FLCL is a controversial anime. While it is clear to any casual observer that there are aspects to it that are praiseworthy, it is not so clear why such an anime is so well regarded. The plot is disjointed and has been described as nonexistent, the only consistency in its visuals is that they are not consistent, and the anime is seeped in so much pretension that it can easily be off putting. While I don’t believe I can convince everyone that FLCL is a masterpiece, I do believe I can at least show why myself and others feel so.
Nostalgia is the main reason why FLCL is so well regarded, but it’s important to recognize that nostalgia isn’t that easy to create. FLCL worked because it was the right anime, at the right place, at the right time. FLCL aired in the United States in 2003 and continued reruns on adult swim for a good while after that. What’s important to recognize is that FLCL aired before the internet revolutionized how anime fans in the West interacted the medium; for perspective YouTube was created two years later in 2005. FLCL had a captured audience that had little choice but to watch FLCL if they wanted to see anime, or even just a cool animated show. The technical aspects of FLCL made it a perfect fit for Adult Swim. The short episode count of six episodes means that it wouldn’t take long for a viewer to see the entire show. The OVA nature of its production means that each episode is a self-contained story that is enjoyable in its own right. It makes the anime more accessible to young viewers who are not used to needing to view episodes in a certain order to be able to enjoy the work, and allows the anime to work as reruns. My personal experience with FLCL is piecing together the entire series through watching the various parts in a random order. The fact it was short meant that I was able to see everything in a few months, and constant reruns meant that I was able to comprehend some of the crazier aspects just for the sheer fact I was able to watch it so much. This brings up another important point, that FLCL is a touchstone anime. People are heavily influenced by their first impressions, and so too are people towards anime. That’s why so many fans love FLCL is because it is what defined anime for them. The wackiness, the randomness, and the mature subject matter helped young viewers define form themselves what anime is and how it is different than cartoons of the West. It is no wonder that so many fans consider FLCL a masterpiece considering it is the quintessential anime in their mind, and most of what has come since has been unable to live up to it.
FLCL is a coming-to-age story, but that begs the question what does it mean to “come-to-age.” The transition to adulthood is a universal experience, but the particulars are not universal. The entire process is a confusing journey of lessons that you’ve learned, lessons that you should have learned, and lessons that you shouldn’t have learned. The chaos that is FLCL is able to capture this disjointed point in a persons life, but the true beauty of FLCL is that this chaos isn’t just noise. While not everything in FLCL has a particular deep meaning, there are sufficient enough aspects of that do. The key difference between FLCL in and other anime is that FLCL works in metaphors. Visual symbols and actions represent aspects of growing up, but the lack of obvious explanation means they can easily be missed. The excessive use of metaphors also means that the interpretation can vary, and a viewer can gain multiple different things from one event.
Episode Three of FLCL is a significant departure from the previous two episodes. The main reason comes down to on thing, Eri Ninamori. Up to this point, Ninamori has just been one of the background characters that Naota hug out with at school. While already shown to be observant, she never stood out much compared to Naota’s other friends who were much more colorful. The only real meaningful impact she had to the story was her question about the school because she was the only person who didn’t know that it burned down, thus giving a reason for the audience to learn. However, that changes in episode three. In that episode she grabs the story and much of the episode follows her.
At this point in FLCL, it can be said that each episode has one general theme or idea that it tackles. For episode three this theme is truth, or possibly the opposite, lies. The central problem for Ninamori faces throughout the episode is that her life is built upon lies and the truth is destroying everything. The first scene describes the catalyst for the events in the episode, namely that Ninamori’s father who is the mayor of Nambasa is having an affair with his secretary. The commotion at her house shows that this scandal is coming to light, but Ninamori’s own talk with the secretary shows that she has known long before that. This means that throughout the entire show to this point, Ninamori has known that the foundation of her family has been corrupted by the infidelity of her father and that her family was living a lie. Ninamori understands this and just plays the part to keep things running smoothly, if not truthfully.
