Thursday 25 October 2018

Anime REVIEW: FLCL: Alternative

Some anime series wait years to get a sequel. Others wait years and then not only get one, but two almost simultaneously. This was exactly the case for beloved cult classic FLCL (aka Fooly Cooly), which after 18 years didn't only just come back in the form of the six-part FLCL: Progressive, but also spun off in a different direction with another six-part series - FLCL: Alternative. Like Progressive this new series doesn't have any input from original co-creators Gainax, instead coming solely from Production I.G. in collaboration with Toho and Adult Swim. As the series was first released through Adult Swim, for the time being only the English dubbed version is available to Western fans. We did however get a taste for Alternative in its original language earlier in the year, with the first episode airing subtitled as part of Adult Swim's annual April Fools' Day shenanigans.

Kana Koumoto enjoys a fairly average high school life with her friends Tomomi "Pets" Hetada, Hijiri Yamada and Man "Mossan" Motoyama. Together they enjoy typical high school things like hanging out, deciding their future careers, boyfriends and more. Also here to join in on their antics is none other than Haruko Haruhara, who acts as something as a mentor to the girls on their transition to adulthood.

However in the background Medical Mechanica are preparing to make their move on the planet Earth, and if the planet has any hope of stopping them Kana won't only have to unlock her latent powers, but also address the underlying emotions with both her and her friends.

The main problem when it comes to making more FLCL is that what made the original just so well loved can easily be equated to catching lightning in a bottle, so getting the same effect the same time around is far from an easy task. FLCL: Progressive did its best to continue the legacy and while the end result was still commendable, its often slavish reliance on recreating that feel through callbacks and fanservice meant it didn't take the risks it perhaps should have. FLCL: Alternative however is the different take these sequels so sorely needed, as no persons' experiences when it comes to growing up will be completely identical. Whereas the original and Progressive are both charged with hormones, Alternative is a slower, more wistful approach that looks at how these issues affect a group of friends more than they do a single person. Though Alternative is still very much Kana's story, each episode focuses in on a different friend to ensure that the cast remain relatively balanced in their development - another area that Progressive often struggled with.

The downside to this however is that Alternative can often feel like it's ambling around too much, preoccupied with episode character pieces when the story still has every intention of heading toward an end goal. Progressive had a clear sense of where it was going so when the endgame shifts into high gears everything feels well-packed, but in Alternative's case things move much too fast - a real problem when the small episode count means that the story is probably is going to feel rushed whatever happens. This becomes an even bigger problem when you look at the bigger picture when it comes to Alternative, especially in light of the fact that the series has been confirmed to be originally intended as a prequel. It's never been FLCL's style to give out all of the answers, but a little more time to expand on some of the things thrown out here and connect the pieces would have done the series wonders.

As far the cast is concerned FLCL: Alternative is almost completely an all-girls affair, with male students mainly being used as set pieces and the mysterious Tsukata (who bears a striking resemblance to the original's Naota) mostly acting as another adult for Haruko to bounce off of. Before even getting into their actual development Alternative deserves praise for the variety it shows in its characters, giving them that somewhat over the top comic edge they need to fit in the series but at the same time making them feel both believable and relatable. Kana is an interesting protagonist in just how much she differs from both Naota and Hidomi - whereas they both sought something different, Kana's issues stem from how she wants things to stay the same. Friction comes from her being too willing to involve herself in her friends' problems, all of which eventually comes to a head when Pets' finally comes into focus in the show's finale. The dynamic between Kana and Pets is at the forefront more than that of Hijiri or Mossan, but those two also have excellent focus episodes that make them feel just as valuable as characters. Perhaps what's even more hard-hitting about Alternative is just how real its depiction of high school friendships are, and its underlying notion that sometimes things simply can't be fixed. Space travel plays an important part in the series - not just in a physical story sense but also as a metaphor that succinctly conveys the message the series is trying to tell.

However Alternative's vastly different approach to its predecessors doesn't just come from it's high school leads, but surprisingly also from Haruko herself. While unmistakably the character that we all know and love from the previous entries, this is a far more subdued and approachable version of the rambunctious alien. There's no Atomsk to speak of here, so no grand scheme to find her giant pirate bird ex-boyfriend. There isn't even any signs of the split personality aspects revealed to us in Progressive. Instead this version of Haruko is more of an observer when it comes to seeing how Kana's powers manifest - willing to get up to her old tricks and cause trouble for her (when required) but generally taking a far more caring and understanding approach to the trials and tribulations of her new friends. That said she's still just as crazy as ever, and between opening a fast food truck, gatecrashing a fashion show, sexually harassing minors in the way only Haruko knows how and making the most blatant of pop culture references she certainly hasn't lost her edge in that respect. What's perhaps even more curious here is the nature of her connection with Medical Mechanica, which as you'd probably expect is just a vague here as ever.

Alternative's relaxed, more aimless approach to the joys of youth is also much more fitting to the new art direction Progressive steered the series in. Without Gainax's input it lacks the frenetic zaniness that made the original so visually distinct, however Production I.G.'s more rounded character designs and more polished aesthetic work much better to convey the slice-of-life tale of friendship that Alternative is at its core. Of course this is still FLCL though, and it wouldn't be FLCL without crazy looking robots, giant irons bringing forth an apocalypse or Haruko just being herself. In this regard Alternative has plenty of eye candy to keep the show looking good, and much like the story itself you can pretty much guarantee that any time Haruko is onscreen you're going to get the best looking bits of each episode. This is perhaps the one area that Alternative is perhaps a little less experimental than Progressive (because at the very least Progressive offered that interesting style departure in episode five), but stick with it until the finale and you certainly won't be disappointed. The other vital element to a successful FLCL series is of course a soundtrack from The Pillows, which is also present and correct to give the show that unmistakeable feel.

FLCL: Alternative is a curious little series, excelling in the areas where Progressive failed but also lacking in the areas that its predecessor succeeded. Most importantly though it's a much fresher take than Alternative, less afraid to step out of the shadow of the original and do things its own way whilst retaining that distinct FLCL spirit. While neither series quite measures up the cult status of the original, the sequels have at the very least shown that there's still enough storytelling potential in the FLCL universe to warrant those proposed fourth and fifth instalments.

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