Reviewby Tim Henderson,
FLCL- Complete Collection
Naota lives a boring life in Mabase, a fictional and quintessentially dull rural town where nothing interesting ever happens. Living in the shadow of an older sibling who has recently escaped to the States in order to pursue a gift for baseball, Naota spends his days in a listless blur or routine school work and getting his earlobe nibbled by his brother's abandoned girlfriend.
Then an alien woman flattens him with her scooter and hits him on the head with a bass guitar...
It's difficult to imagine what FLCL looked like in the minds of its creators when they first sat down to knuckle out the planning process. The fruit of obvious and intense iteration, the creative energy that fuels this six episode OAV constantly snowballs upon itself, wrapping one idea around another and opening new avenues with each and every moment of visual insanity, never stopping until the final credits have rolled.
A confusing – maybe even confronting – show at first glance, FLCL's greatest strength and weakness is that it's almost impossible to pinpoint or categorise. An example of the animation medium letting its hair down and taking full advantage of its limitless expressive potential, the results are often so off-the-chain and downright crazy that they've won the mini-series awards as a comedy. FLCL may or may not be a comedy. It certainly has comedic elements in it; plenty of them even. But whatever it is, its primary purpose is too hard-working to settle upon something so trivial as shits and giggles; the results are much more layered than a compilation of gags.
Telling a story that is both emotionally poignant and intellectually baffling, FLCL's first key plot point absorbs much of the blame for the hugely misleading comparisons to Excel Saga that floated around upon its original release. Had that show not existed, the point of reference may have been stretched so far as Warner Bros. Loony Toons. This wouldn't have been any less incorrect.
Building from the moment that lead character Naota's awkward quiet time with his older brother's cast-off girlfriend Mamimi is interrupted by Haruko – a crude, Vespa-riding woman who has little objection to colliding head-on with twelve-year-old boys and smashing them over the head with a motorised bass guitar – FLCL's plot challenges viewers not to underestimate what can pass for literal when advancing a plot point. The series is indeed chock-full of metaphors; in fact it's a master of the art, but reading it entirely as such will cause links to disappear from the chain. Realism just gets in the way. From this moment forward, in terms of literal plot, FLCL lives and dies by the empty, portal-like space that Haruko has created within Naota's head.
But a lack of a brain is a difficult thing to communicate visually, especially when a character's motor functions appear in no way inhibited, and so Naota grows a horn from his forehead instead. Squarish and about three inches long, this deformity notifies both the confused boy and the audience that something implausible is going on within his skull, as well as serving up one of many representations of phallic frustration. A bandage on the middle of his forehead holds it in, but being less conspicuous than a massive abnormal growth does not automatically make something pass by unnoticed, and so Naota's adult-complex comes to light as he tries to deal with sudden changes to his body while his classmates gossip and press him for information.
Underneath much of this, the music of The Pillows hums at a volume that would cause it to stand out like blood on snow were it not such a perfect fit. Sunny and nostalgic, the persistent riffs of their guitars glitter in a way that mirrors the happy summer memories they are backing, complete with the nuanced attention to the fact that nobody is actually paying attention to these memories as they are being created.
A consistent tease of foreplay, FLCL almost never ceases to be bursting at the seams, threatening to explode – something that it will do at one or two points throughout each episode. Canti, a box-headed robot born from the portal in Naota's noggin, and Haruko, the woman responsible for turning this sedate town into an arena for a seemingly non-stop flow of pure, concentrated crazy, both move into Naota's home – his father welcoming this crass, sexually manipulative woman with open arms – in order to notch the show's emotional and psychological chart up another volt.
While the plot points in FLCL can be difficult to cleanly place on a map, the growing spikes of its affective resonance are much easier to feel out. Mistakable at a glance as experimentation for its own sake, almost no aspect of FLCL's aesthetic and pacing is without obvious purpose in the team's collective minds. Everything from the way that Naota frequently ends up portrayed through deformed animation when close to Haruko, the contrast of the red flame of Mamimi's cigarettes against a deep blue sky, to the parade of always-present but never invasive sexualised imagery, has come from a very precise intent. Even the way that backgrounds typically fade at the edges, highlighting the notion that the town of Mabase exists in a dull, isolated vacuum before this concept becomes a literal story beat is but an iceberg's pointed end.
This extends further, to the manner in which the show is able to twist and turn space, largely thanks to a simple colour palate that gives an understated edge to FLCL's otherwise hyper-exaggerated visual appeal. Switching between bases of yellow and blue, it can shift scenes around or squash them together, almost never missing an opportunity to use a character's room or the night sky looming behind the town bridge to bring forth the character's psychological state above all else.
The balance is superb. It is through the aforementioned ability to merge the literal with the metaphorical that FLCL is able to strut the tight-rope that it does, allowing the plot and message to walk hand-in-hand so tightly as to create a chicken and egg scenario. Feelings, confused and conflicted, are communicated with abstract ease time and again, and the power of Naota's perspective never misses a beat. When amid all the screaming and frustration at the immature nature of the world, he finally finds time to cry, it is quietly one of the most affecting moments of pubescent empathy ever put to screen.
Seemingly popular in spite of his own deluded perspective of himself, Naota's problems are largely his own. It's the smallest of things that highlight this best: being verbally reminded that he is still a kid, sexual rejection when he grows cocky, and his inability to cope with sour drinks or spicy foodstuffs. It takes quirky robots, an army of planet-threatening irons, and a selfish woman whose presence and personality strongly meshes desire with a reminder that there is, in fact, a world outside this small country town. Telling him that nothing will happen if he never swings his bloody bat to get it through to him, but it's worth it. Swing, and maybe things will become less dull.
And if nothing else, FLCL is entertaining. Not even a simple meal at a table can happen without thoughtful portrayal. It's also a show that seldom skimps on detail: Haruko isn't left-handed by accident, and anime references slip past with unusual subtlety. Maybe most viewers will never notice the string of connections, but the very fact that the writing staff have paid mind to them has resulted in a staggering level of consistency hidden below the surface of such a randomised, schizophrenic appearance.
Finally on Blu-Ray, the only negative comments of worth come down to the technical specs. A product of its time, FLCL is stuck in a 4:3 aspect ratio – a flaw much more easily forgiven than the jagged edges that plague the video transfer. Much of the line-art in the OAV is finer than most anime, and this release really should have been its place to shine. At least the extras are excellent by single-disc release standards: every episode has a commentary track (and this is a show that truly benefits from them) and there are a handful of English out-takes and a few music videos on the side.
Despite the disappointing video however, this release still has the show looking better than it ever has before – if not quite as good as it perhaps could – and it nonetheless remains a reminder of why animation from Japan can, when it really clicks, be something that is absolutely worth exerting effort to become invested in.
(c) 1999 Gainax / KGI
Overall : A+
Story : A
Animation : A+
+ Practically everything. One of the greatest anime at all time gets an overdue Blu-Ray release...
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