Ninamori’s quite acceptance of this reality doesn’t mean she isn’t trying to do anything about it. She has concocted a scheme to bring her parents together and restore her family, the only problem is that she is her father’s daughter. A politician is a person who has to be mindful of everything they do or say, and make sure their statements are tailored to be best received by their constituents. The politicians who are best able to manage themselves are the ones who are most likely to succeeded. Ninamori has already learned this control and has perfected playing the part of the good daughter. Where Ninamori errs is that she believes she can fool the world with her mask.
Ninomri commits an extremely heinous act. She rigs the election for the play. While we know that the reason she did it was that she wanted to bring her parents back together and repair her family, but there is a deeper reason for it; she thought she could get away with it. This phenomenon is called the Bathsheba Syndrome. It is when people who have obtained success and power grow overconfident and complacent. Their past success and current access to power convinces them that they are more capable than they really are. They reach a point where they make unethical decisions with the full belief they’ll get away with it, but they don’t. While there is little information on Ninamori’s father, it can easily be surmised that he has fallen victim to the Bathsheba Syndrome and committed adultery because that is why men in power do it. However we also see that Ninamori falls into the same trap. When Ninamori reveals the secret to Naota she is the most excited we ever see her. To this point, Ninamor has always been a reserved character. She keeps things close to the vest and avoids the appearance of excess emotion both good and bad, but not during this scene. We see her reveal her master plan in an excited and aggressive manner. She leans into Naota and slowly consumes the scene. By the end of it she has pushed Naota to the wall with no more space to go. The only thing that saves Naota is Haruka’s intervention by pointing out the flaws in Ninamori’s thinking. The big question this scene raises is why. Why would Ninamori reveal her so far successful plan so easily and with such disregard? Part of it was to convince Naota to participate. At this point, Naota was the only aspect of the plan that wasn’t working because Naota refused to play his part in the play. He was the one holdout that she needed to fix, but the method she chose seemed particularly stupid. It is at this point that I feel the simplest explanation is the best. Ninamori confessed everything to Naota because she though it would work, she did everything she did because she thought it would work. She had been fooling the class to include the teacher, and had become drunk on her success. She spoke to Naota to both convince him to play along and to brag at how she has fooled everybody. She didn’t think that her crying probably would have been a more effective way to fool Naota into playing along. She had thought that she had already outwitted reality.
It is here that the allusion in the episode really shines. The play they are playing is Puss in Boots. It’s a fairy-tale where a cats in boots is able to fool a king into believing a poor man off the street is a prince and that man goes on to marry the princess. It is the iconic story of being able to fool your way into success. Ninamori consciously is trying to recreate the play in real life, and is using real people to props to solve her own personal problem. While Puss in Boots is successful in his story, there are far more tricksters that run into failure. It is here where Ninamori fails, because the truth comes out. In a heated argument with Naota, he reveals the truth. It is at this point that Ninamori is overwhelmed and becomes controlled by a monster that appears from her head. This leads into a fun and entertaining fight that results in the monsters comical destruction, but the fight also leads to the most important metaphor of the episode and provides the “moral” to the story. In the process of the fight, Naota as a glowing ball destroys the roof of the gym next door. This gym is the same location where the play is being held. In the next scene we see Ninamori out on the stage bathed in natural sunlight that is a result of the destroyed roof. This is the lesson. Truth is a destructive force and destroys what is around it, but it is only through that destruction that the light can shine through. But FLCL leaves one final twist. While in Naota’s room, Ninamori revealed that she wears contacts in class to hide the fact she has glasses. On the stage she was wearing glasses as if to show that she accepts who she is and will reveal her true self, but that isn’t the case. In a litteral aside to the camera that we can assume is meant for Naota, and with the music stopped to show how this shot is isolated from the events around it, we see that the glasses are a fake. This is the shot that I am least confident in understanding. I personally see it as a release from an ending that was working out too well. The metaphor of the light on the stage was a bit too strong and it needed to be toned down. It was providing an answer that was too clear in an anime that recognizes that life is never that clear, and that is why it was so appropriate for Ninamori to be the character to deliver that line. While the shot was clearly delivered for Naota, it is also function as a break in the fourth wall to the audience. It showed that she was in a play, and the anime itself is a play. It highlights that FLCL is as fake of a story as Puss in Boots, and to not get carried away in the happy ending. Life doesn’t work like that, even if stories must.
