Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Limited Edition Blu-ray
Cocona isn't really sure who she wants to be. Living alone with her grandmother in a cold and confusing world, her uncertainty over filling out her career counseling form echoes her uncertainty about her own personality. But then Papika appears. Full of energy and life, Papika drags the hesitant Cocona into the world of Pure Illusion, a fantastical place where dreams become reality. Pure Illusion is frightening and dangerous, but also beautiful in its own way. Cocona isn't sure she'll be able to find herself here, but even just losing herself might be better than nothing.
The anime industry isn't generally structured to reward anime-original passion projects. The current funding model relies heavily on production committees that generally bank on “media mix” dividends - anime are funded because they'll sell source material, music CDs, model kits, and a variety of other products. The insurance of alternate revenue streams lessens the risk of any single show flopping, but anime-original productions with nothing else to sell don't really have that advantage. So shows like this year's Flip Flappers are inherently rare and special things.
Flip Flappers is directed by Kiyotaka Oshiyama, a man whose relative inexperience also makes the series somewhat unusual. Oshiyama is primarily known as a talented animator, having contributed to esteemed projects like Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Evangelion 2.0, and Dennou Coil. His skills as a director were only first tested in 2014, when he directed a standout episode of the creator showcase Space Dandy. Now in 2016, he's returned at new Studio 3Hz, with the beautiful, original, and altogether stunning Flip Flappers.
Flip Flappers is not a show that reveals its tricks willingly. The first episode introduces us to Cocona, a timid girl who seems uncertain about her place in the world, and Papika, a ball of compressed energy who drags Cocona into a mysterious fantasy world. Pulled from her mundane daily life, Cocona finds herself in a snowy wilderness, part of a beautiful post-apocalyptic place that Papika calls Pure Illusion. In that first episode, Cocona and Papika have a snowball fight, huddle together for warmth in a foreboding forest, and ultimately get almost run over by a stampede of strange, enormous creatures. After being tossed back out into the real world, Cocona curses Papika for almost getting herself killed. But by the following episode, Cocona finds herself dragged back into a new realm of Pure Illusion. And then another. And then another.
Early on, it'd be easy to assume Flip Flappers will simply be an anthology of these fairy tale adventures, like a more whimsical and emotionally charged version of Space Dandy. The show's pedigree certainly supports that; Flip Flappers is blessed with a remarkably talented animation staff and background art courtesy of Studio Pablo, whose work puts most other studios to shame. Flip Flappers' early episodes are their own visual and narrative rewards, as Cocona and Papika find themselves visiting a version of Alice's Wonderland, sparring with bandits in a take on Mad Max, or sharing tea with faceless, voiceless school girls in a horrifying spin on Class S yuri narratives.
But that horror-influenced prison school also points toward Flip Flappers' larger ambitions. Though the show establishes a running narrative in pursuit of “amorphous fragments,” shining jewels the girls must take back from Pure Illusion, the true story of Flip Flappers is Cocona's journey into herself. As one adventure follows another, it becomes clear that Cocona and Papika aren't just exploring fantasies, they're exploring fantasies of people they know - that each layer of Pure Illusion echoes the psychology of someone in the real world. Through these jumbled, unflinchingly honest personal portraits, Flip Flappers slowly hones in on the true nature of the girl who's afraid of greeting the world and the other girl who hopes to set her free.
Flip Flappers is ultimately a coming-of-age story that touches on how we're defined by our families, how we're viewed by the world, and how we come to love ourselves. It contains a multi-generational love story, several vivid depictions of broken homes, and a scathing rebuke of how society reinforces our fear of honest self-expression. And yet, for all that heavy dramatic material, it's all expressed through the tenets of Pure Illusion - up until its thrilling final act, each new episode presents its motions and messages through the framing device of a unique and satisfying episodic adventure.
