A review requested by David, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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In the interests of having some way to start talking about FLCL (pronounced, because why the hell not, as "fooly cooly"), a six-part animated miniseries (later followed up with two sequel series in the 2010s) that is about as busy and wide-ranging as any piece of media that I think I have encountered, I guess I will start with: good God, I didn't know they could do this with animation in 2000. I mean, I did, in that the whole thing about animation is that you can do anything with it, given enough time and money. But time and money are things that I very much doubt the production team had very much of, and the bright clean colors and exhaustive quantity of different visual approaches on display in FLCL feel very much like the kind of computer-aided work that one doesn't really start to see very much of in Japan until the end of the 2000s, not the beginning. Certainly, everything I would want to compare the series to is at least several years younger (Dead Leaves, a fairly direct descendant through Imaishi Hiroyuki, who directed that film and served as an animation director here, is probably the next-closest thing, and it's almost four years newer. And it looks much less polished and digitally sleek).

Nevertheless, here we are, with one of the shiniest, most visually fast-paced, stylistically promiscuous pieces of animation... one hates just to go right into the hyperbole, but it really is ever. This is just so much animation, in keeping with director Tsurumaki Kazuya's stated goal that FLCL would exist mostly to break the rules around how series animation works. Were I to turn this review into nothing at all but a catalogue of all the different things that FLCL tries at least once across its roughly two and a half hours, with cursory descriptions of them all so you had at least a basic sense of what I saw there, I don't see how I could possibly keep this review down to a remotely readable length. The sheer volume of stylistic excess seems to be mostly the point, in and of itself; one can look something like Yuasa Masaaki's Mind Game, which has much less muchness than FLCL but still probably gets closer to it than anything else in the 2000s, and explicitly thematises all of what it does with its flourishes of medium-breaking technique. If FLCL has a theme (and it does, I think), it's definitely not explicit.

Hell, it barely has a coherent narrative. There's this twelve-year-old, Naota (Mizuki Jun) whose family life is stupid, after his beloved older brother has left to play baseball in the United States. The arrival of puberty is causing him a lot of angst, not least because his brother's girlfriend, Mamimi (Kasagi Izumi) has, in her boredom, transferred her flirtations to the younger boy, much to his terrified confusion; and it doesn't help that his dad (Matsuo Suzuki) is pretty useless as a role model, being a lazy wastrel in his own right. Then comes the day that Naota is run down by a very strange person named Haruhara Haruko (Shintani Mayumi), a pink-haired, green-eyed woman in her early 20s who rides a Vespa with almost no regard for safety or sanity, and wields a vintage Rickenbocker electric bass guitar as a weapon. She wields it, in fact, right into Naota's forehead, causing a strange bump that feels more mechanical than organic, and just out of his head like a horn.

That gets us about halfway through the first of six episodes, and it's basically as far as I can go in pretending that FLCL tells an easily definable story. The narrative structure of the series is almost as freewheeling as its style: we get networks of ellipses in place of causes and effects; major plot points are made out of things that don't even turn out to be red herrings, while important foreshadowing occupies one half of one sentence, and it's not even the half that gets emphasised; backstory is dropped in randomly and long after it would have been useful to us. The first ten minutes of the sixth episode basically explains everything in the form of a single exposition dump, allowing us to retroactively go back across the previous five episodes with an "ah, so that's what that meant!" reaction, but it's also so indifferently-expressed and seems to have so little to do with the plot of even just that episode that it doesn't really feel like the show is even inviting us to go back and see what the hell happened.

The thing is, despite having a traditional anime sci-fi plot about secret corporate conspiracies and aliens and robots fighting each other, with all the cloak-and-dagger mystery that goes into such a plot, FLCL is always, quite literally always more about the emotions it's generating than the story it's telling; even the character are of interest to it mostly because they're the vessel for the emotions, not because they're complicated psychological actors whose lives tell us something about the human condition. If FLCL tells us anything, it's that puberty is really tough, and figuring out what to do with all of these new sexual urges on the one hand (it is of course a symbol so obvious as to be embarrassing that Naota's first problem to solve in the narrative is a very noticeable hard protrusion from his body that he tries to hide by changing how he wears his clothes), and the dawning awareness that adults are mostly confused morons who know very little and are making shit up as they go along on the other hand. Being an adolescent is a confusing, chaotic time, where very little makes sense, and stuff keeps happening to you faster than you're able to deal with it, FLCL declares. And what better way to make that feel viscerally present and real than to have both the narrative and the style themselves reflect the "anything can happen, and there doesn't seem to be any reason why it's happening now, or in this way" energy that the series ascribes to life itself - maybe teenage life especially, but that doesn't seem to be an absolute requirement.

So much for the "point" of the thing. What I would desperately hate to do with FLCL is to reduce it to the status of just a puzzle to solve. For, again, it's emotional, not intellectual, and those emotions are whipped up in a pretty exciting way. This is a whirlwind tour of basically everything you could hope to see in Japanese animation, from the most simplistic (the camera simply panning across a black-and-white manga page in the first episode - later on, the characters will complain that viewers thought this was "cheap" and "easy", when it fact it took a lot of work to do it well. Like most of the show, this burst of self-aware fourth-wall breaking doesn't seem to build to anything other than the raw pleasure of the moment) to some three-dimensional camera movement, aping The Matrix, that I suspect was testing the upper limit of what this production team was able to afford. In between are pretty much everything you could imagine and some that I, at least, could not, including the characters turning into rubbery messes made out of simple geometric shapes, backgrounds dissolving into white mist outside of the very tight area around the characters, high-speed races that are achieved basically just by shifting a drawing of the road back and forth very quickly, a scan of dried seaweed being used as fake eyebrows, and God knows how much else. Again, turning this into a catalogue would become endlessly tedious almost immediately.

The result of all this is exhausting - any one episode of FLCL feels like a marathon, and two of them right in a row (I didn't dare three) made my brain start to feel hot. But it is also, and this is the important part, enormously fun. The series is made out of almost nothing but pure energy, a boundless sense of creativity that  just refuses to stop right up until the very last minute of the very last episode. If there is something that you like in animation, it is somewhere in this series, guaranteed; ergo, the more you like, the more times that FLCL is going to do something that makes you happy. And as it happens, I like a hell of a lot of things in animation. I get that the sheer quantity of stuff, and the almost complete lack of anything resembling a well-defined strategy for shaping that stuff into a comprehensible package, could probably make this an unendurable agony for anyone who just like a nice story, told well. But even granting that, this is essential viewing, if only for defining exactly how far Japanese animation is capable of going before it completely breaks down.