Puberty is such an awkward and miserable time that most kids affect cool detachment simply to maintain some semblance of control over their lives. FLCL is the story of one such kid, 12-year-old Naota Nandaba. Adding to his isolation are the people missing from his life, especially his idolized brother, gone to America to play baseball, and his mother, who is never even mentioned. His father and grandfather are self-involved louts. His brother’s ex-girlfriend is emotionally damaged. And, worst of all, his emotional and sexual awakening is kicked into high gear by the sudden appearance of a woman who initially appears to be several kinds of manic pixie dream girl, but who is actually something much, much stranger.
With a similarly deceptive surface, FLCL appears at first glance to be an incoherent mess. Viewers are dropped into scenes without explanation. The artwork, while stunning, seems to have little to do with the voice-over. It can be hard to suss out who the characters are, what they are talking about, and what their motivations could be. The first episode is so disorienting that first-time viewers might believe they accidentally skipped a key section. It is not until the final episode that viewers learn what this story is really about. Multiple viewings may be the only way to see through FLCL’s intentionally confounding storytelling strategies.
On rewatch, though, FLCL is a coherent and rather poignant coming-of-age story told in ellipses. It rewards multiple visits with its richly drawn and well-observed characters. It shares with the films of Robert Altman a willingness to pack each scene with information that most viewers cannot parse in a single viewing. It shares with the comics of Grant Morrison a whimsical ability to employ sci-fi as a metaphor for the distractions that people use to forget the miraculousness and horrors of everyday life. It has an impressive visual style that enhances and comments on the story being told. For all of its wild and initially bewildering aspects, the major purpose of FLCL is the impressionistic and often naturalistic documentation of Naota’s passage into maturity.
The absence of his brother Tasuku is Naota’s defining trait when we meet him. Tasuku, some years older, has moved to America to play baseball, and Naota feels abandoned. Naota has taken to carrying around a bat and wearing baseball paraphernalia that most likely once belonged to his brother, but he is afraid of measuring himself against Tasuku, and he refuses to actually play baseball. He spends much of his time with his brother’s ex-girlfriend Mamimi, a wayward high school girl who does not appear to attend classes. Naota’s ambivalence about how he measures against his brother is most keen in his early relationship with Mamimi. At the beginning of the episode, she is talking to him about how to swing a bat. His refusal to do so will become an important plot point in an upcoming episode. Bored of her own baseball talk and perhaps aroused by the memory of Tasuku, Mamimi mimes teenage sexual exploration with Naota, although their relationship is otherwise more familial. He is still young enough to find Mamimi’s advances mostly an annoyance, but the camera, constantly aware of the sexuality in their relationship, suggests another level. It first gazes up her skirt and then focuses on her breast pressed against his arm, which is not accidental. While his face is impassive during her sexual advances, he is becoming aware of her as a woman, but he is also smart enough to know that her advances on him are mostly meaningless. She is bluntly using him in her fantasies of his brother, a role he reluctantly accepts because of their shared loss of Tasuku. Throughout much of the first episode, he is trying to screw up his courage to tell Mamimi that his brother has sent him a letter with a picture of his new American girlfriend.
The first time he tries, however, there is a brilliant sequence of images: he looks at her mouth and blushes, then at her spit on the cola can they share, and then thinks of the letter back at home and a plane flying far overhead, away from their hometown of Mabase, where Naota insists that nothing ever happens. As he readies himself to break her heart in a terrible way, he is literally knocked off of his feet by Haruko, who can only be described in terms that are utterly ridiculous: she is a sexy pink-haired, green-eyed alien riding a vintage Vespa and wielding an souped-up left-handed Rickenbacker 4001 bass. In lesser hands these would be not just the trappings but the Platonic ideal of manic pixie dream girlhood, but Haruko is something else entirely, and her motivations do not become clear until near the end of the series. It is through her eyes as she skims the landscape with binoculars that we first see the town of Mabase, finally focusing on Naota and Mamimi, who are holding the aforementioned chat about how to swing a bat. Before Haruko swoops down on him, we also see that Mabase is dominated by an enormous factory in the shape of an iron called Medical Mechanica. This will also be important later in the series.
After Haroku enters Naota’s life by running him down with her Vespa, Mamimi, who is nearby throughout the whole incident, shows little concern for Naota. First, she snaps photos while he is being hurt, and then her major contribution is to point out that Haroku is calling him by the wrong name. The only thing that makes Mamimi upset is when Haroku gives Naota mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and it is not because he is turning blue that she is upset but because of the intimacy. He might be unconscious at the moment, but she is being replaced in Naota’s affections, and she knows it. When Naota comes to, Haroku pulls a motor cord on her bass and then smacks him again in the head. Naota responds only with anger, so Haroku calls him useless and drives off. Naota characterizes her as “a stupid adult who doesn’t know how to grow up.” As we shall see, this puts her in line with all of the other adults in his life.
