Posted on December 3rd, 2023
Filed under: Reviews — Karl Olson @ 12:16 am
In all honesty, I’m probably not the person who should be writing this analysis/review. Don’t get me wrong, I truly, deeply enjoyed FLCL: Shoegaze: on its own merits, as a coda to the wonderful FLCL: Alternative, and as the ostensible finale of the whole FLCL “franchise” if such a thing can be said to exist outside those involved with sequels. However, like I did with Alternative, I find myself much like Kana in that series, struggling to find the right way to put my emotions into words, but unlike her, I can neither render the universe in twain to avoid facing reality as it is, nor I can make a confident claim as to whether it’s my story to analyze (unlike every social media poster and video content pundit, with all of the dire media literacy I am implying amongst the most base, yet most vocal of those groups.) Again, don’t get me wrong – I can outright sympathize with some of the characters’ struggles and growth here in FLCL: Shoegaze, and I can effortlessly empathize with others thanks to the confident pacing and direction of the work despite its brief run time.
However, like the Daily Fandom so expertly noted about Alternative, Shoegaze subverts if not fully ejects the heterosexual psychological symbology – the Freudian, the Jungian, the Lacanian and so on – which drove the original FLCL, Progressive and Grunge for an explicitly queer coming-of-age narrative. Shoegaze even explicitly keeps the series’ embodiment of being boy-crazy and emotionally stunted to the point of being radically yandere and “forever 19” – Haruko Harahara – off-screen the entire time to underline that. The show gleefully rebukes the core of her character, namely her obsession regarding Atomsk and all the absolutely abusive, manipulative and grotesque things her obsession justifies to herself by showing a pair of queer-coded teens and a downtrodden, lesbian “office lady”-archetype all self-actualizing in the face of an aging, loveless, regressive, selfish patriarch who, like Haruko, is desperately clinging to an unattainable past, and who also doesn’t care who or what he hurts, destroys and even kills in the process trying to reobtain that. Yet, demographically at least, I’m much more like Kanda than I am to anyone else in that show. I just turned 40, and it’s been 20 years since the first anime review I wrote for then ToonZone, now Anime Superhero. Thus, I know that in trying to write about this, despite or perhaps rather because of my years at this point, I might get some things wrong as I’m old and it’s not my lived experience in the same way. I apologize in advance.
Still, the pursuit of perfection to the point of hyper-action or complete inaction is something FLCL as a franchise itself rebukes regularly. Sometimes, you just need to stand on top of a car and proclaim your love, or just kiss someone as dimensions are about to fuse as it’ll be okay. If there is one take away from FLCL: Shoegaze (and perhaps throughout the entire franchise) to be had, it’s that sometimes you just need to express yourself, no matter how messy it is, and no matter who is upset by the result. The difference is, Shoegaze says, for the first time perhaps in the series, that our heroes and those they adore can win, and that everything may not be destroyed.
To Here Knows When
First, a structural note – while FLCL: Grunge made a Rashomon-like triptych with repeated false-segues to the finale, Shoegaze couches its own triptych of backstories in a much more linear, yet interwoven fashion. So while each of our three leads here get an episode of focus, we’re never fully rewinding or replaying in the way that Grunge does, instead seeing flashbacks during an otherwise straightforward course of events, so like Shoegaze as a genre, the lines are a little more blurred and distorted here. Thus, we begin with trouble already in progress, our ostensible hero and Naota/Shinpachi/Hidomi/Kana-alike, Masaki Aofuji, blaming Tsuganei Tower, some kind of kitschy tourist boondoggle in the middle of nowhere town he lives in for all of his problems. To be fair, he and he alone sees some random spectral bird on top of said tower, so who’s to blame him for feeling some genuine teenage angst that the whole world is wrong? To act otherwise means maybe accepting you’re the problem or otherwise out of phase.
Speaking of problems, Masaki and his friend, Harumi Araishu, are in the tower itself, and it’s surrounded by cops and under lock down. Cops can’t get in, the teens can’t get out, not that they want to. To make matters worse, the cops seem to be under the command of Kanda, the grizzled, bitter space immigration officer first introduced in Alternative as a bit of foil for Haruko. Plus, Harumi is a card themselves, asking Masaki if he wants to drink their pee before going into a rant about the significance of threes – three weeks without food, three days without water and three minutes without air. It all seems out of pocket until it’s clear the duo is the reason the cops and Kanda have the place surrounded. The teens are fixing to do actionable threats with regards to the tower (meta aside: Adult Swim sure has come a long way from firing execs over light brite street promos and pulling episodes with the vaguest hint of terror.) The tension is broken as we first see Masaki seeing some kind of glitchy ghost.
This segues into our first of many flashbacks, this one focusing on Masaki, stuck in a similar rut we’ve seen his forebears in the franchise in, but reversed. If those folks were attached to their homes in a deep if not unhealthy way, Masaki has been uprooted repeatedly. First as a child due to the events of Alternative, wherein it would seem the dimensional rift Kana created left Masaki seeing those glitchy, distorted ghosts all around him. This literally out-of-phase perspective leaves him unable to relate to his classmates to the point of being nearly mute around them. He becomes further unmoored as his family moves in the last few months of middle school to the backwater town of Tsuganei, the town which Kana from FLCL: Alternative grew up in. Masaki continues to struggle even more in his new surroundings. He even sees that bird on the tower for the first time (which, if you watch with closed captions and check the credits, is credited as Atomsk,) which gets even more unnerving because unlike the other apparitions plaguing him, Atomsk talks back.
We cut back to the present day, and Kanda is busily trying to ID and further isolate the two teens by cutting the power while calling in someone for back-up. Meanwhile, said teens chow down on the gift shop tourist snacks, while debating whether it’d be wrong to also steal some plushies even though they’re already there to do some terrorism, Harumi interspersing it with more three-centric rants, some more red-herring meta chatter. As the power is cut, the teens are forced to hoof it up the stairs to another level of the tower, specifically, the obligatory and repetitive local history section, albeit after some more playful teasing and flirting from Harumi. The usual “male-gazes on feminine-bodies,” half-sincere, half-tongue-in-cheek shots that FLCL rarely shies away from as a shorthand for burgeoning passion. Still, dull as the history exhibits are, they seem to be stirring something in Masaki: a headache, a very FLCL headache. Meanwhile, a familiar face rolls up on screen in some rolling Honda product placement. It’s Kana Koumoto, the heroine of FLCL: Alternative, now 27, and well, she’s not even supposed to be there today. Turns out she is good at driving in a “a rally driver let loose on city streets” way.
As the teens continue trudging up the floors, nearly literally cheeky upskirts and all, we fallback to flashback again, following Masaki’s post-move downward spiral until one day he pops up to the roof of the school. He sees Harumi standing on the ledge on the other side of the railing, seemingly ready to leap to their own death, pondering their identity and their existence. It’s a lovely setup for later themes surrounding Harumi’s character, and the imagery is, well, provocative to say the least. On first viewing it perfectly rides the line of whether they are maliciously obscuring their own identity and manipulating Masaki, but with repeat viewings it’s clear what it intends to evoke, and how sincere their query is. Lines like, “it just doesn’t belong and it’s driving me nuts,” which feel so ambiguous initially become crystal clear on repetition, and in that make Harumi hanging off the edge of the school especially poignant, implying that Masaski may have rather accidentally saved Harumi’s life then and there even if he can’t grasp that then or in flashback.
As Kana and Kanda snipe over whether Harumi and Masaki are just mixed up teens or co-conspirators with Medical Mechanica’s invasion force, Harumi and Masaki trudge up to another floor, finding a similarly typical, shockingly dated, tourist trap cafeteria/cafe, glass display cases with plastic food and everything. As Harumi tauntingly shakes a piss yellow sports drink, Kana gives them ol’ “come out with your hands up speech, megaphone and all, which the teens ignore so we can segue to another flashback, where we see Masaki and Harumi’s friendship blossom. After Harumi catches Masaki stealing bomb supplies from the school’s chemistry lab, they take him on a “date” to the local hardware store (named after the animation studio, of course) to show him how it’s really done. It’s a fun inversion of the water rocket sequence in Alternative. Instead of 4 friends gleefully looking around Daiso to have fun building a water rocket at the local community center, it’s literal partners in crime, albeit a reluctant one in Masaki. The scene also calls back the kind of snarky “indirect kiss” intimacy of the original series, with Harumi jabbing a cherry lollypop they don’t like nor want to finish in Masaki’s mouth. We’re back to sour and bitter drinks again, but with a more “subtext is for cowards”-framing, probably because of the shorter run time. Clearly, this shopping trip, unsolicited sucker and all, is the happiest, most confident and self actualized Masaki has been during the entire episode and it shows.
Cut back to the present day, and there’s more snarky flirting from Harumi as Masaki struggles with the many flights of stairs until they reach the alleged top only to find, well, nothing. Not even a proper viewing deck. In a world where both Harumi and Masaki clearly feel like they don’t have a place, they’ve yet again not found one there in the tower either. Well, time to use their after school project, right? Alas, Masaki doesn’t even have a lighter. Game over and give up right? Nope. After a bratty fight between the two teens seemingly fires the tower into action with green lightning due to an N/O reaction, a stray bolt of electricity lights the fuse. Masaki barely yeets it towards the window before it goes off, blasting a hole in the side of the tower (again, talk about a shot you could not have shown on early Adult Swim, and now they’re commissioning it,) and into a secret section of the tower. Atomsk flaps his wings a little, but otherwise despite the massive disturbance, the big bird/space god remains nesting as the police stare in awe at the explosion, Kanda already looking to manipulate the situation. Role credits.
