Revivals are a tricky thing. There’s a definitive thin line between an impassioned continuation of an earlier work and a nostalgic cash-in. The last few years have seen a plethora of remakes, revivals, and continuations of old properties. All of which have had wildly differing degrees of success. Arrested Development‘s fourth season was met with a lukewarm response. Fuller House drew divisive criticism, and Twin Peaks: The Return was… pretty much universally praised (Go Team Lynch).
So when viewing the trailer for Adult Swim’s co-produced continuation of FLCL–Progressive and Alternative–it’s hard not to have the excitement checked by a healthy dose of skepticism. First of all, we have a new writer (Hideto Iwai replaces Koji Enokido), a new director (Katsuyuki Motohiro takes the reigns from Kazuya Tsurumaki), and the loss of the team at the legendary animation house Gainax.
Haruko, Naota, the robot Canti, and that yellow Vespa
The new trailer shows off a lot of moments that are retreaded from the original series: a melancholy monologue, manga-fied scenes, suspiciously phallic robots rising from foreheads. These may whet some fan’s appetites, but the thing about the original that made it special was unpredictability. It was brash, loud, fresh, and most importantly experimental.
On April 1st, Adult Swim showed the first episode of Alternative, which is actually the third season of the show. The episode was broadcast for their annual April Fool’s joke and was shown in Japanese with English subtitles.
Judging from this first episode, the show seems to be trying to emulate the original series’ narrative. FLCL Alternative‘s first episode played things relatively safe, following the same story beats but with a female protagonist. That’s all fine, but again, what made FLCL special was its uniqueness. If these new seasons are just going to follow in the shadow of the first, then what’s the point? (A: money, most likely).
Haruko has found a new set of kids to terrorize
The formula for the original is almost impossible to replicate. Sure, some of the same pieces are here in this new iteration. Japanese rock band The Pillows are back providing the soundtrack, and the iconic Haruko Haruahara returns, but these are just cosmetic elements. So many other things had to came together to make FLCL work in the first place. Let’s take a look at some of the cosmic elements that had to align to turn this quirky passion project into a cult classic.
Groundwork of FLCL
The original FLCL (aka Fooly Cooly, aka Furi Kuri, aka etc. etc.) came out in Japan between 2000-2001. A release in the West followed in 2003. When it aired on Adult Swim during the summer of 2003, it became a phenomenon, capturing the zeitgeist of an era–the early 2000s malaise that had set in after the raucous, grungy, alternative tide of the previous decade. It was a story about growing up, about navigating the difficulties of puberty, and about a girl on a Vespa who made giant robots pop out of a young boy’s head.
Needless to say, FLCL was something different. The team behind it were made up of mostly young talent at studio Gainax, still riding high from the mid-90s success of their groundbreaking Neon Genesis Evangelion. Director Kazuya Tsurumaki created FLCL to break preconceptions about anime and create something that was short and densely packed.
Like many of the anime projects that were produced during the bubble economy of the 80s (Project A-ko, Robot Carnival, Akira, etc.), FLCL was an animator’s anime. The storytelling and the things that happened on screen were in service to the mayhem that the staff wanted to animate.
Episodes slid in and out of several different animation and artistic styles, often at the behest of the personal taste of whatever staff member had art director duties for a specific episode or even a specific scene.
Director Kazuya Tsurumaki created FLCL to break preconceptions about anime and create something that was short and densely packed.
A strong example of this is the formalized first episode, which slips into a moving manga panel for what would otherwise be a straightforward conversation. Another example would be the otherworldly fluidity of episode 5, which also contains a scene that successfully parodies the seemingly un-parody-able South Park.
Madness and Absurdity
The animation wasn’t the only place where the original shined. The storytelling was also a strange experiment. On the surface, a simple coming-of-age tale, but underneath a subversive study of pubescent hormonal changes, broken family dynamics, and societal failings. Combine all of that with a vague plot involving a mysterious company that wanted to smooth out the wrinkles in people’s brains (whose headquarters is shaped hyper-metaphorically like a clothing iron), and did I mention there was also a space pirate?
Add to that the super-charged punk rock of The Pillows, whose songs were used not just for opening and ending themes, but also as every piece of background music in the show. You can begin to understand the components that made this such a madcap slice of brilliance.
The center of the show and what made all these disparate parts hang together was the characters. They weren’t the deepest, or the most original, but they all had something driving them, an emotional core that was easy to relate to or at least sympathize with. FLCL had heart.
That may be the single most important element: it doesn’t matter what you do – far out animation, left-field gags, incomprehensible backstory – as long as you have characters that viewers care about. It also helps to have someone in charge with a deft hand and a clear vision to pull everything together effortlessly.
The FLCL bunch
Anyone who has seen the original will know that Tsurumaki and his team achieved their goal of creating something short and densely packed. The 6 episodes of FLCL are stuffed with bursts of kinetic animation, thickly layered metaphors, and imaginative art direction. At the same time, it manages to make room for quieter introspective moments and pathos. You can only gape in awe of how it all comes together without falling apart.
Part of that is due to the confidence of a young group of creators who were willing to (and most importantly allowed to) take risks. As mentioned before, Gainax was still coasting from Evangelion. Tsurumaki was making his directorial debut after co-directing under Hideaki Anno on the Evangelion projects. The timing was just right for a risk like FLCL.
The center of the show and what made all these disparate parts hang together was the characters.
However, now we’re in 2018. Can we expect similar results? FLCL was a passion project created at a certain time by a certain group of people under very specific circumstances. These sequels have been resurrected by a large amount of money and a completely different group of people.
Kazuya Tsurumaki is involved with the project in the role of a supervising producer, whatever that means. It’s more than likely just an obligatory title to tide over hardcore fans. Honestly, it will be incredibly easy to tell whether he had any creative input whatsoever into these two new seasons. We’ll just have to wait and see until the rest of the episodes air.
Despite the tone of this article, I am hoping for the success of the new seasons
The reason a revival like Twin Peaks: The Return worked so well was because David Lynch had more story to tell, and he was given the budget and creative freedom to make that happen. It’s hard to see FLCL Progressive and Alternative following that same path, especially with virtually none of the same crew and the shadow of the original towering over them.