Dualities and Death Drives: A Very Verbose FLCL Progressive Analysis/Post-Mortem

Posted on July 25th, 2018

Filed under: Reviews — Karl Olson @ 2:04 AM

No trend in modern media can likely be said to be more hubristic, more self-serving than the conjoined twins of reboots and belated sequels. In an era where we constantly eschew truly new properties in favor of those that are at least hyper-referential to (if not fresh extensions of) things people had already grown up with, it can almost become frustrating to see the same patterns again and again, especially as the novelty of finally understanding media in some depth wears off. As a veteran media critic, it can feel like you’re left with nitpicking how cleverly a property wrapped the Campbellian Monomyth, or how neatly it fits into one of story circles so beloved of auteurs like Dan Harmon. This makes the few reboots and sequels that outrun just being a soft-retelling or fanservice-laden extension of their progenitor stories while also not losing what made them special, insanely compelling even when technically imperfect. This applies even more so when the original creatives aren’t intimately involved to lend a hand towards keeping the tone and energy. It’s that unusual achievement that brings me to FLCL Progressive, the first of two sequels/spin-offs that are born from FLCL, a high-watermark in anime.

The original FLCL, as visually and narratively creative as it’s delivery is, is a story predominantly guided by the character arc most beloved of the creatives at Gainax at that time – a young male’s coming of age with everyone else more an accessory to that journey rather than people on journeys of their own. This pattern, which was echoed in other Gainax works from that era, be that in the progenitor of countless modern tropes, Neon Genesis Evangelion or even just in the madcap parody show Abenobashi: Magical Shopping District, can easily be broken down by the typical critical tools for understanding. Yes, FLCL uses a lot of shorthand to cram an arc that normally more comfortably fits in at 13, ideally 26 episodes, into a mere 6, but at the end of the day, Naota is Shinji is Sasshi – they all have issues with their respective dad’s selfish behavior, they all fall into god-like power, they all have oedipal tones in their emotions and they ultimately they have to come terms with the nature of their immaturity and what maturity is when they are actually not yet adults. Oh, usually it’s largely motivated by their (romantic?) feelings for other people. In fairness, the coming-of-age story is a pattern so common in storytelling it has its own name – a Bildungsroman. However, Gainax’s mid-90s-to-early-00s takes on that pattern, no matter extravagant and novel, are ultimately male-lead and it always ends with the character learning something from the experience even in catastrophic failure. He always gets the girl in some way too, for better or worse.

This though, is the start of what may throw off many about FLCL Progressive regarding it’s supposed lack of quality according to some critics. Namely, not only does the new series specifically avoid some of the narrative conveniences of the original series that made it accessible – Hidomi’s narrative beats in an episode are rare unlike Naota’s, and the dream sequences that replaced them are abstract, discomfiting and visceral. More over, characters other than our lead often have as much or more agency than Hidomi. From that basis, it has a very different coming of age story about a very different person if not group of people with a pretty different set of circumstances to tell. Hidomi’s story is a new one for the FLCL universe, and furthermore, it’s not the only story being told this time.

Some of changes are mostly a consequence of specifically mirroring the circumstances of lead characters. Hidomi’s dad is absent, in contrast to Naota’s absentee mom. Hidomi’s mom is putting on a heavy facade of cheerfulness while Naota’s dad was authentically, perversely lost in his hobbies and otaku-referentiality. Similarly, while Naota ends up with the manipulative, hyper-active, predatory Haruko moving in in a very personal, threatening way, while Hidomi has the protective, almost zen-like Jinyu around in a largely undefined way. This mirroring even echos down into the classmates: if Ninamori was the clever, slightly machiavellian daughter of a local politician with all the privilege that suggests, Iide is the clumsy, hopelessly forthright boy of unknown parentage seemingly supporting himself in a recycling slum that feels more like it’d be in a special economic zone in China than in small town Japan. Naota’s other classmates are basically there to react to the situation, while Hidomi’s other friends are active participants with their own backstories and hang-ups. There are some similarities: both Hidomi and Naota are children who grew up in family run businesses – a decidedly middle-class, privileged upbringing that makes them each think nothing amazing happens where they are – but once you get past the mirrored parallels and direct carryovers, we’re not just in uncharted water for FLCL, but for most of Gainax’s peak work and it’s imitators.