Come In Alone
As the second episode or act begins, we cut right back to Harumi and Masaki in the mysterious section of the tower, its aesthetic immediately evoking the giant irons that Masaki saw in his childhood before the ghostly figures began haunting his vision, suggesting that Interstellar Immigration may have built the tower from leftover bits from Medical Mechanica’s excursion in Alternative (echoing the actions we saw them take in Progressive to battle Mechanica’s invasion forces – tourist traps disguising super technology.) Of course, any moments of fun are immediately deflated by the realization that secret rooms mean more flights of stairs to the actual top of the tower. The combination of his past being real, the stairs ahead and Harumi’s charms quickly overwhelms Masaki and he’s having N/O headaches, again. We even cut to a signature Interstellar Immigration control room shot, wall of screens, everyone dressed up in uniform like Kitsurubami and all, to confirm that it was an N/O pulse, not that they know who was responsible. Back at the tower, Kanda starts to try to put the wheels in motion for his machinations into action, starting by hoping that Kana has some inkling which of the two teens had the N/O reaction, to which she guesses it’s Masaki. It turns out she’s long lost the ability to open N/O channels, something she notes that Kanda should be plenty aware of. Kanda feels misled by the bandaid on her forehead, but it turns out that’s from the most adult of reasons – drinking too much and passing out.
This segues to the core theme of this episode – Kana’s very messy, half-baked, openly sabotaged by prior generations, emotionally-arrested journey into adulthood. We flashback to her at age 20, dolled up in a kimono, ready for the traditional Japanese coming of age ceremony. She texted the photos to her high school friends, Mossan and Hijiri, and they too think it’s a lovely and cute look for Kana. However, before you think she’s getting ready to go to said ceremony with her friends, well, they’ve already moved out of town. Only Kana seems to have stuck around in Tsuganei. It makes sense given their goals in Alternative. Not a lot of chances to be a model or a designer in a small town, especially in the context of the ever shrinking towns in the Japanese countryside, but it’s instantly lonely, and deflating. It’s easy to empathize with Kana then as the bus to the event pulls up, she seemingly imagines her friends there, and freezes until the bus driver snaps her back to reality, and she decides to skip out after all. Enter Kanda with a few very conspicuous goons in tow, ready to exploit poor Kana when she’s already down and use her in some kind of top secret project.
Speaking of which, back in the present, Kanda continues jumping to premature conclusions. Like the audience is led to believe so far, Harumi seems suspect, and while the audience may get Haruko vibes, Kanda thinks she must be a Medical Mechanica sympathizer, making Masaki their stooge or hostage. Kana rightfully thinks he’s over-reaching, but Kanda, in truly egotistical, old-guy spirit, assumes he’s right on experience alone, regardless of its applicability to the bizarre situation at hand. Besides, Kanda’s next move self-snitches on him instantly: he hasn’t let go of the top secret project he had Kana in mind for 7 years ago, and if Masaki can ignite now, that suits him fine. Kanda even hands off communicating with “the trespassers” to Kana in favor of working on his own machinations. To say the dynamic has shades of Gendo Ikari and Misato Katsuragi from Eva wouldn’t be wrong.
We then finally get our first interaction between Harumi and Kana via the phone. To say the vibe is snarky zoomer vs. jilted elder-millennial/young-gen-xer is underselling it. Harumi’s playing up their accidental discovery via explosion as elite hacking while flirtily teasing Masaki, and Kana’s only half-buying it to keep Harumi on the line before going right back to scolding Harumi for being a kid whose acting like a kid while also doing the very huge crime of exploding part of a “tourist attraction” which even Kana knows is cover for a lot more than that. In fact, she’s so knowledgeable she can’t help but accidentally spill the beans about dimensional rifts, neuron accelerators and planetary scale consequences while trying to pump Harumi for more information, much to Kanda’s dismay (though it’s his own damn fault for passing the buck on that work.) Harumi, as displeased as they are with the world and their place in it, ill-fitting, scratchy clothes and all, certainly seems down for the world-destroying outcome, and before Kana can good cop them, Harumi says they’ll call back later with demands. Masaki would like to know what Harumi wants, but Harumi teases, saying they won’t tell, only intriguing Masaki further as they begin trudging up the stairs. Before long, Harumi dials in their first demand – every flavor of umaibou, (the same candy Mossan loved in Alternative’s opening episode.) Harumi, bluffing that they have another bomb, says they want it in 15 minutes or else. Kana, trying to keep things from literally exploding, speeds off in her Honda E hatchback.
We cut back again to Kana at 20, her in the middle of some bizarre, uncomfortable looking experiment, countless wires connected to her, an electrode helmet on her head. We get a bunch of lore here: the tower is some kind of accelerator, meant to use N/O – Kana’s N/O – to revert the reality splitting events of Alternative. While Kanda has his heart set on this to the point of squashing Kana’s job prospects; she’d applied to be a nurse (a real one, unlike Haruko in the original series,) and Kanda rejected the job offer for her so Kana would continue to participate in the experiments Interstellar Immigration was doing with/to her, reassuring her that everything would work, but yet Kana is still waiting for that promised future. Both figuratively and literally, she’s stuck at a (railroad) crossing, watching groups of teens that look just like her friends used to. It’s a glimpse at a very real kind of burn out, and even if the world seemingly holds in the balance, in the moment, Kana is left feeling neither like a self-actualized adult, yet clearly no longer like a kid. So, she does what any emotionally distressed 20-something would do, and peels out in her hot hatchback to get around the railroad crossing.
As Kana sincerely tries to save the world even if she doesn’t know if her life has gone anywhere, Kanda gets a hold of Masaki on his phone over text and starts planting seeds of doubt about Harumi in a rather back-handed, toxically-narcissistic fashion, accusing Harumi of being a terrorist and demanding Masaki do whatever it takes to take them down. It flops somewhat as Masaki is skeptical of the source, and Kanda’s washed as hell selection of selfies from his iPad really don’t help that, but the thought of being played by Harumi’s charms and their admitted secret is enough to unsettle the hapless Masaki, even as Harumi continues to playfully flirt with him, joking that he’s trying to get a peek up their skirt. However, before Harumi can continue razzing the guy, they’re at some kind of imaginary space (a little Eva 3+1 kind of nod I guess) which is turned to real space the moment Masaki touches it, revealing a giant brain, the tower looking like its spine. It’s a clever inversion of the steam iron imagery of the prior series. How do you fight something that takes all the wrinkles out? A giant, electromechanical, brain. Instantly, Masaki is overwhelmed by the thought of Harumi’s secrets, the reality of the tower, and the possibility that they might intersect in some dark way, and his head starts throbbing with N/O again.
Time to catch back up with Kana, impatiently waiting for the elderly woman behind the counter in a small town candy store to count up all of the sweets that Harumi demanded, gazing upon young kids who only serve to twist the knife about her own lost childhood and past with Pets. Before Kana can even get into a proper flashback, Harumi calls to demand Chapa-Chups (not Chupa-Chups, please don’t sue) on top of all of the other candy. We cut back to the tower, Atomsk flying over and renesting now on the brain, as Masaki, still shook by Kanda’s half-baked texts, tries to dig into what makes Harumi tick. Why are they helping him out with his cockamie plans to blow up the tower? What is their motive? What do they get out of it? Harumi, of course, deflects by flirting, though almost opens up, just in time for Kana to spoil the mood by calling Harumi back as they put the moves on Masaki. For all of Kana’s hard efforts (missing curry flavor aside, though, maybe that is a metaphor for our missing Haruko, who served Noata spicy curry to his displeasure,) she gets more InstaCart errands from Harumi, chasing not-Haribo jelly beans and candy coated chocolates next.
We cut from a shot of Kana’s phone, still barring a wallpaper of her old friend group, though no longer busted as it was at the end of Alternative – a little sign of what she has and hasn’t let go of from her youth – to another flashback, now 3 years ago, tower complete. She’s in the middle of an experiment that looks immensely painful now, trying to channel N/O to activate the tower. It looks like a 1970’s horror movie version of electroshock therapy imager which I don’t think is an accidental invocation here. Given what we know about her story after Alternative so far, we get this picture of a queer 20-something who has been forced by society to attempt channel their literal passions into something they have no interest in, even being robbed outright of other opportunities to carve out their own path in favor of serving the prior generation as they see fit for their goals. This whole scene walks that right up to the line of broaching topics like kidnapping and conversion therapy via metaphor, leaving for the audience to be savvy enough to add up the barely-coded pieces.
It’s heartbreaking, and it’s not the path I think anyone who liked Kana’s character since Alternative and understood her motives would’ve hoped. However, it does capture a certain kind of relatable experience of one’s hopes and dreams being sanded off by society and its systems in adulthood. It’s reflective of the kind of belated or denied self-actualization that I think is a relatively unifying experience for millennials of all stripes but especially those who are marginalized or lacking privilege in any way, and one which the zoomer Harumi stands in opposition to accepting as acceptable, let alone inevitable. In so far as we’ve seen Kana regularly browbeat if not outright tortured by Kanda, yet unable to convince Harumi to accept the same, it captures a generational gap in the acceptance of having one’s wrinkles ironed out to fit society’s goals. It’s a powerful flashback, and a topic which FLCL never touched on before. Kana’s adulthood is very different to the flavors of accidentally narcissistic parenting of Naota’s dad or Hidomi’s mom, where instead her every move feels like she’s stuck waiting for a train in both directions. Kana is “millennial ennui,” personified.
