Okay, so I figured it was time for another essay on arts and such, and so I decided to expand the horizons of The Achiever’s Index into the world of animation. And for starters, we have the unbelievably surreal and mind-warping animated event FLCL, rendered in English as “Foolie-Coolie.”
Actually a combination of the Japanese kanji letters フリクリ, which I am informed make a nonsense sound something akin to “Fooree-Cooree,” FLCL gets its name from some translator’s estimation of what the sounds would be if the Japanese could form the palatal letters so crucial to the Latinate languages. And yet therein, at the very start, lies the first of a series of bizarre cultural disconnects that are at the heart of FLCL’s strangeness, and my own ambiguous feelings about this challenging and, ultimately, incomprehensible cartoon.
I watched this last Sunday while doing some preparatory work for the return of 6-Commando, and almost at once I realized that something was very screwy about the entire setup. To try to condense the entirety of the six-episode OVA miniseries into a description would probably not be possible, but the plot shares much in common with the Theater of the Absurd, as well as with many American and British “nonsense” humor writers such as Terry Pratchett and Daniel Pinkwater. Yet where Pratchett and Pinkwater go to great lengths to explore the bizarre aspects of what are otherwise internally-consistent worlds they create, FLCL continuously warps itself, making the whole story spin wildly out of control almost from the very start.
The basic and very tenuous central thread to the plot is the coming of age of Naota Nandaba, a pre-teenaged Japanese boy in a suburban town, whose encounters with his father, his grandfather, his brother and with several girls in his life have left him feeling trapped and jaded about his future, as his emotional development begins to outpace his his physical age. This is a pretty typical setup for a story – in American literature, you can just start with Tom Sawyer and work your way forward. And so it’s somewhat predictable that when a nineteen year old, rebellious young woman named Haruko Haruhara rolls into town, the result will be a pseudo-romantic awakening for the frustrated youth.
But beyond this core mise-en-scène, very little of the series holds together. The first encounter between Naota and Haruko is symbolic in the extreme – she hits him with her Vespa, revives him with CPR, then strikes him in the head with her electric guitar. Doesn’t get more heavy-handed than that, you have to admit. But then, robots begin coming out of Naota’s head. I mean, literally – the first one, a series regular named Canti, literally climbs through Naota’s forehead. Then he does battle with another robot that comes through the back of Naota’s head, eventually merging with Naota by eating him so that… well, I mean, it just goes on like this.
Woven into all of this is a strange but inescapable subtext about the United States that I can’t quite put together. Haruko is clearly representative of American youth: mobile, independent, apparently sexually promiscuous. The prevalence of electric guitars as a symbol of… well, SOMETHING, is unavoidably American as well, as is the presence of baseball as a life-metaphor for Naota (as well as part of his backstory – his estranged brother is in the United States playing minor league ball with an unnamed team). There is even, in a later episode, a sudden and inexplicable reference to the television show South Park. But as to what it all amounts to, I haven’t a clue. By the end of the series, I was left with the distinct feeling that I was not so much watching the program as I was allowing it to happen in my presence, and the effect was rather unsettling.
I have been pondering this for some days now, and I have come to the conclusion that FLCL is either a cinematic Zen Koan, or a colossal exercise in self-reference – or self-indulgence. It’s all symbol and no substance, a series of disjointed cultural references which might make sense to the Japanese, but to me seem to be chosen almost at random. It’s surreal in the extreme, but beyond the point at which one can comprehend any kind of underlying artistic process at work. Yet its animation is too masterful, its mix of styles too diverse, and its massive set of references too intricate, for it to be simply a load of nonsense. It can’t be nonsense. But it makes no sense. And that’s the crux of it: can the point be that there is no point?
As a devotee of Western Philosophy I take it as a first principle that things have to have meaning. To an extent even the meaningless must have meaning: the nonsense art of the Dada and the Surrealists was itself purposeful in that it evoked a reaction against the conventions of the time in which they developed. But FLCL is reacting against nothing. It has no point of reference, internal or external, to link it to anything but itself, and its self-centric and often alinear plot, if one can call it that, has very little underlying it but willful weirdness.
Yet some works like this do exist and are sheer brilliance, in spite of their incomprehensibility. Take, for example, Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. It is a true Zen Koan, or in the Western sense, a Splendid Source, in that in itself it makes no sense except by what you can intuit about its sources, and those myriad things upon which it has had an influence. It means nothing and is itself unknowable, yet all things spring from it and all things point to it.