For starters, Hidomi’s conflict in her coming of age is not Naota’s, and that’s not just because she’s a early teenage girl instead of a late-elementary school boy. Naota, if only because of his father’s overbearing honest immaturity (and honestly his brother’s cad-like immaturity in leaving Mamimi, his girlfriend, to act out her loneliness by praying on Naota while said brother dates blondes in America,) desperately wants to grow up and be the reliable man his male family members never have seemed to have been, at least from his childish perspective. Hidomi on the other hand, very specifically doesn’t want to be or exist in anyway because she was traumatized by her father’s unceremonious exit in childhood. She even states that she wishes that everything would end because it would maybe finally bring her dad back in episode 4, dramatically recontextualizing her prior dreams. She wants nothing – zero – because that’d be better with negative numbers she feels she has now. This blends in with her sexual coming of age, leaving her with hyper-violent, but also decidedly erotic dreams where it’s plain why the french use the term la petit mort – the little death – to describe orgasm. It’s a bit petulant to just say Hidomi lusts for death, but there’s also no denying that she found the brutality being laid on Iide in episode 2 to be a turn on, and she overflowed in the classical FLCL sense once Jinyu warned Hidomi she could die. If Naota is a naive boy struggling to be mature before he’s emotionally ready before his time due to his circumstances, Hidomi is a girl keenly aware and deeply afraid yet compelled of her burgeoning womanhood and the impact that her life’s circumstances has had on its expression in negative ways. Her actions are also in contrast to Naota – if Naota is often active even when unsure, thus tapping the “fight” part of “fight, flight or freeze”, Hidomi is often actively paralyzed, both by external forces, but then also by her own internalization of those forces as massive depression and ennui. Only when those forces start to be lifted does she start to act, and many of the actions she does take – accidental N/O vacuums that suck people/souls in for example, are specifically the kind of accidents you’d expect with her trauma. She doesn’t mean to be, at points, a literal soul-eater as she was in episode 5, and certainly not in the sense that Haruko actually is and has always strived to be. She’s subliminally just acting out due to prior trauma, and due to the drive it’s created in her, but that she can’t understand let alone process or come to terms with. Consequently, the denouement and lessons learned from by the respective leads are naturally going to be somewhat different. Both leave with a similar course of action – don’t try to be something you’re not yet at your given age, but while with Naota this means not rushing adulthood, for Hidomi, this means accepting that being a teen in her circumstances is embracing that she doesn’t have goals yet, not wishing to escape by any means available including death because her past was difficult. It’s okay to want nothing without that being it’s own stagnation, a true zero. There isn’t anything thing she wants to be (other than just running a cafe with her mom and dating Iide,) but that’s okay now that it’s no longer coated in self-destructive behavior. That’s very well adjusted for 14 actually, just as Naota, after all was said and done, had finally come around to a much more well-adjusted 12.

In more a refined sense, Hidomi overcomes her Drive by the Lacanian definition of that psychological concept. She recognizes that her pursuit of the Other (her absentee father and the past stability/status quo he represented) had become its own perverse goal and pleasure, and she rejects that for the negative, self-defeating, soul-warping force it had become in her life in her attempted suppression of that instinct. Very few shows as narratively extravagant as FLCL would say “to not want to be anything is the right thing for you right now”, but Progressive lands that message with evidence, at least in the case of teens with abandonment issues. She’s no longer seeking a masochistic end, nor a sadistic end, she’s genuinely just comfortably ready to face the unknown that comes with letting go of a broken past. For Hidomi, Progressive is a psychedelic, animated journey of actual self-care, and a bit of cognitive behavioral therapy as well. That she gets Ide back and clarifies things with her mom is almost just icing on that cake, but it’s also a necessary parallel to the original series – Hidomi gets her new normal as Naota did, and both are validated in their wants, just forced to realized that what they wanted and how they wanted it wasn’t what the true form of what they needed. Still, this kind of exploration is also mostly uncharted territory for FLCL and a lot of coming-of-age anime in general (though I do suspect Hidomi could get along rather well with Tina from Bob’s Burgers,) and it’s not meant to play to the same audiences by design. It’s not the semi-oedipal, purely Freudian journey of Naota (and Shinji, and Sasshi,) That doesn’t mean it’s not good though. In fact, part of why it’s good is that Progressive not only lands Hidomi’s narrative, but it manages to develop other themes in parallel.

