Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided the writer with a free copy of the Blu-ray reviewed in this article. The opinions shared are his own.
FLCL (pronounced Furry Kurry or Fooly Cooly, dependent on one's mood) looked like it was the beginning of something. It was a direct-to-video anime series released in 2000-2001, which at the time in Japan generally meant a series that a production company was given a larger budget to produce higher quality animation, without the restrictions that were placed on anime television so the content was directed by the vision of the creator. And FLCL, written by Yoji Enokido and directed by Kazuya Tusrumaki, had vision.
It was wild in the way a lot of anime is not - the animation style would shift constantly through each episode. Some scenes were "standard" anime style - line animation with limited movement, often with watercolor backgrounds. Then the next scene would be a Looney-Tunes style squash and stretch extravaganza, then the next scene would be panels of a manga with narration, and on and on. And while the visual style would shift sometimes at a breakneck speed, it didn't sacrifice story. FLCL told the story of a disaffected Japanese pre-teen disillusioned with everyone he'd looked up to and a world of people who were pretending to be something they weren't... and also about a super-cute alien lady who channeled robots through teenagers heads to do battle with each other while a multi-dimensional corporate conspiracy sought to flatten the minds of everybody in existence and to make things boring.
And it made sense. Mad sense, sometimes dubious sense, but it was always intriguing, always weird in the way that made you want to find out more. For almost two decades since its late 2000 debut (or, more likely for fans in the states, from its August 2003 debut on Adult Swim) FLCL was a challenge to the often conformist anime establishment. Things could be different. The challenge went largely unanswered. It was too weird, too wild, and though successful (particularly in the U.S.) it wasn't formulaic enough to copy.
It stood alone until the surprise announcement in 2016 that sequels were imminent. Two sequels released within months of each other: FLCL Progressive and FLCL Alternative. That the sequels were apparently being produced simultaneously, and each would be as long as the original might have been a worrying sign, though the titles were good omens: FLCL was a punk rock series. That is would be followed up with different "genres" signaled that there wasn't a re-tread in the making, but something that understood the spirit of the original, and wanted to walk in the same direction, but not necessarily follow in its footsteps.
FLCL Progressive and FLCL Alternative are not carbon copies of the original, which should be good. Unfortunately, they are instead like bad cover bands misunderstanding what the heck made the original song work, and who proceed to mutilate it in different ways, both misguided.
Progressive and Alternative tell completely different stories, which are also mostly divorced from the original FLCL: they take place in the same universe, and it might be that the original and Progressive are on the same planet (though Alternative seems to be set on an alternative Earth). Primarily what holds them together is the main character of Haruko, the alien girl from the original. Otherwise, these are not connected stories.
FLCL Progressive is closer in tone and story-telling to the original, and even manages to find some original notes to strike. The main character, Hidomi Hibajiri, is a disaffected 14-year-old girl. She often dreams of apocalypses where the world around her is destroyed, and she eventually joins its fate. These are dramatized as the introduction to each episode, each one a different sort of horrible future for the girl and for the world. She cuts off reality with a pair of headphones that never play any music. And eventually, an alien woman (Jinji) runs her down in a car, and then she is thrown into a world of robot fights and strange creatures erupting from her forehead.
Haruko, the sole holdover from the original FLCL cast, shows up as Hidomi's teacher, but she is primarily interested in testing the various children for their ability to channel objects from space. It is part of the FLCL mythology that certain people, generally teens, have access to N.O. power - which allows them to create a channel to places throughout the universe where they can lets objects through their foreheads... generally big robots who have to be fought hand to hand. Haruko and Jinji are at odds about what to do about the kids - Jinji is protective, while Haruko is disdainful of any non-selfish endeavor, counting it to be essentially self-deception.
In the original FLCL, all of this science fiction weirdness worked as a fun weird story itself, but it was also metaphorical of the changes human being go through as they grow up, and learn how much of the world they think is sure (because adults, for their own reasons, assure them it is) is actually a collection of pretense, wishful thinking, and lies. The original FLCL was wacky, funny, weird, and dense with meaning.
FLCL Progressive is an anime. Except for occasional visual flourishes (all cribbed from the original), it looks like a standard anime. It unveils its mysteries like a regular anime - not by providing hints for the audience to put together, but by simply withholding information so you don't know why Hidomi is moody. Her personal problems are revealed in the latter half of the series, but by then it's not sure why the audience should care. And the overall story of the series, about various factions of interdimensional factions fighting for the control of an enormous power source, are too obscure to have any impact. A lot of weird crap happens, but unlike the original series, it all feels like a bunch of weird crap, not weird fun.
