Innovation is an idea that’s a lot harder to produce than what it may seem. Within an industry, you’ll see a significant amount of titles or products that all seem to look the same simply because innovation is difficult to create at all times. However, that’s why innovation and creativity are necessary elements. Without them, stagnation starts to creep in, possibly causing the failure of an industry. It’s weird to think that the anime industry would have this problem, what with hundreds of shows and multiple unique ideas being produced every single year. Even though some may say there’s a decline, numbers show that the anime industry has been happily growing since the 90s with more and and more shows and larger profits being made. However, just like other inevitable phenomena — war, famine, another shitty parody movie that tries to be Airplane but fails — there are times in an industry that creativity and innovation are not as present or simply very much needed. The early 2000s was a situation like this for anime. The industry was just starting to grow after the mega hits of the late 90s, and needed something new in order to inspire others and rocket itself into the massive industry that it is today. A few shows started to display interesting ideas that were based around older series (such as One Piece, Rurouni Kenshin, Gundam), but I would argue FLCL (pronounced “Fooly Cooly”) was that one big thing that had such massive creativity that it showed not only what anime could do, but how the industry could turn from a once blossoming tree, which slowly grows each year, into a gargantuan oak that eats orcs and takes down Saruman in the second act. FLCL is inspirational because the show itself is an inspired work. It wore its heart on its sleeve and showed a massive amount of references and wacky humor while attempting to combine interesting ideas from many different places. FLCL’s philosophy is, in a sense, the same as a monkey’s attempt at art: Throw as much shit on the wall as you can and use what sticks. However, this works so well because what stuck was so polished and great that it didn’t matter if it was the weirdest piece of art a creature could excrete and smear on a wall.
At its heart, FLCL is a coming-of-age story about a boy, Naota Nandaba, who starts to discover the world of adults, as well as comes to terms with his feelings and who he is in life. However, unlike most other coming-of-age stories, this one is told through robot battles, guitar fighting, random jumps in animation and style, as well as an incessant amount of dick jokes cleverly snuck into every other scene. Naota is a 12-year-old kid living with both his widowed father and his grandfather who believes nothing ever happens in his hometown. He goes through day-to-day experiences, (school, friends, home, hanging out with his brother’s ex-girlfriend Mamimi) and doesn’t see much of a point in things. All of this changes when he’s run over by Haruko Haruhara, a pink-haired, hyper 20-year-old woman. After accidentally almost killing Naota with her Vespa scooter, Haruko performs “CPR” by kissing Naota until he regains consciousness and he freaks out. She then proceeds to hit him in the forehead with her left-handed bass, sending him flying, and then flees the scene. Hours later, a horn appears on Naota’s forehead where he was hit and he tries to cover it up with a bandage. Haruko continues to invade his life, questioning what Naota’s hiding on his forehead under the bandage. She decides to move into Naota’s home under the pretense of their housekeeper in order to continue inspecting him. Naota attempts to hide his horniness until his emotions run wild during a conversation with Mamimi and the horn shoots from his forehead, spawning two battling robots. The robots battle until Haruko steps in and helps to defeat one, causes “brain damage” to the other, and ends the fight. It’s then explained that Haruko created a black hole where Naota’s brain had been, making an open portal for these robots to come out of. From here on, each episode involves Naota dealing with growing up and finding himself all while robots continue to appear out of his head each time his emotions get the better of him, causing catastrophe and the probable annihilation of the world. All of this is told in only six episodes with one of the most kick-ass soundtracks I’ve ever heard (from the alternative Japanese band “the pillows”).
Herein lies a little bit of genius. Each of the six episodes, while dealing with this overarching plot, involves several different subplots and character interactions that are all important and chock full of humor, fun and clever animation, as well as intrigue to the underlying story. Obviously, Naota struggles with his difficulties in growing up, such as dealing with his very close brother leaving, coming to terms with his feelings and emotions towards Mamimi and Haruko, as well as his differences with his dad. However, the other people in the show also go through a lot of progression and growth in these six short episodes of a series. Mamimi constantly struggles with her mental issues and her loneliness after being dumped, relying on addictions and unhealthy habits. Naota’s friend Ninamori struggles with her parents divorce due to her cheating father, her father’s love of his job over his own daughter, and her constant bottling of emotions to try and be adult. Even Haruko has to come to terms with the way she’s treating Naota and to an extent her apathetic viewpoint on humans.