Most significant of the other arcs is probably Haruko and Jinyu’s entire back and forth with Atomsk this time around, and how it also dives deep into the Lacanian sense of drive and the pursuit of jouissance – pleasure so extreme it’s painful. Jinyu specifically goes off in episode 3 and reiterates in the finale episode that she and Haruko find pleasure in seeking the unachievable goal of capturing Atomsk as much if not more so than actually catching him. Admitting to that fact is something Haruko won’t do because she’s become frozen in her ridiculously selfish and predatory ways as an adult (especially in contrast to the proactively protective behavior of Jinyu who has accepted the journey as the goal.) Haruko, in this sense, doesn’t learn anything really even after yet another town destroying disaster. She manages to temporarily swallow/suppress the part of her in Jinyu that had accepted Atomsk’s unattainable nature, but ultimately when she tries to eat Atomsk, it ends in failure. In those tears, we can see by the end she can’t accept the true nature of her drive and it’s goal, is not her pursuit of Atomsk, nay immortality itself, but is actually the pleasure that the relentless, impossible pursuit of Atomsk itself contains. She continues denying it and thus being controlled by it in destructive ways, both self and generally. Haruko’s own conflict again rends her in two yet again, and she ducks out immediately in denial of what’d just happened. This does set up that Haruko can only mature and literally become whole again once she is as accepting and as nurturing as Jinyu. To grow up at some point, Haruko must accept that the life she has is fine, and that she can’t ever contain a god. Until then for her, 17 can actually always wait (it’s not cheating to allude to FLCL Alternative, right?) This is a very different view of Haruko from the original series, where her predatory obsession is played more for laughs, titillation and to forward Naota’s character arc than as a story in it’s own right, and it’s a important break that grows the character while also maintaining her utility in future installments, especially since it’d feel weird for someone other than Kazuya Tsuramaki to close Haruko’s narrative arc, if she has an arc.

Paradoxically after all, she’s the closest to Atomsk both physically and mentally, and at her most god-like in the Roman/Greek sense as it stands right now: acting out, seemingly never aging with magical powers. She messes around, impregnating people and even sometimes herself with monsters in the pursuit of her own self-satisfaction. She might as well be Zeus, or at least Pan (I could certainly envision a modern Pan disguised as a teacher running adult films on a laptop in a junior high class in an attempt to summon a higher god,) and in that sense, you don’t ever have to close her arc off in terms of her narrative utility inside of any FLCL series. She’s a set piece where stories like Naota’s, Hidomi’s, Kana’s and many more can be unleashed against, as adolescence in FLCL is about finding your understanding of what is actually mature and accepting for you at that stage of your life, often in the face people who failed that miserably. It’s an approach with plenty of precedent in anime – as refined as Haruko’s backstory may get, she may ultimately be Maetel from Galaxy Express 999 in narrative function, and while Tetsuro (like Naota & Hidomi) eventually let go of their mistaken goals, Haruko can be eternal.

By the end of this series though, we at least see that Haruko was no more mature than Amarao in the original show, which is a stunning insight that maybe wasn’t obvious from the original show, but makes perfect sense in hindsight. She’s just as much of a garbage adult, maybe the worst garbage adult due to her effectively magical powers and complete disregard for the ensuring a natural, non-traumatized coming-of-age of anyone around her. However, as refrain goes: “the kids don’t need the master, and the kids don’t need the future.” Rejection of Haruko is a rejection of an adulthood purely driven by the pursuit of an unattainable, ultra-selfish jouissance they were headed to as well until they worked over their conflicts (if only by seeing ridiculously poorly Haruko acts,) and Progressive reveals that themes with fresh depth by not just letting Haruko play a trickster god after her own goals, but giving those goals a rather psychologically rich motivation that was basically absent the first time around.

