FLCL Alternative Episode 5 Review: Shake it Off

The action and drama escalate in unison in an extraordinarily good penultimate episode.

This FLCL Alternative review contains spoilers.

FLCL Alternative: Episode 5

FLCL Alternative struggled with a bit of an identity crisis in its early episodes, coming off like a good slice-of-life anime unfortunately muddled by the burden of having to honor the FLCL label. It did a better job of merging its two identities in the fourth episode, bringing Haruko and Medical Mechanica more to the forefront. And now, with “Shake it Off,” Alternative builds on that previous episode and brilliantly forms itself into a cohesive work. Accomplishing a feat I’d honestly given up hoping for, Alternative has transformed into a series with its own identity that also fits into the FLCL universe.

On the FLCL side of things, Medical Mechanica is now fully back to their old tricks of using giant irons to flatten out the planet. As in FLCLassic, this is given as much attention as needed to communicate a basic explanation of the bizarre sci-fi plot (I’m happy to say they don’t bother to mention Atomsk even once) and to build the tension that culminates with the action sequence at the end.

As for the Alternative side, “Shake it Off” is an extremely sad, drama-heavy episode about Pets and Kana’s friendship. Through a short flashback, we learn that Kana and Pets are the oldest friends of the group (Pets is very probably Kana’s first ever friend) and yet Kana knows very little about her. Kana learning about who Pets really is for the first time is a dark ordeal that reaches a crescendo of Pets rejecting their friendship.

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The drama and the action climax simultaneously in the most inspired and best-looking monster-robot fight of either FLCL sequel series so far. This is also probably the best bit of callback fanservice yet. Haruko also fought a giant hand-shaped robot in episode five of FLCLassic. Compared to that series, Alternative has followed a very different path to reach this point (admittedly, so did Progressive), so it’s interesting and somewhat unexpected that it’s sprung this direct, yet alternative (get it!?), version of a fight scene that mirrors its source material. Some of the animation of Haruko running up the monster even seems to be recalling her movements in the original series’ fifth episode.

At the same time, it remains a scene that could only have taken place in this sequel series. The character drama just never reached such wordy heights in FLCLassic. There was dialogue but nothing was ever openly hashed out the way Kana and Pets do here. The original FLCL accomplished its most emotional moments through its synergy of visuals and music; there was important character stuff riding on it, but feelings were still delivered more by way of spectacle. “Shake it Off” also manages to be extremely emotional, but it’s based more on how we’ve gotten to know these characters and how they interact with one another. True, a lot of who Pets is and how she truly thinks and feels remains shrouded in mystery, but I felt I understood enough about these two for their argument—and Kana’s subsequent uber-happy, delusional dream sequence—for it to hit hard.

“Shake it Off” continues to deliver its best symbiosis of Alternative and FLCL yet through Haruko. She shows up throughout the episode but always feels instrumental to the plot, rather than awkwardly shoehorned in (like in Mossan’s episode) and feels both like the more randomly helpful version of herself she’s been throughout Alternative as well as the self-centered woman we know from FLCLassic. She arrives to help Kana out in her time of need, but then also says she’s only doing it for herself. (Then, as mentioned, she kicks the robot’s ass in much the same way she did back in the day.)

The use of music is also the best it’s been in either Progressive or Alternative. I haven’t been very charitable to the background music work of R・O・N of music production company VERYGOO, but Alternative’s music has definitely been the better showing and this is the best it’s been yet. The eerie music when Kana is meeting Pets’ mother is very effectively unsettling. However, what’s coolest (and authentically FLCL) is the way, in the final battle, the darker lead-in music segues perfectly into the Pillows’ iconic “Last Dinosaur” to coincide with Haruko’s arrival. R・O・N has also written a triumphant, yet melancholy rock tune for the end portion of the fight, music that sounds not unlike another Pillows’ song Adult Swim didn’t get the rights to, “All the Way to the Edge of This World.” Regardless, it works and, importantly, these are some of the only moments in either sequel series that have felt like they’re attempting to recapture the feeling of visuals and audio working in tandem just as the original series did. And it feels good!

In “Shake it Off,” FLCL Alternative simultaneously comes into its own and carves out its own place in the FLCL universe. It’s character-driven in a way unique to this series, but it’s also got Medical Mechanica and Haruko mucking things up in a satisfying, yet not show-stealing way. What’s truly incredible is that, though each episode of FLCLassic individually gets me in the guts more regularly, Alternative has built a clearer character through line over the course of five episodes, compounding my feelings for these characters and paying off with this episode’s super affecting breaking point. In other words, it’s accomplished something different yet similar to FLCL, which is pretty much the point of it being Alternative.

Joe Matar watches a lot of cartoons and a lot of sitcoms. He’s obsessed with story structure so that’s what all his reviews are about. Joe also writes about video games on occasion. He has an MA in English if you can believe it. Read more of his work here. Follow Joe on Twitter for more fun @joespirational!

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5 out of 5