FLCL At 10 Years: Our Iron Lung

“pictures came and broke your heart
we can’t rewind we’ve gone too far”

– The Buggles

After some time passing, along with some negligence on my side, I have come to realize that more than just the witnessing of the rise and fall of an entertainment enterprise, but of the tenth anniversary of a singular event of the anime otaku timeline. How any times can we say that we bore witness to blunt force trauma by guitar, teleporting robots via cranial space, satellite knuckleballs, John Woo bullet free-for-alls, wanton pop culture references, streams-of-consciousness musing on everything from Hideki Kaji to ironed brains as indie rock blares out like a psychedelic greek chorus from space all within its few scant hours of running time? Hideaki Anno‘s talented disciple, Kazuya Tsurumaki’s straight to video experiment, FLCL (Furi Kuri) was something akin to an end-all to the so-called “edge anime” boom that came on the heels of his senpai’s Shin Seiki Evangelion, a series for which many can consider the last great game changer for the anime medium. Of all the would-be landmarks of the post-Evangelion era, it was the legacy of this OAV that helped cement japanese animation as a propulsive force in contemporary creative media by looking at the walls laid out by masters of old, only to laugh in its face with a rare childlike glee by also introducing many fans to animation bad boys like Shinya Ohira, Mitsuo Iso & Hiroyuki Imaishi. And even if this particular force left behind a slew of forgotten experiments, and pale imitations, few shows ever found the mix displayed within a little tale of a boy trapped within a facade of his own making.


Like a cluster-bomb of devil-may-care, FLCL shared the tale of young Naota Nandaba, a boy plagued two-fold by a trio of young women who upon his entire 12 year foundation to grownupland begins to unravel. One, the wayward girlfriend of his baseball playing brother in the States, and the pink-haired, Vespa-riding, Guitar-wielding cretin who has just muscled her way into his house claiming to be an alien. One could say that based upon those few words, it paves the way for a standard anime plot the likes of dozens of shows before hand, and yet that is where the similarities end, and the words mutate beyond any semblance of genre. FLCL, in all six of its manic episodes never plays it safe, and burns the mountain of EVA money not unlike a certain Joker after riding down it like a playground slide. For a long time, I had been aware of the word on the street that the folks at Gainax were little more than a bunch of nerdy malcontents without a shred of business sense, and in this case, it looked more as if they couldn’t give a rat’s ass about such sentiments. FLCL is anime turned pop-exorcism, a means by which decades of children’s programming had become enshrined vocabulary for nearly a generation of man-children, suddenly regurgitated in a technicolor apocalypse. More a giddy concept album piece than atypical anime, it is Pink Floyd’s The Wall without the unnecessary baggage, and five times more universal upon repeat viewings.

Upon first hearing word of this project via the then-phasing out method of anime pen-palling, I ached to see any available imagery to the follow-up good ol Gainax had in store after the troubled production of Kareshi Kanojo No Jijyo. It was that show’s sudden change in director, and almost schizophrenic series of narrative cul-de-sacs, ending in a slightly hopeful, albeit muddled ending which left me a little concerned for where the recently crowned otakings were headed. How little did I know that as my search for images on a friend’s computer would bore an oddly fitting image, almost perfectly representative of the decade, no strike that, millennium we were in fact leaving behind.

Harbinger.

How little was I to know that this one project was to become a spectre of fortune which would possibly haunt me for an entire decade.

I won’t lie, it was in fansub form that I first caught the series, and was the very last acquisition of the VHS generation I had ever received. Quite apt, I must add. My initial reactions were one of both confusion, and amusement at the clearly more quirky approach the staff was talking with this project. And by the third episode, the show’s skewed take on very familiar small cities and the ennui that can enshroud the people living there began to make a beautifully arcane sense. The series never ceased to instill a sense of alienation, but also of a strange, repressed child beast within just clawing to get out. By the Crazy Sunshine ending of FURIKIRI(Episode 4), it was clear that the beast was satiated by some kind of raw kinship I only exhibited during a live performance. When it finally came time for Naota to step up and “swing the bat”, I rose to my feet, and shouted in vindicated joy. I couldn’t contain myself. And even though the tape only contained the first four episodes, the feeling that the house was indeed ready for a new kind of entertainment. It was as if Tsurumaki & staff knew that an era of sameness was just over those oh-so glorious rocks ahead, and decided to dive straight out of a plane with no parachute, a can of petrol in one hand, and a lighter in the other. A completely unapologetic work, punctuated by a sense of humor, seemingly aimed at the fans who took Evangelion just a little too seriously. That kind of self-deprecation was one of the major qualities that attracted me to the studio, and leaves me longing for in bands of creatives.

