This FLCL Progressive review contains spoilers.
FLCL Progressive Episode 1
It’s not easy to talk about FLCL.
It’s tough to articulate what makes it so moving. I recently rewatched the original series all in one go (it’s only six episodes) and still found it almost overwhelmingly beautiful. It’s regularly a stupid show with a lot of fourth-wall-breaking meta-humor, shamelessly adolescent depictions of sexuality, and a borderline gobbledygook plot about robots coming out of a boy’s head. But watching it, I always feel helplessly taken in, my chest tightens up, and I feel like I don’t know what to do with myself, like I’m gonna overflow.
The very first episode of the original FLCL pulled me in, smacked me around, and made me feel a bunch of stuff I didn’t understand, but I knew I’d be watching the rest. After finishing “RE: Start,” the premiere of the series’ sequel, FLCL Progressive, my initial reaction was that it didn’t grip me. It didn’t strike with the same force and command my attention like the old series did.
However, literally over the course of writing those previous two paragraphs, I’ve had a change of heart. The fact is that “RE: Start” has gripped me, but in a very different way.
I have said this more than once and I keep chiding myself for it, because it feels like a flimsy and gimmicky comparison, but I can’t help coming back to it: FLCL is, in an unobvious way, the Twin Peaks of anime. I’ve said it before because both are unabashedly style over substance productions. It’s not that there isn’t a plot; there is, and quite a dense one, to boot. It’s just that spending your time unraveling it is not the path to most enjoyment. Rather, let the gorgeous intermingling of the visuals and sound design transport you and inspire emotions in you, though you may not understand why.
Now, with “RE: Start,” I’m reminded of Twin Peaks again because, when that show’s revival premiered, it felt melancholy, cold, and unwelcoming. The original series was very dark at times, sure, but it was also a soap opera with a lot of over-the-top humor. I came away from the first two episodes feeling, well, weird, and not knowing quite how to talk about it. But, at the same time, I wanted to know more. I knew I’d have to see what it would serve up next. And, truly, I am in an almost identical state now with FLCL Progressive.
“RE: Start” is darker, slower, and a lot less silly than the first episode of the original series. There were scenes of graphic violence in the old show, but Progressive, in a gutsy and surprising move, leads with them. The opening scene introduces protagonist, Hidomi, in a dream sequence where she’s a decaying zombie. It’s disturbing and made all the more interesting because it’s paired with one of The Pillows’ best and most charming songs that never got used in the original show, “Thank You, My Twilight.” The effect is beautiful, stirring, and creepy in a way that recalls the old show, but isn’t really mimicking anything from it. And this encapsulates how “RE: Start” feels overall.
I read some early impressions of Progressive’s first few episodes that complained it was retreading and bringing back elements from FLCL in a tired way, but I’m not finding that true, at least not yet. Yes, there’s some overt callbacks here. Hidomi echoes original series’ protagonist Naota almost word for word when she says “Nothing amazing has ever happened here. Everything is ordinary.” The Pillows are back to do the soundtrack. There’s a giant iron. Kids are still getting run over by vehicles and surviving only to have horns and robots sprout from their foreheads. Haruko’s in it (and, in the episode’s most meta moment, all the characters seem elated to see her, almost like they’re as familiar with the series as we are).
However, to view these reused elements and cry “retread” is missing the point. It is a sequel, after all. One should expect some of this stuff to reappear and “RE: Start” isn’t just straight-up parroting the past. It’s variating and subverting it in a major way.
Naota was a sullen kid, but Hidomi is far more closed-off. She doesn’t even appear to really have any friends. Haruko’s there, but there’s also a new figure on the scene, Jinyu, who, seems to have the same powers, but, unlike Haruko, is gravely serious. Hidomi does have a horn coming out of her head at the end of the episode, but the stuff that once happened to Naota is evidently happening mostly offscreen with another character, a boy named Ide. The iconic “Little Busters” does pop up briefly, but The Pillows music used so far is a lot more low-key. And Haruko’s introduction isn’t the rip-roaring madcap thing it was the first time around. Instead, she reveals who she is all the way at the end of the episode, after posing as a schoolteacher who, uh, shows the kids porn in class.
Subtle, but perhaps most significant is that, when a giant robot does eventually show up (as they always do in FLCL), its defeat isn’t presented as a crazy-cool action sequence. In FLCL classic, it was all about spectacle. An action sequence just meant it was time to sit back and enjoy the show, because the characters were almost Looney Tunes-like in how much they could be batted around and squashed with no real consequence. Here, it’s more harrowing. Ide gets roughed up and bloodied, and the defeat of the robot is more perfunctory than triumphant.
It’s all darker, creepier, and a bit sadder than the FLCL we’re familiar with. And what’s important about that is, like Twin Peaks and its return, it’s not trotting out the old hits in a lazy, pandering way. Instead, “RE: Start” retains enough of the old series to let us know we’re in the same universe, but changes it and subverts it such that it left me in a state of uncertainty and unease. Basically, I have no idea what’s going on. That’s why it’s cool.