21st Century anime kicked off with an almighty bang, thanks to FLCL, a surreal six episode sci-fi rom-com from those geniuses at Studio Gainax. It’s title is a nonsensical acronym, variously described as “Fooly Cooly”, “Flictonic Cipple” or “Foolish Cleverness.” That doesn’t matter. What matters unfolds over the course of one-hundred and fifty unforgettable minutes. Cynical sixth grade boy Naota Nandaba (voiced by Jun Mizuki) feels empty inside since his baseball-playing big brother left for America. Abandoned by her boyfriend, gorgeous, 17 year old Mamimi (Izumi Kasagi) cuddles Naota for comfort, but freaks the kid whenever her hands wander south. His father, Kamon (Suzuki Matsuo) is an ageing hipster otaku who embarrasses Naota with everything he says or does.
Everything changes the day pink-haired, 19 year old, alien space-babe Haruko (Mayumi Shintani) rides up on her mod Vespa scooter and whacks Naota over the head with her Rickenbacker bass guitar. A bizarre growth erupts from Naota’s head and out springs Kanchi a.k.a. Cantide the Black Angel, Lord of Terror. This bio-mechanical monster with a TV set for a head goes on a Tokyo-wide rampage until subdued by Haruko, whose super-strength and weird powers mark her as out of this world. Appointing herself housekeeper, Haruko and the now-tamed Kanchi move in with Naota’s family, where monsters erupting from his head and trying to take over the world becomes a bizarre daily occurrence. Soon Naota, his school friends and family are swept up in a zany stream-of-consciousness odyssey involving intergalactic prophecies, adolescent angst, inter-species romance, life, the universe and everything. Oh, and maybe saving the world.
A synopsis doesn’t really do this justice, but take it from someone who knows. FLCL is punk rock genius. Hip, sexy, hilarious and profound. To better understand its cultural relevance, one needs to place it in context. Studio Gainax’s generation-defining anime phenomenon Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) ended in tragedy, with traditional values deconstructed to shreds and school-age heroes left floundering amidst a nightmarish apocalypse. They followed it up with His and Her Circumstances (1998), a beautifully observed and experimental romantic comedy that put Japanese social mores underneath a microscope. The overriding question in both these classics, alternately posed pessimistically and optimistically, was “what matters?” FLCL gives navel-gazing a kick up the ass and shouts: “This matters!” Get busy living kids. Seize the day. No-one else can do it for you.
Here robots pop out of a twelve year old’s head like uncontrollable zits. Creator Kazuya Tsurumaki and the Gainax/Studio I.G. crew subvert the oldest genre in anime, the giant robot show, into a parable about adolescence, contemporary Japanese society and life in the 21st Century. Most of the older characters are buffoons: Kamon is a pathetic manga obsessive - allegedly caricaturing Gainax writer-director Hideaki Anno - and lecher, forever leering at his son’s nubile school friends and oblivious to how ridiculous he looks. Secret agent Amarao (Koji Okura) is part of a government organisation fighting the alien menace, but is preoccupied pasting fake eyebrows on his face - bushy eyebrows being an emblem of masculinity in Japan - in a bid to steal Haruko away from Naota. Naota’s classmate Eri Ninamori (Mika Itou) - who may just be the girl for him - finds her father involved in a sex and bribes scandal. He literally hides in a sewer, leaving his daughter to cope as best she can.
Each of the kids goes on a voyage of self-discovery that, at the serial’s end, leaves them with greater self-awareness. Mamimi, whose pillowy lips mark her as a pouting poster-child for teenage kicks, flirts with pyromania, art photography and visions of the apocalypse (albeit filtered through the typically Japanese schoolgirl culture of cute) as dreams of getting her out of this dirt water burb. She even straps herself to a bridge during one robo-monster rampage, cheering on Armageddon. By series end, you suspect she might grow up to be some kind of artist. Sort of a twisted fusion of Sam Taylor Wood, Lolita and Angelina Jolie. Elsewhere, stridently self-conscious Eri - a wise beyond her years teenager surrounded by grownups who behave like spoiled brats - stops caring what these clods think about her and lives for today.
Haruko, one of the most compellingly ambiguous characters in anime, comes across like a fusion of Supergirl and a female Peter Pan. The spirit of youthful rebellion incarnate. Both Naota and the viewers can never guess what she’ll do next, or whether she’ll smack him or plant a smacker on him. As for Naota, he learns to take life as it comes - good or bad - and seizes the day in the mind-blowing, series-capping sci-fi guitar battle that must be seen to be believed.
On both visual and scripted levels this is a tour-de-force. Episodes rocket from slam-bang action to head-spinning romance, mind-melting weirdness to hilarious pastiche, with nary a frame passing by without some form of animated wizardry. A Playboy bunny surfs atop a flying robot to fight bio-mechanical monsters that need toilet breaks. Romantic disputes turn into John Woo shootouts wherein all the cast miraculously wield guns. The Matrix (1999) and its infamous “bullet-time” stunt is reworked into a teenage kiss.
There are digs at South Park (whose fart-laden bleakness is the polar opposite to this outwardly crude, inwardly warm-hearted masterpiece), wacky metaphorical allusions to Godzilla movies, Lupin III, Hong Kong flicks and countless manga, shojo and sci-fi references. All in the service of a sassy, witty, profoundly moving script. Plus if celebrated character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto drew sexier characters than heart-melting Mamimi and the alluring Haruko, I’d sure like to see them. Kudos also to the kickass soundtrack that goes from the epic orchestral stylings of Nobuyoshi Mitsumune to the pulse-pounding indie rock of The Boredoms. Love that theme tune (“Ride on shooting star…”).