‘FLCL Progressive’ Brings Deep Meaning to the Adolescence Experience
Cult classics don’t usually get sequels. For that matter, cult classics don’t usually get two sequels. But “FLCL” (read as “Fooly Cooly”) managed just that, with the landmark six-episode series from Gainax receiving a second and third season on Adult Swim this year. The second season (titled “FLCL Progressive”) wrapped up its six-episode run recently and in doing so, added a new entry into the classic television trope of “disillusioned adolescent meets space alien who is trying to capture a celestial being and prevent an intergalactic cooperation from ironing out all unique thoughts in the world.”
That being said, “FLCL Progressive” is by no means a clone of the original. Perhaps this can be owed to how unique the original was in the context of anime in the early 2000’s, not to mention its singular method of blending lasting messages about adolescence experiences in with non-sequitur humor and an unbeatable soundtrack by The Pillows. All three of these key factors return in season two, with novel variations highlighting the belief that there is more adults, young and old alike, can learn from re-examining the experience of adolescence. “Progressive” is a vibrant echo of its predecessor, with one of its key themes acting as both an amplification and a nuance on what it means to acquire agency in one’s own life.
“FLCL” has, since the beginning, concerned itself with providing a unique insight into the adolescent experience through a sci-fi lens. This lens provides entertainment, but it also brings the insular feelings of Noata Nandaba (in the original “FLCL”) and Hidomi Hibajiri (in “Progressive”) onto a galactic scale, emphasizing their larger importance. Both main characters begin their respective series outwardly disillusioned with their life and town.
Noata’s opening lines set his tone immediately, “Nothing amazing happens here. Everything is ordinary.” Noata has lost interest in most things in part due to his inability to differentiate himself mentally from his older brother, an American baseball star whose shadow Noata is eternally stuck in. Hidomi faces a similar sense of disillusionment at the beginning of “Progressive.” But rather than being stuck in the shadow of a sibling, she finds herself wishing to withdraw from the world and hide, symbolized by her persistent wearing of Beats-style headphones to block out the chaos of the world around her.
Over the course of each series, the respective main characters become better in touch with themselves and begin to see that adulthood and maturity are not learned behaviors or a staged performance. Instead, they begin to see adulthood is a mindset that calls on the individual to take initiative in the direction of their life. For Noata, this lesson is first hinted at by Haruhara Haruko after he fails to live up to his brother’s baseball prowess because he only ever stands at the plate and watches each pitch go by.
Haruko admonishes him, “Nothing can happen ‘till you swing the bat.” Naota learns to do so, in a larger sense, later in the same episode as he manages to swing at just the right time to bat a meteor-sized baseball away from impact with the city. Even Noata recognizes that his choice towards initiative was one synonymous with adulthood, narrating, “By the time I realized it, I had already swung the bat. My palms still sting. I wonder if Haruko feels like this all the time.”
Hidomi goes through a different set of experiences after coming into contact with Haruko and her yellow Vespa. Hidomi is fairly introverted, preferring the silence brought on by her headphones to the madding crowd of her classroom. She’s lost at sea mentally, declaring early on, “There’s nothing I want to be. There’s nothing I want to do.” Without meaning to, Hidomi finds herself in the middle of a conflict between Haruko — who is still in amorous pursuit of Atomsk, the Pirate King — and Jinyu, a similar alien being who wishes to see Atomsk freed. Hidomi isn’t the only person brought into Haruko’s orbit this time, though. In addition, fellow classmate and later love interest Ko Ide is also tapped — or rather, drilled in the head — by the pair of space aliens in order to determine if his head can also be used as an N.O. portal.
For the most part, “Progressive” is Hidomi’s story. In particular, this second season focuses on how Hidomi “hides” from the world around her as a means of escaping feelings of emotional vulnerability. Her neko headphones act as an outward sign of this solitary intent, with Jinyu even questioning Hidomi on their purpose, “Pretending you can’t hear...That’s like your thing, am I right?” Remaining emotionally detached and not “hearing” other people emotionally has become Hidomi’s modus operandi, a conscious choice that she believes will protect her well being.
Despite the headphones, Hidomi does still hear others in a literal sense and reacts emotionally from time to time. The viewer is keyed into these strong emotional reactions by Hidomi’s headphones, the lights upon which begin to spin and whirl in accordance with Hidomi’s emotional poise. This effect is akin to the way one’s heart begins to race when faced with danger, confusion or fear.
Later in the series, though, Hidomi’s attachment to the headphones goes beyond a conscious fashion choice. Described as a “side effect”, the headphones — which, as it turns out, were produced by the enigmatic antagonist Medical Mechanica — fuse with Hidomi’s head, resulting in a complete 180 degree turn towards a bubbly, over-exuberant personality. Though the exceptionally outgoing Hidomi fades away, this fusion represents an embrace of the emotional sound-blocking qualities of the headphones. As the series progresses, this becomes an orientation that Hidomi is unable to completely escape from until the headphones are destroyed late in the series by fan-favorite automaton Canti.
By the time the headphones are destroyed, Hidomi is a changed young adult. She is beginning to come to terms with her feelings, familially and romantically. In the finale, Hidomi gains some emotional perspective as she realizes that she has been selfishly shutting out her own mother, making their relationship all the more strained. They both commit to fixing their relationship and to cease waiting for their issues to be resolved on their own.
Meanwhile, Hidomi begins to recognize and embrace her own budding romantic feelings toward Ide, whom she actively worked to protect throughout the series and with whom she shares a kiss in the finale. After asking Haruko to release Ide in the series finale, Haruko admonishes Hidomi that her methods won’t get her to her goals, “You think you get things just by asking? That if you’re stomping, crying on the floor, people will drop things in your lap?” This enrages Hidomi, to the point that she comes to a realization, “It’s time to stop acting childish. And that’s why I’m just going to take it!”
While Haruko is goading Hidomi into attacking, she is also impressing upon her the virtue of being proactive toward acquiring what she wants in life. This comes in stark contrast to how Hidomi has been living up to this point, that is, in a passive default state that was meant to shelter her from the raw emotion of life, for better or for worse.
Hidomi gets the opportunity to put Haruko’s wisdom into practice not long after as she tries to save Ide (who has been trapped inside of Canti along with Atomsk). As it becomes apparent that the two will have to battle it out to regain what they have lost, Hidomi boldly proclaims, “if you want it, then take it!” In the end, Ide is freed as a result of Hidomi’s newfound agency and proactive approach.
This is where the echoes of the original FLCL ring the loudest. In the original, Haruko compels Noata to schleff off his trepidation and “swing the bat” in life to gain some agency in the direction of his life. In “Progressive,” Haruko implores Hidomi along the same lines, telling her if there is some change she wants to see in her life, she has to be responsible for making the opportunities. In both cases, passivity is diminished and active agency is embraced, implying that it is one of the few absolutes needed to qualify someone as an “adult.”
In the end, both series provide a thoughtful inspection of the value of taking active agency in one’s life, especially for a young adult as they form their own identity and grow toward the nebulous concept called “adulthood.” “Progressive” is not a clone of its ancestor and it is all the better for it. But like red hair or blue eyes, there’s something hereditary in one of the series’ enduring messages. The echo heard in “Progressive” keeps it within the spirit of the franchise while still leaving room to chart its own legacy, both of which should bring a smile to the face of long-time fans.