This review contains no spoilers and is based on the first episode of FLCL: Grunge.
“The people who live here never think about the future…”
FLCL is a cherished anime relic of the 2000s that’s only six episodes, but still found international acclaim after airing on Adult Swim in 2003. It’s frequently considered to be the golden goose of anime coming-of-age stories where lost youth accept the unpredictable nature of life and embrace the harsh truth that nobody has full control over the world’s whims.
FLCL’s success was lightning in a bottle programming that in all likelihood probably shouldn’t have been (repeatedly) returned to and milked into an increasingly generic IP. Adult Swim’s previous sequels, FLCL: Progressive and FLCL: Alternative weren’t received as well and seemed to touch on the same ideas, albeit in new ways, but with diminishing returns. This understandably had fans of the original skeptical when Adult Swim announced the development of two more FLCL series, FLCL: Grunge and FLCL: Shoegaze. FLCL: Grunge doesn’t exactly break Progressive and Alternative’s pattern. That being said, on some level it’s still a comfort to escape into this abnormal world and get swept up in Haruko Haruhara’s adolescent-eschewing adrenaline ride.
Shinpachi, the son of an acclaimed–yet struggling–chef at Miyabi Sushi finds his dull life forever changed. A slow night at work coincides with the arrival of Haruko Haruhara, a firecracker of an agitator who strives to change this broken world. FLCL: Grunge paints a grim picture where life on Earth is a literal death sentence, adults are hopeless, and this intense apathy has naturally carried over to Shinpachi and the rest of the village’s children. A rocket to a better life looms over everyone, but it seems like a mocking impossibility instead of a genuine prospect.
FLCL: Grunge leans into a cyberpunk dystopia setting, which helps differentiate it from past series even if this trend has become admittedly overdone at this point. Even the show’s poster and marketing materials feel deeply derivative of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners. However, FLCL: Grunge is still able to establish its own unique corner in this popular genre.
An air of melancholy hangs over Shinpachi’s head as he conforms to his father’s wishes with no real free will or path to call his own. He’s trapped in this generational pressure cooker where he’s petrified to disappoint or disobey his father, yet can’t stand to accept such a future for himself. Shinpachi simply wants to listen to music and think about a future that’s full of endless possibilities rather than one where he’s locked in as his father’s employee. FLCL: Grunge’s premiere is primarily Shinpachi’s story. However, his budding, gentle friendship with a knife maker’s daughter indicates that this endless cycle of obligation haunts more than just Shinpachi.
FLCL: Grunge is a lot more successful if it’s someone’s first exposure to FLCL rather than the fourth take on this idea. Anyone who’s seen another FLCL series, especially the original, may feel that this premiere falls a little flat and plays things just too safe as it repeats the same story beats of the other series. Haruko shows up and causes chaos? Check. A shy protagonist who longs for more grows a weird horn? Check. A TV-faced robot tries to end civilization? Check. Lather, rinse, retread.
That’s not to say that there aren’t still flashes of greatness in “Shinpachi.” The idea that the yakuza members all have the same hiragana-laced faces is weird and fun. There’s also a group of people known as Rockians who are basically Marvel’s Ben “The Thing” Grimm. There are playful self-aware jokes that try to get ahead of the narrative by poking fun at some of the inherent problems that anime translations face as well as the stigma that continues to surround dubs even though FLCL: Grunge’s English version is airing before the Japanese original. And if nothing else, it’s always nice to hear Kari Wahlgren return as Haruko Haruharua and to get a dose of Steve Blum’s dulcet tones, but this still doesn’t make up for lackluster storytelling.
Another element that may be a real sticking point for audiences is FLCL: Grunge’s CG-based visuals. They’re by no means ugly, but they fail to reach the heights of the previous seasons’ engaging visual styles that were produced by Gainax and Production I.G (who will be back for FLCL: Shoegaze). FLCL: Grunge is animated by MontBlanc Pictures, on their first series no less, and their inexperience frequently shines through. It should be interesting to see what MontBlanc does in the future, but as it stands, an all-CG anime company like Studio Orange would have been a safer bet.
MontBlanc still finds ways to push the animation past its limits and engage in spectacles that feel true to the FLCL brand, like when Shinpachi first sees Haruko or when they share an awkward kiss. In fact, all of these heightened flourishes feel very much like the Scott Pilgrim-ification of FLCL as arcade noises and chaotic camera angles sweep up these characters.
It’s a curious tactic that equates FLCL to stylized pandemonium, which is certainly an oversimplification of what this series/franchise is all about. There’s a heightened slapstick style to the show’s visuals, which maintain a high energy that effectively contrasts with Shinpachi’s general malaise and listlessness. Visuals aside, FLCL: Grunge features exceptional music by The Pillows, which continually proves to be FLCL’s secret weapon in each series.
“It’s been a blast…Actually it’s been more of a nightmare,” is something that Haruko flippantly declares towards the end of “Shinpachi” and it’s hard to not feel the same dissonant perspective as this premiere reaches its end. Ironically enough, FLCL: Grunge’s problem is essentially the same as Shinpachi’s woes. It’s an anime that wants to break out of its shell and not be defined by its ancestors and past, yet it can’t help but get lost in old habits.
FLCL premiere episodes are often their weakest due to being bogged down in exposition and world-building. Fortunately, the episode’s final moments are the most creative and promising that indicate a hopeful future for what’s to come. It’s entirely possible that FLCL: Grunge finds its footing and independence in its subsequent episodes, but “Shinpachi” makes for a rocky start that could be more precise with its knife-work.
We all just need to find the right blade to cut that big fish called life otherwise we’ll be resigned to going through the motions.
FLCL: Grunge premieres Sept. 9 at midnight ET on Adult Swim.