This is very different to the information we get about Kanda from this flashback, which underlines the “I coulda been a contender”-type washed boomer he represents. A guy desperately clinging to the dream where he actually went with his high school team to Koshien, the big high school baseball tournament in Japan, instead of being a benchwarmer. No wonder he wants the world to go back to how it was, and no wonder he can’t see or doesn’t care he’s hurting Kana in the process of trying to cling to the old normal, the past. After all, through his eyes, Kana is lucky to get to be the big hero he wasn’t, even if it’s an ill-fitting role. Oh, wait, there’s the narcissistic parenting from the old show, even if Kanda’s just her boss. It’s the less candy-coated version of the kind of characters and relationships captured by series like Aggretsuko. In the muddled, realistic world of Shoegaze, there’s no rocking musical number getting Kana out from Kanda’s nostalgia driven tyranny.
Kana finally gets back to the tower with the candy, taking a minute to look at the hair clip from Pets she’d pinned into the headliner of her Honda, slamming the door as a letter to Pets falls on the ground, unsent, perhaps regretting her actions in Alternative. Just as Masaki again inquires about what Harumi was gonna say, Kana shows up to the brain tower’s (almost annoyingly plot convenient) helipad, hanging out of the side door of a military chopper. Meanwhile, Kanda has another chopper in the air with a sniper, scheming to kill Harumi to shock Masaki into action, because as is clear now, if he didn’t care about manipulating and hurting Kana who he was close enough with to open up about his own background and even play a game of catch with for years, murdering a 15-year-old he’s convinced is a Medical Mechanica lackey ain’t nothing to him. While the sniper gets in position, Harumi makes the nature of their requests known to Kana and Masaki: all they wanted was to see a rainbow waterfall of candies falling from the sky, a dream that’s as childish yet pure as it gets, and that’s also just as subtle as the rainbow imagery in Alternative. Kana and Harumi get to sniping at each other again, Kana with platitudes about adulthood she doesn’t even fully believe in, Harumi cutting through that nonsense for what it is, though Kana pushes through, saying that despite her regrets and the responsibilities she never asked for, she persevered despite that all, even moving Masaki to an N/O reaction in the moment. Harumi counters with the obvious ,but true: if this world is miserable, uncomfortable and painful, don’t accept it, and do find and embrace what you want, even if it’s weird or impractical by societal expectations, as it will never be as actually uncomfortable as not living one’s truth. They strip to their skirt and skivvies to prove their point: if the clothes don’t fit, don’t wear them. In that moment, Kana realizes that she didn’t have to follow someone else’s path into adulthood, that she’s free to define that for herself just like Harumi is defining their own sense of self, their own aesthetic that embraces literally every flavor life has to offer just for how it would look. Masaki finally understands as well that all of the overwhelming feelings haven’t been because of the tower, but because he fell in love with Harumi, but the moment is short lived. His next N/O burst suddenly makes the ghosts visible to everyone, and panicked by suddenly seeing the same vision that Masaki sees, the sniper shoots, but the trajectory remains trained on Harumi, shooting her through, blood and candy flying through the air. Kanda’s attempt to manipulate the situation leads to an obvious conclusion: death, or at least something close to it. You know, usual second act stuff, but with a kind of weight FLCL has never quite broached so viscerally, rejecting the often more Looney Tunes-stakes of prior violence in the series.
What You Want
For the final slice of Shoegaze’s triptych, we open on its focus seemingly about to die as the world seemingly goes mad. Shot clean through, Harumi is bleeding out. Everyone around suddenly sees everything Masaki’s cursed vision saw since Kana split reality in two, much to Kanda’s perverse, Gendo-esque delight. Masaki, panicking, his N/O out of control, is soothed by Kana as she acts like the kind of adult she never had in her life, and that generally we’ve never seen in the series. Again, unlike Haruko, who played at being a nurse, Kana as we know from the prior episode was supposed to be working as one. She sets to work both talking Masaki down while putting her medical skills to use to keep Harumi alive. Meanwhile, Harumi has a near-death experience where they finally see the world as Masaki has, digital ghosts, a giant bird on the tower, and everything else. They also finally see their own lost history once they approach Atomsk, and are sucked inside of the space god. You see, I’ve been using “they” for Harumi with good reason throughout this article: before Kana split reality in twain, Harumi was a boy who made it all the way to the same Mars colonies that Pets did. Just as they’re about to settle in with their sister, reality splits, and Harumi is suddenly a young girl with a different sister back on Earth.
The red herring is revealed to actually be a very “subtext is for cowards”-level transgender allegory. All of the prior complaints Harumi had about feeling like everything is like an itchy tag on ill-fitting clothing, that they had no place in the world and so on are instantly given their missing context: while in this reality, they are female, and are even trying to retain the memory of their original sister by copying their aesthetic and personality in this reality, literally embracing a caricature of the only femininity we see them connect to, it is still not themselves, they know it and it has eaten away at them the whole time. While they have supportive parents who support their outlandish style and eccentric behavior, it is nonetheless not their home, and they are missing their true self and family. Artfully, the audience learns this at the same time as Harumi has their near-death experience and recalls all of their lost memories and former self. It never needs to waste a single word explaining what it’s trying to say by all of this, it simply is the context in full, and the natural interpretation of Harumi’s arc, making them deeply sympathetic after being set up as as a very petulant teen and at worst Haruko, who is proudly forever the most petulant teen. It is a reminder that those actions we often see Haruko do out of raw emotional exploitation – being ribald, teasing, flirting – can come from a sincere place, even if it’s partially formed by trauma and loss. Everything Harumi said to Masaki was real, everything they wanted from Kana was honest. For someone who had their sense of self stolen from them at the moment of their existence in their current reality, of course wanting every flavor and color of something is natural. Unlike Haruko, unlike Kanda, Harumi has an actual missing piece to try to refill, rebuild and reclaim.
As that flashback goes down, Kana’s nursing skills slowly bring Harumi back as she continues to talk Masaki down as best as she can, trying to debunk as much of the stupid claptrap that Kanda had been texting him as possible. She’s in her zone, priceless in this crisis, finally being the kind of adult she wanted to be to the kind of people who need see that everything can turn out all right even if you’re not the median member of society, and that’s it’s not by being the hero someone else wants you to be, but being the person you wanted to be and actualizing that. However, Kana can only talk Masaki down so much, and as he begins to imagine that Harumi would’ve been better off never having met him at all, his N/O gateway begins to fully open, sucking in big bird Atomsk while expelling Harumi’s soul from Atomsk’s inner-dimension of memories back into their body. A horn begins to form on Masaki’s forehead as Kana resuscitates Harumi, the first time proper “mouth-to-mouth” has ever been seen in this show, which Harumi appreciates with all of the spit takes of Bugs kissing Elmer Fudd. Somehow that gag is still funny after this incredibly emotional segment of anime. Harumi relates their experience and realization of self to Masaki as Kana regains her composure. They admit their big secret was that there was a person who vanished before their eyes 10 years ago, and they hoped that by befriending someone who could see a world that wasn’t there, they could draw that person for them. However, they have seen them now, and know that their past was real.
However, there’s no time in 3 episodes for a breather, and Masaki’s bleak thought of Harumi being better off having never known him has still kicked the accelerator into motion. Two worlds are becoming one, and as the machine undulates and shatters its bonds, Kana, Harumi and Masaki begin to slide off the side of the now near vertical helipad. This further peaks Masaki’s N/O, resulting in a new universe again starting to form, a situation which breaks gravity in the nick of time, and which echoes the finale events of Alternative, to the delight of Kanda. As Harumi panics, Masaki finally seems at peace. He never liked or fit into the world as it was anyway, so anything new might be better. The ghostly, Slimer-like apparitions begin to spark into looking like people from the other dimension. Kana even catches a glimpse of Pets. Dialogue between Masaki and Harumi continues to be loaded, but clever: “now everyone will know this is real,” “it’d be easier if I was the thing that was messed up” and “you and I are a lot alike in that way” is a hell of an interchange. It’s the kind of dialogue outsiders who are nonetheless right and have understood their truths have to have with themselves. It’d be easier to be wrong and have something to fix or hide behind rather than just be honest but definitely be out of alignment with the norm. However, in that acceptance, given that Masaki said he was in love during his prior inner monologue, he asks Harumi for a kiss and admits his love for them. Harumi, who is snarky to the end despite blushing profusely, says he shouldn’t ask, just kiss. Thus they do, doing the normal FLCL mouth-to-mouth, albeit the most consensually as we’ve ever seen in a FLCL, against a backdrop of neon rainbow brains in case the metaphor was too subtle or muddled by Harumi not being in their true body. While hammering that home, Masaki thinks during the kiss that any world with Harumi is fine, and all the ghosts and the bird (IE: the lore itself,) don’t matter, only love does. In fact, he has so much love it might ruin the whole neural accelerator and the burgeoning new universe. Out comes Atomsk in the nick of time from Masaki’s forehead to gobble the new universe up in his new, hilariously phallic, “space whale” form.
