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Review: “FLCL Alternative Episode One” – The Same Notes but a Fresh Arrangement Still Rocks!

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FLCL Alternative

FLCL AlternativeI am going to be very honest, I have not written a proper anime review in about half a decade. I’ve been a little busy for a lot reasons that I’ll mostly spare you. However in my 5-year gap of writing for ToonZone, I’ve visited Japan twice, spending a lot of time in smaller cities and towns on my second trip, like Gifu, Takayama and Nakatsugawa. These are places in Japan where the buildings aren’t stunningly tall and neon, yet not immune to the passage of time. They’re growing and changing, sometimes in wonderful ways that share their unique culture to world, other times in more depressing ways that see old shopping districts under pressure from new, giant department stores.

Which, somehow, brings me to FLCL Alternative episode one. Dropped from the heavens like a pin dropped in Google Maps as an April Fool’s prank by Toonami, I saw a Japan a lot like the one I saw in those smaller places. Places that aren’t winding down, but that aren’t entirely in a historical stasis either, resulting in new suburbs with modern conveniences that decimate the shopping districts with family-owned shops that have been in operation for generations. Then, I realized instantly how much the original series had to say about that side of Japan, and it quickly became apparent how IG was going to make 200% more FLCL than there had ever been.

FLCL, then and now, has always used it’s leads to talk about the ephemeral nature of youth – embrace your youth while you have it, don’t try to be an adult when you’re a kid and don’t be a childish, selfish adult either. Yet, at the same time, it’s a love letter to a certain small town culture that’s growing and changing just like the leads in the each season of the show – often in ways completely outside their own control. Yet perhaps just as importantly, those places like those leads are evolving in the same way, and both are evolving just like the choice of genre setting for the show itself.

You see, FLCL Alternative takes all of that secondary city/small town Japan nostalgia vs. modernization commentary, the Gunbuster-meets-El-Kabong robot fighting action with emotionally stunted teenagers, and then effortlessly grafts that on to the slice of life, iyashikei (healing) genre. In fact, it does all this all while hitting every note that genre entails better than any show to date. It’s frankly astonishing to watch it’s harmonic, effortless excellence. Not only does this complex milieu of influences not step on each other’s feet, but it flows so naturally between it’s beats that you almost wonder how we’d never seen anything like it before. However, let us go through from the beginning.

FLCL AlternativeWe open with our new heroine, Kana Koumoto, starting her average middle class day with her vanilla family, busted phone, factory earbuds, and favorite worn out loafers. It’s a huge contrast to the original FLCL’s opening scene where a teenage girl puts the moves on a sixth grader, yet both scenes capture a certain kind of resignation – a emotion that can only be shortened to, “this is every day for me and I can’t change that, and really I’m not even sure if I want to.” This is evoked not just in the Kana’s opening monologue, but in the setting itself. Here, as with the original series, is a nondescript larger town or smaller city that may have a thousand-year written history, and yet on the horizon this time looms a giant big box department store (the design is plainly a jab a AEON, a massive chain in Japan and Asia), ready to collapse all of the small town businesses regardless of their history. This massive eyesore takes the place of the giant iron factory of the original, but this slight update makes the same point about an invasive, alien force upsetting a dull, consistent but nonetheless vibrant and unique place. It’s something you see quite a bit of as you get out of the biggest cities in Japan as well: cold, massive department stores that overshadow an otherwise quiet, warm community. As before, this invasive influence is a metaphor the trials of growing up, with the seemingly static and small world of childhood interrupted by the alien and grand forces of burgeoning adulthood. Layers on layers, parallels to the prior work such that we already have a sense of who Kana is and why she may not be necessarily all that different to Naota, and we’re only to the intro card.

Soon we are introduced to all her friends, and again we are shown more 3 more fully developed individuals with effortless, natural banter and interactions. In doing so, the new creative staff bulldozes through anything else that’s ever tried to have a similar cast. We first meet Tomomi “Pets” Hetada, who seems sick of her uncool family if not the whole world, with most of that emotion coming through great character animation and voice acting. The next friend, the decidedly anti-moe, heavyset Hijiri Yajima, is seen desperately trying to get her street shoes into the locker at school without putting down an arm full of junk food (Dr. Pepper getting a dash of product placement here.) While we can maybe nitpick the approach to her characterization, having a core character in a slice-of-life quartet that isn’t traditionally attractive is more subversive than perhaps it should be, and only increases the feeling of capturing something much more authentic in its setting than any of its genre contemporaries. Lastly, we’re introduced to Man “Mossan” Motoyama, the final member of this core group, and an aspiring model, whose print success is very realistically undercut by the fact that the magazine only has a run of 50 copies, a very Japanese dig at micropress magazines and imagined celebrity, and one that’ll probably be more timeless than an “Instagram followers” joke attempting to make the same point. All in all, before we even leave the lockers at the front of the school, these characters are real and grounded, which is an essential move for the fantastical events to come and an interesting contrast with the original show. Naota and his friends were all somewhat exaggeratedly screwy from the start, but Kana and her friends are much more plausible, and I can’t just chalk that up to the original cast being in grade school instead of high school.

