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FLCL – Yōji Enokido, Kazuya Tsurumaki, Gainax, Production I.G, etc.

21 Dec

Gozu

Nationality: Japan

Year: 2000-2001

Quite possibly one of the weirdest, cleverest trips ever created by the mind of humanity

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  • A GREAT way to check out the mental state and consciousness of your friends. If they like it they win a love bite, a punch in the head and a bitter lemon drink.
  • A deranging plunge through the most surreal of Japanese pop culture
  • A startlingly beautiful and poignant coming of age fable
  • The richest tapestry of visual absurdism ever set to screen
  • A three hour rock and roll opera
  • Crackpot Sci-Fi dream after bad dope and too much of friends playing annoying music at you
  • Advanced philosophical subject material for those who want to try on a different culture and a different brain
  • Political statement against the manufacturers of steam irons
  • A love story you PRAY never happens to you – or perhaps one you dedicate your life to yearning for
  • A kids story that the kids might just be able to explain to us – but we would never let them watch it anyway

An enigma certainly, and a unique and extraordinary one.

That’s Furi Kuri – no, I mean fooli kooli – or is that fura kura?  Well, leaving aside transliteration problems and translator’s dirty jokes (just don’t ask!), lets just call it FLCL like everyone else!!!  The unclassifiable and ungenrable 6-part animation series where insanity comes like a clout round the head from a chainsaw-driven electric guitar and which defies any nice comfortable pigeonholing, passing through most of the different anime styles there are from apocalyptic sci-fi to bunny girl, and even to South Park.  FLCL is a predatory beast that takes everything for its own and yet transcends everything in its strange intellectual riddles and pop-culture mayhem.  At the end, it steps back, looks at you with glittering eyes and says “What am I?”  And you lie there like a defeated masochist and whimper “I don’t know.”

And she shrugs and turns away, pink hair blowing in the wind, grins a crooked grin and says “Well nah!  You’re just a kid.”

And you know what happens then?  Most insanity simply passes as an enjoyable trip that you take and appreciate and then let go.  But, when you have had a stiff drink and begun to recover, FLCL lingers.  It lingers because of that sense of all sorts of intellectual layers and riddles lurking below the surface and just out of reach.  That sense that if you cut through the madcap kids show fun and begin to unravel the deeper places, just about anything becomes possible.  And it forces you start asking questions in the back of the mind about what has just happened.  What is it about?  What does it mean?  Does it mean anything?  Is there even a story in this?  If so, then what is it?

And WHY the giant steam iron?

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Father:  Aaargh!  Fooly…?  Cooly…?

Haruko:  Fooly Cooly!!

Father:  Naota!  It’s time to lay it on the line…  What does Fooly Cooly mean!?!

Naota:  I don’t know!

Father:  Come on!  You’re the main character… the main character always knows stuff like that!

Allow me to present the young boy named Naota – a long-suffering and very ordinary lad.  He is an everyman – or should that be everyboy?  He is so very ordinary; a bit bad tempered, going to school and messing around through life, trying not to get too fed up with his well-meaning but rather air-headed father.  Like most everyboys, there is a part of him that desperately wants to be mature and sensible but there is another part of him that is very scared about being dragged into the mess of growing up and adolescence.  But dragged he will be – kicking and screaming.  The creators have a few other characters lined up you see, who will take good care of that.  Who will see that he goes through all the messes of growing up in ways that no one should have to go through.

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Firstly, allow me to present the troublesome and haunting girl called Mamimi – herself one of the stranger characters in anime, and definitely somewhat different to the usual ‘kids’ show’ material.  For one thing, she seems to be trying to turn Naota into a surrogate boyfriend after his brother abandoned her to move to America – even trying to call him by his brother’s name. Not a good thing to do to a young boy, though Naota is carefully letting the emotional complexities slide over his head – or trying to anyway.  She is a girl of huge contradictions – psychologically complex and hard to define.  Certainly she is a deeply troubled and bitterly miserable person and the only other things she seems to be passionate about are photography and fire and she is always taking photos as even the most outrageous things happen with all the dedication and virtuosity of a paparazzi.

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We are now about 30 seconds into the anime.

And then of course, someone else appears on the scene and makes everything far stranger.  It is a shame that animated characters cannot receive awards for best acting, because this extraordinary figure certainly deserves one.  Ladies and gentleman, may I introduce the show-stealer and the undisputed star of FLCL . . . Miss Haruka Haruhara.  Yes, that’s her with the pink hair, the huge ‘guitar’ thing and the yellow vesper motorbike – and no, she isn’t from this planet . . .  But then – as any adolescent boy knows, very few girls ARE from this planet.

Haruko has become one of the great icons of Japanese culture.  The image of her sitting on her little yellow Vesper in goggles and red jacket has become one of the great images of j-pop.  Girls dress up as her at anime conventions and run around waving guitars.  Fan art of her proliferates on the internet and if you search hard enough I am told you can even find badly drawn porn dojins – but I wouldn’t know about that now, would I!  And best of all, little figures of her are available in Japanese vending machines. I even have one of those myself, standing on my mantelpiece, one of my very few concessions to otaku culture. I got it from America, which imported it from Japan – so for a bit of cheap plastic, it is pretty far travelled!  It’s probably travelled further than I ever will in my entire life!  But let’s face it – the role she is to play and the performance she is about to put on certainly justifies all that.  More so than most characters who become figurines – or dubious dojins – or hyperactive cosplayers.