And in the brief period of time spent before the formation of Synch-Point, and the announcement of a US DVD release, music was purchased, artbooks were pilfered, personal artworks were submitted, and the feeling was that now, anything was possible. Soon after, the Disney acquisition of Miyazaki heralded the beginning of an unprecedented anime boom. And while it can be more attributed to cable TV exposure, video games, as well as a swelling interest in anime conventions, a part of me feels as if the promise of FLCL was one where conceptual barriers were broken, and yet could speak for a generation open to a greater variety of expressions than previous ones before. To see such a cultish title gain such a following (not to mention a pretty substantial repeat circuit on Adult Swim, where many anime series’ were gaining steam stateside) was a revelation atop revelation. It still warps the mind that something so defiantly insane would be such a hit. And this is where FLCL’s substantial power lies…in continuing Gainax’s early tendencies toward breaking down holy barriers, offering rich concepts & characters without losing their populist center. Not unlike a certain PIXAR, who’s daring project choices have long defied conventions, only to remain one of the most consistently acclaimed animation studios of all time. (and not unlike Gainax, have recently run into a “to-sequel-or-not-to-sequel” dilemma of their own, possibly altering public perception.) A feat this difficult must remain as an inspiration to future artists & viewers, as new generations come in to carry on in the expansion & mutation of entertainment mediums.

But the legacy of FLCL doesn’t stop there for me, as the third and final volume of the series was rendered difficult to special order via my traditional outlet, leaving me little choice but to try my luck at a convention. Where (of course) Broccoli offered a terrific Collector’s Case with the penultimate disc. With only a few left in stock, I purchased the DVD & case as well as chatted things up with the booth folk as a girlfriend at the time was a budding fan of the uber-niche Studio & Store. How little did I know at that time that this meeting would either directly, or indirectly come full-circle years later when I came under their employ. By way of good friends, healthy notions, and an openness to learning the terrain, FLCL has always been something of a lucky rabbit’s foot. A reminder that not everyone had to understand what was being attempted with a particular work, but rather that a diverse populace could in fact find relatability within such a commercial loose cannon.  It is proof that taking risks can have great benefits, and that the viewing public is not as by the numbers as the desperate corporate machine would like to believe.

Both a call to arms, and a warning of the potentially bland days ahead celebrated the wanton immaturity of Haruko Haruhara (Mayumi Shintani’s role has become something of legend as she didn’t really do much after this and KareKano), as well as lampooned the lack of maturity in most of the adults populating the series. For all of Mabase’s growing number of elder children, it is no wonder that Naota, Mamimi & Eri struggle to grasp what it is to be a collected personality. And yet the show’s implication is that despite the brewing angst symboized by the town’s smoky, decaying skies, the possible only answer is to merely enjoy life, and to let the lessons land where they will. It treats the proceedings like a child’s game on the surface, carefully hiding potentially important messages for Japanese youth in those strange Pre-Battle Royale days. It never attempts to lay out any clear-cut plan of attack on the surface, and adheres closely to the philosophy that there are no true heroes or villains. No good or evil. Merely people and their desires, and the occasional friction that comes with them. All the while, the journey the most important element. All the references, bizarre imagery, and garage band sensibilities perfectly nailing the world of the internet, and the cacophony resulting from information overload. An environment which makes it easy for many to long for black & white strokes of reality, despite the grand rainbow just outside our windows. Perhaps this is what connected with so many.

For me, the legacy of this series continues on as a reminder of what can be done when a medium holds its head up high and breaks a much needed sweat. From going to concerts, to extended discussions, unexpected meetings, to even owning a lot of leftover memorabilia , it seems that I’ll still be chasing that pesky pirate king as long as the journey will allow.

There was a manifesto watermarked upon nearly every moment of FLCL, one that heeded a call for us all to look deep within for new non-formulaic answers to old questions. Unlike Imaishi’s latter hit, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagaan, the themes were buried within the chaos as opposed to that show’s blazing  forest fire of a billboard.. and even Evangelion’s dangling full-frontal assault. The world is far more protean than we give it credit for at times, and as such, a place where ideas should sprout forth rather than marginalized by a collective denial called adulthood. Whatever the case, the jury’s still out as to what it all truly is. Where will your journey take you?

3 thoughts on “FLCL At 10 Years: Our Iron Lung”

  1. Very nostalic indeed. Flcl was a huge influence in my anime watching. Nice to be taken back to those days. Oh I wish I were able to relive them…. It has been long since I have been moved by a series like that.

  2. Oh man, this series was the first I’d ever watched that truly confused me on the first go around. Everything from the giant iron to the stream-of-consciousness runs had me slack-jawed. I watched it about 3 more times though and wiki’d it, etc. Now I love it like it’s my firstborn child!
    Very nice, article, good sir.

  3. Thanks so much! It has remained (for me anyway) one of the premiere anime works that reveals that the medium can be daring, unique & still leave grand impact. And it’s true. It connects well past the surface randomness, and offers a striking new take on the coming-of-age story. FLCL’s legacy is something that remains every bit as important to me as a fan of film & music as much as any kind of anime admirer. And even after all this..it still offers new and challenging ideas. And that is as good a praise as I can give any piece of media.

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