His run-in with Haroku has changed him, though. Back home, in the privacy of his room, he spends some time investigating the enormous phallic horn that is suddenly growing from his head. The symbolism of a pubescent boy playing with a horn behind closed doors is hard to miss. The next day in school, while sitting stiffly (ahem) at his desk, a girl in his class, Ninamori, accuses him of hiding something underneath the funny-looking bandage on his forehead. His embarrassed denials are interrupted by his friends Gaku and Masashi, who rush in to tell them about the Vespa, or wasp, woman who has been seen stealing spicy curry bread. Gaku believes that when she stings, she leaves a permanent mark that shows you’ve been doing naughty things. This is perhaps the FLCL version of the myth of hairy palms.
Haroku stalks Naota, attacks him at the hospital, and then insinuates herself into his home. The artwork in the hospital sequence is a visual treat, with the initial viciousness of the attack turning into a cutesy animation as Naota escapes, but the manga scene that erupts during dinner is nothing short of astonishing. To an excellent driving riff by the Japanese band the pillows (lowercase intentional), which provides much of the music for the show, Naota’s father Kamon reveals himself to be a lecherous, selfish, and childish man, easily swayed by his fantasies. He is lustful for Haroku, imagining her becoming his hot young wife while he himself aspires to the vaunted title of Assistant Editor-In-Chief, and his imagination runs wild when he learns in short order that Haroku saw Mamimi kissing Naota and that Haroku has also kissed Naota. His grandfather Shigekuni reveals that he hates Mamimi, who he does not believe worthy of Tasuku, but is mostly indifferent to Kamon and Naota.
The climax of this elliptical episode arrives when Kamon, who is a serious creep, begins to ask Naota questions about Mamimi with an obvious undercurrent of lascivious interest. Concerned, Naota rushes to find her, where he finally tells her about his brother’s new girlfriend, although this news is delivered off-screen. The first time he tried to talk to her about this, he was angry, and the news could have destroyed their relationship. His concern lends a certain maturity to the delivery of the news, but Haroku’s sudden appearance has changed the equation. Mamimi collapses, saying that she is going to overflow, but it is Naota who overflows. The horn on his head pops out of its protective bandage and swells. Again, the symbolism here is obvious, so let’s move on. After a moment, the horn becomes a hand and then a red television-faced robot fighting the hand. The symbol that flashes on the robot’s screen will be significant in later episodes, too. Both hand and robot burst free from Naota’s head, but he becomes entangled with the red robot. As the robot defeats the hand, Haroku arrives, tipped off to the odd goings-on by the jangling of a chain attached to a rather manacle-like bracelet on her arm. Pulling the starter cord on her bass, she smashes the back of the red robot’s head.
More importantly for Naota’s personal development, he expresses childlike wonder at Haroku’s actions, but immediately chides himself for doing so. However, as he explains in voiceover, he was overcome in the moment by how much she reminded him of his brother. Despite what she means to him as a symbol of sex and forbidden adult behavior throughout this series, it is important to remember that in this crucial moment, she reminds him of the only semi-adult that he trusts. As the episode ends, though, Naota has quashed his wonder back into flat denials that anything amazing ever happens to him, while the robot, now blue, is learning to work in his family’s bakery. Naota’s faux-detachment does not prevent him from finally sharing a drink with Mamimi, even though he hates her choice in sour colas.
While sex and sex symbols are clearly a huge part of Naota’s development, this is not just a show about sudden unwanted boners and a growing awareness of adult sexuality. Naota’s development is mostly emotional, and for him to become a man, he has to shed his cultivated adolescent lack of affect to get in touch with and master his emotions. Some might argue that to become a real man, he then needs to learn to suppress those emotions and to work with wood, but let’s assume for now that there is no FLCL equivalent of the Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness. His honest expression of wonder is a first step in his greater emotional growth, which is why the episode leads us to that moment. But yes, for all of those who are concerned, there will be lots and lots of sex in this series. The show is called FLCL, after all, with all of the implications of cupcake-fondling that work Kamon up into such a lather over dinner.
- The initial FLCL logo appears over an MRI image of a normal brain, shortly before Haruko enters Naota’s life. Consider this when the show delineates what is happening in his head later.
- Haroku yells “lunch time!” when she first drives towards Naota. Another thing that will be significant later.
- Haroku calls Naota “Taro-kun” at first, which is like calling him “Joe.” She doesn’t know his name and is using a common one as a placeholder. She later adopts Mamimi’s nickname “Ta-kun.”
- Haroku’s diagnosis at the hospital is “Flictonic Clipple Webber Syndrome,” or “adolescent skin-hardening syndrome.”
- Kamon: “Fondling around! Fooling around! Fooly Cooly! …What’s Fooly Cooly?” Naota: “How should I know? I’m still in grade school!”
- Notice that when the robots finally emerge from Naota’s head, the Medical Mechanica factory lights up, but no smoke comes out.