Ninamori does receive closure for the ordeal she went through in this episode. In episode 5 (not sure on this), she blithely states that her parents worked things out after she cried and stuff. That line was married to the visual metaphor where she was able to jump over the high bar as a sign that she has overcome this problem. The subdued manner of the scene captures how perfectly mundane her problem was. Now I don’t mean to say that her problem was serious. Episode three clearly shows how dramatic and serious the stakes are for that problem. My point is to show that such problems are common and normal. Countless families shatter due to infidelity, and even families that face no such problem will face tragedy in some manner. Human suffering is a normal and mundane aspect of life. Every person who lives will suffer in some manner, or will have someone they care about suffer. The mundane still needs to be overcome, and Ninamori shows that it is impressive when it is.
Agency and Control
While truth is by far the most important theme that runs through episode three, it is not the only theme to do so. Life is never so simple and neither is FLCL. Another important theme that gets addressed is agency, or to put in another words, why do bad things happen to me. While this entire episode focuses on Ninamori, she is still just a background character. The main character was, is, and always will be Naota. FLCL is his story, but it is through Ninamori’s story in episode three that we understand Naota’s.
The big revelation in Episode two for Naota is to recognize that other people have problems. To this point, his just accepted people as just being who they are. His brother was perfection in the world that Naota knows he is unable to match, Haruko was a force of chaos that brings destruction to wherever she goes, and Mamimi was an annoying girl who Naota has always known. It was for this reason that he was shocked just to learn how bad off Mamimi was. While he could feel something was off, he lacked the maturity and experience to recognize that she was going through some serious problems. He most likely spent more time with her than any other person did, yet he never knew that she was begging for food until his father told him. It was in this episode that he recognized that he must step forward to help others.
Ninamori’s story continues on this vein but in the other direction. While Mamimi’s problem was something he needed to step forward to find and help her with, Ninamori’s problem was forced onto Naota without his desire or consent. He spends most of the episode blithely unaware of the dangers that Ninamori is slowly bringing onto him. He is unaware that by the time the episode begins he has already falling completely into her schemes. Refusing is denied to him, even though he perfectly justified in his refusals. Even though Naota is justified in his own actions, his refusals continue to make the entire situation worse, to the point where he is forced to fight a monster. At the end of the episode we see that the situation is resolved when Naota just plays the part. While I don’t think Naota fully understood the lesson the episode showed, it is clear from viewing that other people pursuing their own story will dictate pages in yours.
It is under the theme of agency that the economic undertones of the episode shine through. Episode three uses both Communism and Capitalism in order to explore the agency of the individual, but it avoids making judgements on it. Instead, these economic ideas are used to accentuate the incredibly complex and unseen threads that connect the various characters in the story. The first sign of this idea occurs when you see Ninamori’s shirt. The shirt’s message is hiding in the seen in the car, with the audience only able to determine that the shirt is red, but at the school you see the shirt clearly says “USSR.” The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, better known as the Soviet Union, was the premier communist state in the 20th Century. It was also a totalitarian state where the conservative estimates are that it was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of its own people. Though the Soviet Union fell nine years before FLCL aired, such a shirt would no doubt be seen as “edgy” for a student to wear to school. The shirt communicates two important ideas about authority, first is that Ninamori has little respect for the authority above her at the school, this can be easily understood by the multiple examples of the teacher’s incompetence, and the shirt foreshadows Ninamori’s own approach to her authority. Ninamori established a totalitarian rule in the class. She creates the façade of due process to hide the fact that she runs the class according to her own personal will and goals. How absolute her control is seen when you observe how everyone, to include the teacher, blindly follow and accept the system Ninamori runs when she had her argument with Naota in front of the class. In fact, Naota was the only person in the class who didn’t bend to her will, yet he had no virtuous motivation for it. Naota only rebelled due to his personal fear of embarrassment and his general apathy towards school.
