As every year passes, the show’s legend continues to grow. Even in the wilderness of weirdness that is anime, you’ve never seen anything like FLCL.
Naota is an ordinary sixth-grader living in a small town in the middle of nowhere. One day, out of the blue, a strange pink-haired woman crashes into him with her Vespa and hits him in the head with an electric guitar. This has an unusual effect on him, in that various objects, including at least one giant robot, grow out of his forehead on a regular basis. If that wasn’t enough, Naota soon learns that the woman, Haruko, and the robot, Lord Canti, have moved in with his father and grandfather as their new housekeepers.
Haruko claims to be from outer space, and her outrageous behavior would seem to confirm that, but Naota still doesn’t know what to make of her. As she continues to interrupt every aspect of his life, other powers make themselves known. A government agent with fake eyebrows is keeping close watch on Naota, and the omnipresent Medical Mechanica factory on the horizon hides some potentially apocalyptic secrets. Can Haruko, Naota, and Naota’s friends figure out what nefarious acts are going on in this small town and put an end to it, with the help of whatever random object is growing out of Naota’s head this week?
Is FLCL weird, nonsensical, and obnoxious? Yes, yes, and yes. Still, there’s something undeniably watchable about this “out there” cartoon. You might not be able to follow the plot, and all kinds of odd things happen for no reason at all, but I’ll be damned if this thing doesn’t entertain. At a basic level, it’s “geek cool”—robots, secret agents, aliens, electric guitars, monsters, explosions, motorcycles, cute girls in short skirts, comic books, gunfights, video games, and so on. All six episodes zip along at a fast pace, with so much happening so fast that’s there’s no time to let you soak it all in. It takes multiple viewings to “get” the bare basics of what’s happening.
Although these mere six episodes are packed with so much screwball zaniness, there is a slight formula to the show. In every episode, a strange object emerges from Naota’s forehead, which helps Haruko and Canti defeat the monster of the week. That’s the gist of it, but there’s a lot more going on. Naota is also somehow able to merge with Lord Canti to form a cannon, for some extra firepower to destroy enemies. Also, who or what are these monsters they’re fighting? What is the nature of the conspiracy with the government agents and Medical Mechanica? Who or what is the “Pirate King?” We only sort of get answers, leaving things explained…but loosely explained.
One big reason why FLCL deserves a second look beyond “it’s nothing but weirdness for weirdness’ sake” is because of the characters, beginning and ending with our hero, Naota. As we first meet him, he’s an everykid, bemoaning the fact that nothing interesting ever happens to him. If you’re a character in a movie or TV pilot, that’s probably something you should never say. In Naota’s case, it leads to his head getting walloped and a whole lot of insanity in his life. Throughout the series, he’s seen with either bandages or hats covering his head, to keep anyone from seeing whatever’s growing out of him. Beyond that aspect of the character, though, the writers demonstrate how much he is growing and maturing as the result of his misadventures. Whether it’s the courage to drink a type of soda he doesn’t normally like or to swing a baseball bat at a crucial moment, a lot of Naota’s challenges have to do with an internal struggle of being a kid versus being a so-called “grown up.” A big part of this internal struggle of Naota’s has to do with his older brother, Tasuku, who, we’re told, left for America to play professional baseball. Tasuku is rarely seen, but often talked about. Just as Naota is the kid on the verge of becoming an adult, he’s also the little brother struggling to step out from his famous older brother’s shadow and become his own person. This is an understandable difficulty for him, as people are always mentioning Tasuku around him, and there are expectations of him to be a similar ball star.
That brings us to Mamimi, a major character throughout the series, yet one who doesn’t say or do much, plot-wise. She’s Tasuku’s girlfriend, left behind as traveled overseas. She’s a high school girl, several years older than Naota. She spends all her days skipping school, smoking cigarettes under a bridge and pretty much not doing anything. Why Naota spends time with her is (of course) never fully explained. In Tasuku’s absence, Mamimi calls Naota “Takun,” Tasuku’s nickname, and she even nuzzles up close to him, nibbling on his ears and even trying to give him a hickey, all in an attempt to retain some sort of closeness to his brother. If that sounds odd to you, rest assured it is. Mamimi is simply an odd character, never quite “with it” throughout the series. In addition to her borderline-unhealthy fascination with Naota, she at one point believes Lord Canti is a godlike character from a video game she plays, and when a metal eating, shape-changing robot comes out of nowhere and befriends her, she thinks absolutely nothing of it. Mamimi spends her time in a daze, reacting in a state of numbness to everything around her. In some ways, she’s an audience surrogate, in that on the outside looking in, but in other ways, she’s a space cadet, that her rambling musings are taking away from the main story.
To go along with Mamimi’s uncomfortable relationship with Naota, there’s a huge amount of kinkiness throughout the entire show. Haruko cavorts around inside Naota’s house wearing nothing but a towel in some scenes, dresses like a sexy nurse in other scenes, and there’s numerous references to her and Naota sharing the same room. When they meet, Haruko gives Naota mouth to mouth resuscitation, and from there, we get the typical jokes about how that could be mistaken for making out. This gets even more suggestive with Naota’s classmates’ constant refrain of “Smooch! Smooch!” Their talk of smooching seems to be talk about something a lot more, if you know what I mean. One episode goes overboard with twisted sexiness between Haruko and Naota’s father, only to have Naota learn that Haruko had replaced his dad with some sort of look-alike sexbot. She literally made him her sex toy, and that’s pretty creepy for what appears on the surface to be a teen-centric show. Hormones rage everywhere, as the other female characters are often shown in tiny school skirts and tinier school gym shorts (this is anime, let’s not forget).
