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. It’s 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, a callback to her driving in Alternative.
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 it 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 7 years later in the present. 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 fate of world is seemingly held 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 imagery 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. He never got to “swing the bat” to his satisfaction, and regrets it. 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 if not unsendable, 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 and into their own 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 of 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 to him, 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 including 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.
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