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Special Report: FLCL Alternative episode 1

by Jacob Chapman,

April Fool's! Last night, Adult Swim treated its viewers to an all Japanese-language night of Toonami that kicked off with the first episode of FLCL Alternative, aka FLCL 3, giving fans just a little taste before the long wait until September for the rest. If it seems like an unusual choice to air the third part of this trilogy before the middle chapter, this weirdness is also reflected by the Japanese broadcast plans for the series, which will air the six episodes of FLCL 3: Alternative before FLCL 2: Progressive.

Three or no three, FLCL Alternative has been promoted as its own animal since it was announced as a series by "young creators who will redefine the meaning of sequel." And it's fair to say that this first episode could easily be watched without any knowledge of Fooly Cooly or its legacy. True to the "alternative" in its title, this episode played out like an inter-dimensional mirror to the original series, where Naota is replaced with a high school girl named Kana, who has normal high school girl friends and high school girl problems, and the animation is attractive but conventional to accompany a pedestrian but engaging directorial style. Otherwise, things play out much the same, with the eccentric extraterrestrial Haruko crashing into town to fight mechanical monsters with the amazing things she drags out of our heroine's head. It's a thoroughly entertaining yet strictly derivative remake with only one mysterious holdover character, who could be Naota, Amarao, or someone new entirely who just met Haruko in FLCL 2: Progressive. (For what it's worth, Kana's father is also purposefully hidden from view, and her little brother looks a good deal like Naota.)

Beyond that, FLCL Alternative could easily be taken on its own, and given the production staff, it probably should be. This is an unusual case where far more has been carried over from the original OVA sonically than visually. While The Pillows' ever-present soundtrack and Mayumi Shintani as Haruko are back in force, almost none of the creative staff from Gainax's beloved explosion of creativity have carried over into these sequels; from art design to writing, these are all new voices gathered under Production I.G's umbrella instead. (Original character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto has drafted promotional art for these sequels, but his hand can't really be seen in the show itself, with two very different character designers credited for each instead.) At the same time, I.G. has clearly taken the spirit of FLCL to heart in their reimagining, pulling together a team of mavericks and up-and-coming artists to make their own statement. It's a passel of episode directors with their own visions and styles overseen by veteran live-action director Katsuyuki Motohiro (who made his mark in animation at I.G. with Psycho-Pass), not unlike how Gainax did it 18 years ago. Perhaps most notably, new series writer Hideto Iwai has no past experience in anime but a fascinating history with adolescent anxiety and indie theater, reflective of previous FLCL writer Yoji Enokido's perspective on coming-of-age.

Taking all this into consideration, you could see FLCL Alternative as a separate mission statement from Production I.G's rising stars, essentially optioning the FLCL brand to tell their own story in their own style. It remains to be seen where this will eventually go, but while it is disappointing that Alternative lacks the raucous energy, stylistic schizophrenia, and nonsensical furi kuri that defined FLCL, it offers plenty of unique promise of its own. The colors and lines of this new world are soft yet crisp, promising a girl's coming-of-age story with an art design team staffed predominantly by female artists like Ayaka Fujii and Chiho Nakamura. Story-wise, FLCL Alternative also lacks the reference-heavy irreverent surrealism of its predecessor, leaning instead on a surprising naturalism that Hideto Iwai seems to be known for in Japan. Far from being four cute moe girls doing cute things, Kana's pack of friends are refreshingly normal teenage girls with a host of idiosyncratic personality traits, who share a playful but not saccharine chemistry with one another that's immediately believable. If Alternative shares anything visually with its OVA origin, it's propulsive artistic confidence. And if it shares anything textually, it's the framing device of open-hearted adolescent poetry that both embraces and questions the awakening of new feelings and experiences.

Other than that, FLCL Alternative feels wildly different from the OVA that inspired it, and I think that's okay. Production I.G is not Gainax, and watching their artists and freelancers try to imitate another studio's work from almost two decades ago would be undoubtedly painful. There's plenty of promise in this first episode alone, but it's also understandable to hope that Production I.G won't play its sequel game too safe. Surely there's enough room for a little more furi kuri madness even in this comparatively polished production? We'll just have to wait five more months to find out.

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