Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Flip Flappers Episodes 1-13 Streaming
Cocona isn't really sure who she wants to be. Living alone with her grandmother in a cold and confusing world, her uncertainty over filling out her career counseling form echoes her uncertainty about her own personality. But then Papika appears. Full of energy and life, Papika drags the hesitant Cocona into the world of Pure Illusion, a fantastical place where dreams become reality. Pure Illusion is frightening and dangerous, but also beautiful in its own way. Cocona isn't sure she'll be able to find herself here, but even just losing herself might be better than nothing.
The anime industry isn't generally structured to reward anime-original passion projects. The current funding model relies heavily on production committees that generally bank on “media mix” dividends - anime are funded because they'll sell source material, music CDs, model kits, and a variety of other products. The insurance of alternate revenue streams lessens the risk of any single show flopping, but anime-original productions with nothing else to sell don't really have that advantage. So shows like this year's Flip Flappers are inherently rare and special things.
Flip Flappers is directed by Kiyotaka Oshiyama, a man whose relative inexperience also makes the series somewhat unusual. Oshiyama is primarily known as a talented animator, having contributed to esteemed projects like Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Evangelion 2.0, and Dennou Coil. His skills as a director were only first tested in 2014, when he directed a standout episode of the creator showcase Space Dandy. Now in 2016, he's returned at new Studio 3Hz, with the beautiful, original, and altogether stunning Flip Flappers.
Flip Flappers is not a show that reveals its tricks willingly. The first episode introduces us to Cocona, a timid girl who seems uncertain about her place in the world, and Papika, a ball of compressed energy who drags Cocona into a mysterious fantasy world. Pulled from her mundane daily life, Cocona finds herself in a snowy wilderness, part of a beautiful post-apocalyptic place that Papika calls Pure Illusion. In that first episode, Cocona and Papika have a snowball fight, huddle together for warmth in a foreboding forest, and ultimately get almost run over by a stampede of strange, enormous creatures. After being tossed back out into the real world, Cocona curses Papika for almost getting herself killed. But by the following episode, Cocona finds herself dragged back into a new realm of Pure Illusion. And then another. And then another.
Early on, it'd be easy to assume Flip Flappers will simply be an anthology of these fairy tale adventures, like a more whimsical and emotionally charged version of Space Dandy. The show's pedigree certainly supports that; Flip Flappers is blessed with a remarkably talented animation staff and background art courtesy of Studio Pablo, whose work puts most other studios to shame. Flip Flappers' early episodes are their own visual and narrative rewards, as Cocona and Papika find themselves visiting a version of Alice's Wonderland, sparring with bandits in a take on Mad Max, or sharing tea with faceless, voiceless school girls in a horrifying spin on Class S yuri narratives.
But that horror-influenced prison school also points toward Flip Flappers' larger ambitions. Though the show establishes a running narrative in pursuit of “amorphous fragments,” shining jewels the girls must take back from Pure Illusion, the true story of Flip Flappers is Cocona's journey into herself. As one adventure follows another, it becomes clear that Cocona and Papika aren't just exploring fantasies, they're exploring fantasies of people they know - that each layer of Pure Illusion echoes the psychology of someone in the real world. Through these jumbled, unflinchingly honest personal portraits, Flip Flappers slowly hones in on the true nature of the girl who's afraid of greeting the world and the other girl who hopes to set her free.
Flip Flappers is ultimately a coming-of-age story that touches on how we're defined by our families, how we're viewed by the world, and how we come to love ourselves. It contains a multi-generational love story, several vivid depictions of broken homes, and a scathing rebuke of how society reinforces our fear of honest self-expression. And yet, for all that heavy dramatic material, it's all expressed through the tenets of Pure Illusion - up until its thrilling final act, each new episode presents its motions and messages through the framing device of a unique and satisfying episodic adventure.
At a glance, it'd be easy to dismiss Flip Flappers as either a purely visually-focused work or a narratively disjointed one. But the genius of Flip Flappers is that the greater part of its storytelling takes place when you're not even looking. Even those first few episodes end up feeling heavy with meaning in retrospect. On a first viewing, you might notice how Cocona is always separated from the world by bars and windows, thus implying her emotional entrapment. On a second, you might pick up how the first few visits to Pure Illusion echo specific elements of the different characters' psychologies. On a third, the significance of Papika's actions might become clear, or an acceptance of the episode's psychological goals might give way to a fresh appreciation of its carefree character acting and visual wonder.
The more you put into Flip Flappers, the more you get out of it. Such thematically layered shows have a tendency to feel overwritten, didactic, or plodding, but by allowing so much of its core thematic and psychological text to exist purely in the visual storytelling, Flip Flappers is able to stay light and immediately entertaining throughout. By the end, the fact that its story has been echoed by every aesthetic element of its production makes its final emotional beats land with the punch of a far longer series. It's a feast of storytelling, from its clever use of emotionally charged motifs, to its purposeful visual and narrative symmetries, to its mastery of color theory as narrative vehicle, to its confident cribbing of fairy tale forms, it brims with a voracious reader's love of stories in all their forms. Combining a fully articulated character study with some of the most exuberant visual wanderings in any recent anime, Flip Flappers stands as a remarkable union of emotional intent and visual execution.
Flip Flappers is also a pretty messy show. Despite treating its lead cast with great sensitivity in an emotional sense, there are scatterings of fanservice that feel entirely out of place in the overall narrative. The last act in particular is both more conventional and less tightly written than the rest. While the answers to the show's questions all make sense and fit with what came before, its culmination in a big battle sequence feels like an awkward match with the show's overall emotionally-led narrative. Additionally, though the show's art design stays strong throughout, its animation definitely gets more limited in the final quarter, before rallying for some wild cuts in the finale. The music for the series proper isn't all that memorable, although the show's opening and ending songs are both a real treat.
But for all those quibbles, I still find myself stunned by everything Flip Flappers attempts and accomplishes. Anime's visual feasts and psychological interrogations align rarely enough in the first place - Flip Flappers success at conveying so much emotional content through its beautiful worldbuilding puts it in a very rare tier. Flip Flappers could easily be appreciated simply as a paean to the great storytelling of the past - from its wild Pure Illusion worlds to its cheeky references to shows like Evangelion and Penguindrum, it's clearly aware and respectful of its narrative lineage. Flip Flappers could also be appreciated as a very personal story about a few girls, their difficult family relationships, and the love they share - its characters are given plentiful texture and their ultimate resolutions feel true to all the show believes. But ultimately, Flip Flappers is all of these things at once, a beautiful, creative, and deeply intimate expression of just what anime can do.
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A+
Music : B+
+ Purposeful visual storytelling succeeds as both a joyous collection of individual adventures and a thoughtful story about trust, identity, and belonging
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