FLCL AlternativeIn fact, as they are all 17 heading towards adulthood, the next scene continues to sweetly build up the friendships in play while still striking new ground, as Kana is gleefully ribbed by her friends for her crush on Sasaki, the dork who is the team manager for the high school’s straight up terrible basketball team. Yes, Naota’s friends razzed him about his band-age and the hickeys from his brother’s girlfriend, but while the original FLCL was casually being goofy about an objectively messed up and not normal situation, FLCL Alternative finds the more interesting flip for a slice-of-life anime genre is friends jabbing friends over a crush like they do in real life. This is something that’s actually often missing in a genre that’s often more focused on implying purity at all cost to satiate otaku neuroses. The core cast of young women in FLCL Alternative aren’t otaku fodder in that way; perhaps sadly, to many otaku that’s just as transgressive as the openly messed up stuff in the original FLCL was almost two decades ago. The creative staff deserve a lot of credit for finding a new arrangement for a similar message and tone already, and we’re not even 4 minutes in.

By four minutes, we’ve rapidly seen some character defining lunch choices for our lead cast, and we start to see in detail how Kana contrasts with Naota while achieving a similar conflict. Naota was obsessed with trying to grow up too fast, trying to act mature and ending up seeming vastly more childish than if he’d just embraced being a kid. In contrast, Kana’s goals for the future are so ill-defined she just wishes a magical cat would give her a wand a la Sailor Moon. It’s a very subtle reinforcement of what holding on to her broken iPhone and worn out shoes means, and it’s a similar kind of arrested development. In a different way and for different reasons, both want to let things stay as they are even if it’s not right: Naota in prematurely ending his childhood, and Kana in retaining her own too long.

We cut to Kana working in a ramen shop when a suspiciously familiar looking fellow (clearly with the same organization that was on Haruko’s case the last time), who dumps a whole shaker of shichimi (seven spice pepper) over his ramen. Rather than do the smart thing and take up Kana’s offer another bowl, he chugs the spicy mess down and nearly chokes to death. Again, he kind of reminds me of Naota, who at the end of his show, chugged down a soda that he didn’t like taste of, even after it had been made clear he didn’t like strong flavors. Of course, who should walk in but Haruko, making a ridiculously in-character and over-detailed ramen order while also sowing further doubt in the mind of Kana regarding her future. It’s a decidedly more gentle entrance that Haruko’s original introduction, yet it’s fitting. It’s as if Haruko’s just learned enough about human culture to not draw attention to herself and drive people up the wall from the start. I’ll be curious to see how much of that is lessons learned from the second season vs. just what she learned from tormenting everyone in the first series.

FLCL AlternativeLater, we see some lazy hanging out by our core cast and Kana where she’s lost in thought trying to work out what Haruko must have meant by “seventeen won’t wait.” Meanwhile, the others goof around eating snacks, reading magazines and playing jenga. Oh, and “never knows best” is written on a jenga block Kana’s gazing at, and it looks like Pets is smoking (she’s not, it’s a lollipop, but you have to freeze frame it to work that out). Again, the callbacks are being contrasted with the new setting and information. It’s worth noting now that Mamimi Samejima from the original FLCL was the same age as these girls, so the contrast here can’t be an accident. Perhaps it’s too early to say anything about that though other than people don’t have to be as mixed up and downtrodden as Mamimi to not know what they’re going to do with their life. That conflict of how to move forward between the left and right brain, which in the FLCL mythos is where N/O gateway that summons objects comes from, can happen even to the relatively privileged Kana too. Ennui for everyone!

So, what to do when you’re a bunch of aimless teens? Build a water rocket out of empty soda bottles, of course! (Well, not actually of course, but why not? It’s an iyashikei show.) What started as Hijiri trying to have fun with all her Dr. Pepper empties becomes a truly lovely little slice-of-life project that eventually acts as an excuse to show them all running around their town. However, before that montage we get a truly FLCL moment of using the medium of animation to have all sort of kind of cartoony cuts while Hijiri explains her rocket to the rest of the crew. All of the panels gradually crowd Hijiri out of her own explanation until she gets sick of the rest of the cast and bursts through all of all of the frames. It’s a cleverly keyed down, but genre-appropriate version of the manga scene from the original series. Further still, they even get a quick Gendo pose in for Hijiri, and perhaps nothing is more tonally on point for FLCL than making an Eva joke. We also see they’re being carefully monitored by Haruko, who herself was apparently tailed by the man in black from the ramen shop.

