by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 2 of
FLCL Progressive ?
The old FLCL is quickly, pointedly becoming less central to what FLCL Progressive is doing, so while the old still has some bearing on the new, let's go back and compare some story beats. The first episode of FLCLassic starts off relatively mundane with the trademark craziness really not kicking in until Haruko runs over Naota and he sprouts his horn. Hidomi pointedly didn't get a horn from being run over in the last episode, rather it was awakened after the confrontation featuring the robot and Ide. Now that weird stuff has started coming out of her head, we're getting around to something that feels a little more - visually anyway - like a "new FLCL".
The opening scene alone is an exercise in escalating surrealism at once unlike anything the old series tried and also only at home within FLCL. I now wonder if we're going to open each of these episodes with a peek at Hidomi's squirmy subconscious. This particular one is a zombie apocalypse (cheekily narrated), with a sketchy style so unlike anything seen so far you might be forgiven for double-checking to make sure you're watching the right show. Beyond setting the dissonant tone and establishing Hidomi's fixation on her own destruction (we'll get to that), this scene also does a good job of showing off the range of Hidomi's voice actress Xanthe Huynh.
The rest of the episode is as all over the place (just in the way I criticized the first episode for not being). Maybe Haruko being obviously back really is the jumpstart FLCL needs, as her antics in the classroom with Kari Wahlgren's unmistakable dub performance will definitely register as the FLCL people remember. The rest is a wild ride - outrageous physical labor, punks speaking subtitled Japanese in a dubbed show, Haruko and Jinyu fighting (with Bel Air revealed to be a transforming robot), and a form-shifting anticlimax from Hidomi that only sets up a ton of questions and ideas we'll hopefully spend the remaining four episodes exploring. Basically, this episode left me with that very distinct “What the HELL did I just watch?!” feeling I would personally want from a show like this. It was a ride that all but demanded I turn around and re-watch it, and that is a very good thing.
At the same time, FLCL Progressive is still taking potshots at the idea of leaning on our memories of the old FLCL too hard. That visual gag with the class going crazy just from seeing Haruko while Hidomi remains unmoved is still in effect. This time the teacher drags out a ‘yearbook’ full of crude drawings that the students interpret as fond memories of life-defining adventures they previously had. There's also a conspicuous line later about a boring old park that ‘needs to be updated’. I appreciated the series making this point last week; that our rose-tinted memories of the old show might lead to us projecting our expectations on this new series, when instead it should be allowed to create something new for a new generation. I think we get it now, though - they've stated and restated it, and thankfully it does seem to drop the concept mostly after that early classroom scene.
The less ephemeral points of the episode make for a strong little adventure. As mentioned, the voice acting is especially good now, with Wahlgren back and others having settled into their roles. The animation benefits from that renewed energy - it's less stoic and more willing to cut loose. After I complained about it being too stiff last week, I can hardly say anything against the show looking somewhat rougher now, can I? There's even some solid lore-building put forward already, notably Jinyu seeming to confirm the idea that she's a being that split off from Haruko at some point, as many had speculated already based on the ending animation.
But with respect to the ideas of the story, I feel like FLCL Progressive will do just fine with the new generation - as everything that follows in the episode is dedicated instead to doing what FLCL as a franchise does best: exploring explosions of bizarre teenage hormones in the most over-the-top manner possible. What makes this all work so well, pushing this episode from good to great, is how it utilizes that unique FLCL style to subvert our expectations. We pointedly knew nothing of Ide before Hidomi went to visit him now, so revealing his ‘real’ self as a shredded, scrap-hauling hard laborer already functions well as a surprise. But then you've got to pay close attention to Hidomi's reactions to everything that happens to Ide, and how it relates to her own feelings.
Ide rips his shirt off and much is made of his shredded body, but Hidomi doesn't react - instead she reacts to the brutality he suffers, and the big reaction is saved for his response to this brutality: recognition. His heart is frozen, and so is hers. But that's just the setup for what comes next, as twice in this episode Hidomi is sent into nose-bleeding adolescent overflow by the idea of her own death during a crazed robot fight. The resulting personality it finally defines for the character is one of detached, macabre depression, a subconscious desire for your own destruction - a frozen heart, awaiting the void. The show tosses out reiterating references to Overflow as well as a new nonsense keyword for the FLCL lexicon of Enzyme Inhibitor, but there will be plenty of people watching this who directly relate to this particular brand of interiority, and they'll be happy to simply refer to Hidomi's reactions to all this as a Big Mood. It seems like we're watching Hidomi and Ide connect with one another through an ocean of detached adolescent depression, all while being manipulated by the adults around them. That feels like a powerful, thoroughly modern angle for a new FLCL - we'll see if that's where it's really going. The exact interpretations of Hidomi's obsessions, how they pertain to her onset adolescence, as well as her personal character itself, all still beg to be explored in more detail. But for now, just the acknowledgement of these personalities in such a deeply relatable and empathetic way does a great job of telling me that FLCL Progressive gets it, and is speaking to its audience directly.
And that is what makes this episode of Progressive a quantifiable success after so much setup. The fact is, original FLCL said something to kids an entire generation ago, but now it's time for this one to speak to a new group of kids. It's notable that after those earlier allusions to the structure of the first show, about halfway through the episode this one drops any pretense of that and just starts doing its own thing. There are relatively few direct parallel beats compared to earlier, and that's an extremely good thing. A show like FLCL only gets closer to being its best when it completely cuts loose.
FLCL Progressive is currently streaming on Adult Swim.
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