Saturday 4 August 2018

Anime REVIEW: FLCL: Progressive

FLCL: Progressive

When an anime studio announces that it's going to make a sequel to a cult classic 18 years after its release and without the assistance of one of the key studios originally involved, that's bound to create some skepticism. But that's exactly the case for FLCL: Progressive, the first of two 2018 sequels to the modern classic from Production I.G. and Gainax. Production I.G. have gone solo for these two instalments, co-producing them with both Toho and Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. As a result of the latter's involvement, the show made it's premiere as part of the programming block - with the dub airing throughout June. The Japanese audio version will follow in September, with both FLCL: Progressive and FLCL: Alternative receiving theatrical screenings across Japan.

Hidomi HibajiriHaruko Haruha

Some time after the events of the original FLCL, the enigmatic Haruko Haruha returns to Mabase once again as she continues her obsessive attempts to reunite with the 'Pirate King' Atomsk. Crucial to her plans this time is Hidomi Hibajiri, a 14-year old headphones-wearing girl with an emotionless disposition and a morbid imagination. To get to Hidomi, she poses as her high school teacher and uses her classmate Ko Ide as her unknowing pawn.

But also in the way of her schemes is Jinyu - a more serious version of Haruko wielding a Gibson Flying V and driving a vintage Chevrolet Bel Air that can also transform into a robot. As both Hidomi and Ko get wrapped up in Haruko's scheming, they begin to realise their feelings for one another while Hidomi's outlook on life begins to change for the better.

Ko IdeJinyu

What is it about FLCL that made it such a beloved series? Was it unique coming of age story, its off the wall comedy or its immediately identifiable soundtrack? That answer is all of the above and so much more, which is what makes the original series such a hard act to follow. Capturing all the right elements to make it distinctly FLCL would be like catching lightning in a bottle for a second time, and on top of that there's also the need for a story that sets it apart from the original. This time around our central protagonist is Hidomi, a character who's in a similar funk to the the original series' Naota Nandaba but relays it a very different way. Behind her seemingly blank expression lies a girl with the most morbid of dreams, cleverly realised not only through visuals but also the difference in emotions as narrates both her Mabase's repeated demise with childlike glee. Then behind all that again is an arguably more relatable trauma, with her mood and outlook an effect of her absence of her father and just how that's affected both her and her overly cheery mother. There are a lot of layers behind Hidomi that make her the ideal protagonist to something like FLCL, so it's a shame that as the story progresses the narrative begins to have her act as a witness to the story rather than properly centre around her.

In some respects this makes sense, because as the only properly returning character from the original series it's Haruko that the audience are going to be invested in the most. This is one aspect Progressive definitely manages to get right, with the return of her fiery attitude and seemingly overcomplicated schemes feeling like the return of an old friend (if you'd have the patience to call Haruko a friend that is) you have seen in nearly two decades. The introduction of Jinyu, a character that is in essence a "heroic" version of Haruko's chaotic nature adds in an interesting dynamic to her continued pursuit of Atomsk, literally splitting Haruko in two in a move that's kept frustratingly vague but explained enough to make it interesting. But as endlessly enjoyable as Haruko is to watch onscreen, her development is one of the biggest things that holds Progressive back and could easily do the same to FLCL: Alternative as well if her endgame isn't evaluated. FLCL: Progressive does a marvellous job of toying with the viewers' perceptions of Haruko, putting her in outright antagonistic positions at times as well as putting her through the emotional ringer by the end of it - but the question is for what means. There are real life lessons here for Haruko, but if her ultimate takeaway is to still keep trying then the ending feels actually feels REgressive more than anything else.

A cyborg HidomiJinyu's chevy

It isn't just these two characters that help shape FLCL Progressive though, with the show also having plenty to boast in the way of a supporting cast. Though arguably Ide is just as much a lead as either Hidomi or Haruko, with the story also focusing on his transition from horny youth to having genuine feelings for Hidomi and the confidence to stand up against Haruko. He's a likeable enough character, but his development is less interesting if only because it's a far more commonplace one. His friends Goro and Marco or Hidomi's mother are equally likeable, however their overall contribution to the plot is much less significant other than to create a "fuller" picture of Mabase. The same goes for Aiko, another character who appears much later in the game to humorous effect but contributes to some of the more forced elements in Progressive's finale. With only six episodes to play around with it makes sense that only a select few are going to get adequate development, so there isn't any real disappointment in seeing the show do so little with all these characters. They manage to achieve what they are there for in and in the grand scheme of things that feels like enough.

With all that in mind, it's funny that some of Progressive's biggest shortcomings arrive when it attempts to tie itself back to the original series. Visuals like the Medical Mechanical building or the grand return of Canti in the final episode should be some of the show's most memorable moments, but instead they come across as ultimately hollow and purely there as fanservice. This is particularly true in the case of Canti, because as wonderful as it is to see the television-faced robot again it doesn't ever amount to anything of real significance. Additions like Jinyu show that Progressive can do a fine job of building upon the original in its own way, and it's a shame that the same can't be said for elements such as these.

Goro and AikoCanti

In Gainax' absence FLCL: Progressive has a much smoother look to it in terms of visuals, which may give it more consistency but means it lacks the punch the sharp erraticism the original often prided itself on. That isn't to say isn't a good looking show by any means though, and moments such as Hidomi's crazed dreams or Atomsk's return show off exactly what Production I.G. are capable of. Episode five is a particular highlight as it sports a very different aesthetic to the others, bringing it far closer in line with the original's own distinct style. Animating the whole show like this might not have worked since the change does help mark Progressive as something new and different, but the opportunity to experiment in this way was definitely something the show needed. Undoubtedly what properly binds Progressive together as a FLCL sequel though is the return of The Pillows' soundtrack - an element that's arguably just as integral as Haruko herself. The energy and emotion their music can bring to any given scene is incredible, and a testament to why FLCL is cited as having one of the best soundtracks in anime.

Hidomi CantiAtomsk

Though FLCL: Progressive doesn't quite capture that lightning in a bottle magic of its predecessor, it's a valid effort that doesn't go anywhere near as badly as fans may have feared. The fact its strengths lie in the new things it brings to the table rather than an over reliance on the old suggests that there may still be stories to tell after all, and with a bit of tweaking this could bode well for the forthcoming FLCL: Alternative in a few months. Alternative won't ever have the impact of the original FLCL, but it's a short and ultimately harmless sequel that's worth the watch if only to delve back into the FLCL universe after all this time.

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