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FLCL (2000)

Kazuya Tsurumaki was a rebel.

In 2000, the director released a show that, in his own words, “broke the rules” of anime. His experiment was not out of character; a longtime artist at Gainax, Tsurumaki had contributed to some of the most cerebral, mind-bending titles in animation, including Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) and its companion film, The End of Evangelion (1997). FLCL -also known in English as Fooly Cooly- was Tsurumaki’s directorial debut. A co-production between Gainax, Production I.G., and King Records, this enduring, offbeat story remains as iconic today as it was on release.

The series opens in the small, suburban town of Mabase. Naota is a 12-year-old boy idling under a bridge with his friend, a high schooler named Mamimi. While Mamimi plays around with a baseball bat, Naota broods over the lack of excitement in his life, complaining that “everything is ordinary” and condemning the Medical Mechanica plant, a factory that has become the centerpiece of the town. Despite his elders’ enthusiasm for the plant, Naota regards the dark, towering edifice with fear, wary that its presence portends the arrival of something.

Something new.

Something wild.

His hunch is quickly confirmed. Moments later, a strange, twenty-something woman crashes into Naota with her Vespa, knocking him unconscious. Without skipping a beat, the driver dismounts, approaches Naota, and revives him with a kiss. Then, just as he comes to, the woman inexplicably hits him with her guitar, leaving a bump on his forehead before fleeing the scene. Thoroughly confused and struggling to make sense of the event, Naota walks home, hoping to put the day--and his odd, pink-haired assailant--behind him.

But Naota’s adventures have just begun. The woman, later introduced as Haruko, continues to follow him around, enquiring after his head and whether the bump has grown. She eventually enters his home and becomes the family maid, appearing to bewitch Naota’s father, Kamon, who accepts her without question. Meanwhile, strange objects start emerging from Naota’s head. Only Haruko seems to understand their purpose--and as one bizarre event leads to another, it becomes increasingly unclear just who, or what, she truly is. The mystery soon escalates into a fierce, intergalactic war of the worlds: one that will force Naota to choose sides as his friends, family, and Medical Mechanica all get involved.

FLCL is a rewarding watch, but only if viewers can stand its ceaseless, unabashed freneticism. This first-person tale is a brief but dizzying dive into the adolescent brain, its chaotic plot appearing to mirror Naota’s own, confused feelings and thoughts. Even the visuals teem with uncertainty, shifting between traditional designs and a more playful, abstract look as the show unfolds. In a world where subjectivity reigns, it can be hard to discern truth from fiction. Are all these events taking place, or is Naota imagining them? Even Haruko could be a dream, a possibility she suggests when Naota questions her identity:

“I’m an illusion of your youth! A manifestation of the feelings in your adolescent heart!”

While Naota’s wild, unreliable narration serves as a structural symbol of puberty, Haruko is its human embodiment. With her pink hair, sleek guitar, and hip, punk-rock bike suit, she exudes all the facets of pop culture that teens love and extol. For Naota, her presence might also herald a sexual awakening. She certainly does not shy from the topic, teasing her young friend about his budding libido and dropping countless double entendres throughout the show.

Naota wrestles with these ideas, but his thoughts never extend beyond mild, naive curiosity. Unlike Tsurumaki's men, who treat Haruko with bold, shameless perversion, Naota maintains his innocence, expressing a love for her that is more pure than carnal. FLCL thus engages in a partial subversion of its theme, allowing Naota to mature through courage and heroics while averting the base, lewd eye of the male gaze. His imagination also stays intact, its survival evinced by Naota's storytelling, which remains unfalteringly offbeat from beginning to end. 

FLCL defies the conventions of a traditional, coming-of-age narrative. While offering Naota a glimpse of manhood, it remains far more celebratory of his childhood. Perhaps that is what makes this story so alluring. With its quirky visuals, retro soundtrack, and free, uninhibited narration, Tsurumaki's bildungsroman feels like an ode to Youth itself: a reminder that, no matter how much we age, we must never forget our inner child. As the story draws to a close, Haruko appears to echo this theme, telling Naota that he is still “just a kid," bound to grow up one day, but not now.

Not yet.    

 FORMAT: SERIES AVAILABLE ON: BLU-RAY/DVD/DIGITAL/STREAMING FROM: Funimation [US] MVM [UK] RATING: TV-14 [US] 12A [UK]  RUNNING TIME: 23 min x 6 episodes

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IN A NUTSHELL: A delightfully offbeat bildungsroman.

★★★★