by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 4 of
FLCL Alternative ?
Romantic feelings, crushes, and the burgeoning hormones that drive them are a staple of many a coming-of-age story, and the FLCL series is no exception. The original series specifically dealt over its whole run with Naota coming to terms with how his adolescent feelings of love and lust were being directed towards the various girls in his life. FLCL Progressive saw Hidomi come to understand what her feelings for Iide meant and how she could incorporate them into her own understanding of her life. FLCL Alternative has thus differed from those preceding shows by not having main character Kana's romance troubles be a focal point, until now.
Kana's obvious-to-everyone crush on Sasaki, the soft-boy manager of the basketball team, has cropped up a couple times in the show so far, but has hardly been explored. Even in episode 2's romance-centric plot, the conflict was more around Kana's illusions of ‘adult’ romances being challenged and how that affected her perception of her own maturation. Her coming to terms with her own personal feelings for Sasaki and realizing she'll have to act on them sooner or later becomes the plot-thrust of this episode. It's kickstarted by Haruko, of course, thankfully more proactively involved in the plot here than she seemed to be last week. Haruko taking action seems to coincide with a host of background plot details that are picking up as of this episode, from the government to Medical Mechanica (whose iron-shaped factory of the season is finally revealed here). There's a funny idea in the setup, that Haruko is desperate to open a decent N.O. portal via Kana, but the comparatively low-key setting of Alternative isn't enough to regularly provide effective robot delivery.
Even with Haruko provoking the situation, much of the antics in this episode spin out of Kana's failed attempts to move forward on her feelings for Sasaki. Kana continues to be an endearing character, adorably relatable in all her foibles. She effectively communicates the confused desperation of the age group she's an illustration of, and everything about the end of her rope she's reaching this week is great. She gets great moments of physical comedy too, from getting hit in the face with a basketball to headbutting Sasaki during one attempt at a confession. This episode in particular backs Kana up well with her other three friends, who add to the enjoyment and humor of the proceedings. They have a strong, genuine rapport, including little running gags like Pets trying to trade her possessions with the other girls. Their group dynamic continues to be one of the strongest parts of the show, carrying it when it doesn't have much else going on.
Not that this is as uneventful an episode as the previous one, of course. Other characters are fleshed out beyond Kana: We notably get a flashback to Kanda's past with Haruko. For one, it confirms that he is not, in fact, an aged-up Iide, and also makes clear that Haruko's pattern of searching for an N.O. portal, presumably to try securing Atomsk again, has continued through all this time. The idea that her unhealthy fixation on the man was as much about the chase as anything else was a major point of FLCL Progressive's thesis by the end of that season, and it factors into the lovey-dovey message of this episode as well. That is, this plot is focused on highlighting the reason Kana has her crush on Sasaki, and what happens when she forces herself to move forward with it.
Unlike the other issues Kana has grappled with, her affection for Sasaki seems less rooted in a concern over her own maturity and more about establishing a status quo for her own feelings and comfort. She relates that she feels attracted to Sasaki because her own history of illness means she sympathizes with him having a neurological disease. But it seems it's always been a case of admiring him from afar, as when Kana does finally sit down and talk with Sasaki, it appears they have less in common than they thought. Finally making what should be a definitive move on Sasaki leads to Kana realizing that the ‘spark’ that made her heart flutter is no longer present at that stage in the pursuit of her goal. In the end, this crush plotline turns out to be notable because it's resolved just in this episode and has turned out not to be the focal point of Kana's development. It does successfully demonstrate Kana's fundamental issue: A discomfort with moving forward, or taking action. Kana has repeatedly in this series expressed a desire to stay with her friends at the stage they are now, but that platitude at the end of this episode is answered with the portents of the giant iron's reveal. The future, as it does for all of us, is coming for Kana whether she's ready or not.
All that thematic stuff is capped off with a proper robot fight this go-around, against a basketball-playing bull-bot. There's a whiff of fresh creativity in this opponent, in how it eats Sasaki to activate its powers like some villainous version of the original series' Canti. It's neat to finally see an alternative take on that system, and it also gets a boost from the animation perking up a bit as it and Haruko have their little space jam. There are some other decent cuts during some comedy bits in this episode, but overall FLCL Alternative has still looked more static than it did before these past couple episodes. Increasing that dryer feel this time around is the music, as this episode doesn't seem to feature any proper tunes from the pillows, save for Little Busters coming in at the end seemingly because they felt they had to throw something in. It's led to a show that started off with some dynamic polish feeling honestly more bland than necessary. This episode is still an improvement over the previous one though, communicating some interesting choices with its ideas and making good use of the strong assets it does have.
FLCL Alternative is currently streaming on Adult Swim.
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