This FLCL Progressive review contains spoilers.
FLCL Progressive Episode 3
The main problem with FLCL Progressive is encapsulated by the final shot of this episode: an extreme close-up of Haruko’s lips as she sets up the next episode by dramatically intoning, “Medical Mechanica.”
Why is that a problem? Because the original FLCL is my favorite anime and one of my all-time favorite shows and I absolutely do not give a shit about Medical Mechanica. Yes, I care about it to the extent that the Medical Mechanica plant, shaped like a giant anvil, is one of the defining, recurring, iconic images of the series. But if someone asked me to describe what makes FLCL good and/or what it’s about, I’d talk about the coming of age story, the gorgeous animation, and the music. The words “Medical Mechanica” would never pass my lips.
The original FLCL was the product of the crew filling the series with stuff they thought was cool. For example, the reason the plot became about robots coming out of a kid’s head is the director kept pushing the idea because, simply, he wanted some robots in there. It is possible to piece together the plot behind why all this weird cool, crap happens, but it’s obviously secondary, having been retrofitted to justify the cool crap happening, not the other way around.
In Progressive’s defense, being the successor to FLCL puts it in a difficult position because, while deliberate attempts were made to emulate the conditions of the original production by putting it in the hands of a younger crew instructed to approach it by just doing whatever they found cool, they’re also saddled with the obligation to somehow signify that this is indeed still FLCL. I mean, what if they had truly run with doing whatever tickled their fancies and fully abandoned the source material? One assumes fans would have cried foul if, for example, Haruko never appeared.
Not that Progressive is not very much its own thing. Stuff still comes out of kids’ heads, but what triggers this seems to vary wildly, and what comes out is rarely like it was in the past. In this episode, I guess a robot emerges from Ide, but it’s an amorphous, blobby thing that hardly looks mechanical. And from Hidomi’s head we get a giant brain formed from metallic rubble that sucks the Medical Mechanica iron right into it (a stark contrast to the original FLCL where the iron didn’t move from its spot until series’ climax).
It’s become sort of my thing to compare FLCL to Twin Peaks in that both are weird series that highlight spectacle and emotion over plot. And, further, FLCL Progressive is like Twin Peaks: The Return in that they’re revivals that feature past elements, but challenge fans to appreciate what amounts to a wildly different show. The difference is that Twin Peaks: The Return proved itself to be worth acclimating to as a brand new, strange, televisual beast, while Progressive’s take on FLCL is, well, mostly just boring and not as good.
I rewatched the original FLCL recently and still found it almost overwhelmingly emotional from scene to scene. I don’t expect to get the same emotions from Progressive (the series seems to be going for something much darker), but the problem is that I typically feel nothing at all. And this is because the show has opted to mostly center on its postmodern, sci-fi lore nonsense. “Stone Skipping” is a beach episode, but—aside from a volleyball game, a plot point about Haruko burying Jinyu in the sand, and the animators getting to put all the characters in swimsuits—the premise feels arbitrary. Everything devolves, just as it has before, into discussions of overflowing and everybody smacking each other around in the air. (Yes, every episode of the old FLCL climaxed similarly, but the action was always tied directly to the overall premise of each episode.)
My favorite aspect of “Stone Skipping” is the subplot about Mori’s perfect, demure girlfriend. Her behavior and their relationship is suspicious and, it’s revealed later, she’s just acting and Mori is paying her to pose as his sweet, shy girlfriend. It’s the best bit of the episode because it develops Mori’s character and reveals a surprising amount of depth to his fake girlfriend, although we’ve only just met her. (The voice actress also delivers a great performance, both when playing shy and when being her real, demanding self.)
One of the standout aspects of FLCLassic (credit where credit is due: I stole this spelling from Christopher Farris over at Anime News Network) was that, despite all the craziness, it also felt like a slice-of-life series with well-defined characters, and Mori’s girlfriend plot comes the closest to recapturing that. Again, I’m not saying Progressive needs to feel like the old series to be good. But if it’s not going to do that, it has to fill the void with something that’s engaging/interesting/moving in a different way. And I’m afraid that’s something it’s yet to accomplish.