FLCL Progressive is not stupid enough to be cool

When I first heard about it, I found the idea of a sequel to FLCL a bit self-contradictory.

FLCL was a simple coming-of-age story with an experimental and wildly energetic approach, throwing absurd sci-fi wrenches into an ordinary boy’s puberty in Nowhere-town, Japan. It’s very silly, a little bit metaphorical, and a visual spectacle that washes over the viewer whether they understand what’s happening or not.

The self-contained story is also not great material for a sequel, especially if you’re trying to make two of them (see also the upcoming FLCL Alternative) nearly two decades later. One of the key animation studios that made FLCL a beautiful, cutting-edge work (Gainax) back in 2000 had a staff diaspora that left it a shell of its former self. The major talent of the old Gainax are at Khara, Trigger, and a host of other studios around the Japanese animation industry. The series creator, Kazuya Tsurumaki, gave his blessing but is not directly involved. (Original collaborator Production IG and other studios take up the reins on the new series.)

But coming-of-age stories themselves are eternal, and perhaps this is exactly the time to revisit this one with a new generation of characters and creators. If FLCL resonated so deeply with me in my teens, maybe it can do that for some other quiet, sad kid today. And why would I want to stop that from happening? So hey, whatever. I was wrong about remaking Legend of the Galactic Heroes, too.

Well, unfortunately, FLCL Progressive (hereafter FLCL2) is not very good. The series gives it a shot with good intentions, and its love for the source material is apparent. But it doesn’t have the animation to outshine FLCL, the storytelling chops to equal it, nor the raw adolescent emotion that makes its heart beat.

The biggest problem is probably with the new heroine, the deeply introverted and gloomy Hidomi. A big part of why FLCL works is that we experience it from inside of the protagonist Naota’s head, and it perfectly nails the awkward confusion and longings of an adolescent boy. FLCL is about visualizing those feelings: they’re at the very core of the work. FLCL2 doesn’t understand its teenage girl the way FLCL innately understands its teenage boy, and as such it has a much more difficult time expressing what’s stirring inside of her.

The gorgeous intro of the gorgeous episode five, “the good episode”.

Hidomi is a much more distant presence: though she is the central figure, it doesn’t feel like the story is actually about her. We get a glimpse of her psyche through surreal, masochist fantasy sequences that are the high points of the series. But we don’t feel what she feels outside of those moments: we just sit with the boys in her class (with whom FLCL2 is much more comfortable), watching her from a distance and trying to guess. Ultimately, we don’t find out much about Hidomi aside from her kinks.

It’s Complicated

The story is effectively a modernized repeat of FLCL for an audience assumed to be familiar with it. The returning Haruko is of course the prime mover, and she’s up to exactly what she was last time; nudging vulnerable pubescent kids into “overflowing”, which is very much the metaphor you’d imagine it is. Meanwhile, the story drops vague hints on the hows and whys of robots popping out of kids’ heads, which is the kind of lore that the original series was smart enough to leave in the shadows.

I’m not one to pull a single frame out of an action seqence and say “LOL QUALITY”, but every frame of the last fight sequence looks like this.

The other big issue is the animation. The original FLCL was a lavishly animated project from some of the stars of the medium. By contrast, once the action gets going in the sequel, it starts to look like a particularly cheap TV anime. There are some truly impressive contributions from amazing animators in FLCL2 — particularly the end of the fourth episode and the entirety of the fifth — but most of the show is quite flat. The finale of the series, in which the whole world falls apart, features such unpolished action animation that it’s practically an anticlimax. Parts of this show don’t look like they’re finished, and for the sequel to a series like FLCL, that’s a big problem.

See? I mostly picked good frames.

During the series’ broadcast on Adult Swim I was up-and-down on this show: the first episodes were tedious with hints of promise, the lead up to the finale showed a genuine spark, and the finale itself lowers any heightened expectations back into the ground.

Hanging around FLCL2 is a general feeling of fanboy sequel obligation all too common to the current geek culture. Canti must appear; the heroine has to be Naota’s daughter, and the guy with the red hair has to be the son of the guy with the red hair from the last one, remember him, with the eyebrows? It is wonderful to hear the Pillows again, but pretty frequently they don’t fit the scene.

But it *had* to be like that, right? That’s how this kind of thing works. What was once experimental is now routine. Nothing much happens around here.

Sooolar wind. Anime/games writer. Sometimes on @polygon? @Kawaiikochans is the sum of my efforts. Serious about stupid.