Brain Diving The Filth and the Furi
by Brian Ruh,
I rarely re-watch anime. Oh, I'll certainly make exceptions for some of the classics like Ghost in the Shell. There was even a time in college when I needed to fall asleep to old tapes of Robotech. (And, more recently, since I have two young kids some of my Miyazaki DVDs get a regular workout around the house.) But these are anomalies in my anime watching habits. Generally speaking, once I've seen something I rarely go back and watch it again. It's not that I don't want to revisit things, but there's just so much out there that I haven't seen that revisiting stuff feels wasteful. I could be out there discovering something new, after all.
I say this to set the scene for how much FLCL totally blew my mind when I first saw it back in 2002. After I watched the first episode on DVD, I promptly watched it again. And then I watched it a third time with the director's commentary on. This was totally unprecedented behavior on my part, and I have yet to find another anime since then that has enthralled me so completely. I think it still holds up well, which why I'm excited that Funimation is re-releasing it this week – for too long the laws of supply and demand have meant that existing copies were far too expensive. Regardless of whether you call it FLCL (my usual choice), Furi Kuri, Fooly Cooly, or any similar variation, it definitely deserves to be one of those evergreen titles that anime fans can always get their hands on.
What really stood out to me was the visual inventiveness throughout the series. It was very frenetic and kept pushing the envelope on what was possible in Japanese animation. This was accomplished through a great staff, including director Kazuya Tsurumaki, scriptwriter Yoji Enokido, art director Hiromasa Ogura, and character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. All of these guys had been involved in a slew of groundbreaking productions like Neon Genesis Evangelion, His & Hers Circumstances, Patlabor, and Revolutionary Girl Utena, so it shouldn't be terribly surprising that they were able to turn out something stunning with FLCL. (And it should be noted that I'll watch pretty much anything if Sadamoto created the characters. Okay, maybe not all of .hack.) I don't think the soundtrack by the Pillows should be overlooked either. Anime has certainly flirted with all kinds of music, but I'm having a hard time coming up with another instance where a series used music by one band not only as OP/ED themes but also as general background music for the show.
Once I had finished all six episodes of the series, I moved on to reading the FLCL manga once it came out in English. I honestly don't remember too much about it, but wasn't terribly impressed with artist Hajime Ueda's take on the story. Maybe it was because of this experience with alternate storylines that I passed on Tokyopop's FLCL novelization when it came out in English in 2007. Another part of it could have been that by the time the novels were published over here the shine on FLCL had worn off a bit – I still considered it a great show, but it was no longer the newest and greatest thing. However, when the announcement was made that FLCL would be coming back into print, I was genuinely excited. Not because I needed to buy the DVDs again, but rather because it would give anime fans who may have missed out on this series the first time around the chance to experience the series’ craziness and fantastic animation. I decided that now would be the perfect time to check out those FLCL novels that I had been neglecting for so long.
FLCL volumes 1, 2, and 3 by Yoji Enokido
The main question that is bound to come up right off the bat is how an OVA series that was so animation-centric could possibly translate into the written word. Enokido is smart in tackling the story because he doesn't try to mimic the anime's tone and pacing. Rather, he approaches the FLCL by emphasizing the characters, leading the reader to an appreciation of the story that was sometimes overshadowed by the visual style of the anime.
For those not already familiar with FLCL, it is the story of an elementary school boy named Naota. He lives in a seemingly average Japanese town dominated by a single industry – a factory belonging to the company Medical Mechanica. While Naota's older brother is away playing baseball in America, his brother's girlfriend Mamimi has latched onto him and uses him as a substitute for fooling around. However, one day Naota is run over by a woman on a Vespa named Haruko, who then hits him in the head with her bass guitar. A strange protrusion begins growing from Naota's head, which is later revealed to be the first in a series of robots that enter our world. This is just the start of the strange occurrences in the series. I don't want to spoil it for those of you who may not have seen the show, but it gets increasingly strange from there, and ends up involving an interplanetary police agency and the looming destruction of the earth.
Yoji Enokido is probably the only person who could have satisfactorily adapted FLCL into novel form since he was one of the main creators of the series and wrote the original anime script. As mentioned above, Enokido had previously worked on series like Evangelion and Utena, and more recently he has written scripts for some of the best anime I've seen in the last year like Redline and Star Driver. Enokido seems like quite the talented individual, and coupled with my love of the FLCL anime, my expectations going into these books were pretty high.