At a glance, it'd be easy to dismiss Flip Flappers as either a purely visually-focused work or a narratively disjointed one. But the genius of Flip Flappers is that the greater part of its storytelling takes place when you're not even looking. Even those first few episodes end up feeling heavy with meaning in retrospect. On a first viewing, you might notice how Cocona is always separated from the world by bars and windows, thus implying her emotional entrapment. On a second, you might pick up how the first few visits to Pure Illusion echo specific elements of the different characters' psychologies. On a third, the significance of Papika's actions might become clear, or an acceptance of the episode's psychological goals might give way to a fresh appreciation of its carefree character acting and visual wonder.
The more you put into Flip Flappers, the more you get out of it. Such thematically layered shows have a tendency to feel overwritten, didactic, or plodding, but by allowing so much of its core thematic and psychological text to exist purely in the visual storytelling, Flip Flappers is able to stay light and immediately entertaining throughout. By the end, the fact that its story has been echoed by every aesthetic element of its production makes its final emotional beats land with the punch of a far longer series. It's a feast of storytelling, from its clever use of emotionally charged motifs, to its purposeful visual and narrative symmetries, to its mastery of color theory as narrative vehicle, to its confident cribbing of fairy tale forms, it brims with a voracious reader's love of stories in all their forms. Combining a fully articulated character study with some of the most exuberant visual wanderings in any recent anime, Flip Flappers stands as a remarkable union of emotional intent and visual execution.
Flip Flappers is also a pretty messy show. Despite treating its lead cast with great sensitivity in an emotional sense, there are scatterings of fanservice that feel entirely out of place in the overall narrative. The last act in particular is both more conventional and less tightly written than the rest. While the answers to the show's questions all make sense and fit with what came before, its culmination in a big battle sequence feels like an awkward match with the show's overall emotionally-led narrative. Additionally, though the show's art design stays strong throughout, its animation definitely gets more limited in the final quarter, before rallying for some wild cuts in the finale. The music for the series proper isn't all that memorable, although the show's opening and ending songs are both a real treat.
But for all those quibbles, I still find myself stunned by everything Flip Flappers attempts and accomplishes. Anime's visual feasts and psychological interrogations align rarely enough in the first place - Flip Flappers success at conveying so much emotional content through its beautiful worldbuilding puts it in a very rare tier. Flip Flappers could easily be appreciated simply as a paean to the great storytelling of the past - from its wild Pure Illusion worlds to its cheeky references to shows like Evangelion and Penguindrum, it's clearly aware and respectful of its narrative lineage. Flip Flappers could also be appreciated as a very personal story about a few girls, their difficult family relationships, and the love they share - its characters are given plentiful texture and their ultimate resolutions feel true to all the show believes. But ultimately, Flip Flappers is all of these things at once, a beautiful, creative, and deeply intimate expression of just what anime can do.
Sentai's special edition comes in a gorgeous holographic chipboard case, covered in beautiful art by Flip Flappers' original concept artist tanu. Inside you'll find a standard bluray case housing the show itself, which doesn't come with any meaningful digital extras, but is instead complemented by a variety of welcome physical ones. The one major digital inclusion is the show's dub, which is a respectable effort all around. Oddly, my favorite dub characters often turned out to the show's various bit players, who are generally conveyed with a slightly heightened fairy tale affectation that works perfectly for a story like this. As for the main cast, Brittney Karbowski's Papika feels a fair bit more grounded and less spacey than the original take, but the result still feels authentic to Papika's character. On the other hand, Patricia Duran is a natural fit for Yayaka, and the overall cast possess a solid chemistry that make this purely preference based sub/dub decision.
Moving on to the physical extras, Sentai has included a collection of postcards featuring more original tanu art, as well as a Flip Flappers bookmark for all your Flip Flappers bookmarking-related needs. And finally, there's this special edition's crowning achievement, the tome that takes up the majority of the show's case - the Flip Flappers Limited Edition Booklet.