Along with these themes, there are deeper ones below the surface that the series explores in this coming-of-age story. Haruko is shown as the constant kick-starter in Naota’s life for becoming an adult. Haruko is the mysterious, sexually open, and independent older woman that Naota feels attracted to, first starting his interest in love and sexual arousal. She plays with his emotions, but also gives him advice and kindness when he needs it, seemingly being both the devil and angel on his shoulder that guides him through his life. Each event with Haruko causes Naota to think about the decisions he’s made and helps him to grow a little. In this way, Haruko herself becomes a metaphor for Naota’s coming-of-age. In fact, she even jokingly alludes to this later in the series when Naota asks who she really is by saying to him, “I’m an illusion of your youth. A manifestation of the feelings in your adolescent heart.”
Another theme discussed involves the constantly repeated phrase in the show that Naota’s head is empty. There is actually a double meaning to this repeated phrase: One meaning is the obvious black hole that occupies the inside of his cranium, but the show also explores the fact that as an apathetic kid, Naota feels stuck, confused, and can’t think until he finally grows up a bit and knows who he wants to be in life. This metaphor expands through the series, particularly in the baseball episode, as Haruko comments on his playing saying, “Nothing can happen till you swing the bat.” He’s stuck and his head is empty until he decides what he wants, who he is, and thinks for himself, finally swinging the bat and making that home run.
There’s also the idea that each incident with a robot is brought on by the unchecked pre-teen emotions that Naota feels. Each episode shows a negative emotion (fear, anger, jealousy, pride, etc.) as a trigger to Naota spawning another mechanical monster from his head. As his emotions cause pain and damage to Naota and the people in his life, each robot physically shows this destruction to the viewers by spawning from his brain and attacking the town and the people in it. In fact, this metaphor also coincides with how the robots are defeated. Each time a robot is fought or destroyed, Naota comes to terms with his feelings and steps closer to understanding himself.
However, even when topics can be very deep or dark in this series, humor is never far behind. A lot of times, the show likes to blend in off-beat references to liven up an otherwise funeral home. A few examples of this are shots where the camera pans a la The Matrix, a curry eating scene where it’s so hot, Naota’s face literally turns into the mask from Scream, as well as a segment where an incredibly serious phone call is suddenly animated and voiced like South Park (Kenny is even seen as a car mirror ornament when the teacher’s car explodes). There are other scenes where the art and animation changes, becomes watercolors, turns into something straight from Loony Tunes, becomes an animated manga, and times when random real images are photo-shopped in during scenes filled with very serious discussion. The show also has an incredible propensity to use sexual humor, especially dick jokes, in every other scene. While there is discussion on sexuality, particularly as it relates to Naota and his hormonal development, every other scene seems to also include a quick remark for comical effect. For example, there is a scene where a robot emerges from Naota’s head, with people exclaiming, “It’s bigger than before!”, “Why won’t it stand up?”. Another scene does the same by having Haruko fish into Naota’s head, saying “Hey, I didn’t know boys felt like this inside!” and Naota exclaiming back, “Hey, don’t touch me there from behind!”
Insert Monogatari joke about deep plot and huge character development here
The show enjoys being both deep in metaphor and shallow at times in its humor, causing an almost stream of consciousness effect to the overall anime and hiding its true meaning behind the occasional immature joke. It’s interesting to note that this same idea is also used when discussing the title of the anime, FLCL. Fooly Cooly, as it’s spelled phonetically, is a term that means fooling around in a sexual way, as shown in this animated manga segment from the show:
While it could be said that this just shows the creators wanting to make yet another perverted joke, I also believe Fooly Cooly in this sense means “fooling around” when it comes to the ideas, style, and animation of the show itself. The director Kazuya Tsurumaki had just come off working as the assistant director on the Evangelion series, a coming-of-age story in its own right (if significantly darker), and finally was getting his own chance to shine in the director’s chair. Tsurumaki stated he wanted to “break the rules” of anime for this show and do a lot of things differently simply because he wanted to. It’s very easy to see that this comical, random, and strange romp through a coming-of-age story is clearly his idea of “fooling around”. However, it’s a type of fooling around that I fully consent to, even if it is a touch naughty.
FLCL is a confusing package, but it’s a series that is massively innovative for everything it tried, especially for its time, and also for all of the beautiful comedy and metaphor it was able to fit into the small package of six episodes. At a time where many anime studios were still trying to figure themselves out, this show ran them over with a Vespa scooter and banged them on the forehead, letting creative ideas spew forth from the newly formed portal in their head. When a show sweeps you off your feet and does that to you, that, as insane of a concept as it is, is called creativity and innovation.
Research and Inspiration for this Discussion:
- Anichart.com – http://anichart.net/
- A.V. Club Reviews – http://www.avclub.com/tv/flcl/
- And of course, Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FLCL
- Forum user Sheamon’s list of references (about middle of page) that covers probably half of all references– http://www.toonzone.net/forums/adult-swim-toonami-forum/98620-refrences-flcl.html#.VRuhdBB4rp4