But hey, you’re not interested in the pesky human characters and all their psychological foibles; you want to know about robots punching things, don’t you? Every episode gives us at least one big action scene, in which Haruko, Naota and Lord Canti battle it out with whatever menace is afoot. Interestingly, the enemy robots, whatever their origin might be, will usually transform into a shape looking like a giant hand. This gets (sort of) explained in the final two episodes, in which the robots’ fascination with the Medical Mechanica plant and its unusual shape comes into play. Before we get to that, though, I’ll say that Canti is a great robot design, looking clunkier and clumsier than the usual anime ‘bot. His unique look includes a TV for a head, and he usually has a cape-like sheet or coat wrapped around him. His transformations into his cannon form is an exciting moment in any given episode, in that when it happens, you know that’s when something big is about to go down. Haruko gets in on her share of the action as well, often wielding her guitar as a weapon, using like a sword or club, depending on the scene. Of course, her Vespa scooter is a present force as well, somehow driving itself at times.
Like everything else on this show, Haruko is hard to figure out. Her hastily-rushed through backstory, which may or may not be who she really is, states that she has an important mission to fulfill, but has gone against that mission to follow her heart instead. We don’t see much of that side of her, though, getting this fun-loving free spirit instead. Haruko loves messing with people, especially Naota, saying and doing shocking things just to see how everyone will react. When Haruko goes into “goofball comedy” mode—and she does this often—her facial expressions and body language become exaggerated to the point of looking like she’s from some other cartoon, and her voice goes into shrieking overacting territory. It’s true that a lot of anime shows and movies have this type of in-your-face comedy, but FLCL takes that style and cranks it up higher than you thought possible.
That over-the-top nature applies to all of the comedy in FLCL. Take one of the show’s most talked-about scenes, in which Naota comes home to learn that Haruko has been hired as his family’s new housekeeper. The entire scene is portrayed as if it’s in a manga (a.k.a. a Japanese comic book). The viewer watches as the “camera” moves from panel to panel, “reading” the comic. It darts quickly from image to image, with different characters speaking and reacting to different things at different times, all shouting over blasting music. By the time the scene ends and takes us to a slightly calmer moment, you’re exhausted and grateful for the break in the tension. On the commentary for this episode, the director states that the scene was scripted as four people sitting around a table talking. There was concern that this might be boring, so the decision was made to make it more interesting, only to have “more interesting” result in one of the series’ most hyperactive scenes. This attitude can be seen at other times, when the show spoofs anime staple Lupin the Third at one point, and another exposition-only scene is told in the style of, of all things, South Park. Anime experts will be able to point numerous other references to other anime shows and movies, as well as a wide assortment of Japanese pop culture spoofs spread throughout all six episodes. In their efforts to keep the audience from getting bored, the show’s creators have instead gone to the opposite extreme, throwing constant madness at the screen so that the audience is always on edge, never quite sure what’s going on.
So what is going on in FLCL? What’s it really about? The most telling answer comes from one of the least likely characters. Amarao is the government agent with the gigantic fake eyebrows, who spends his time spying on Haruko and investigating Medical Mechanica. Amarao tells us that Medical Mechanica is like an iron (or perhaps there’s no “like” about it), and it intends to smooth out all the wrinkles in the world. What are the wrinkles? Amarao says the wrinkles are thoughts. What does this mean? If the sinister Medical Mechanica gets its way, all thoughts in the world will be smoothed out, so there is no irregularity, nothing out of place, nothing different. In Medical Mechanica’s perfect world, a show like FLCL would never exist. Contrast this with one of the director’s statements on the commentary, when asked about the purpose and symbolism of the robots on the show, he merely answers, “I like robots.” This simple response opens a fascinating window into the show’s creative process. This series originated in a “robots are cool” atmosphere, instead of a “what if robots really existed” atmosphere. Despite talk of conspiracies and the fate of galaxies, FLCL has nothing to do with serious statements and big ideas, and everything to do with pure creativity and big entertainment.
If nothing else, the animation is absolutely gorgeous, with rich, vivid colors, and smooth, eye-popping movement. It’s all rendered excellently on this DVD, allowing you to just sit back and immerse yourself in the visuals. The sound is equally good, in both English and Japanese, making the most of the big action and the rockin’ tunes. All six episodes have director commentaries, in Japanese with English subtitles, with are filled with more fascinating tidbits about how and why the show was created. We also get a bunch of music videos from rock group the Pillows, who did the theme song, and the usual textless closing.
I am not a diehard anime fan. Sure, there are a handful of gems that I’ve enjoyed, but I’ve disliked almost all of the anime I’ve seen, because so much of it falls under the category of “looks great, but makes no sense.” FLCL is a true oddity in that it too looks great and makes no sense, except that it somehow transcends its incomprehensibleness and becomes something thrilling and wonderful. If you don’t “get it”—and chances are you won’t—don’t worry. Just ride on, shooting star.