Just like that, the reaction begins to collapse, Harumi flakes out with the same static as the ghosts despite being mostly human and back to life, and everything that was floating gently lands, Masaki included, though unconscious. Everything is seemingly back to normal, except Harumi is missing, with everyone but Masaki forgetting that Harumi existed, echoing the disconnect the pair experienced 10 years ago. Turns out, just a little bit, Masaki changed reality as Kana had before. The immigration control room, which, by the way, has been expositioning on and off through all this, says the most important line they have: the dimensional merge stopped at 0.02%, implying the only thing that merged back was probably Harumi, finally back where they belonged. Masaki is back to being the class weirdo, getting a pointless diploma, this time without his only foil, yet even the ghostly images of the other world are back. Atomsk is even back to nesting on the now unfurled brain tower, looking plump and birdy as ever. It’s a bit bleak, as if Masaki secured something but lost anyway. As he’s thinking this, Atomsk even chimes in, confirming Masaki’s internal suspicions that Harumi was sent back to their home dimension. We cut back to Kana and Kanda, again playing catch, now in the present day, Kanda griping about the big fat loss he took. A newly confident and empowered Kana needles him back, poking fun at his gripes, suggesting all he really wanted out of the deal was seeing Haruko again, flustering the normally staid Kanda. Kana’s even a bit sympathetic, as she misses Pets after all, uttering a little soliloquy about how hard it is to lose a friend before you can properly say good-bye, itself some heavy words in a series already dense with people struggling because of the people they’re clinging to yet might never see again. Kana though has reached acceptance as Kanda remains in petulant denial. This whole section doesn’t seem out of place vs. the other FLCL series though. We get our little montages of where people just landed, and everyone settles after being misguided, right?
Just where another FLCL would’ve cut to credits, everyone only half-winning or having learned a lesson the hard way, we catch up with Harumi, now back in their original male body, walking to school with their original sister Natsuki on Mars in the other dimension. As they talk about their after class plans, it seems Harumi still loves candy in any reality at least, much to the dismay of their sister, though it shows they haven’t lost themselves entirely. However, something much sweeter is in store as the credits roll over the scene. Suddenly, who should turn up but Masaki. Wildly, this coda makes Masaki a complete inversion of any of his N/O wielding forebears from prior series. While the rest momentarily grasp god-like power, only to lose it and have to settle for the world as it is because their motives were off-balance vs. their true selves (a tale so classic it goes back to ancient Mesopotamia and the legend Gilgamesh in the abstract,) Masaki, perhaps because he was always chasing the right things for him and the one that he was chasing after, even if he didn’t fully understand what those things were because he was still just a naive, shy teen, he actually wins the day in a way no other FLCL hero ever does. Love actually conquers all, as he has befriended Atomsk, and transcended time and space itself to be with Harumi, no matter what body or form Harumi is in, his confession full of sincere blushing and sweetness. If it evokes any classical heroic story patterns, it slightly mirrors the Egyptian legend of Osiris: Harumi is Osiris, made whole again by the actions of Masaki as Isis, in defiance of the goals of Kanda as Seth. Harumi and Masaki are even set to live out their existence as companions in another dimension, an underworld of sorts. It is perhaps the ideal coda both to Alternative and the series as a whole, rejecting the cynicism that everyone is always a little off-base and has to settle for the reality they’re in with whoever is around them. It makes clear that not all searches are misplaced energy or arrested development, but just as much part of growth and becoming an adult as anything else. Perhaps critically, for a couple as complex and non-traditional as Harumi and Masaki, settling would be beyond unacceptable as a resolution. Their entire lives had been settling for an unjust second place until they found each other, thus the denouement must be reuniting in true success.
It wouldn’t be out of pocket to say Shoegaze is, rather quite literally, between petty theft and homemade explosives, the “be gay, do crimes” finale to this era of FLCL, just as Grunge landed on a message “respect women.” If those takeaways bother some of the Kandas in FLCL’s fandom that can’t let go of the past, or at the very least who lose their own future in a failed attempt to reclaim that past, good. That’s the point. Yes, Noatas, we get it, you don’t like sour things, you don’t like bitter things and you miss Haruko. Drink up anyway, or you’ll never grow up or connect. You’ll be Amurao clinging to eyebrows you’ll never get back. Swinging the bat means sometimes you just go in for the kiss (or that you give your friend the last ticket.) Just as the original series chided the audience for a certain kind of arrested development, so to do these sequels drive that point home by showing a greater range of romances and friendships than was ever embraced by the source material creators, even in their own successive works. The implosion of nostalgia by recontextualizing the past via different aesthetics, psychological frameworks and relationships centers the viewer in the lead role themselves. Can you sympathize or even empathize outside of your own needs and situation, or is the fandom all made up of Harukos, Kandas and Amuraos all chasing something or someone that can’t come to pass nor stay forever the same? Can they embrace change and the essential truths of their situation, even if that means accepting a lot about themselves and the reality they’re in, and whether they should even be there as they are now? By accident or intent, this what these sequel works managed to ask and build on FLCL’s ethical quandaries about not just growing up, but of being a whole person who is accepting of themselves and others. Shoegaze ends up in that way not just being a bow on top of Alternative, but almost a litmus test to see if you ever grasped the essential message of “being yourself, your true self, not in arrested development, nor being in a hurry to play grown-up, and to even help others navigate the same problems rather than exploit them” that continually grounded each installment even if the specific takeaways and settings varied. Yes, for all of the billing of FLCL by Adult Swim management as a franchise, the spin-offs as a body of work implode the pervading idea that franchises means learning the exact same lessons every time in the same way, instead broadening the thesis again and again to encompass a broader range of ideas until it forces a re-evaluation of the original work itself.
I come back to where I started, on whether I was even the person to try to touch on some of the themes that underpinned this installment because I know I’m not Kana, Masaki or Harumi. Yet, after watching and meditating upon FLCL: Shoegaze, I am also blessed that I’m neither Kanda, Haruko, Amurao, nor any of the other miscreant adults parading around the franchise, all acting more childish and immature than the children and teens driving the show. In that, I’m glad these sequels existed and said what they said, and I appreciate that it never talked down to anyone in how they said it as it. Shoegaze is a lovely coda for this all, a sincere, sweet reminder for its fandom to be open to worlds broader than just 6 episodes now old enough to drink. If that is where the story finally has ended, it will resonate with me for years to come, and that’s all I can have asked for. If other people come to understand it the same way because I said something, then maybe, just a little bit, I helped like Kana did, and that’s a pretty good way to be.
Posted on October 2nd, 2023
Filed under: Reviews — Karl Olson @ 12:26 pm
FLCL is a Gamble; Grunge Raises the Stakes.
(Spoiler Warning: I am going to tear FLCL: Grunge apart, talking about every little side tangent and reference while talking through every episode. Besides talking about the show itself, all of the other FLCL series plus any other anime and pop culture references it made will be called out too.)
It’s been said FLCL allegedly began as kind of a bar bet between Kazuya Tsurumaki and Hideaki Anno regarding the shortest a series could be while still telling a story, at least in the style that both of them often seemed to cling too – the classic, Cambellian hero’s journey with all of the ontogeny and young man’s coming-of-age metaphors that dyed-in-the-wool otaku like them grew up on. Anno insisted Evangelion had maximally condensed it with its 26 episodes and a film, while Tsurumaki, then firmly Anno’s protege, insisted it could be done in 6, or at least that’s how the lore goes. Regardless of how real that tale is after decades of otaku retelling it, it nonetheless is an easy shortcut to understanding the original series’ lasting appeal: FLCL said everything Eva had to say about a tweenage boy growing up. FLCL was just tighter, and with endless flair and style, even if in some ways, FLCL’s thesis only becomes fully focused within the greater context of Tsurumaki’s influences, and the nature of the work as a response to Anno’s works to date. While Progressive and Alternative responded to FLCL’s thesis by flipping the core symbolism to focus on different paths to and facets of a teenage girl’s coming of age to amazing – if polarizing – effect, it seems that with FLCL: Grunge, the upstart studio Mont Blanc instead focused less on note-for-note, beat-for-beat responses to its predecessors, and more on the technical challenges of compressed, hyper-referential storytelling execution that brought the original into existence. How so? By trying to cover in 3 what it took Prog, Alt and the original series 6 each to relay, and from 3 unique angles.
However, despite the challenge set out for it, FLCL: Grunge mostly sticks the landing in its mere 3 20-something minute episodes, even if it could’ve breathed a bit more if they were more like 30 minute episodes, or it got its original 4 episode order. That is to say FLCL: Grunge is not so much the radio-friendly, Pixies-esque, loud-soft pattern Grunge of songs like Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box,” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” despite its pattern of focusing on one character’s perspective before teasing a rousing finale. No, FLCL: Grunge by circumstance embraces the barely 3 minutes long, Punk rock overdrive assault of songs like Nirvana’s “Breed” or Pearl Jam’s “Spin The Black Circle,” only barely letting up just enough in each episode to let you connect with its core cast. Much like the entire Grunge movement was built on the backs of Metal, Art Rock and Punk, FLCL: Grunge also fully relies on you being a savvy viewer, keenly aware of when any given shot or line is a quote or response to something from a prior FLCL series, if not pulling from an even broader anime context. I would even say that while Grunge is a success, it may only be if you have all of the prior FLCL series and much more as context, ideally with the kind of freshness that only comes from recent rewatches and/or borderline obsession, and that alone will make it very disappointing or seemingly derivative without substance to some. However, given the hyper-referential nature and commitment to compressed storytelling of the original series, perhaps this makes FLCL: Grunge stand closest to said original since it’s so built on a language of rapid fire context and borrowed symbolism. After all, if the original FLCL makes the most sense against the backdrop of Eva, Gundam and much more, it’s perhaps only fitting to have a FLCL best enjoyed in the context of all of its prior series, even if this risks the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”-ing of the once more stand-alone FLCL.
