What’s it about? Hidomi, a junior high student who wears headphones to keep out the world, has been having dreams about her body falling apart and turning into a robot. Her average life implodes when robots start attacking, a strange woman hits her with a car, and a horn starts growing out of her head.
This year has been full of sequels to famous, long-running series, but none have raised quite as much a stir in the West as 2001’s FLCL, which exists in comparatively recent memory due to a 2013 run on Adult Swim. The show itself came out of Gainax’s post-Evangelion funk as an explosion of weirdness, robots, and messy puberty metaphors. And while it’s definitely not the “weirdest anime ever,” it left some big and memorable shoes to fill.
The opening is far and away the most promising bit of this new premiere, starting with the apocalypse and packing on the body horror before pulling out the famous robot design. It’s gruesome and gorgeous and about everything you could want, which leaves the rest of the episode feeling like it’s struggling to get back there.
The vision of Hidomi’s day-to-day life outside of the nightmares feels… dicey, shall we say. Some bits of comedic timing are going strong, like Hidomi getting hit by a car to stop her metaphor-horn from awakening; while others, like Hidomi’s mother calling her a tsundere for refusing to say good morning and Haruko’s wink to the camera at episode’s end, feel a little too slick and produced.
And then there’s the other kids at school. We’re introduced to three boys: Ide, who has big ol’ eyebrows, appears to be the love interest, and is a total dirtbag; and his two friends, one of whom wears a skirt. I bring it up because the episode dedicates a several-minutes-long bit to it, with much protestation about how “if you breathe the word ‘gender’ in the fashion world, they’ll throw you in a nursing home.” This is accompanied by a lot of visual gags about how he doesn’t know how to sit in a skirt without showing off his underwear, and contrasted with a shot of Hidomi delicately sitting and brushing her skirt down.
It’s… a lot.
Part of me wants to extend the show the benefit of the doubt. The other boy in the group, Marco, is of a neutral “people should be allowed to wear what they want” opinion, and Ide is definitely a shitbag who gets beaten to a pulp by the end of the episode after being lured in by Haruko. Likewise, the teacher who drones at them about how they’re useless balls of hormones and tries to get them to react to porn to prove they can “grow up” is antagonist Haruko in disguise.
Plus, as many others have said, this is a coming-of-age tale where the protagonist is a young woman and the attractive alien looking out for her is also a woman—which, given how those roles functioned in the original FLCL, could open this up to potential queerness down the line.
But at the same time, that’s a lot of maybes, and I think we’re all hurting from the gender essentialist propaganda trainwreck of DARLING in the FRANXX, a show that also had a lot of “maybes” thrown around about its subversive potential. And there are as many ways that this could break bad as good.
Ide potentially being the “normal” crush (a la Mamimi vs. Haruko) would open up a whole can of implicit yikes with new Hot Alien Jinyu being a woman; the “you kids today” vibe of this premiere could wind up being not Haruko at all but the overall perspective of the series, with Hidomi and Ide ultimately being the heteronormative “normal kids” bewildered by a world gone mad. Overtly queer or gender non-conforming behavior could continue to be a lazy punchline instead of the new normal.
As for those who haven’t seen the original series, this is still pretty easy to follow. Haruko is the most overt connection to the original series, and honestly knowing the details doesn’t really serve to make her less mysterious here. Even the ending theme clues you in to Jinyu and Haruko likely being two halves of a whole, in case you missed the visual markers with the guitars. So while there are other reasons to potentially be cautious, that isn’t one of them.
I want to believe, partly because this series looks so darn pretty and when the visuals are on-point they’re superb, but experience is lending a decidedly cautious hand. The baseline to hope for right now is that this will turn out to be a story about a young woman going through puberty that won’t fall into the boring, untrue idea that teen girls aren’t also capable of being horny, sweaty balls of hormones at that age.
Few series have been less subtle about their metaphors vis a vis adolescent sexuality and the confusing terror thereof. We’ll have to wait and see if the subtitle “Progressive” actually means anything in the end.