However, Progressive doesn’t stop with just developing the leads – most of the secondary characters are well developed. For starters, there’s Iide, who initially seems like a cheeky way of recapping the original story of manic-pixie-space-psychopath meets tweenage boy off screen for new viewers, but quickly that expectation is subverted; Iide is not Naota. Naota is from a secure, middle class background, Iide appears to be only marginally better off than Samejima Mamimi from the original series. Also like Mamimi, we know Iide is a victim of bullying while he tries to get by in his illegal salvage job in the recycling slum. However, while Naota tried to hide his sexual escapades, being deeply ashamed about it until he got literally cocky about it, Iide instead is introduced on screen bragging about his tryst with Haruko to his classmates, though it was also a bit of a facade for the genuine and teenage-awkward feelings he harbored for Hidomi. Also, that’s another key distinction: Naota’s feelings for Ninamori aren’t that solid until the last episode in the last scene. Iide and Hidomi’s chemistry is obvious by the end of the first episode, and his feelings seem rather cemented by the end of the second.

Further still, by not being a Naota clone, we get an oddly more equitable set of events between Iide and Hidomi than Naota and any of his contemporaries in the show. Iide repeatedly tries to and then with the help of Canti successfully takes the initiative to free Hidomi from the headphones that have blocked out the world from her in the wake of her father’s exit. Iide’s destruction of those headphones of false hope her father gave her with the subsequent unleashing her evolved robot form can be said for both Iide and Hidomi to be both an abstract metaphor for losing one’s virginity, and in that, the acceptance that childhood can’t come back, can’t be reset to. In return though, Hidomi manages to save his life from Haruko’s violent antics repeatedly, and from being trapped in Canti with a classical Disney kiss with the roles reversed. There’s a well earned respect between the two by the end of the second episode, but the final, dialectical denouement feels so natural it almost escapes notice. Any question about whether it’s going to go somewhere for Iide and Hidomi is reinforced by the reappearance of the art gallery tickets, or rather more specifically, the art from those tickets in the closing scene. Iide is not a boy let down he didn’t get Haruko, he’s a young man who finally went on a date with his peer, his classmate, Hidomi. In this sense, of course Iide isn’t Naota – Progressive looks at young romance for the two-(plus)-sided, awkward group effort it actually is, not as the one-sided, stereotypical hero-narrative the original series followed. Sure, for all he’s done by the show’s finale, Iide’s still a bit awkward by the end of this all, but probably appropriately so for a teenager. He is comfortable with Hidomi, who he should be somewhat relaxed with, as they’re both teenagers who’ve been through insane, life-up-ending/life-saving situations repeatedly at ever grander scale. He shouldn’t be comfortable around the simultaneously more adult yet less grounded and predatory Haruko. A certain awkward fear stemming from her unpredictable behavior is warranted..

If Progressive just left off here, I think many people would be happy with that development, but we get 3 more interesting and interrelated arcs in Mori, Aiko and Marco. Mori manages to go from the series’ try-hard loser, desperately trying to stand out with oddball clothes, stuck paying for expensive compensated dates to impress the friends that unfairly question his masculinity, and having even that scheme come tragically unglued (a disaster similar to Ninamori’s failed ballot stuffing in the original series, only somehow way worse,) to actually being the only guy in town who can help out only other folks who can have an impact on this situation, Hidomi’s mom and Aiko. He’s not a demi-god mecha like Hidomi or Iide, and the extent to which he even won the day for himself is left to a split second shot at the end of the episode, but he sits there as an example that even someone who’s coded as a social outcast may be the one of the links in the chain to saving the day. Similarly, Aiko, who we see having enigmatic goals of saving lots of money via her compensated dating which only get context for in a last second info dump (admittedly clumsy but better than nothing,) also ends up being the real key to subduing Medical Mechanica’s erect, “mochi”-splurting iron, and for that sacrifice, actually gets her freedom and rebirth. It’s kind of a deus-ex, but what isn’t in FLCL, and besides it’s another instance of the children in that world cleaning up the mistakes the adults there literally can’t. Similarly, the kind-hearted Marco, who accidently unraveled Mori’s deception, is himself unsuccessfully exploited by the amusement park/military industrial complex in a failed defense of the city while he was only looking for a part time job to buy a necklace for (the then manic) Hidomi. His story is another a reasonably brisk yet subtle commentary on how personal dreams are exploited by others for their own desires (oh, and that parallels with everything Haruko does.) Both Marco and Aiko, by actually participating in the big events of the finale get to have contributed some new commentary of their own, as both are basically child soldiers being exploited by shadowy adults, and Progressive uses them to underline a point the original really didn’t touch on (Iide’s brutal employ in the recycling slums also echoes this,) by really leaning on how wrong their treatment is, while also using them to build on the themes of Drive and the pursuit of the impossible and how that is exploited by shrewd elders. Only the adults think they forever stop Medical Mechanica rather than just pausing them by intermittently sacrificing the children to it, and the children that see that for what it is, and are mature in a way Haruko isn’t.