To achieve this compression, Grunge had to eject what Progressive and Alternative couldn’t bring themselves to not lift from the original: all prior FLCL series had the time to give each episode a clear arc, or a story-circle, if we’re going to talk about it in more popular terms. As much as they had their own grand, series-long plot lines, we also got a little beginning, middle and end such that each episode had some denouement too. Here, we instead get acts of films, each one taking a Rashomon-esque approach of being centered around one of the 3 core characters, thus creating a Tarentino-like, non-linear arrangement. We do get a beginning at the beginning, and the end at the end, but everything in between is geared around taking us through how each of the leads ends up just before the finish line of a scenario that would normally be episode 6 of one of the prior FLCL series. It even fully reverses some of the core FLCL plot beats with all of the classic camera movements to go with them to emphasize this rearrangement and rejection of per episode arcs while being as clear as possible about the reversal. We get just one Medical Mechanica robot fight, not 3, and it’s nearly at the end of episode 3. That same late scene finally gives us the classic N/O overflow and bass guitar reveal, but thanks to the events of the prior 3 episodes, it mostly does not feel like cheap fan-service, nor a “I saw the Rickenbacker, and I clapped!!”-moment. Meanwhile, the giant hand is on the iron and steam rolling through town before the end of episode 1, something so shocking in the moment to any long time viewers that without the full context of the other two episodes, it almost seems like a joke or a send up, or at atleast perhaps hacky until the series finishes.
Shinpachi’s Bait and Switch
However, let’s rewind a bit to the viewer’s start. We open on a plain as day Evangelion reference, of course. We see
Shinji Shinpachi lying on the ground, dressed in a white, short-sleeve button up, green shirt and black slacks, his black hair cropped, listlessly daydreaming and listening to an original cassette walkman, bright orange foam pack in headphones and all, in a small, tatami mat paved room. Listening to music on odd tech while seemingly depressed echos all many of prior FLCL leads beyond the Eva-like flavor of the scene of course, what with Kana’s tangled earbuds and Hidomi’s cat ear headphones – heck, even Noata has a walkman in one scene if I recall correctly – but Shinpachi’s quiet solace is broken quickly. He must go make a sushi delivery for his dad’s shop to the local yakuza HQ. On his way out the door, a tiny big-wig later revealed to be the town mayor comes into the restaurant accompanied by a bombshell in a red dress whose head is kept out of frame. However, while that sure seems like a Powerpuff Girls reference, seasoned viewers know from the wrist cuff she’s not Ms. Bellum, but Haruhara Haruko, up to her old tricks again. Shinpachi is instantly taken aback by the “eternal 19-year-old” but makes haste on his Honda moped. Roll the opening credits over the first of many scenes that quotes something more from the end of a FLCL than the start, as Shin alone races his moped along a seaside road during a golden sunset, echoing Noata’s rides with Haruko. It quickly references Alternative’s opening rocket launches while somewhat rebuking some of Alt’s perspective on those launches, with our lead noting that he and his friends all hoped at least one of them would make it off-world.
From here, Shinpachi’s episode is perhaps almost too straightforward, with a series of vignettes from Shinpachi’s life that seem to mostly play on our normal expectations if we had a FLCL with double the space to breathe. He makes his delivery, nearly being scammed by the yakuza with counterfeits and almost being crushed by his Rock-alien (Rockien) friend’s alcoholic yakuza brother as he passes out in the process. He ends up back at the shop just in time for Haruko to take a break from finessing the mayor to do as she always does: flirt with kids/teenagers (aside, that was always a weird aspect of the original, and it’s just never gonna scan any better. It’s key to her character even – she’s just as awful and selfish as Medical Mechanica with regard to exploiting a “natural resource” for personal gain more often than not.) Shinpachi ducks out for a breath of fresh air to get away from Haruko’s flirting, Chekhov’s
gun flies, and the mayor’s generally cringe-worthy demeanor.
He meets up in the alley with one of our other leads, Orinoko. She’s bringing Shinpachi a sushi knife her father made, but it’s clear that between a planet stripped of resources and her father’s failing health, he can’t make them like he used to. Shinpachi doesn’t care though, and says he’ll cherish the knife. It echoes just slightly the kind of interplay Noata and Mamami had with a certain level of pity in the mix, at least with our context so far. We also get to see Orinoko’s default attire clearly for the first time here, and well, well played with the EKBK hoodie, EKBK being one letter transposed back from FLCL. A subtle way to imply what the show eventually underlines and the promotional materials spoiled – Grunge is a prequel. Anyway, no pure, sweet moment can last for long while Haruko’s on the planet, so she’s in the alleyway the second Orinoko’s gone, putting the moves on Shinpachi, and like Noata before him, his head is a throbbing horn after a ripped from the original’s manga scene kiss with bonus pachinko machine foley. The iron fires up, and under the cover of steam, Haruko bails and Shin is left trying to hide the horn popping out from the top of his head. We’re solidly in the usual FLCL stuff, but very abbreviated trusting the viewer to be familiar.
We then pop forward to Shin fishing while his aforementioned Rockien friend Shonari and Sho’s brother, Dainari, dump bodies in the same body of water. Even this is evocative of the original and Progressive with kids doing dirty, sketchy jobs they probably shouldn’t be doing, but during a planetary exodus, who cares to stop them? After a little conversation that is definitely setting up some key points for Shonari’s arc (gee, what else could he drink besides juice and booze, we ponder as not-piranhas eat the bodies being dumped in the water,) we get another familiar face to long-time viewers, Amarao, who still has his original eyebrows even, and who still seems like a total pill whose bratty nihilism continues to read as more petulant and immature than gruff and masculine, as he likely hopes. Prequel or not, it needs all of the context of prior works for his presence and his appearance to even feel like it matters, but so did the Eva-reference at the start. This is the other usual FLCL stuff – not the lore per se, but the condensed, context as prerequisite, memetic story telling lest the joke fall flat.
However, dense references aside, we start to get more off the well-worn, thrice-already explored path, albeit while still holding to a linear timeline for now. As Shin arrives back at the sushi shop, the mayor is back with Haruko for more cringeworthy flirting and sushi on the public dime, but it’s not all pleasure, as the local Medical Mechanica rep, a Canti-style mech, turns up for some traditional nomunication, IE: drinking and talking business outside of the business setting. Aside, it’s interesting how every FLCL loops back to local government malfeasance in some way, be it the politicians like Ninamori’s similarly sleazy dad in the original, the cowardly mayor of Alt, or the amusement park secret organization in Prog. Anyway, while the mayor drunkenly admits he’s covering for the awful medical mechanical factory, Haruko seizes her an opening, planting a USB stick in the rep’s serving of nigiri, seemingly implanted with a virus which begins a countdown (countdowns also being a recurring motif in FLCL finales from the original series on through the Mega Death art exhibit that Ide took Hidomi to as well as the literal countdown before Pets’ rocket leaves.) The rep literally rockets off as the virus takes hold, leaving the mayor in a panic. He reveals to Haruko that he has a ticket to get on the last rocket out of town (hey, just like the mayor in Alternative,) plus plenty more where that came from, which she proceeds to steal and run off with after beating up all of the mayor’s useless security detail (with some assists from Shin throwing some not piranhas at those goons.) The mayor declares martial law while calling in an opposing yakuza gang to chase Haruko down and his tickets. Haruko doesn’t just harass kids and teens – she finesses and catfishes crappy scumbag adults too! As the machine gun smoke settles, Shin, and for that matter, Mont Blanc’s entire production staff, are faced with a decision: continue with tradition, or strike out on their own.
Well it wouldn’t be “Grunge” to continue purely in the same paths and melodies that came before. Shin runs out to go help, though not before clocking himself on his unleashed, massive head horn, in perfectly Looney Tunes or gag manga fashion. That said, that’s where Shin (and Mont Blanc) break with a lot of the leads in prior FLCLs and somewhat generally with that era of Gainax’s work. He’s neither emotionally repressed nor reaching for a misunderstanding of what adulthood is supposed to be. He just sees someone in trouble, and he’s not going to stay still. He doesn’t need to hype himself up to “swing the bat” or tell himself that “he mustn’t run away.” He’s ready to go.
Meanwhile, Haruko ends up back at the hostess club previously mentioned by the mayor where she does a quick change out of a (for now inexplicable as she was in that red dress last we saw her) kimono and she distributes all but one space flight ticket to the women working at the club, basically thanking them for letting her use it as a means to finesse the mayor. A rare ethical move on Haruko’s part given that leaving those folks with that petulant tyrant of a mayor would’ve been violence by proxy. She is just about to make her escape when she’s faced with said mayor, his crooked cops and a different yakuza gang than the one Dainari’s in with. After a classically untranslatable Haruko rant full of jokes that just don’t work in English, but because it’s so meta, the English version manages to land on the same general beats, Shinpachi rolls up on his Honda moped to save the day, or at least give Haruko an opening to exit. After lots of gunfire is exchanged between the yakuza and Haruko, and (for now) inexplicable explosions, we cut back to find that Shin is about to be killed on order of the mayor. However, Shonari swoops outta nowhere and straight up murders the mayor instead, chopping his head off with a previously unseen katana. He then starts tearing through all of the opposing yakuza. Haruko then motivates the yakuza that Dainari works with into action, having apparently not only played the mayor, but taken control of said yakuza group too. Shonari and Shinpachi chase after her as she heads out to the iron. In a closing montage, we see the hand coming down to grab the iron, a suddenly nori-eyebrow’d Amarao wondering what’s happening, and Haruko launching off her Vespa with Shonari’s sword, screaming “where’s Atomsk?” as if he’s Poochie.