But FLCL seems to be the reverse of this. It points to all things but ties nothing together. It is simply, from a storytelling standpoint, “a bunch of stuff that happens.” There are clear metaphors at work and attempts to add moralistic or philosophical turns to the events of the, er, “story,” yet they fall dreadfully silent compared to the overweening insanity of the story the characters, and the setup, generally. It is more like a Quentin Tarantino move, obsessed with its own coolness and its own ideas, to the exclusion of common sense and good judgement. Yet it remains seductive and fascinating, to the extent that I watched the whole three-hour run back to back. Its very weirdness is its attraction to me, in that I keep trying to divine its meaning, despite the fact that it probably has none.
But is it art? In the loosest sense I suppose it is. But its broader cultural significance continues to elude me. It is its own singularity, like the Quentin Tarantino films, and like Tarantino it is constantly in danger of disappearing up its own ass. But unlike Tarantino, it never does, and remains its own bizarre little storm of animated incomprehensibility. But is it the nexus of the universe or just a load of silliness? In the end, it may actually be both. I could hardly call it an Achiever, I’m afraid, since it exists entirely too much in its own universe, but it is still worth seeing, if only for the fact that it is, in my opinion, that rarest of all gems: a genuinely new thing on the face of the Earth.
STRIKE: The animation changes very rapidly, and the “realistic” (read: traditional Anime) style merges with a cartoony and very loose representative iconographic set very smoothly, and this is a huge part of the cartoon’s appeal. The basic thread of the story, also, is a pretty good one, in spite of the enormous effort that seems to have been made to cover it up.
GUTTER: Do things always have to mean things? Yes, they do. In the end, however much I may have the urge to apologize for this series because of its cool art and its risky complexities of style, there’s just too little backing it up to make it hold together for me. The story is a simple and typical one, and its emotional level is very straightforward, and this makes the rest of the insane swirl of activity seem all the more of an imposture. It tries too hard, and obscures its own purpose in the process. It’s fascinating and engaging, but it’s still half-baked, leaving a lot of confusion and half-developed ideas at the bottom of the pan.
OVER THE LINE: It’s impossible to tell where the line actually lies with this series, and that isn’t really a good thing. In rejecting all boundaries it has left itself with only the barest thread of a framing device, and it’s clear that the writer was grasping at something very mundane, and trying to dress it in something experimental and bizarre. The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with a classic story told in a new way. Yoji Enokido, the writer, has written a lot of other series which were more successful in that department, but in his urge to go in a new direction he abandoned the strong center of literary structure, and the result, however intriguing it may be, was a haphazard mess.
Overall Rank: BUMMER
As seductive and interesting as it may be, the simplified quasi-Postmodernism of “Weird for the sake of Weird” isn’t enough for me. This just doesn’t come close enough to making any kind of logical or coherent sense for me to call it a genuine Achiever. Originally, I classed it as “Un-Dude,” but that isn’t quite right either – I still think it’s worth seeing. It isn’t incompetent or in any way “bad,” it’s just, I think, trying to do more than it can, and not doing any of it properly. I’ll probably end up seeing it again, several times, before I’m done with it. But the strong likelihood that it’s all just a lot of self-indulgence on the part of the writers, to say nothing of the fourth-wall breaking self-referential “What Does It All Mean?!” ponderings that pad out the final episode, kill its long-term potential as a really enduring series. What may endure is its experimentality and its willingness to warp itself for the purpose of that experimentation, but the half-assed attempts to weave in a moralistic subplot kill its credibility as an art experiment, and I think FLCL is destined to be a footnote to the world of animation in the long run. Its importance will be in what comes after it, I think, and that is where its real long-term interest will lie: in watching it for means of comparison, rather than for itself.
You can view FLCL in its entirety at http://www.hulu.com/flcl,but with Hulu’s trend towards subscription don’t expect it to stay free there for long. I think the best way to view this is just to buy the DVD set, which, in spite of my panning, is probably worth having, for any collector of animated film. The full runtime of all six episodes is approximately three hours. Though suggestive, it is not explicit. Still, I advise discretion when viewing this series.
FLCL was originally released in Japan on DVD and video by Studio Gainax in 2003.