“Booklet” is a pretty misleading name for this inclusion; it's actually a hardcover glossy-print book, containing three hundred pages worth of interviews, concept art, discussions with key show staff, and pretty much anything else you could hope for in a special edition. This book is so exhaustive and rewarding that it basically warrants its own review, so I'm going to tackle its content the same way the book itself does, one chapter at a time.
The book opens with a shot-by-shot breakdown of the anime's opening and closing segments, accompanied by direct commentary on each shot choice by director Oshiyama. His thoughts on these shots range from revealing reflections on the purpose of OPs (like how he designed the OP scenes to both demonstrate the nature of its characters while also placing them in contexts the show proper wouldn't allow for) to goofy insights about specific OP choices here (like his defense of Toto's stiff pose during the cut of him missile spamming, which Oshiyama insists is a natural result of centrifugal force). There are thematic insights and Yayaka favoritism and all the things you'd expect from a general director interview, here all focused on the thousand tiny creative choices involved in storyboarding an opening song. This close-look overview of the OP design process is then followed by a second run through the OP, this time focusing more on the details of key animation, as Oshiyama is joined in the comments by executive animation director Takashi Kojima.
These OP breakdowns are then followed by a similarly thorough analysis of the ending sequence, which also includes full copies of the show's beautiful ending tapestries, as well as explanations of the tiny narratives they each depict. The first segment finally ends with a third dialogue with the director, this time framed as a traditional interview, where he discusses the initial project proposal, the process through which the show's actual narrative took form, and other neat details of pre-production.
From there, the book moves to its second chapter, character design. Here, our journey through the show's designs is once again accompanied by director Oshiyama, who holds an ongoing conversation with character designer Takashi Kojima throughout. In addition to their own insights, this segment is also bolstered by the inclusion of many actual design notes along the sides of the character art, many of which are even translated (like the key “make Papika's hair more fluffy” for her flip flapping transformation). There's even a backstory and character profile for all of the various Papika fragments Cocona comes across in episode seven, along with more funny insights like Kojima admitting that he intentionally gave Toto the shortest shorts possible. The details here are so thorough that the segment essentially acts as a Flip Flappers style blueprint, offering layouts of not just outfits and overall design sensibilities, but details down to the way character eyes should reflect light from any given angle.
From character designs, the book then jumps to episode storyboards, offering a mix of actual storyboards, choice sequences of important key frames, and plenty of key art in general. After that, it's on to music, where the show's three member compositional group, TO-MAS Soundsight Fluorescent Forest, readily admit that they at first didn't have a clue what Flip Flappers was actually about. It's a fun interview that mixes insights about the sound design process with more general reflections on how this group manage their work. Being essentially a collaboration of three individually gifted musical specialists, their work on Flip Flappers allowed them to divy up focus songs depending on their own specialties, with different members handling segments like the orchestral or electronic songs.
After that, it's on to concept art, with director Oshiyama once again offering his thoughts on the show's aesthetic and design process. There are plenty more great insights here into what concepts got championed or shelved during the show's development, but the art here is also its own rewards. Flip Flappers is a beautiful show, and the always-astonishing Studio Pablo outdid themselves on its background designs, resulting in a chapter that's basically its own little gallery showing accompanied by the immediate thoughts of the principle artist.
The book finishes off with one last pair of interviews, featuring Kojima and Oshiyama each offering final thoughts on the production. Overall, this book is an absurdly exhaustive and incredibly welcome addition to this collection, pushing this release into must-buy territory for both big fans of Flip Flappers and anyone who's interested in learning more about the anime production process. Add that to the fact that Flip Flappers itself is one of the most beautiful, creative, and thematically rich shows of recent years, and you end up with a worthy and highly recommendable premium release. Flip Flappers is a truly remarkable achievement, and this collection absolutely does it justice.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A+
Music : B+
+ Purposeful visual storytelling succeeds as both a joyous collection of individual adventures and a thoughtful story about trust, identity, and belonging
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