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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