“Familiarity can be a novelty” quoted in FLCL’s third and final season Alternative but not taken to heart by the new team helming the FLCL world.

FLCL (now referred to as FLCL Classics) was first released within Japan in 2000 and dropped on Adult Swim in 2003. It broke the mold for anime at the time incorporating modern Japanese rock (The Pillows), being styled after “a Japanese TV commercial or promotional video” and featuring a female antagonist reminiscent of the punk character Tank Girl. FLCL, with its insane symbolism and psychotic visualizations, is a hard anime to suggest even to fans of the genre. It’s at once irritating and beautiful, the story of an adolescent boy (Naota) beset by a woman from space (Haru) who’s arrived in his town to defeat the evil company Medical Mechanica in order to free and absorb Atomsk, the Pirate King.

I know. Straight up anime stuff. But it’s worth it. I first saw FLCL back in the day when I was dependent on finding anime based on whatever Adult Swim threw into their schedule, before torrenting was the same as changing the channel. Suggesting FLCL as an anime must-see is a lot like suggesting David Lynch. It’ll either annoy the hell out of you or you’ll find something in it that gets under your skin and stays with you forever. So imagine my excitement at the chance to see the second (Progressive) and third (Alternative) series produced ten years later.

Well. They made it.

The intention of FLCL, as I understand it, was never to be a straight story. In fact, the director of the original series Kazuya Tsurumaki was quoted “Comprehension should not be an important factor in FLCL”. What the viewing audience received was an empathetic music video with robots pulled from portals in foreheads, bass guitars as weapons, giant irons as “factories”, and a whole lot of sexual innuendo. This was about growing up and adolescence, after all.

As when any genre, anime has its tropes. “Tsundere”, a woman with a soft side who gives the male protagonist a real hard time because she likes him. Kids saving the day. Fragile female leads. Flashbacks before the big moment. Big tits. (lists compiled by fandom.com and cbr.com). It goes on. FLCL Classics took these tropes and spun them on their heads either by throwing them away entirely or using them sarcastically. Haru teases is anything but fragile and certainly never needs anyone she teases. Haru in Classics almost seems aware of the tropes, using them to manipulate the people around her to her benefit while Naota could save the world, but he’s absorbed in gaining Haru’s full attention. Of course, this is all interpretation because FLCL Classics is BAT SHIT.

In developing Progressive and Alternative there was a desire to not retread over the original, attempting to achieve this by bringing in a whole new team. Under new director Katsuyuki Motohiro and new writer Hideto Iwai, these next two installments slipped back into those old anime tropes. While these were new takes to FLCL, they were not fresh takes for the genre.

Progressive (spoilers)

FLCL Progressive | Image courtesy of IMDB

Set after the events of FLCL Classics, through a horror-tinged dream sequence we’re introduced to a new disaffected teenager. Hidomi. A girl being raised by her single mom and purposefully disengaged from the world, sporting a pair of kitty-eared headphones to hammer in this fact. But, as is the world of FLCL, Haru crash-lands in her life intent on awakening the portal in Hidomi (as she had done with Naota in Classics) on her quest to capture her elusive love Atomsk. In this entry we’re given another female space punk in Jinyu, driving into the series from the backseat of a 1955 Chevy Bel-Air, long white hair flowing and glam-rock sunglasses on point. Jinyu is our anti-Haru, attempting to thwart Haru’s attempts to provoke Hidomi emotionally (thus opening the portal in Hidomi’s head) and convince Haru to abandon her obsessive chase of Atomsk as “he doesn’t want you”.

It’s poignant really to be given this extra layer to Haru who, in Classics, seemed to take the escape of Atomsk pretty well. In Progressive, her desire to “absorb” him is more desperate and more concretely selfish. Haru wants what she wants and everyone else is either a tool to that goal or an impediment. She’s more brash here. Still dispensing advice “Stand up! Be as adequate as you can! A complete mess!” but louder and more frenetic.

And then they reveal Jinyu IS Haru, two halves split from the whole.

Sigh. Fine.

But here’s the issue. No one was asking for an explanation as to why Haru is who they are. Like Tank Girl, she just was. And like Tank Girl the movie, someone got their hands on this story and tried to make a multi-media collage into a dream board.