The setting itself also manages to weave a more complex, weirder Japan than the original series which thrived on a setting that was only made weird by the machinations of Haruko, Medical Mechanica and Interstellar Immigration, but that otherwise really was a pitch-perfect small-town Japan, down to the beat up mini-trucks, ubiquitous vending machines and small home businesses. No, Progressive throws a curve ball by subverting those expectations no later than episode 2. The rundown amusement park teased in the first episode is a common enough sight in Japan since the 1990’s recession that Spirited Away skewered it as the setup to the film, but here it’s slowly goes from a silly reference to the actual silly novelties Japanese amusement parks do to stay afloat, to some kind N/O gathering nightmare weapon that’s fueled by pairing off people and using their teenage love angst to drive that weapon (though, kudos to IG for keeping it progressive with the diversity of those couples, unlike a certain other show with couples driving weapons.) That alone has some interestingly They Live-like subtones. Interstellar Immigration’s violent, manipulative harvest of teen romance in the service of protecting a dying society’s status quo against alien forces just screams totalitarianism and fascism, once you get past that it’s such an abstract way of even positing that idea. However, what feels random initially holds up well under that lens, and it’s congruent with the general “question all authority” tone that FLCL often embodies, especially since all of the clever but manipulative plans of the adults in Progressive (just as in the original series) are upended by the youth taking the future into their own hands.

Further upending the vanilla small town Japan of the original series are the ruins of what appear to be many Medical Mechanica factories, the decidedly run down train station at the beach and the recycling slum Iide works in. All of these hint at a Japan that’s gone though some kind intense conflict in the 20-30+ years that are implied to have past since the original show given Masurao’s parentage. In a way, some of this is just being topical – while you’ll never see a salvage slum quite like Iide’s in Japan, the NHK has run documentaries on the ones just overseas in China, and while it’s played a bit for laughs in Progressive, the look is mostly dead on. It suggests a world that become even more inequitable and exploitative, such that deep economic divides are expanding. The justification for this trivially seems to be in the Medical Mechanica ruins, suggesting that humanity has had to fight off them for awhile. Further backing this is the run down train station. Given that in the wake of actual natural disasters in Japan such as the 3/11 quake, there’s actually been lots of repurposed infrastructure such as turning the damaged train lines into brand new bus rapid transit lines, that little beat up train station suggests things have gone off the rails in the FLCL universe due to Medical Mechanica’s machinations and the actions taken to stop them more than ever, and that’s it’s resulted in things being worse in a day to day sense for the average person as infrastructure takes a back seat to amusement mecha (this itself being a manifestation of Jinyu’s episode 1 monologue – trying to hit pause on things causes decay instead.) The fact that people organizing much of the counter-attacks seem to be stereotypical old coots could also be a direct shot at the very real and sometimes deeply misguided gerontocracy already basically in power in many first world countries, but certainly in Japan. Yet, the shot towards the end of the finale where we a makeshift, temporary cafe in in ruins of the town evokes a sight rather familiar in the wakes of recent disasters in Japan, and offers a glimmer of hope in a rather subtle, or at least very culturally cued way. Just as with any other disaster, that town is already headed towards a recovery, even if it’s new normal rather than the past. Whatever kind of pause that’d been hit is not only over for Hidomi, but her town as well.