And then the credits roll, no denouement, no robot vs. guitar fight, nothing fully exiting or entering anyone’s head, just Shin asking “is this what hope looks like?”, perhaps in direct opposition to the idea every other FLCL has opened with: “nothing interesting ever happens here.” With this, FLCL: Grunge fully ejects the audience from whatever expectations they were supposed to have about FLCL because, while it endlessly visually quoted and nodded major beats, it’s here where we fully break with the surface structure and begin to find out what it means to tell the story in only 3 episodes instead of 6.
Shonari Didn’t Choose That Life, It Chose Him
Episode 2, effectively the second act of what is now clearly more of a brisk film, opens as if it’s a stage play a la the Evangelion finale with Shinji on the folding chair in the spotlight, but with Shonari, age 10, sobbing, as he dumps his parents’ bodies in the ocean with his older brother, Dainari. It’s never explained why they’ve passed, only that at least at the bottom of the sea, they won’t be disturbed by the cruel, ignorant humans. We cut to young Sho catching endless bullying because he is an alien – an immigrant – and humans, especially in FLCL, are often the worst, and besides, bullying is a recurring topic in FLCL between Mamimi and Kana alone. Sho finally breaks and stands up for himself, and nearly kills a fellow student, because he is a huge rock person, even if he’s a kid. After nearly ending up in jail over it, we cut back to him in school with young Shinpachi, who sees Sho for the kindly person he truly is, and helps him defend himself. We also see Orinoko smiling towards Sho, the beginnings of Shonari’s crush clear. However, the upswing can’t last forever. Shonari sees the new Medical Mechanica factory and panics, suggesting the shadowy organization is the reason the Rockiens fled their homeworld in the first place. Dainari joins the yakuza as a “delivery man,” blowing up rival groups with dynamite due to his tough Rockien body, but he starts drinking to drown out the loss of his world, his parents and memories and pain of the violence he’s dishing out. Five years later, Dai’s still tossing bodies in the ocean, just for the yakuza now. Title Card: “Shonari,” just in case it wasn’t already clear that rather than pick up where “Shinpachi” left off, we’re getting 3 angles on the events that led into the climax hinted at, but not yet achieved.
In this shift, we get to break some new ground, resulting in perhaps the least self-referential episode of Grunge. Sure, brothers are nothing new to FLCL – Noata’s older, major league baseball player brother left him to be exploited by virtually every person around him, while Kana’s little brother was more there as a background character than a family bond explored in depth. This whole episode strikes its own path though, exploring a sincere but emotionally complex brotherly bond. Dainari is only grinding in the mob because it’s the best paying work an alien immigrant like him can get in a dead end town like Okura, and he wants Sho to get off world before he has to fall into the same work, and thus drink the pain away as well. On their way back from dumping bodies, Sho spots Orinoko walking back from another day of foraging scrap metal for her dad’s blade making, so he pulls over to give her a ride while Dai is a true bro, and passes out in the bed of the truck (a little nod to Ninamori riding in the back of 3 wheeler pick up perhaps?) In their little conversation of geology and metallurgy chat, it’s clear Sho adores Orinoko, and that she’s clearly the only person besides Shin who grasps Sho’s kindness.
After dropping her off, we then hard cut (by the way, no eyecatch cards in Grunge – another little rejection of traditional form) to a black & white newsreel/manga explanation of the gang violence that Dainari has stumbled into via circumstance (this kind of genre parody being much more like FLCL’s usual pop culture shorthand.) Like all human conflict, it was just a trifle of a fight – mob bosses fighting over a cat – that turned into a full on gang war. “Blood for blood” and “rock for rock” are being traded between the Samueda-gumi – the mayor’s rockabilly goons from the first episode – and the Keshibishi-gumi, the yakuza group Dainari’s dumping bodies and delivering dynamite for. To make matters worse, Dainari’s not the only Rockien employed in this bloodbath, so he’s facing a Samueda-aligned Rockien goon regularly. Dainari couldn’t even protect the Keshibishi boss from this guy, leaving a void.
Anyway, whenever Haruko’s off screen, everyone should be asking, “where’s Haruko?” Oh there she is, taking over Keshibishi group as she noted she did previously, though only after taking out the traitorous and otaku-ish second in command in the group. As Haruko gets everyone in the gang whipped up and ready for vengeance, Sho is ready to join in, but Dainari holds him back, and even as he’s clutching his blown up, bandaged up stomach, he stresses that he doesn’t want Shonari in that life. However, Haruko – nee-san now – looks pretty bad ass with that katana that she dropped the second in command with, stirring something deep inside Sho. More gang violence ensues.
Fade over to Sho picking up Orinoko again after some more illicit dumping, and we get in no uncertain terms (for the viewer) that Sho loves Orinoko. He’s bringing her food (since he can’t eat it, and as her dad is not doing well.) This again echoes Orinoko being somewhat like Mamami – being a bit down on her luck, but having at least some good friends trying to get her through things with some charity. Sho then even rips the speaker out of his truck stereo, so Orinoko can at least scavenge with a magnet for iron. It’s unclear if Orinoko knows of Sho’s true feelings, but she wants to repay his kindness, so Sho asks for a katana for his brother in repayment. It’s another heartwarming scene that underlines before anything else, they’re wonderful friends, who can joke with each other in the way only real friends can. Then we get a nice little montage of more body dumping, leading into Orinoko finally finding some meteoric iron thanks to that magnet, and then, with her father and a robot, forging the promised katana with a seemingly impossible (with our knowledge so far) level of quality. We even get an homage to the classic “Noata with the bat” silhouette shot, with Orinoko and said katana, as all 3 of the leads look to the skies, hoping one day they’ll make it off-world. Orinoko sheds a single (then) inexplicable tear.
We cut back to the sushi bar and more dirty dealing over drinks and nigiri between the Medical Mechanica robot and the mayor. Besides the (dead-on, very accurate) cracks about Amarao’s whole aesthetic, this all plays out pretty similar to how it did last time, only making it more explicit that Haruko planted the USB. This gives us a sense of the timeline more than anything else, as we cut over Sho & Dai’s apartment, which in contrast to Shinpachi’s traditional lodging over a restaurant building and Orinoko’s as yet unseen in home in the bamboo forest, is a hyper exaggerated version of the kind of external entry, mid-rise apartments familiar in any mid-size or larger city in Japan. It’s as unfancy and unassuming as it gets, subtly underlining just how modest Sho & Dai’s circumstances are as immigrants. Orinoko drops off the katana, and makes it clear it’s for Sho to protect Dai, not that the enamored Sho was thinking that.
Queue the iron steaming off and the klaxons sounding. We cut back to the sushi store yet again: it’s more recap for the viewer to place the events into the prior timeline as we quickly cut back to Sho and Orinoko, just before Sho decides he better charge off in his truck to see what the commotion is, blade in hand. He heads into town only to be stopped by a ridiculous and hilarious stand off between the crooked cops and Amarao, which is also Amarao’s best scene in the whole show, and just barely justifies his otherwise perhaps superfluous presence here. Just before a gunfight can break out between those two, Shonari storms through, blade in hand, slicing off Amarao’s original eyebrows and signature his raver cop Oakley sunglasses. Sho proceeds through the crooked cops next. How did Sho get so bad ass? Who knows, and who cares, we’re heading back into climax, again, so it’s style over everything.
We drop right back into a huge fight between Haruko’s gang and the Mayor’s, Haruko now dressed in the aforementioned kimono she’ll be changing out of shortly, and commanding her gang into action. Dai’s doing his drunken best to defend “nee-san” in the middle of this chaos, when the Samueda’s rockien rolls up with dynamite, stuffing it down Dai’s belt. Dai decides that if he’s going, so is this other guy, locking hands furiously with him. Just then, Sho rolls up to the fight, Dai screaming for him to stay back. Before Sho can charge, Dai tells him to find a future (a theme we’ll see echoed later,) and the dynamite blasts off. Haruko clutches Dai’s head likes it’s Shakespere, and pins this conflict, seemingly rightfully to Sho, on the mayor and his use of endless violence to cover for the machinations of Medical Mechanica (and in this, probably makes the most outright philosophical, sociopolitical point we’ve gotten so far – that governments nurture organized conflicts to benefit giant, faceless entities, so that they can get a slice of that grift too. Haruko knows shock doctrine when she sees it!) Sho knows what he must do – get his vengeance and kill the mayor.
After literally fast forwarding through a clip of the prior plot beats – a meta trick that in the context of any other show would be more insulting than fun and cheeky – we see the assassination of the coward mayor by Shonari from Sho’s point of view, as he charges through the cops to see the mayor trying to murder one of his two friends, hell, two remaining connections to this planet. After decapitating the guileless politico, blood spraying everywhere, Sho finally realizes there’s another liquid besides juice and booze that a Rockien might enjoy the taste of as he licks the mayor’s blood off his flint lips. However, dead mayor or not, the Samueda and the cops still are after Haruko, and after an homage to FLCL OG’s and Alt’s usage of manga-esque paneling, we’re brought back to reality by Haruko whipping up the Keshibishi once more into action against Samueda, as she ducks out with Sho’s Orinoko-made katana. Sho is perplexed at what exactly Haruko even is as it becomes clear to the audience she’s probably just as guilty as whipping the whole town up as the mayor or that cat. However, before Sho can marinate on that too much, Shin picks him up, and they chase after Haruko along with every last fly in the city for some reason, and again, we get our montage of finale imagery with no finale, other than Sho realizing that confused or not about Haruko, he’s ready to beat the pulp out of some people. Cue credits, again.