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For Naota, the phrase ‘worst nightmare’ is possibly appropriate here.  Nothing could prepare our unfortunate protagonist for the onslaught that is coming.  Within moments of finding him, she has run him over with her motorbike, performed mouth to mouth resuscitation, bashed him over the head with her guitar, woken him up a second time, then driven off in an exchange of insults.  Leaving Naota understandably shell-shocked and injured.  And quite possibly the audience as well.  Then she invades the hospital where he is trying to sort out his – rather weird – injury.  Then when he gets home again, he finds her already installed and employed as a ‘housekeeper’.  When he refuses to let her sleep in his absent brother’s bed she promptly tries to climb in with him.  Yes – he’s never seen her before, but poor Naota now has another lunatic woman trying to invade his life, and this one is old enough to be an adult.  It is no wonder that he is getting more and more confused and fed up.  She seems playful and teasing – yet the sex and flirtation metres are flickering quite high into the red zone in this story – but why?  What does she really want?  She follows him everywhere like a nightmarish older sister.  She turns up at his school.  She even cooks him (rather dangerous) curry.

Why all this should be is a very complex plot element that is not really explained until near the end of the second or third viewing.  And the same goes for the other odd questions – such as why is there a factory shaped like a giant steam iron looming over the city?  And what connection does Haruko have with THAT?  And why is Naota’s wound growing into a rather alarming (and embarrassing) horn?  And what does it mean when that horn finally climbs out of his head in the form of a large robot with a tv face, which Haruko cheerfully attacks in a glorious Japanese style scrap, giving it some sort of electronic concussion, after which it ends up coming home and helping with the housework . . .

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This is the end of the first episode.

I could go on.  It fits the definition of a plot I think.  But it is an open question what percentage of the overall effect of FLCL is owed to the ‘plot’ it has, rather than to the stylistic and psychological elements that fire that plot at you in such an unforgettable manner.  Indeed, the plot is so abstruse and hard to extract that the first time through you are hardly aware of it beyond the bare bones.  This is partly because of the series’ very Japanese tendency to leave things to be deduced or revealing major plot elements through only a couple of split second, inconclusive references.  In the end, the realisation dawns that nothing – and believe me when I say NOTHING, not one second of imagery, is gratuitous or random.  Instead, practically every scene contains some little clue or clues to what the hell is going on, story-wise and interaction-wise and psychology-wise.  This extremely complicated and challenging storytelling style is one of the things that really sorts out the viewers, carelessly kicking out those who cannot cope with this high-speed jigsaw (I have known some people end up holding their head and giving up after just 30 seconds or so of this!) and at the same time roping in ever more tightly those who are intrigued by it.

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When is Pop Art Not Pop Art?  When it is in a Gallery?  Or when it is still just ‘pop’?

The feeling you get when confronted with the style of FLCL is of an old wall that has been plastered with hundreds of different posters.  Posters crammed on top of posters, fragments of posters, muddled areas where all is confusion – a myriad different styles thrown together in a heap.  Satire and parody form a major element here that cannot be overlooked.  The animation style shamelessly robs and parodies the classic Japanese anime clichés and themes to the extent that the series feels almost like a collage.  If you know the anime world, every scene of the series feels somehow familiar.  Styles are taken to match the plot elements and the plot elements are chosen to match the styles in a give and take system that ensures that you never know what is going to come at you next but always kind of recognise it when it does.

Overall though, the style still leaves you with the impression of some crazy and very funny kid’s anime more than anything.  That is the dichotomy that is at the heart of FLCL – the mixture of the profound and the banal – or rather, I should say, the use of the banal and the comical to tell something that goes far beyond that.  This satire is comfortable and affectionate – as if an affection for all the silly wonderful nonsense that anime can produce has been blended together and the real, genuine beating heart of it all has been discovered in the process.  So yes there is fanservice in all its silly glory.  Knickers are flashed and camera angles leer.  There are dumb robots battling around and crazy, you might even say stupid action sequences and pretty girls behind big (and I mean BIG) guns.  But it is not with a tolerant sigh but with a rousing cheer. And the underlying surrealism of the piece manages to take us beyond that and into areas that seem far removed from itthat have the power to enthral and actually move us – but without changing or alienating the fundamental feel of it.

It is somehow characteristic of Japanese animation that a crazy gem like this could be lurking there – not among the gallery culture and the intellectual, but right down there on the street as it were.  There is a touching kind of equality in this whole world of Japanese animation.  It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is and it has no interest in being elite or rarefied.  It doesn’t think to itself, as we often do in the west, that pop creations must be dumbed down and hyper-simplistic and that extremely powerful and strong emotions, ideas and meanings can only be served to an arty elite.  It is that unique sense of comfort and freedom that allowed FLCL to come so unselfconsciously into being and to sit among its siblings without making any excuses for itself or any attempt to hide/justify/sugarcoat what it is.

