FLCL Progressive, Ep 1: Slowly rotting away

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In comparing the first episode of FLCL Progressive to the original series, the words “similar but different” keep appearing in my mind. For me, this first episode perfectly captures the feel of the original series, from the visuals, writing, and even the color design. Yet at the same time, it is also markedly different. It captures the essence of FLCL while also doing something fresh, new, and exciting. I believe this is worth dwelling a bit on, because leading up to its premiere, there has been plenty of concerns for whether FLCL Progressive and Alternative would be too different or too similar to the original series. Concerns which which have been especially amplified due to fears that the new series was produced only as a cold, calculated ploy to capitalize on fan nostalgia.

You could say that this first episode shares basically the same story as that of the first FLCL‘s first episode, with many allusions and callbacks to the first series. We’re in the same town, this time with a newly built Medical Mechanical plant. A cool-headed and “normal” kid is surrounded by goofballs and manchildren, who then meets an even more eccentric alien who runs her over, and eventually gets attacked by some monster that pops out of a horny teenager’s head. Once you look past the basic plot though, Progressive and its staff all have a unique spin on everything.

The very beginning of the episode throws us into a white wasteland of snow and ruined buildings, with a girl literally rotting away before transforming into a robot. It’s a pretty riveting and exciting scene which hooks the viewer with its apocalyptic setting. It’s a pretty big contrast from the first FLCL‘s opening of a kid and girl talking underneath a bridge.  For the rest of the episode, what’s maybe most interesting from a thematic perspective is how Hidomi interacts (or rather doesn’t interact) with other people, which I’ll talk more about below. And there’s plenty of other little differences that give plenty of room for comparisons and contrasts. The schoolkids are junior high students this time instead of elementary schoolers, but still dress like elementary schools in a way, given that most of them don’t have school uniforms. Jinyu, who is clearly meant to parallel Haruko from the first FLCL, drives a car instead of a Vespa, and is much more serious (or perhaps more deadpan would be a better word.) This time there’s two teenagers with monsters and robots coming out of there head! And so on.

Whats really remarkable is just how well Progressive captures the feel of the original series with its presentation, despite much of the staff being completely different. Kazuya Tsurumaki and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto are both credited as Supervisor and Original Character Designer respectively, but they seem to have pretty minimal input on the series itself. Instead, it’s a project largely put together by a staff of younger animators and professionals, who grew up on FLCL and are enthusiastic to make a worthy sequel.

 

 

What I was most impressed by on a visual level was the color design for Progressive, handled by Arisawa Noriko (有澤法子). Comparing the images side-by-side, the coloring may not be exactly the same as that of the first FLCL, but it shares the same general principles. Yellow and green are often the most prominent colors during the daytime and sunrise/evening shots, as well as blue and red to a lesser extent. And in general, they’re colors which by themselves are quite subdued, or have lower saturation, but are put together to a make something very lively and colorful.

Also of note are the character designs provided by Chikashi Kubota (久保田誓), who also serves as the animation supervisor. (Plus the sub-character designer, Mai Yoneyama/米山舞.) The characters themselves vary quite a bit in terms of how similar or different they are from those of the first series. Jinyu looks just like as if she were designed by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto himself, while Hidomi and Ire are much different. Either way, I quite like all of the designs myself. The design for Hidomi and Ire in particular caused a bit of controversy when the first trailer for FLCL 2&3 were released though, with many displeased by how different they looked. I’d argue though that it’s less the exact character designs that matter, and more how they’re animated and interact with each other that really matters in making this feel like a FLCL anime.

The animation of the original FLCL could be summarized as a mix of “serious” drama and action, and more cartoony and surreal . It uses cartoony and wacky animation to tell a story that’s much deeper and serious. (One of Tsurumaki’s few bits of advice to the production staff was just to watch a lot of Western cartoons.) Progressive perhaps isn’t quite as zany or goofy in its animation as the first FLCL, but certainly has its moments. Perhaps the most obvious example would be when Hidomi gets hit by Jinyu’s car, and the lively animation that ensues of Hidomi rolling around on the ground. Or the first scene with Hidomi and her mother, or when Ire gets thrown onto the ground like some sort of pillar.

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Rotting Away

With all that said, lets talk a bit about the central theme introduced in this episode, emotional stagnation, and how it compares and contrasts with the themes of the original series. Much like Naoto in the original series, Hidomi finds herself surrounded by eccentric goofballs and idiots. Everyone around her is full of unbridled energy and wacky personalities, while she’s much more cool-headed and “normal” by comparison. It’s a pretty similar dynamic to the cast of the first series, but it’s how Hidomi deals with this that sets her apart from Naoto.

Naoto was a child trying to act like an adult, surrounded by adults who, to him, all act like children. (As well as children who act like children, for that matter.) Naoto tried to deal with this by acting more mature, brushing off everyone’s weird or “immature” behavior and acting as “normal” as he can. And what does it mean to act normal and mature exactly? To act adult-like? It means to think in rational and cool-headed terms; to not be overly emotional or excited.

With Hidomi, she chooses to disengage herself from this environment altogether. She wears a fancy set of headphones at all times, so that she can pretend not to hear those around her. Instead of interacting with her classmates directly, she lurks a chat group of them on her phone. In fact, the amount of words she says to other people in the first half of the episode can pretty much be counted with the fingers on your hands. For Hidomi, it doesn’t seem to be from a desire to be more “adult-like” that provokes this behavior, but a sense of aimlessness and uncertainty of what to do with her life. As she says to herself halfway through the episode: “There is nothing I want to be. There is nothing I want to do. I don’t even have an image of what I want to be. I have nothing. All that exists is zero.”