The story choice here did result in a beautiful final moment between Jinyu and Haru where Atomsk has not only rejected Haru again, but bonded with Jinyu seemingly because Jinyu desired to let Atomsk be free. Although, I’m not sure it was necessary to have the “nice” version of Haru in Jinyu to achieve that. Regardless, Progressive still has beautiful animated sequences with the jumps between the apocalyptic horror scape of Hidomi’s dreams to the smooth lo-fi scenes of everyday life. Hidomi’s dream sequences were jarring in that perfect way with muted tones of color to offset flesh falling off bodies and general oddness. And The Pillows are here again like an old memory from my high school days when I let Limewire do whatever it wanted to my laptop for one download of “Ride on Shooting Star”. As Progressive said “Sometimes sentimental value’s worth the most”.

But then came Alternative.

Alternative (spoilers)

FLCL Alternative | Image courtesy of IMDB

This entry felt like fan fiction. 

Most of the other reviews I found praised Alternative for its deviation from the “norm” of FLCL, particularly in focusing on Kana who, unlike Natoma and Hidomi, has a strong connection to her friends and is generally in a positive place acknowledging things change with growing up.

It was just so… precious. 

This entry was confusing even while being the straightest entry in the series. Kana and her three friends (Pets, Hijiri and Mossan) hang out, razz each other, just your normal kid stuff. The government is in a panic trying to work out elite space travel to Mars. Haru crashes into Kana. Portal stuff. Kana is having trouble with her friends. Haru works selling meat. Kana likes a boy but isn’t ready. Haru gets a bass. Medical Mechanica shows up.

Wait, what? Medical Mechanica’s been here since Classics?

Apparently, the Alternative was designed to be a prequel as stated in this now-deleted twitter post. There’s conflicting speculation on that (though it’s supported by the Irons appearing, the arrival of the army of Cantis’ in the final episode and Haru’s lack of yellow Vespa and Atomsk tracking bracelet) and possibly places FLCL Classic and Progressive on Mars… which ok I guess. That’s one way to break a mold. But why create a prequel to have a muted Haru as the last entry of FLCL? Why not, after establishing another layer to her obsessive chase of Atomsk, strip that away in favor of having her character be a wild lady from space? Why not build on the Progressive reveal of Haru’s split from Jinyu and her final moment of being rejected, again, after witnessing Atomsk’s bond with Jinyu?

It may have deviated from FLCL, but it sure as hell didn’t deviate from every middle road anime out there. These were stereotypical characterizations of females and female relationships. Subplots of dating and make-up took the place of the deeper adolescent concerns of Progressive and FLCL Classics. The tropes were there, fragile Kana, Haru’s tits, a memory flashback before powering up. Even the foursome itself was a paint-by-numbers of girl friend archetypes. The beautiful one (she’s a model!), the fat one (she loves snacks!), the serious one (her jacket’s zipped all the way up) and our relatable hero Kana the “awkward one” (she trips!). 

Maybe the attempt was to hit the audience with a hammer with anime tropes but instead, they succeeded at making a Toonami one-season series. It was honestly boring. For being the Alternative, there was no experimenting with form, no bold choices in innuendo, no bizarre (a weird robot doesn’t count with the bar set by FLCL). Just another anime with girls making kitty sounds, big ol’ robots and chibi expressions (god I hate chibi so much). It being the bookend of FLCL is startling. Gone was the subtext and the symbolism. Everything that was speculated on in the first two entries was explained, clearly explained, in the first ten minutes of the first episode. After that, what’s the point? 

Alternative does have beautiful scenes, hot pepper spreading in a soba bowl was mesmerizing, the story progression clean. And, of course, Kari Wahlgreen has killed it as the US dubbed voice actress for Haru for over ten years. It just wasn’t a fitting “beginning” to such transformative work.

But, that’s just my opinion. Anime is a hit or miss for most people and, as mentioned, FLCL is a hard property to suggest blindly. Decoding anime for US audiences, particularly in terms of translating culture, is tricky with most anime and a feat with absurdist experiments like FLCL. There are some out there who love the continuation of the series and they’re not wrong nor should my thoughts keep you from seeking out the entire series. But for me, it’ll always be FLCL Classics and Haru floating on her yellow Vespa, surrounded by devastation, as she wistfully says “I lost him again because of you, Ta-kun, we couldn’t pull it off. You wanna come along? Know what? Forget it. ‘Cause you’re still a kid, Ta-kun. Save it for next time.”

I still feel pretty grateful after a decade I was able to see the end of an anime that blew my mind when I was a kid.

“All beautiful things eventually fade away.” – FLCL Progressive

FLCL Progressive Alternative is now available to own as a Blu-ray combo pack.

CK Kimball
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