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And yes, that really is animated manga panals in the section screencapped above!

Nurse: Hmm.  FLictonic CLipple Waver Syndrome.

Naota:  Uh…  Fooly… Cooly?

Nurse:  An Adolescent Psychological Skin-Hardening Syndrome; it’s a common disease where children grow horns from trying too hard.

Naota:  That’s a lie!  I’ve never heard that before!

Nurse:  Yeah, I lied, (suddenly revealing herself as Haruko) so what is the truth…  underneath the bandage??!

However, the extraordinary artistic style is still just a gloss on top of the more fundamental issue of what the show is about.  This distinguishes it from other ‘parody’ anime, such as the brilliant Excel Saga, because FLCL has so much more going on.  I have already spoken of how unexpectedly haunting this work can be, and it is no surprise to realise that the main thread of FLCL is actually a very simple one.  Adolescence.  Beyond everything else that its creators chose to throw at it, FLCL is indeed a coming of age story – and all the surreal and frenetic content can be looked on as psychological outgrowths of this.  At heart, it is such a simple tale.  A young boy’s increasing awareness of the emotional tanglings of life.  Naota is trying to cling onto his childhood with its carefree nature, but these two female characters are unstoppably dragging him into a scary world of adulthood.

A scary world of sex and love in fact.

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I think it is fair to say that the adolescent coming of age elements are not just another chaotic ingredient in this stew.  They are the reason, fuel and inspiration for everything.  For all the crazy goings on and improbable absurdist pop art.  After all, when you are a kid you see the world with a much greater imagination than you do when you are an adult – and more than that, with a very different imagination.  Then there comes a time when the carefree play of childhood and the increasing awareness of adulthood actually overlap.  When kids games suddenly become infused with something weirder – with an undertone of sex and maturity.  Perhaps FLCL seeks to tell this very simple story through the eyes of just that moment of transition – still filled with all the childishness of cartoons and videogames – of child’s play and iconic characters.  A certain filter has been placed over reality – the filter of the child’s mind and this is a portrait of the imagination and symbolism and fear that it generates.  It is as though all the wildness of life in the head at that dizzying moment of overlap has been somehow made ‘real’ here in this imaginary world of cartoon.  Just take a look at the war games scenes for instance, where Naota and his father face off with terrifyingly adult undercurrents of jealousy and simmering sexuality just beneath the surface.  Or the sports that Naota despises so much and the results of that.  Or the wound to his head that erupts so surreally.  What is that terror you feel when your body does something you don’t expect?  And when in your life do you feel that worst?  When everything is changing and you don’t quite know what is happening but it must be something bad because nobody quite talks about it or if they do you can read the reluctance in their eyes?  Most definitely there is something not right with that wound.

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Of course, sex and love are the real monsters lurking behind all this madness.  Is Haruko really screwing Naota’s father?  Could it be possible?  What terrible terrible TERRIBLE things are they doing together?  It is all too much for a young lad.  The scene with the fried eggs, the beard massage, the late night whispers . . . But in spite of that, Haruko still will not leave Naota alone – and things go from bad to worse when father discovers them in a compromising position (more accurately, Naota being harassed) – in one of the most startling scenes of the entire show, he, the father, challenges his shocked son to a dual to the death with pistols (much to Haruko’s delight). However, it doesn’t really come to anything because he cannot resist trying to get seductive with her in the process – so she lays him out with a boxing glove on a spring that fires from between her legs . . . yep!  This is a kids show alright.

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As a view of adolescence and ‘coming of age’ (whatever that means!), FLCL is an intriguing view by any standards.  It is perhaps easy to tell about such a subject from without – in an adult’s terms with an adult’s awareness – but to get right into that half-child half-adult mindset in such an extraordinary way is a remarkable feat.  In fact you could call it one of the most remarkable tales of sexual awakening out there, and only the more unexpected maybe for its cartoon show format.  Or maybe that’s complete nonsense.  Maybe nothing but a Japanese anime (or manga) could possibly have pulled this off.  In a way and after all, it is not just FLCL that blurs the boundary between what is childish and what is adultish.  The whole area of anime manages to blur those boundaries to one degree or another (far more than western animation).  And perhaps this places it in the best position of any art form to explore that boundary between childhood and adulthood.

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Naota (Voice Over):  Nothing amazing happens here.  Everything is ordinary. We crossed the bridge as usual, and before we knew it, the seasons had changed.

To astonish, enthral and fascinate viewers, even perhaps against their will, and without them quite knowing why strikes me as a truly remarkable thing to achieve.

One of a kind? Yes.

Original? God, yes!

Comprehensible? I think so – if you let it.

Watch it? Go on – I dare you!  Everyone should experience this at least once – even if you don’t like it.  Because at least you have tried!  At least you attempted for a moment to match wits with this strange monster.  And remember – there’s a love bite, a punch in the head and a bitter lemon drink for you from someone, somewhere, if you like it.

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