Haruko, the heart of the series, is mostly herself, if over-simplified. She's a mercurial figure, sexy and silly, and happy to help others fulfill themselves, if it gets her closer to her goals. She is, inherently, completely selfish. That's where her considerable charm lays. In FLCL Progressive, she's a kind of pied piper figure for the class that she teaches. It's similar to the part she plays in the original, except Progressive makes the mistake of making the entire world around her just as wacky as her.
But that's still better than the crimes perpetrated by FLCL Alternative. Taking place on what seems to be an alternative Earth, where colonizing Mars is such a real possibility that some government official goes on TV nightly complaining about it, FLCL Alternative seemed, as I watched the first few episodes, to be one of the worst things I had ever seen. As it ended, and managed to pay off some of its meager set-ups, it emerged as merely mediocre.
FLCL Alternative revolves around a quad of increasingly boring teenage girls: "Pets", an obsessive photo taker and kind of non-entity; Hijiri, the beautiful model who dates college boys; the immense Mossan who is focused mainly on food and art; and the hysterical Kana, who is the center of the wheel of friendship, connecting all the others together.
After the government outlaws private space travel, they decide to build a large bottle rocket together. Once it’s done, then spend a long time designing frills and sparkles to make it pretty. This takes 15 minutes of the damned episode. Then it gets smashed by some sci-fi device, a robot-monster with a really mediocre design emerges and attacks, and Haruko shows up to save the day.
This is apparently a Haruko who exists previous to the sublimely selfish pink-haired dynamo of the original series. Maybe this is a prequel, or just an alternate dimension. This is unclear. What is clear is that FLCL Alternative has stumbled on a dull as dishwater formula for draining the punk-enthusiasm of FLCL of all of its energy, and for more than half the series pursues it relentlessly. Alternative manages to do what Progressive could not, which is completely denude the Haruko character of her subversive weirdness. She's still doing weird things with these kids, but it always turns out to be for their own good, and sometimes she even delivers a damned lesson to them. Properly utilized, Haruko is an agent for the growth of other characters, but only because of what they have projected upon her. In FLCL Alternative, she's like the wise janitor character from an '80s high school dramedy, and it's a terrible waste of one of the best anime characters of the 21st century.
Beyond the poorly considered story elements, these FLCL sequels plunder the corpse of the original for some of its best elements, and misuse them accordingly. The lace of visual inventiveness may simply be a casualty of budget: the original FLCL was direct to video, not a TV show, and had an accordingly higher standard of animation quality - more fluidity, way more variety, far fewer cheating scenes where conversations take place with nobody's face on screen. But it was also a constantly shifting style. All of the visually "out there" scenes in these two new series are cribbed from the original, and never used with anything like the flare or thoughtfulness of the first series.
A worse casualty is the soundtrack, and it didn't have to be this way. The Pillows were the band that defined the sound of FLCL, contributing the opening and closing tracks and offering a healthy swath of their back catalog. Formed in 1989, they sound like a more upbeat, poppy Pixies, and have stuck together significantly longer without line-up changes. FLCL used their music like few anime have used a soundtrack, letting it take foreground for some incredibly memorable scenes. A number of the same songs are used in these new series... but it is always background. It's always kinda there, but never allowed to take the full emotional brunt of a scene like in FLCL, which gave the song much more impact.
My profound disappointment with FLCL Progressive and Alternative is not a case of nostalgia, or wanting more of the same. Part of the fun of the original FLCL is that none of it was more of the same - it was as original as it could be while remaining in the anime idiom, and stretched at those confines in every aspect. Progressive and Alternative, which it should be noted were not developed with any of the original creators, are just anime shows picking at the bones of something great, and original, and the like of which we won't see again.
FLCL Progressive/Alternative has been released by [adult swim] and Warner Brothers on Blu-ray, on a two-disc set. Each disc has the original Japanese with optional English subtitles, and an English dub. Videos extras on the disc include, on FLCL Progressive, a video about the creation of the new series "Meet the Creators" (12 min), about "The Pillows", (6 min), and "The Making of FLCL Progressive & Alternative" (15 min) which is primarily about producing the English dub. On the FLCL Alternative disc, there is a brief "Production: Behind the Scenes" (6 min) video and "English Voice Actors" (6 min) video. There is also a code for a digital copy included with the discs.