by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 5 of
FLCL Alternative ?
The last couple weeks of FLCL Alternative have done a solid job of analyzing Kana's issues on the threshold of growing up, but with not enough about the series itself backing those elements up. The ideas of her lacking a dream of her own to pursue or becoming disinterested in a romance she thought was a driving force for her were solid foundations for stories about wading through adolescence. However, the episodes kept stopping short of diving deeply into what these actually said about Kana as a person, and also lacked the grand-scale accompanying space-weirdness metaphors that FLCL is supposed to regularly trade in. This fifth episode, however, sees the keynotes of those issues make a roaring comeback, alongside a look at Kana's alleged best friend Pets that plays out in ways I genuinely wasn't expecting from the series at this point.
An interesting aspect of this episode is how it makes use of Pets's role, or lack thereof, in the series up until now. Pets has always come across as the dry, reserved one of the group of friends, so her standoffish nature worked within those parameters. However, it did make her come across as oddly less active in all the goings-on than everyone else; waiting until the second-to-last episode to give her any focus spotlights even more how uninvolved she was. It's to the point that after the opening scene and her sudden disappearance, Pets is notably absent from a large portion of the episode that's ostensibly about her. Instead, the focus, as it so often does, falls on Kana, trying to track down her friend and convince her not to retreat to Mars with other rich, upper-class people.
Her friends' situations have all been conveyed with Kana as the viewpoint thus far in the show, so there's no reason for this episode's central conflict to be any different. What makes this time unique is how it throws into relief some of the more selfish aspects of Kana's actions in said situations. Her defensive approach to her seventeen-year-old status quo has been the driving force of the story from the beginning, of course, but now the actual motivations of her well-meaning gestures get called out as well. It's bluntly summarized by Haruko about halfway through the episode: “No one ever does anything for anyone else. Everyone only does things for themselves.” Kana's insistence on prying into Hijiri's love life, her drive to assist Mossan in achieving her dream, even her beating around the bush with regards to her crush on Sasaki, are all brought up as things she did for her own satisfaction first and the good of others second. And Pets is the one calling it all out, in scene that lands as shockingly pivotal.
It all lines up with what we've been shown of Kana so far, and especially in this episode. It turns out her lack of knowledge about Sassaki in the previous episode was just a dress rehearsal for this one. The audience should note early on how odd it is that Kana knows so little about her supposed best friend, especially as it comes out that Pets is dealing with some issues at home that Kana should have been there for. Pets's withdrawn presence and lack of characterization up until this point were an artifact of Kana's viewpoint, taking her for granted while making little effort to actually connect with her. It's a point some of us may be able to relate to, especially with regards to the age group FLCL Alternative is couching most of these revelations in. Many of us have had friends we experienced good times with and believed we were growing closer with, only to realize we were still keeping them at arm's' length, as accessories to a comfortable status quo rather than truly bonding in ways that let us mature emotionally.
For the first time in a while, the big ideas are in synch with the big spectacle we expect from FLCL. Alternative does try to stack the deck more in its favor in this case with one of the first direct call-backs to the original series it's had, as the fight with a giant hand-shaped terminal core robot is all but a wholesale lift from its progenitor's legendary fifth episode. That could be seen to turn out as a backfire, since this big segment in the episode's second half, on its own, is head and shoulders above the pittance of robo-battles the series has offered in past weeks. But as-is it ends up having to be compared to the FLCLassic scene it's pattered on, and it naturally can't approach the level of that setpiece. However, it does lend the sequence the energy it needs to make this feel like a penultimate setup for a big finale next week, and set the stage for the emotional breakdown between Pets and Kana. But it's also just another reminder that for all the things FLCL Alternative does that work, it still works better when it's not trying so hard to be FLCL.
If there's an issue with all the questions being raised about Kana, and by proxy, ourselves, this episode, it's simply that no answers are offered just yet. Part of me does want Pets's departure to be the end of it, symbolizing that Kana's shortcomings as a friend had consequences. It would also make for an interesting turn in the allegory of humanity's space-travel for our own adolescence, with Pets and the others who can afford to blasting off of a failing planet. Sometimes you have to cut yourself off from a non-worthwhile friend to head towards the next stage of your life. But then, now that the narrative has laid Kana's shortcomings at her feet, her role would be served by her overcoming them in the end. This show has spent a lot of time illustrating the escalating toxicity of Kana's stagnant, childish worldview, but now it needs to deliver on positing what the titular alternative to that should be.
FLCL Alternative is currently streaming on Adult Swim.
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