Monday 4 June 2018

First Impressions: FLCL Progressive

FLCL Progressive

It's been 18 years and as unlikely as it may have ever seemed, FLCL is back. Thanks to a push from Cartoon Network programming block Adult Swim, the 2000 off the wall OVA series from Gainax and Production I.G. has returned for a further two seasons - FLCL Progressive and FLCL Alternative. While fans briefly got a taste of Alternative when the first episode ran as Adult Swim's April fools joke, it's now time to properly dive into Progressive head first as the series begins its six-episode run. Gainax are out of the picture, so animation is handled solely by Production I.G. in a production collaboration with both Toho and Adult Swim. Curiously, the Japanese language version won't be making it's debut until both Progressive and Alternative receive Japanese theatrical runs in September - making the English currently the only way to experience the show. That's right, the dub is airing months ahead of the Japanese version. What crazy times we live in.

After dreaming about her body slowly rotting away before transforming into a robot in a derelict world, the seemingly emotionless schoolgirl Hidomi goes about her everyday school life with as little interaction with others as possible. While helping out at her mother's cafe, a strange woman with white hair hits Hidomi with her vintage Chevy Bel-Air - showing some disappointment that's Hidomi survives.

Meanwhile, Hidomi's classmate Yoshimi has been bragging to his friends about his relationship with their teacher. The two come together when Hidomi is attacked by a mechanical monster, which is later revealed to have come from Yoshimi's head. The two are saved by the mysterious white-haired woman, while the next day their teacher suddenly reveals herself to be someone else entirely!

If there was any of the current stream of anime revivals/continuations to be skeptical about, FLCL is definitely one of them. The original's surreal tale of adolescence feels like a case of catching lightning in a bottle, and any sequel would be hard-pressed to match that same level of energy - especially when trying to do so 18 years later. In some cases FLCL Progressive does lean into those concerns, repeatedly attempting to channel nostalgia with a series of obvious parallels to the original's opening beats. But what it does manage to do well is offset this with things that feel inherently new, whether they be new characters or mixing up some of the original's iconography in a way that stops it feels too slavish. Haruko's exposure in the episode is kept to a minimum, allowing the audience a proper chance to get to grips with the new faces before reeling back in for an incredibly satisfying ending.

The majority of this episode is spent with lead character Hidomi, who immediately becomes a point of interest thanks to the fantastic dream sequence which serves as the show's opening. Combing that much needed sense of the surreal with a selection of original series callbacks sure to get any fan giddy (the Medical Machina irons, Atomsk and a new version of Canti all appearing in the space of mere minutes), it's a strong start which raises plenty of speculation before the episode delves into its real world doldrums. At this point Hidomi's silent nature makes her feel much more of a witness to the madness than a character, though this stoic personality bounces off well with her instantly loveable mother.  Our potential second lead Yoshimi is another interesting case, in terms of personality the complete opposite of Hidomi. Chatty, boastful and most definitely horny - Yoshimi represents a very different side of that same adolescence FLCL drowns itself in.

The other key new face here is of course Jinyu, who despite knowing very little about yet its very clearly going to act as a rival to Haruko. The Flying V guitar and Chevy Bel-Air parallels might be a little on the nose, but in terms of personality she feels like a very different beast to our red-haired catalyst. Between these three characters we've already got a nice little cast going - certainly enough not to wonder what Naoto and co are getting up to these days at the very least.

But if there's one area that Progressive feels like a stark contrast to the original FLCL its in the visuals. While the colour palette and general aesthetic may seem comfortably familiar, Production I.G.'s more refined look is no match for Gainax's sharpened stylings. That said the episode is still packed with plenty of great visuals - the aforementioned dream sequence and closing robot fight being the obvious highlights. The truth is though that the spirit of FLCL isn't in how the show looks, it's how it sounds - and that's truly where Progressive has got it right. A FLCL without a Pillows' soundtrack seems almost unfathomable, so to hear those familiar sounds right off the bat really does immediately create the sense of atmosphere that was essential for this venture to work.

So while FLCL Progressive might not instantly spark in the way that it's predecessor did, this first episode is still a bold debut which recaptures enough of its magic to make its presence felt. With slick visuals, promising characters and plenty to speculate on Progressive manages to carefully focus on what's new without having to fall too far back on the old to prop it up.

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