As our leads complete their rocket, they realize even though they’ve built something that’s a good 3 or 4 meters high with four engines (one for each person in the clique?), it’s pretty darn dull looking, so it’s time for a trip into town for decorations. It’s here that they capture so much of what these smaller cities and towns have culturally that isn’t the stereotypical UNESCO heritage site stuff, but rather the real day to day lives of people in these towns. We follow them as they’re getting stickers for the rocket at a “Dadiso” dollar store, and finding other necessities in the local shopping district and other smaller businesses. Meanwhile, the clique explicitly avoids the monolithic and soulless mega-department store mentioned earlier, leaving that mystery for later. Still, this montage is a great way of further weaving the FLCL world into a Japan that many slice of life series largely fail to capture. Honestly, the original series also captured this Japan quite adeptly.

FLCL AlternativeAlas, after a sweet little montage of getting their rocket all perfectly decorated, it’s time for what FLCL does best – a a borderline-non-sequitur excuse for fighting a weird, grotesque robot using a classic electric guitar. A giant push pin drops from the sky, crashing through the top of the school club room where our heroines had just finished their rocket, destroying it and unleashing some kind of hideous mech from a nearby crossing guard statue. Before it can kill the clique, Haruko bursts through the window like an action hero, kicking open the N/O channel in Kana’s skull. Shortly after being revived clumsily by her friends, a flower blooms from Kana’s forehead (I see you IG, nice switch up here with your visual metaphors from the phallic to the yonic this time). Haruko attempts to go hand-to-hand with the violent mech to no avail, and so finally makes her proper, unquestionably super-sentai-like introduction to the clique, then brutally yanks the flower from Kana’s head. Out pops a guitar favored by such 90’s rock luminaries as John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and the late Kurt Cobain of Nirvana: the Fender Mustang, in cherry red. A few excellently Gunbuster-like moves later, and the robot is no more, as well as no small part of the neighborhood. Kana, even after all this spectacle and miracle, is more focused on the remains of the rocket that just blew back from the explosion. Before she can cry, Haruko saves the day in the way that matters more than blowing up a malicious robot – she gives them a little perspective and pep talk, telling the girls to build the rocket again.

After a little more exposition to build the setting mostly for those not familiar with the original show, we see the clique at the beach with their newly rebuilt rocket. While the launch doesn’t pan out, we get a dose of denouement I feel is usually reserved for the finale of a slice-of-life show, which is another gutsy, one of a kind move. Kana’s come away perhaps learning a little more than Naota did his first episode. She already realizes a little that seventeen is something she needs to make the most of, though she’s still undeniably childish. From there, it’s credits, and while I don’t think they’ve picked as iconic a piece from the Pillows’ now rather large back-catalog, it fits the tone of the show well. It also leaves me really curious to see where they’re going to take all of these threads going forward. It remains to be seen if this is mostly Kana’s story just like the original was mostly Naota’s story, or if we’ll see her friends more involved in the sci-fi antics as well. It also remains to be seen if Haruko’s actually learned to tone it down, or whether we’re just a taking a breather from her hyper-referential genre-skipping. In fact, Atomsk and Medical Mechanica have only been very vaguely, abstractly hinted at. There’s a lot for the next five episodes to cover, let alone the six that we skipped!

However, already I get a solid sense of why this is going to work just like the original did. By the end of this episode, it’s clear that FLCL‘s all killer/no filler approach can work for any story and genre that can be told on Earth, involve Haruko and speak to that fragile age where people and towns decide their future. The original FLCL managed to take what had become the standard, depressed-young-man-coming-of-age story and exaggerate it and compact into 6 fantastic episodes, while FLCL Alternative looks to take everything a slice-of-life could hope to accomplish, inject FLCL’s monster-of-the-week-meets-layered-metaphors formula, and compact that all that into 6 fantastic episodes. We now have an inkling not only how FLCL Progressive may work, but how Production IG and Adult Swim could do more FLCL forever: take great, young artists and let them do everything a genre could hope to achieve in 6 episodes while using the limitless yet distinct world and message of this show. Really, I can’t just wait to see what else these two series hold for us, but also what it may hold for us again in another 10 or 20 years. Frankly, this is something I’d never have in my wildest dreams thought possible with FLCL. If that doesn’t speak volumes about what this one episode achieved, nothing does.