Orinoko Severs The Past and Hones The Future
Now, in lesser hands, approaching this story from a third angle could get very annoying very quickly. Anime is no stranger to repetition with no added value. Every otaku over a certain age remembers Endless Eight, as others might recall the longest 5 minutes ever in Dragon Ball Z. Yet, with its finale episode, Orinoko, FLCL Grunge cements the efficacy of its approach while drawing out some of the most simultaneously touching, even tear jerking, yet sometimes funny scenes so far, all via Orinoko’s journey and perspective.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself. We open on Orinoko digging around in a scrap heap evocative of any one of the countless rust belt mining towns where giant towers and deep shafts have become garbage dumps, if not toxic superfund sites, while also evoking the places Ide worked at in Progressive, at least at the literal surface level. Below, we get an almost Nausicaa-like subterranean world of bioluminescent mushrooms, down to Orinoko masking up in the tunnels. After having barely any luck collecting scrap metal, she crawls back out of the cavernous dump, only to see Haruko scrounging around the same dump. She appears to be trying to find the parts of her Vespa, delighted that she’s found its handlebars. There’s no Shonari Uber along the freeway that day, leaving Orinoco to walk all the way back along the seaside highway to her family’s house amongst the giant bamboo. It’s the kind of run down traditional home that litters rural Japan as folks flee to the cities, or in this case flee to space, and stands in contrast to Shonari’s apartment and Shinpachi’s Sushi house. If Shin is inheriting a thriving or at least functional business, Orinoco is being left with a run down workshop for a dying art. She finds the food which we know that Sho leaves for her and her dad, and brings it in. Her father stares over a forge, clearly having seen better days. Their assistant robot seems to be in better shape than anyone else there, yet it’s run down & dated too. Queue a steaming giant iron, and the title card, “Orinoko.” Already, it’s clear that while the guys got to have their manic action and hard boiled yakuza story, Orinoko will be capturing the more melancholic, mono no aware, side of FLCL.
We come back from the card as her father and the robot work on Shin’s sushi knife. It’s clear between the garbage scrap metal left on the Earth, her father’s failing health and the dated robot, it’s not a great result – the robot is even apologetic – but what can anyone do? This is kind of “not even the tools and materials exist”-problem that plagues maintaining traditional arts already around the world, and it’s very in keeping to see that in here. It’s not just that Medical Mechanica’s iron are flattening out the wrinkles in humanity’s minds, but that loss is emblematic of a loss of self and traditions like the ones Orinoko and her father are struggling to maintain in their ramshackle home, a situation not unlike the cafe Hidomi’s mom ran, or the bakery Naota’s grandfather ran. Orinoko delivers the knife per the scene we’ve seen before, but we find out that Shin slipped her a 5000 yen bill (like 50 bucks,) underlining that like Sho, Shin’s trying to do anything to keep Orinoko going, even if it mean stealing it out of the till and blaming the scummy customer base for not paying their tabs.
We also see Haruko, trying to balance her many plates of “mayor’s favorite hostess” and “made woman/mob boss,” as she pedals a bike along the hilly highway between the city and countryside. Oh, does she ever need her taxi-yellow Vespa back! On that note, we then return to Orinoko scrap hunting, now with the speaker from Sho’s truck dragging behind her to at least find actual iron and steel, even if it’s not meteoric. She pops back up from the garbage shafts to find Haruko again trying to rebuild said Vespa. Orinoko does Haruko a solid, finding one of the wheels. Haruko can’t help but try to make an innuendo out of it, but Orinoko is nonplussed. Orinoko even opens up, explaining why she’s looking for steel, and Haruko promises to hand off any good steel she finds to Orinoco to repay her for the wheel. One gag later, and Orinoco is also asking if Haruko could track down a whetstone too, so that she can start properly sharpening things again, and Haruko says she’ll find some kind of stone, sure, whatever. We cut back to Orinoko struggling to forge some scrap steel, catching sparks in her eye, and while the craft robot tries to help, Orinoko snaps, and nearly breaks the bot entirely. Before anything can get too dark, Haruko shows up with a sharpening rock (which uh, might be liberated from Dainari’s guts after he couldn’t protect the old mob boss, don’t worry about it.) Even with Haruko around though, it still gets pretty heavy: we find out Orinoko’s mom died when she was 12, and that the craft robot was part of a government program to try to preserve the traditional arts, for all the good that did. With her father’s health failing, the robot has been trying to be like a mom to Orinoco, which she’s not cool with, even if her foolish father is, some echoing Hidomi’s repressed dissatisfaction at the thought of losing her mother’s cafe just because her mom was tired of waiting for her husband to return. Both of them just want their remaining parent to focus on them and entrust them with the future of their business, rather than looking to a past that appears to no longer exist.
Then, it’s back to montage as Shin struggles with his mediocre knife, Sho oversees Dai’s hangover, Orinoko struggles to forge a sword from scrap for Sho, and Haruko gasps for breath, peddling on her awful bicycle on her way to pouring gas on a gang war. In this sequence, we again see Orinoko finding meteoric iron, but now we see the whole forging process, with all 3 in the household hammering away at the blade, her father clearly now on his last legs, but committed to make one more amazing piece. We then see it gleaming, finished, glorious. However, this really is his final piece. While the show manages to defy the odds, successfully playing it for laughs as much as tears while satirizing the pacing of Yoda’s death in Return of the Jedi, it sure hits home by the end. We know just why she’s crying in the episode prior now, and well, even after watching it repeatedly in the process of writing up this review, it just cuts deep every time. There’s something invariably tragic about a daughter losing their father so young, and Grunge unquestionably captures that kind of loss despite its snarky humor. In a weird way, it hits even harder than Dai’s death as there was no heroism, no essential sacrifice, only tragedy. It also puts Sho and Orinoko on weirdly even footing. If Shin has to reject the safety of a good, if stodgy, home, Sho and Orinoko have seemingly been left with no else but each other and Shin. It is not a weight any of them should have to bear at 15.
In this, it’s only fitting that the next scene is Sho receiving the katana from Orinoko, now from Orinoko’s perspective, kind of clarifying how much of Sho’s wild admissions of love are in his head, before yet again, we’re back to the finale, our third chance to get to the
fireworks Medical Mechanica factory. However, rather than immediately connect to that, we see Orinoco head home, now with only the helper robot to greet her. Orinoco is adrift, wondering what she should even do now, and the robot’s mothering attempts, telling her, like Dai told Sho, to find a future, aren’t helping. Suddenly, the robot reboots, and it turns out that her dad downloaded her mom’s memories in there before she passed away. That follows from the rules of the original series with Atomsk being trapped in Canti, but in that moment, the whole scene is so emotionally overwhelming that you can’t care about how it happens to fit with the lore. You’re just there with Orinoko as she desperately tries to back up her mom while Medical Mechanica’s Iron is about to sweep down and wipe her entire past off of the map. In an episode that already crushes the viewer via Orinoko’s losses, her frantic panic is palpable, personalizing the destruction in Alt’s finale to the individual, immediate level. It’s the same visual quote of actual natural disasters (especially the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami,) but with someone who has quietly endeared themselves to the viewers in the same way she had to her friends right in the line of fire instead of than observing at a distance. Also, we flip a classic Evangelion line for good measure – she has to run away.
As Orinoko is left with nothing but her mom’s memories and the clothes on her back, we return again to our finale, finally getting our payoff for Chechov’s fly swarm as it finally coalesces into our long absent Medical Mechanica bad robot of the week. Haruko dukes it out with a sleek blue and yellow number, an oddly Toonami-like colorway to be honest, though closer inspection shows that it’s unquestionably the same model of robot, if not the very same robot, as the one fought in episodes 1 and 2 of the original FLCL, albeit not yet smashed in twain such that it needs to be fought in two parts later. Orinoko somehow links back up with the guys just in time for Haruko to literally drop in, her fight going poorly indeed. Now we get our long overdue N/O event, as Haruko again kisses Shin, bringing in the classic 360-degree truck-in shots in the process, with an even more exaggerated punch line with not only a “horn” job, but then she jams the katana into Shin’s head to quench it. After a moment, she pulls out our long-absent, blue, Rickenbacker bass as well. Again, without everything we’ve seen so far, a sequence like that wouldn’t just feel cheap, but like a daylight robbery or touching something forbidden. Out of context, it has rightfully been cooked on various social media sites. However, with the context of the work and the support that all three of those teens happened to have put into it, it’s strangely well earned, even, perhaps especially with all of the ribald, Freudian imagery. Even the usually inhuman and aloof Haruko can see that team effort in her new weapon of choice, and gives the teens her last ticket to space after she wallops the robot. However, before that can be settled, someone has finally woken up and decided to trash Medical Mechanica’s iron: Atomsk flies out from the garbage crater the meteoric iron was in, as it was not just a meteor: it was him. As Haruko peels out to give chase, the remaining opposing gang members line up to stop her, only to be shown, explosively, that Sho is more than willing to take up arms in his brother’s stead now. Sho indulges his (kind of literal) blood lust as Haruko runs off (and over Amarao.) Shin takes Orinoko to the spaceport because if anyone needs a future off-world now, it’s her, as there’s no place left to go for her alone. We get our actual finale, Sho busting heads, Shin sharpening his blade in a subtle commitment to take over the family business, and Orinoko looking down on the planet she just left, talking to her MomGPT. “Good Morning, Mom” indeed, somehow inverting that line from Prog into a rather clear cut, hopeful ending for a FLCL, or at least it’s a lot more upbeat despite all of its deaths compared to the last time I saw an anime where a young woman with a dip-dyed hair cut ended up with the only ticket off-world (looking at you, Edgerunners, even though Orinoko’s design, is as some have pointed out, is more Ilya Kuvshinov.)
