SciFi Japan

    FLCL: An Appreciation

    Atomsk, the most powerful space pirate in the universe, emerges in the GAINAX anime series FLCL. © 1999 Gainax/KGI

    Author: Elliot Gay Official Site: (US), (Japan)

    Mamimi clings to Naoto despite his pleas for her to stop. © 1999 Gainax/KGI

    High school was a strange time in my life. We were only a few years into the new millennium and like all teenagers I was struggling to figure out who I was. One look at my journal entries from that period of time tells you all you need to know about the kind of person Elliot Gay used to be. Through my years as a freshman and sophomore, I was one of the kids who had to have the latest Michael Jordan sneakers, wore chains around his neck and spoke less than correct English. Underneath all of that though, I was a film and anime lover who wanted to be a writer. Yet for some reason I refused to hold my head up and be honest with myself or the people around me about it. Everything was a front. I don`t think that FLCL could have come into my life at a more appropriate time. One of studio GAINAX`s most famous projects, FLCL (????, Furi Kuri, 2000) was a six episode OVA series that at first made absolutely no sense to me. I couldn`t for the life of me figure out what this show was trying to be. What I did know was that it had an unexplainable pull on me. Something about the characters, their interactions and even the breakneck pace of it all drew me toward it in a way I hadn`t experienced with any animated production. I was looking at each episode, each scene and shot in a way that was new to me. It`s no exaggeration to say that my encounter with FLCL at the age of 15 served as a springboard into becoming who I am today in many ways. This is not a review. This is also not a preview. This is a personal look back at what I feel to be one of the greatest anime of all time, and something anyone with a passion for any visual medium needs to watch.

    The strange robot Canti emerges from Naoto`s forehead for the first time. © 1999 Gainax/KGI

    First however, I want to tell you all a little story; the story of how I found FLCL in the first place. You see in 2003, while the Internet had really come into its own, it still was a ways a way from becoming what it is now. Hell, I didn`t even have high speed Internet at the time. As it goes, 15 was a turbulent age for me, as I experienced my first real breakup. For any young person this is a kind of momentous event in life. I was hurting, and so for a day my mother took me to NYC to shop and try to get things off my mind. While in China Town, we went to my favorite little import shop, and I saw that it had FLCL all on one disc and subtitled for cheap (in retrospect, obviously a bootleg). I had vague familiarity with GAINAX through NEON GENESIS EVANGELION, and so I bought it expecting something similar. After I got home that day, I popped the disc in and pressed play; 30 minutes later I had no idea what I had just watched. All I knew was that I had to continue to the next episode, You see at its core, FLCL is a coming of age story. It`s about a boy learning what it means to have adult relationships with others and how to be an adult in general. I really don`t think I understood that at the time; at least not consciously. Yet despite that, I still felt a connection to the main character Naota. I felt I could relate to the way he and his female friends interacted and his inability to express how he felt about them. In particular, his relationship with Mamimi hit home for me; in high school I had an upperclassmen friend who treated me very similarly. I think, even if unconsciously, I projected myself onto Naota; his emotional ups and downs and struggles to be `free` in the sense that crazy space pirate Haruko is. Yet we`ve seen coming of age stories hundreds of times in anime and film. Animation, unlike film, has the power to create literally any world you can imagine. If the show didn`t take advantage of that, then why even animate it to begin with? Director Kazuya Tsurumaki, who had served as an assistant director on the original NEON GENESIS EVANGELION TV series, brought a frenetic and unprecedented original flair to FLCL. In fact, much of his style would be seen in his next OVA series, DIEBUSTER. GAINAX`s outstandingly creative animation work on FLCL is something that remains unsurpassed to me, even today. Their recent show PANTY & STOCKING WITH GARTERBELT comes close, but on the whole the series isn`t nearly as consistent in its presentation as FLCL was.

    Agent Amarao, SOUTH PARK style. FLCL never sticks to just one type of animation. © 1999 Gainax/KGI

    GAINAX decided that rather than utilizing a single recognizable visual style throughout all six episodes, it would be a bit more experimental. I don’t think anyone will ever forget the first time in episode 1, when the style shifts to that of an actual comic book, with individual frames and speech bubbles. There’s no movement or actual animation, but I don’t believe for a second this was due to budget issues. It’s an electrifyingly fast paced sequence that is hard to keep up with, but ultimately very surprising and fun. There are also sequences that made use of 3D graphics, such as the shots that move 360 degrees around characters reminiscent of THE MATRIX. Unlike many shows even today, the layers of 2D animation they put over the 3D helped it to age gracefully. The series also wasn’t afraid to parody or reference other TV series. Knowledgeable fans will pick out references to shows like LUPIN THE 3RD and even SOUTH PARK; nothing is off limits here and that’s what makes FLCL so exciting to watch. This was the first time I had ever thought about shot choice, or how many animated frames were used in a sequence. It showed me just how gorgeous Japanese animation could be at its best. Looking back on it as someone who’s watched a lot of film and animation, I can honestly say that FLCL holds up better than almost every other OVA or animated TV series from that period of time.

    Ninamori, Naoto`s classmate, makes things awkward for him when she sleeps over his house. © 1999 Gainax/KGI

    If there was one element, beyond all else in FLCL that stuck with me over the past 8 years, it was the unbelievable soundtrack by The Pillows. A band that never seemed to hit mainstream popularity, The Pillows supplied all of the vocal tracks in FLCL as well as a great deal of the non vocal tracks as well. I don`t think there`s anyone who watched FLCL back in the day that doesn`t remember the first time they heard the ending theme, `Ride on Shooting Star`. Addictive, strange, memorable and something new, that single song perfectly represents what FLCL was and is as a whole; a fresh experience. It`s kind of funny really. Before FLCL, no anime fan in the states knew who The Pillows were. Looking at things now presents a very different picture. A few years ago at the Anime Boston convention, The Pillows were guests of honor. They played a concert, and low and behold, the entire main hall was filled with fans. It was absolutely electrifying. In many ways, I owe my taste in Japanese music to FLCL and The Pillows. Their unique sound and their strange magical realism-esque lyrics have become a new standard by which I judge other Japanese music (check out School Food Punishment for a really unique, fun sound). Really, I could probably write a thesis (and very nearly did) on why FLCL is important to me and the rest of the animation world. As fun as that would likely be, I’d rather be a little bit more concise about my thoughts. FLCL is a series that had a deep and long lasting effect on me. The exciting visual style, amazing music and relatable coming of age story are things that have aged with such grace that it’s hard to believe that so many years have already gone by. Many shows have come to air, reminding me of that initial sense of bewilderment and awe I had back when I was 15. But at the end of the day, that’s all they are: reminders. There’s only one FLCL, and if you’re a fan of animation that has somehow NOT seen this OVA series yet, you’re missing out. FLCL is available for cheap on iTunes, and is also available on DVD and Blu-ray thanks to the great folks at FUNimation. Go pick it up now, and let it remind you that the world of animation is truly a magical place.

    Haruko Haru Haru; just what mysteries does this strange woman hold? © 1999 Gainax/KGI

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