Dilution is the inevitable result of longevity and success. Once enough has been released for an anime show, identity becomes dissolute. What does Sunrise do? Gundam used to be the answer, but decades and diversity have changed that to be “generally good shows.” And Gainax, the enfant terrible of anime studios (who were the reason to be scrounging up fansubs), is “the studio that did Eva.”
If Gainax is less special (and the existence of crap like Abenobashi and Mahoromatic doesn’t help), FLCL is emblematic of everything the studio might have stood for, and what good anime is in general.
FLCL is a piss-take on genre norms and idiocies that make so much anime a waste of time. It’s a slice-of-life show and a giant robot show, all wrapped in a sardonic, reference-heavy package. The story follows Naota, an angry young man saved from his own bad attitude by Haruko, an alien/Vespa driver. Haruko lives with Naota as a maid, and replaces his brain with empty space in which alien robots are transported across the galaxy. It’s funny.
Most of the humor comes from the way the animation moves. That’s unique, because anime is mostly an exercise of limited animation. This is true of Gainax, where the animation tends to be fuller in the beginning of their series1. Afterwards, they run out of money and take shortcuts that undermine the good stuff they do.
FLCL is good. From top to bottom, the animation is lush and inventive. It’s one of those shows that brings to mind the frenetic and energetic style of Looney Tunes. Refreshing, too, is the fact that one part of FLCL can look entirely different from another, as storyboard artists are given more leeway and freedom than in your typical anime series, lending individuality to scenes that could have been trite.
The voice talent is more than up to the challenge. Haruko is voiced by Mayumi Shintani, and she doesn’t seem to be influenced directly by other anime. Shintani takes what could have been a boring “tough girl” and inflects her with a nasal, knowing, and careless performance (in a positive sense). Jun Muzuki is up to the task too, milking the sullenness of Naota, and he keeps Naota from being annoying.
This is key to the show’s success. FLCL has every chance to be annoying. It’s like an advanced stage of Excel Saga (the anime parody), but the parodies are subtle. And Excel Saga, funny as it is, can be very, very annoying. FLCL joins narrative and humor. The jokes aren’t an adjunct to the action – they move it forward. They are the motivation.
FLCL is not just funny or inventive, but satisfying. There’s a “there” there. A theme develops, and if you don’t get it the first time, each viewing makes it apparent. There’s a reward for paying close attention, a bigger reward than being able to get a few jokes or references.
Listen to the soundtrack. Almost all of it is by The Pillows, a Japanese alt-rock band. Since none of it was created for the show, it creates a unique atmosphere. Made independent of the show, the music is a counterpoint, a commentary. It’s not a slave to the image. Certain tracks are used as motifs, and they help the show to cohere from ingredients that, by all rights, should have made for a mess.
That is, finally, the wonder of FLCL: how these generic elements (big robots, snotty kids, robot maids, alien invasions, and government conspiracies) add up to a great show. It should be what justifies anime hatred. Instead, it’s transcendant. If you don’t like it, it’s because you missed something.
1This is true of His And Her Circumstances, which had so many budget shortfalls that 1.5 episodes were clipshow recaps (redundant since most of the episodes had recaps at the beginning, almost all of them with the same narration). It re-used tons of animation, it used live-action camera tricks (moving cutouts of characters on Popsicle sticks), and it was generally annoying for the second half of the series.