“What did we learn on the show tonight [Karl]?”
So verbose summaries and trainspotting of references aside, what can we take away from FLCL: Grunge? Well, while the original FLCL ends with Noata finally understanding what real maturity is when you’re still only a kid, Prog concludes with Hidomi no longer holding back her emotions from those she cares for, and Alt wraps up with Kana basically coming out, Grunge is a story of two friends who have already begun to find their path and what growth and adulthood means to themselves then ensuring their other friend has the best shot of finding that for herself despite their collective, tremendous losses. This is something they do even though it’s unclear that after all of the tragedy they’ve all been through, and which their world has seen, what anyone’s future holds, even when reaching for the stars. If prior FLCL series are journeys mostly of self, FLCL: Grunge is a three piece rock ensemble by the time credits roll, or to paraphrase Nirvana “[their] little group has always been, and always will until the end.” Grunge doesn’t need to re-litigate nor regurgitate the narrative structure or philosophical frameworks of what preceded it, let alone constrain itself to focusing mostly on a single lead. While the universe’s most rotten, obsessive adult stays forever 19, only doing the right thing on accident as much as intentionally, the episodes themselves gradually reveal the team effort of Shinpachi, Shonari and Orinoko, and why that’s maybe a more mature take on what it is to accept adulthood than perhaps any of the prior iterations of the series that put it mostly on the individual to work out. Grunge makes it clear that only children and the emotionally stunted try to do everything on their own, and they often suffer because of it (see: Amarao, and well, Haruko too.) Meanwhile adults, even if they’re only all 15 and very down on their luck, help each other win. That triptych story flows with a kind of harmony that renders any questions of whether it kept enough of the prior series structural cadence irrelevant, even if it’s a fair question to ask if it had enough space to make a case for its changes otherwise. If the challenge was more than a legend, this show proved you can make 3 characters sincerely get through their coming of age arcs without wallowing in ennui, stealing the spotlight from each other, nor losing the plot, and do so with only 3 episodes, at least for some viewers. Even in its encrypted brevity, FLCL: Grunge emotionally resonates, like a long feedback outro, referencing everything borrowed from its forbearers and then some in its own way. While it won’t fit everyone’s aesthetic preferences, and for others it’s so brief as to leave them wanting more, the whole band is here, amplifiers turned up to their maximum.
That said, though not everyone’s gonna enjoy a bombastic, fast Grunge song, if nothing else, this series leaves me eager to see if FLCL: Shoegaze can also land it in three, and if it can find yet another way to eject tradition in search of new paths to landing the same abstract thesis. Obviously, it’d be a better world still if studios made more FLCLs in the truest sense of it: totally from scratch, daredevil, no rules, new anime series. However, in a world plagued with isekai tropes and light novel adaptations, FLCL: Grunge is as refreshing as Nirvana was in a world of Hair Metal and Mallrat Pop – sure it’s still just Rock n’ Roll with all of the tropes thereof, often quoted explicitly and knowingly, but it beats the mainstream trends, and it hopefully reminds everyone just how exciting the medium can be when traditions – even already bombastic ones – are further ejected.
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Posted on June 12th, 2023
Filed under: Music News — Karl Olson @ 10:42 am
First up, the whole album, Deep Neurotic Network, which loosely captures some future tech anxiety mixed up with the usual otaku life nonsense:
It’s also on all major platforms: Bandcamp, Amazon, Apple, Spotify, Tidal, Deezer, YouTube Music & more.
Don’t your favorite platform listed? Check the hyperfollow page for Deep Neurotic Network for updates.
However, there’s also some cheap & cheerful lyric videos to go with this release too, so here’s a playlist of those:
I strictly speaking have lyrics on deck and sorted for another LP already, but I don’t see myself getting to that in any specific time line, so run this one up for now.
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Posted on March 7th, 2023
Filed under: Music News — Karl Olson @ 1:48 pm
Yep, as we wrap up a long winter, here’s something to warm y’all up.
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Posted on December 24th, 2022
I remember setting up a LiveJournal crossposter for my blog, now it’s a ActivityPub plugin. Let’s see if it worked.
Edit: not looking good.
Edit Edit: Yeah, I think I’ll turn this off until it’s something inbuilt to WordPress.
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Posted on November 23rd, 2022
Filed under: General,Music News,Videos — Karl Olson @ 12:53 am
First, the last point: everything social I’m doing/have done should be in this hyperfollow link, or at least that’s my plan. I’m leaning towards Mastodon though. Still, open to other parachutes, probably actively posting about them on my accounts too.
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Posted on October 29th, 2022
Filed under: Music News,Videos — Karl Olson @ 6:10 pm
I’ll do another post soon, but for now, enjoy this track about the best holiday decoration for any holiday, the 12 Foot Skeleton:
Bandcamp (Free Download):
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Posted on August 19th, 2022
I have been tweeting a lot about the endless cancellations/shelving/write-offs/whatever going on over at Discovery/WB. Until yesterday, I was mostly thinking of it purely as just a fan or at most, a long-time, amateur, industry observer/occasional podcast talking-head. Sure, by happenstance, I am very lucky and happy to have made a few friends in animation and localization, but generally, it all felt like a disaster in the distance, as previous entertainment industry management failures have for me.
Then Discovery started shelving if not fully memory-holing a bunch of shows that weren’t as far from me as I thought, at least once I thought about it. Victor & Valentino had development and storyboard work from my great friend and Storyboard Pro code collaborator Corey Barnes. Infinity Train had storyboard work from Marie Lum, who once kindly said the Storyboard Pro scripts that Corey & I built were worthy of a Winsor McCay Animation Lifetime Achievement award: a level of praise I never expected for any code I’d write.
Ruminating on those connections changed the context. This debacle is all at a very different distance than when I used to complain about TV network mismanagement as an aimless, 20-something forum-goer turned volunteer animation critic & forum mod. Sure, that also meant I was very aware of folks moving on to new roles and new opportunities; by and large, I know this won’t instantly throw people out in the cold. However, more than I’d ever had known previously, I was keenly aware of just how much work was being cast into limbo as I’d literally had helped reduce the work load with the only relevant talent I could contribute. All these realizations did was make me more upset at how callous and unjust the rules around intellectual property and copyrights owned by companies are. The artists and their fans deserve better.
So, while I usually don’t get so heavy, I want to take a moment to say if one your favorite shows is being caught up in all of this, and if the artists who made it have any direct support options – commissions, ko-fi, gumroad, patreon, etc. – now’s a good time to lend a hand, if only emotionally, if not materially, by taking advantage of those options. Further still, we need to agitate for changes in copyright and IP write offs such that that works intentionally orphaned via said write-offs either return to the original creatives, or go instantly into the public domain such that it still frees the original creators, the greater staff and even fans to distribute and celebrate these works, so they are not lost to time. I dearly hope reform like that happens, and that, as I have to admit myself, is no longer me pontificating as someone on the sidelines, but as someone who at least helped people play the game a little bit, and would like to see a system that encourages their endeavors, not one that squanders them for single quarter’s balance sheet.
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Posted on May 22nd, 2022
Filed under: Music News — Karl Olson @ 3:59 pm
A mostly complete mirror of music (barring subscriber exclusives & stuff I never put back on Bandcamp) is now up on archive.org thanks to a friendly bot. Call it the creative commons at work.
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Posted on March 2nd, 2022
Filed under: Music News — Karl Olson @ 10:44 am
Okay. So in case you missed it, Bandcamp was just bought by Epic Games. Long story short, it doesn’t look like anything is going to change here any time soon at Bandcamp according to the hagiographic press release/blog post they made about it.
As such, I’m going to let things ride for now. Like many of you, I have major concerns about the cut that Bandcamp takes going up the chain to Epic & its major investor Tencent, but honestly, I was never happy to deal with PayPal all the time either. That’s always kind of been a trade off with e-commerce, though the history of Bandcamp’s new corporate parents rightfully gives many people pause. If you’re among them, I understand and support you 100% if you no longer want to support artists via Bandcamp. However, so long as Bandcamp isn’t making artists and listeners do anything that seems any different to the current deal here, it is probably still the best place to support me and any other musician who offers music through that platform, for better or worse.
Conversely, should being on Bandcamp ever force me or y’all into a deal that’s harmful, in whatever form that could take, then I will fold up shop here, or should that some how be an even greater risk, I will heavily encourage everyone to shop elsewhere by any means available to me. I’ll redirect the ultraklystron.com domain too, and I’ll post another update like this with my next steps if things go sideways due to Epic/Bandcamp.
Still, I want to thank you all again for supporting me via Bandcamp since 2009. I hope we all can continue that, and if not, I’m right there with you all. I’ve been through this often over the past 20 years ago with mp3 dot com, amp3 dot com, ampcast, myspace, etc. If this is another loss, at least I can tell you with some certainty that someone, somewhere will eventually find that to be an opportunity to do something good for us all again.