The three FLCL novels released by Tokyopop were very much in line with the original DVD releases that came out over here. Just as each DVD had two OVA episodes on it, so too did each book contain two main sections, each one corresponding to an episode. As Enokido says in the afterword in the third volume, this is a “novelization of an anime screenplay.” So these aren't really to be understood to be stand-alone novels as such. Rather, they are probably best seen as companion pieces to the anime.
Throughout the books there are things that might not quite make sense to an English reader. Part of it is due to the fact that the books are referencing Japanese popular culture. Some of these are anime-specific, like when Haruko appears in a bunny girl outfit and yells “Daicon V!” in the fifth episode, alluding to a now-famous animation the men of Gainax (who produced FLCL) had made back before they had formed the company. This allusion made by Haruko occurs in both the anime and the novel, although it has more of an impact in the anime because you can see the reference, rather than having it described to you. If you're aware of the history of anime, though, you'll probably get this joke. Luckily there are far fewer of these in the novels than in the anime (the original DVDs came with a booklet of handy cultural notes to help navigate this minefield; I haven't heard if Funimation is including anything similar with their new version).
FLCL also seems to get a kick out of playing around with the Japanese language, making allusions and puns that just don't translate into English. This sometimes makes it so that - while the words are understandable - it seems like there's something missing. A good example of this occurs at the beginning of the first volume. Naota says that Mamimi will turn “demented” if she keeps playing video games all the time. When Mamimi asks what that word means, Naota admits he “didn't know what the word meant either. Did it have something to do with chewing gum? Did it refer to a girl who wandered aimlessly around town, constantly chewing gum? No, no, no, no! He decided not to let Mamimi influence him. Anyway, he didn't really care for gum; he lived for Cool Mints.” I thought this was a particularly puzzling passage. Why would being demented have anything to do with gum? What are Cool Mints? Why does Naota “live for” them? It seems like there's something just out of reach that would help all of this make more sense, like there's some sort of joke being made that's getting lost along the way. There weren't all that many of these confusing bits in the novels, but there certainly were a few distracting ones.
For the most part, though, I found the novels to be well constructed and entertaining. What I think Enokido does particularly well is how the action is handled in each “episode.” In the FLCL anime, each of the six episodes would build toward a fantastic climactic scene that usually involved fighting some sort of new robot that hatched from Naota's head. These fighting scenes would be lovingly crafted, with an emphasis placed on characters’ movements so you could really get a feel for all of the effort that went into crafting the animation. Enokido's novelization, however, doesn't even try to compete with such scenes. In fact, he makes each climactic scene comparatively short, usually playing out in a handful of pages.
Enokido takes advantage of the novel medium to really explore what motivates many of the main characters. We learn more about what Naota thinks about himself and his odd relationship with Mamimi, we learn about the conflicted and emotional past of Naota's classmate Ninamori, and we get a better glimpse into the character of Mamimi. We're even provided a glimpse of the future beyond the end of the anime in a flash-forward in the final book. Many of these would have been hard to capture in the anime itself without breaking the narrative flow that had been established.
As I previously mentioned, the novels were released in three separate volumes by Tokyopop. Although this replicates how they came out in Japan, it means that they end up being pretty pricey for the North American market. Each volume is pretty slim, running 120 to 130 pages each, including a few illustrations. However, the cover price for each is US$9.99-$10.99, meaning that for an average paperback's worth of reading, you'd have to shell out over thirty dollars. (Although the books look like they're still in print, plenty of deals can be found online that would decrease this, even for new copies.) And since these are the English versions, none of the illustrations are on color plates like some of them were in the original Japanese edition. I do have to say, though, that for the FLCL fan, the images in the books are a treat, with new art that I hadn't seen before. (I'm not sure who exactly to credit for these – the credits at the beginning of the books say Kazuya Tsurumaki and Hiroshi Imaishi did the illustrations, but Enokido's afterward in volume three gives the credit to Imaishi and Yusuke Yoshigaki.)
If you're a fan of FLCL like I am, I'd certainly recommend these books. They're a light read and they provide a bit more depth to the characters than you get from the anime. If you haven't seen the anime yet, though, I'd definitely recommend starting with that first. Although it's certainly possible to read and understand the novels without knowing anything about the anime, I think the story was designed to be seen in animation first.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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