I first watched FLCL during my senior year of high school way back in 2011. Back then, I had seen very little anime outside of Studio Ghibli, Makoto Shinkai’s films, and a handful of mainstream anime series, such as The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Bakemonogatari, and Fate/Stay Night. I had just started reading the popular animation blog Cartoon Brew, and was only just beginning to understand the many intricacies of the art of animation.
I have been on kind of a Gainax kick recently, so I decided to re-watch FLCL. Originally, due to the fact that my knowledge of animation was so juvenile, I thought that FLCL was simply an over stylized drug trip. Now, many years later, with my new acquired knowledge of the animation medium, I have realized that FLCL is…. An over stylized drug trip. That being said, there are so many things about it that I was unable to notice before. The design of this anime is absolutely astounding. The narrative, although short and filled to the brim with comedy, is still incredibly dense. The biggest change, however, was my reaction to FLCL. This time, I truly felt it. I felt the emotions imbued within the animation.
I think this brings up an interesting concept: The concept of perspective. As you grow and mature, you begin to see things differently. Ideas that may have seemed ridiculous to you as a child make much more sense as an adult. Your perspective changes as you age and gain experience in the world. You are molded into a new person by the things you do, the places you visit, and the people you meet.
I believe that it is also important to grow and mature in regards to your taste in media and entertainment. In this case specifically, I am referring to animation. It seems to me that the animation industry in the West in extremely childish and repetitive. We are not gaining experience and adjusting our perspectives. We are stagnating in a world of sequels, buddy comedies, and Disney recreating the same types of experiences over and over again. If we do not have new experiences, we cannot learn from those experiences, and we cannot gain access to new perspectives.
There are many aspects of FLCL that I think are far beyond the expectation of the average Western viewer of animation. They expect kiddie fare; simplistic, easily digestible, positive stories with accessible, and therefore bland, animation styles. What we need are mature, personalized stories and artwork. We need to gain a new perspective. We need to grow up artistically.
I was unable to see how beautifully designed and personal FLCL was initially because I was not mature enough artistically. Over the years, as I consumed a variety of challenging, interesting animation experiences, I slowly matured to the point where now, I can see things in FLCL that went completely unnoticed by me before. Take for example this scene:
This is a fantastic scene that deeply develops the character Mamimi without the use of any dialog whatsoever. She walks solemnly along the bridge, drops her video game that she was playing previously, and lights a cigarette. Within the context of the episode, this scene develops her character substantially. Everything from the music, the art style, and the composition of the shots all work together in tandem to make this scene work. Not only does it succeed in doing so, but it does it in an expressive, personal way.
It also demonstrates how well this show can develop characters without explicitly developing characters. This is in stark contrast to Western animated work, which tends to pick a character, and then forcibly develop them through dialog, conflict, comedy, a love interest, or something else. FLCL leaves room for the characters to breathe. You can tell a lot about a character by just observing them.
The opening of the first episode demonstrates this well. We, as the viewer, do not yet know anything about the show’s characters, setting, or story, but all of that changes within the first ninety seconds. The camera moves sporadically around, showing a bridge and briefly focusing on a passing motorcycle, foreshadowing the appearance of Haruko later, before settling down on Naota and Mamimi hanging out by the water. Naota is working on some homework, Mamimi is swinging a baseball bat. Suddenly, she bends down and begins to snuggle with Naota, to which he replies detachedly, “You smell like cigarettes”.
To which she replies, “I haven’t been smoking”. She continues to get closer to him when he says, “Why do you always do stuff like this?” Mamimi replies, “If I don’t do this, I’ll overflow”. Naota questions, “What do you mean? What will happen?” Mamimi responds, as she falls to the grass with Naota:
“Probably something amazing”.
Ninety seconds in, and the viewer already has an established idea of the relationship between these two. The writing is witty and expressive, and most importantly, it is indirect. The show does not smash the viewer over the head with characterization. There is a ton of breathing room here, and it really allows this scene and these characters to shine.
FLCL also does an incredible job of juggling a bunch of characters who are all active simultaneously. Unlike the average Western animated piece, where the action tends to take place linearly, concerning only the characters who are involved with the current conflict in the current scene, FLCL somehow manages to keep many of the other characters “alive” in the world, even if the main plot at the time does not concern them. I love this section in episode three, where there is a large explosion near the school, and then it cuts to a shot of Mamimi. She is not even relevant in this episode, but she is witnessing the explosion from a distance.
In this instance, Mamimi is still “alive” within the FLCL world, even though she is not really involved. This adds quite a bit of depth to the story.
FLCL also has some of the slickest transitions I have ever seen. I love this one here, where Ninamori is looking through a transparent toy water gun, admiring the sunlight streaming through the colored plastic, until we see Mamimi through the plastic as well. This changes the viewer’s focus from the water gun, to Mamimi. This is simply epic framing.
This scene is from episode five, which has some of the best animation in the series from Hiroyuki Imaishi. Screen caps do not do it justice. You have to see it in motion. There are some amazing fights with hyper stylized, super expressive movement with Haruko. It is a visual feast. FLCL also has very good layout in its action scenes, with this series of shots from a fight in episode two providing a great example:
The shot begins with a close up of Naota tackling Mamimi in an effort to save her, and then the camera cuts to a wider angle, making room for the upcoming projectile from offscreen.
I am not quite sure what it is about FLCL that draws me in. It could be the nostalgic late 90s rock music soundtrack getting to me, or maybe it is the sense of aimlessness that the characters in FLCL seem to possess, particularly Naota, Haruko and Mamimi. They seem to be struggling to find their way in their world and to discover their true identity. They yearn for a certain unexplainable, unobtainable freedom. Or maybe it is just because FLCL is simply enjoyable to watch.
My main point in discussing all of this is to bring light to the fact that I did not see any of this detail in FLCL during my first viewing. I grew and matured artistically, and gained new perspectives as a result. Only then was I able to truly absorb FLCL. I realize that not everyone has an interest in animation specifically, but people all around the world consume media and entertainment. It is of the upmost importance that the media we consume helps us to better ourselves. If all it does is propagate stagnation, then we as consumers, and as people, will stagnate as well.
What will happen if our media encourages expression and personality?
Probably something amazing.