flcl 2003
The Rewatch

20 Years Later, 'FLCL' Is Still an Essential Anime Gem

Revisiting the intensely chaotic six-episode anime series that set a new creative animation standard.

Anime's most rebellious show about being a teenager is no longer a teen. April marks 20 years since the first broadcast of FLCL (short for "Fooly Cooly," a term which itself doesn't really mean anything), a raucous and anarchic six-episode series that rewrote the animation rulebook with its whirlpool of contemporary pop culture, sucking in and breaking apart everything in its orbit like the "manly aestheticism" of John Woo, the bullet time of The Matrix, and even the cut-out cartoon style of South Park. It proved a lasting influence as a noted inspiration on other cultural behemoths, like Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel show The Legend of Korra. (Director Giancarlo Volpe said the crew was "ordered to watch every single episode.")

FLCL stands out even two decades later through its hyperactive, innuendo-laden, and borderline nonsensical storytelling presented through often abstract visuals. (Watch it on Hulu!) There were so many references that the team localizing the anime to English often struggled with the script, citing the weird and niche in-jokes that would be easily lost in translation. Director Kazuya Tsurumaki, a longtime animator at studio Gainax and protégé to Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno, ambitiously set out to break the established rules of anime through its eclectic visuals, anti-narrative approach, and unusual soundtrack, trading in classical motifs for thrashing guitars and heavy percussion from the contemporary Japanese rock band The Pillows.

flcl 2003

Created alongside writer Yōji Enokido (also a veteran of Evangelion, as well as Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena), the series found a cult audience abroad through airing on Adult Swim in 2003, which grew with repeat syndication in the channel's Toonami block in 2013 and again in 2018. Following that last broadcast, the show made a surprising return in June 2018 with a second season and third season, titled FLCL: Progressive and Alternative, respectively, though expanding on the material and its sci-fi mythology had diminishing returns.

At first, the basic premise of the original series sounds simple enough: Naota Nandaba is an ordinary sixth grader living in Mabase, a city where "nothing amazing happens." After his brother Tasuku leaves town to play baseball in America, Naota looks after all that Tasuku left behind, from his top bunk bed to his ex-girlfriend Mamimi Samejima, who clings to Naota in Tasuku's absence. The mundanity of Naota's small-town life is shaken up by the arrival of Haruko Haruhara, a red-haired psychopath riding a yellow Vespa and wielding a bass guitar like a battle axe. Their first encounter leaves Naota with a strange, giant horn on his head, from which a large robot (named Canti) springs forth. Things only get stranger from there.

Driven by an experimental and surrealist style, FLCL resists the tropes of coming-of-age stories, defying narrative logic and instead relying on impulse. Similarly, the animation itself played fast and loose with any kind of rules. The characters and the world around them are equally flexible and fluid, as FLCL takes any shape that it pleases at any one moment: buildings bounce and rebound as people have fights within them, split screens actively intrude on the real world as characters are squished against them. 

The characters themselves question what the hell is going on -- in one of its earliest major digressions where the show suddenly turns into an animated manga, Naota's father questions what the term FLCL even means ("How should I know?" Naota responds). Every episode is intentionally bewildering in a manner that reflects Naota's chaotic emotional state and the shock of entering adolescence. The very act of growing up in FLCL seems ridiculous within itself, considering that most of the show's lecherous adults are less competent and even more immature than the kids. Tsurumaki and Enokido recognize and embrace that, choosing to mock almost every familiar coming-of-age trope as the kids are left to figure out their confusion on their own terms.

As with every other concept chewed up and spit back out by FLCL, it twists a well-trodden trope into something absurd, such as its constant engagement with body horror, a tried-and-true metaphor for the pains of growing up represented by some kind of grotesque metamorphosis. Look no further than the giant robot that bursts from the horn (said to be "brought on by impure thoughts") on Naota's forehead. As a whole the show is rather pointedly obsessed with the flesh, whether through its ridiculous body horror or at characters being ogled, and the primary focus of both of these impulses is Haruko, a Looney Tunes-esque character in how she smashes everything around her, the fourth wall included. Naota craves and detests Haruko's attention, his view of her often characterized by predatory behavior. Fully aware of these mechanics (even poking fun at the idea that she's a figment of Naota's imagination), Haruko uses this to toy with him, like a cat with a mouse. But despite Naota's wariness of her, she represents something outside of his boring home life.

flcl 2003

Like the show itself, Haruko brings unpredictability into his life, as every episode brings some new scenario that almost defies analysis: You could watch each episode multiple times and still be left in the cold as to what it "means" or what, on a story level, the hell is actually happening. Haruko's meddling makes the show increasingly frantic, as innocuous baseball matches turn into a setup for the apocalypse, high school stage productions turn into battle grounds for giant bug robots, or characters simply get blown away by machine guns to walk away just fine. What's real and what's metaphor eventually stops mattering, all that's left is to go by how it makes you feel (usually, confused). 
During the final episode of FLCL, Naota snaps at his family in another long meta-joke that "it doesn't matter what FLCL is," and that much is true. Like the teens at its center, it's defiant of authority, so often rejecting genre convention that trying to categorize it is a waste of time. It's not strictly action, not strictly comedy, not really a mecha anime or any one thing -- even to call it surrealist feels like too restrictive a term. At its very core it represents the necessary rebellion of adolescence, the beginning of a path towards independence.

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Kambole Campbell is a London-based freelance writer whose work has been featured in Hyperallergic, Polygon, Empire and more. Follow him on Twitter @kambolecampbell.
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