Frankly, all of that rich subtext (of which I’ve only given you my briefest take on) leaves me rather satisfied with FLCL Progressive as a work of sufficient depth to be called a good sequel already, but what of the technical aspects? After all, FLCL dazzled with gloriously innovative yet exceedingly referential animation, and that visual snark was in the service of a devilishly pop culture soaked script. And to be fair in this way, FLCL Progressive, isn’t nearly as hyper-referential, hyper-meta nor hyper-kinetic. If that’s FLCL to you, this is not that. However, what many miss is that those choices are often guided by the narrative. With a different kind of adolescent conflict featured, many directorial and animation choices will follow that accommodate that story as well the original series’ narrative was served by hyper-kinetic references. At times, the original was a middle finger and love letter to the otaku culture Gainax had cultivated then been mauled by in the wake of Evangelion’s endings. The references to various series and films are a love letter to that culture, but Naota’s trash father is the counterweight; he’s not dissimilar to the kind of guy who would write Anno death threats. Progressive revisiting that message is unneeded (beyond rightfully roasting Mori for having Aiko play the meek moe blob when in fact she’s all tsun with basically no dere.) Thus, the stylistic choices that being a pop-culture love-letter/hate-letter bildungsroman centered around the son of an otaku can not be the same as the anti-exploitation, anti-establishment, multi-threaded coming-of-age/romance for an ensemble cast centered around a teenage girl coping with abandonment. Nowhere is that more apparent than Progressive’s take on the FLCL manga scene. While the original series went for a mile-a-minute spree on each end of the series with the manga scene as way of both flexing animator prowess and visualizing the doujinshi addled mind of Naota’s dad, Progressive specifically used it for a flashback from Hidomi’s perspective, ditching the cluttered panels of an action manga for a minimalist, constrained flow that instantly evokes josei webmanga. In this way, the new perfectly grasped why the original used a manga look for those scenes: to emphasize a perspective, and why you wouldn’t mindlessly ape it beat for beat in the sequel. This aesthetic sense of why they made a given artistic or directorial choice vs. the context of use in the original is present throughout Progressive. If a particular bit wasn’t echoed verbatim, it’s probably because it had no narrative place in the new work. This even includes the relatively restrained use of inner-monologues and animation style switch ups, as their presence in the original show was also more otaku-centric than essential to the core narrative. Even then, it’s still a dense enough work visually where you need to watch twice just to notice small things like the aforementioned image on Iide’s tickets from episodes 1 and 2 matching the imagery from the final shot of the finale episode.

Still, much like choosing to center it around a different coming-of-age, this may not be everyone’s cup of tea aesthetically, but it’s an entirely valid cup of tea vs. the series’ core thesis regarding the issues of youth. If anything, we can see interesting parallels form by challenging so many of the baseline assumptions of what FLCL had to be aesthetically and narratively, and that’s so much more interesting than just getting the easy fan-service of retreaded visuals and plot beats. To the extent it’s following or compressing any particular existing genre tropes, Progressive feels like a subversion of a chuunibyou show and/or a reverse harem in the way that Alternative seems to be shaping to be a subversion of slice-of-life/iyashikei shows – a lot of the character tropes are loosely in play, but in the service of a story that follows on somehow more realistic consequences via a more surreal setting. Given that the original FLCL can also be viewed the lens of subverting the tropes of a harem comedy (young male idiot somehow surrounded by amazing women,) it feels like Progressive really does cover all the bases narratively in being a spiritual successor to the FLCL thesis to me.

The only thing I’d agree with in the negative responses to the new series, is yes, turn the music up in the mix a bit more, though maybe it’s just a bad 5.1 down mix, and the final home video releases will be awesome. Since I’m only left with maybe grousing about audio mixing levels after all this, I’d have say FLCL Progressive was a pretty fantastic outing, and I can’t wait to how FLCL Alternative challenges audiences further in their thoughts of what the FLCL world can say, and the range of visual and narrative expression in which that message can be communicated. After all, the least FLCL thing would be to lose the future for in exchange for a sentimental, nostalgic view of the past, and that’s why most reboots and belated sequels eat dirt. Maybe that’s ultimately a bit too alienating for something so beloved and already deeply deconstructed and contextualized by fans for over a decade, and that could be bad news for impending reception for the seemingly even more recontextualization-oriented Alternative. Still, Progressive avoided the warmed-over treacle of nostalgic sequels with grace, and if that leaves some fans cold, well, it’s probably doing FLCL right.

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