It is also important to recognize how ironic that shirt is. Of all the people who would be wearing such a shirt, Ninamori would by far be the last one. Ninamori is the bourgeoisie. Her father is a rich man who is also the mayor of the town. It can be surmised that he is the intersection of both business and power. Ninamori has his only daughter is the undeserving recipient of that wealth and power. She has her father’s secretary drive her to school, and she clearly lives in a nice house. While Ninamori has shown that she is competent as class president, it is also clear that the teacher has excessive courtesy towards Ninamori because the teacher recognizes that Ninamori is her social better. Ninamori belongs to a different class of society, even though she does everything she can to avoid appearing so. I imagine that is one of the main reason she associates with Naota and his group of friends precisely because they don’t care about her background. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough evidence in the anime to make any real determination on that point.
The highlighting of Communism serves the purpose of making the viewer pay more attention to economic ideas, and that leads into the presentation of Capitalism. Capitalism is why Ninamori has a problem, but it is also not something the anime or Ninamori blames. While Ninamori’s father was responsible for his infidelity, it was others looking to make money that were responsible for the scandal getting spread. Naota’s father eagerly publishes the magazine that exposed the scadle in the hope of making money. The shop that sold that magazine did so because the shop owner wanted to sell her excess Crystal Pepsi, so thus making money. And the secretary betrayed her lover and employer to both get money and to have the satisfaction of bringing down Ninamori’s father who epitomized the bourgeoisie. It is important to show there is one major inconsistency on this point in the episode. We learn in the class from the students that the scandalous magazine is being sold at a store to sell the Crystal Pepsi, but then we see Naota’s father sell said magazine at said store after school in plain view of Ninamori. It could be that Naota’s father is selling more copies because the first run sold out, but regardless, it has a great thematic value even if it doesn’t follow logic. We end the sequence by seeing Ninamori drinking the Crystal Pepsi on stairs leading downward. The stairs themselves shows that Ninamori is on her way to a dark place since the stairs are heading underground, but the fact she is not at the bottom means that Ninamori has not completely subcome to depression and darkness. The more powerful metaphor is her drinking the Crystal Pepsi. The drink is a symbol of the capitalist system that brought various people together who took actions in pursuit of profit that has brought Ninamori to a state of hell, and those people didn’t even have the courtesy of being malicious. Her conversations with the secretary and Naota’s father showed that neither of those people has any personal issues with Ninamori herself, and even sympathized with her plight. But Ninamori drinks the Crystal Pepsi and participates in her own destruction.
This one scene addressing one of the most pressing question of life, why do bad things happen to good people. While Ninamori takes her own unethical actions in the episode, it is important to remember that she was responding to a crisis. There is no indication that she did anything wrong beforehand, and I would consider wrong to assume so. Ninamori did bad things because bad things happened to her. I see the anime clearly showing that Ninamori was wrong in taking her actions, but that doesn’t justify why she was in such a position in the first place. FLCL uses Capitalism to attempt to understand this problem of evil. A free market works by having a large number of individuals trade value in order to pursue their own interests. The collective process of individuals moving such a manner creates a noticeable effect that is beyond anyone’s control. The system isn’t malicious, it just is. It shows that the individual doesn’t really matter and you’re not that important. It also shows that you participate in that system as well.
This dose of reality presents an interesting contrast to Ninamori’s approach. Ninamori chooses to address her problem by not attacking reality, but attacking fiction. Ninamori believes in the power of story to be able to change her reality and commits herself fully to doing so. The ending of the episode and the resolution we learn later shows that Ninamori was probably more right that wrong. Ninamori is the character who best shows the power of FLCL.