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This is far from an uncommon issue for teenagers, and even older adults. No one really knows what path they’re going to take in life when they’re a teenager. Some have a better idea than others, but plenty just have no direction at all. So there are certainly ways that Hidomi could try to solve this problem for herself. She could try to explore and learn more about the world. She could interact with the people around her, try different things. Basically, just make an effort to get more knowledge and experience in life. But of course, that takes effort. Instead, it’s easier for her to just give up and not explore the world or interact with people at all. It’s easier to just stare at your phone, ignore people, and watch random youtube videos at home.

When you do nothing however, it only leads to stagnation and decay. As Jinyu says after hitting Hidomi with her car, “When you hit pause on the world like that, your body will slowly start to rot away.” When you stop trying to search for direction and meaning, you’ll only lose whatever direction and meaning you had to begin with. To keep yourself from falling down, you have to keep going up, so to speak. So why exactly has Hidomi chosen to give up on life, though? We don’t really know yet, if there is a specific reason at all. But this is the predicament which this first episode has set up.

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Episode Notes:

• 0:00: Hidomi walks through a snowy wasteland of white-colored buildings. It evokes the destruction found at the very end of the original series. The fact that the buildings are a bleached white could be a reference to Mechanical Mechanica’s motive to “even everything out and make it the same”. The buildings have been bleached and sanitized just before the final phase of being “ironed” out. (Just a guess!)

• “The world must be destroyed before it can become beautiful. This is the world I envisioned. This is how the world should be. But in this world only my body is rotting. Becoming decayed.”

• Hidomi’s Canti: With what little we see of Hidomi’s inner robot, it’s pretty interesting to note how she pilots it compared to Naoto and Canti in the original FLCL. Here the robot envelops Hidomi like a sort of superpowered robot suit, before attacking the giant ironers. This is in contrast to Canti, who pops out of Naoto’s head and then pretty much stays out as a separate entity, who Naoto “pilots.” Meanwhile, Hidomi’s “Canti” is presented more like a suit that she transforms into. It’s also worth nothing that the robot literally fills in the holes of her rotting flesh. So perhaps this robot will be more a reflection of Hidomi’s self and compliment her character more, moreso than Canti and Naoto.

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• Hidomi’s mommy is great. We’re presented with a similar (but different) dynamic of a wacky parent and “normal” child as Naoto and his dad.  There’s a great contrast between the mom’s vibrant and upbeat body language, as she talks loudly and swings her knife around (“three, two, go…!”), and Hidomi’s utter lack of response. Her very design and movement is much cartoonier, and there’s even some smears and cartoony sound effects used for her.

• 4:14: The pale yellow background with the thick pencil speed lines, haa haa..

• 4:50: Really, really obvious hint that I somehow missed on my first viewing: Haruka’s Vespa is parked at the school.

•5:10 Hnnnngh, more old-school speed lines

• And so the male MC is introduced as a perv bragging about how he’s getting it on with his teacher. Who, as we later find out, is actually Haruka tricking him–as hinted at by the bandage on his forehead. I like how he’s basically a teenage version of Naoto’s dad here. And of course, despite trying to get in his teachers pants, he also clearly interested in Hidomi.

• 6:15. …Before launching into a debate about his friends “fashion choices,” who wears a skirt because it’s apparently hip and cool. This is the one scene of the whole episode that I really took issue with, since it’s pretty much just a scene making fun of gender-fluid people. More specifically, it makes fun of people who act gender-fluid to be cool, which is a harmful stereotype about gender-fluid people. I cringed pretty hard when the blonde guy said “If you breath the word ‘gender’ in the fashion world, they’ll throw you in a nursing home!” It’s possible that line is English-original, but I can’t imagine this scene being much better in Japanese.

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• 5:30.  One of the the posters here reads「宇宙生命とは?」which roughly translates to, “Alien life…?” The bottom image of the poster shows a very blurry image of Atomsk atop the giant ironer in the original FLCL‘s final episode. At least, that’s what it looks like to me. The poster to the left is about Medical Mechanica which probably has interesting stuff too.

• 7:10 – The first shot of Hidomi skimming through the messages of a chat group. The chat group she’s reading is for the class she’s in, “B組-23.” (This is all left untranslated in the dub.) Here, they’re talking about going to do some flower viewing, with a number of classmates enthusiastically saying they’ll join in.

• 8:45 – The voice acting for the porn here is really good. I can’t wait to see what it’s like in the Japanese version.

***

This is about as far as I got with dissecting the episode scene-by-scene, before running out of time and energy. Nonetheless, I hope this illustrates just how enthusiastic I am for the show. We’re only one episode in, and it’s already all too fascinating to compare and contrast Progressive with the original series. I’ve always been optimistic about the show, so it’s great to see it turn out as well I hoped it would.  As I’ve said before on twitter, there certainly never needed to be a sequel to FLCL, but if there has to be one, then the producers and staff of FLCL 2&3 certainly seem to have had the right approach to it.

(Disclaimer: I have yet to watch the first episode of FLCL Alternative, so I have no idea how that compares to Progressive. I’ve chosen to wait until its full premier in the fall before checking it out.)

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