While I consider myself an anime fan, I only count a surprisingly few anime titles among my all time favorites. One that definitely makes the cut is FLCL. It is almost impossible to explain what exactly FLCL actually is (though our own BrothaDom made a truly valiant effort); the show is legendarily rumored to be a byproduct of writer’s block, spawning from a handful of unfinished ideas that some anime all-stars had been batting around. While that may be at least somewhat apocryphal, it certainly explains much of the show’s signature production style. One interpretation for it all that I cannot help wanting to explore, however, is that the entire story is a parable about adolescent sexual and romantic coming of age.
Much of the plot is directly and explicitly just that: a coming-of-age story. It can be argued, though, that the more grandiose and surreal main story arc is all one giant metaphor for this as well. In addition to the protagonist Naota, almost every other key character (primarily the three women in Naota’s life: Haruko, Mamimi, and Eri) also deals with these themes and the extraordinary events that happen to them are all viewable as metaphorical (and/or metaphysical) extensions of those emotional struggles.
As the YA sci-fi and fantasy genres become more and more of a driving force in pop culture, FLCL is worth revisiting (again) for what it says about some of those same themes. It tells a complex and deeply layered yet easily relatable story about the nature of romantic and sexual self-discovery in a way that validates the emotions that young people (and everyone else) look to explore in this type of fiction; not only that, but it does so in a way that treats them with a sincerity that mainstream YA fiction sometimes tends to handle with melodrama and/or trivialization.
Trigger warning for underage sexual relationships below.
Since I don’t want to retread ground covered by Dom and since FLCL was released nearly two decades ago, I’ll only summarize briefly. FLCL is the story of Naota, a preteen boy living in a small Japanese city. Early in the first episode, Haruko Haruhara, an alien fugitive and “Galaxy Patrol Officer” who is trying to locate a supernatural Pirate King (Atomsk), crashes into Naota on her Vespa scooter and comes to live with his family as their housekeeper. This causes a massive horn, which is treated as a metaphorical first erection, to grow from his head and eventually release a robot named Canti that also comes to live with them as a butler. In addition to the sexual tension that develops between Naota and Haruko, he finds out that his head is a conduit through which robots and objects can emerge from across the galaxy and that he’s connected to some massive interplanetary conspiracy and/or the rebellion against it. Ultimately he fuses with his robot butler and saves the world. Yeah… it’s immensely complex and the symbolism is so tightly packed that it requires multiple viewings to really grasp.
While the plot involving Atomsk, the shady Medical Mechanica corporation, and the forces working against both of them is responsible for the action of the anime, the bulk of the stories actually revolve around the emotionally grounded and authentic relationships Naota forms with three women in his life as he begins to enter adolescence. Since the connections between these extraordinary “anime-y” events and the more mundane ones also revolve in large part around these women, exploring their relationships in greater detail is key to the whole “it’s the ultimate YA sexuality/romance metaphor” thing.
First off is Eri Ninamori, the class president at Naota’s high school who is shown to have a crush on him. They are the same age and are both intensely focused on “acting like a grown-up.” She will regularly flirt with him and will also regularly tease or chastise him for being immature, which he often reciprocates. Naota also seems to view her feelings, as well as his own feelings towards Eri, as childish, and generally tries to keep her at arm’s length.
As the only relationship Naota really has with someone his own age, his interactions with Eri are often used to explore his feelings about growing up. There are scenes where their dialogue demonstrates a conflict between childishness and maturity, resembling both a playground squabble and a budding romance. Eri’s father is the town’s mayor and there is tremendous pressure on her to be a model student. Furthermore, her father is divorcing her mother after an affair with his secretary. This is revealed when Eri casually lets the secretary know that she is aware of the situation and doesn’t really care, going out of her way to be “adult about the situation” and receiving a compliment from her father’s mistress on how mature she is. She models her behavior on the adults in her life—in this case, the mistress’s cool detachment and confidence. Eventually, Naota inadvertently transfers a robot from the gateway in his head into Eri’s head, and it emerges, leaving her dangling in a dark cloud with her face hidden in shadow and a monster that vaguely looks like a spider coming out of her brain, her legs and crotch free to attack. The symbolism isn’t exactly subtle. She has suppressed so much powerful but not yet understood emotion, as has Naota, that it all emerges as a literal robot-spider-monster thing.
As their relationship develops, we get to see Eri’s narrative; she is not merely used as a sounding board for Naota. She reveals that she wears glasses but hides it, the glasses being her “real face.” She cheated in a vote to cast the school play so that she would be the lead opposite Naota in Puss in Boots, wanting him to “save her” the way that character saves his master in the fable and to “trick her into being happy”. She suppresses her rage and sadness at her father and his secretary almost to the point of total emotional numbness. All this time, Eri knows that she’s supposed to start acting like an adult but eventually also accepts that she’s still a kid. She is wise enough to grasp both the fact that she’s already more mature than many adults and that she simply can’t understand life entirely because she hasn’t actually lived much of it yet. She learns that being honest with herself about her emotions is essential for her survival. Through Eri’s experience and her interactions with Naota, there is a message about romance and sexuality that young adults desperately need to hear: “You’re not supposed to understand all this stuff yet because nobody really understands this stuff; we just figure out bits of it at a time through experience.”
Next up: Mamimi. The first relationship we actually see onscreen, Naota and Mamimi’s relationship is complicated and emotionally intense on a lot of levels. While Naota’s relationship with Eri does address issues of power dynamics, his relationship with Mamimi takes that to a new level by throwing in a significant age gap. Mamimi is seventeen and Naota is twelve. While there is no direct evidence of them actually engaging in any sexual acts, that is still highly inappropriate and potentially even illegal. Thematically, Naota is shown to be somewhat mature for his age while Mamimi is shown to be somewhat immature, but to say that their relationship is inherently problematic is an understatement. She is Naota’s older brother’s girlfriend. Naota idolizes his older brother (who has left for America to play baseball before the series begins) and Mamimi was madly in love with him. Naota often hangs out under the town’s bridge with Mamimi and they talk about life; usually this culminates in Mamimi making significant physical contact with Naota. She will hug him from behind and give him hickies, spoon him on the ground, or press her chest against him suggestively. While this is mostly presented as a combination of her teasing him and her genuinely transferring her romantic affection to Naota from his brother, it is also used to examine how actual physiological and psychological changes create such strong emotional reactions in teenagers, reactions adults often dismiss as “just hormones.”
Early in the first episode, a conversation between Naota and Mamimi acknowledges this when Naota asks why she’s always so physically affectionate with him, to which she responds, “If I don’t do this, I’ll overflow.” When he asks what will happen, Mamimi responds, “I don’t know. Probably something amazing.” She has so many powerful emotions bottled up that she feels like she’s going to “overflow”. As we learn more about Mamimi, the reasons for that emotion begin to come out. Her family is poor, requiring her to covertly beg for food from Naota’s father’s bakery, she is often the victim of bullying, and Naota’s brother dumps her for an American girl. Finally, we learn that she burned down her school as a younger teen and that Naota’s brother “saved her from the flames”, after which she fell in love with him.
Eventually, Mamimi realizes that Naota’s in love with Haruko and that she needs to stop having a relationship with a twelve-year-old. The combination of being rejected by Naota for an older woman and realizing his brother had left her for good seems to open her eyes to the reality of her situation. She realizes that she has both been manipulating Naota and has fooled herself into thinking they had any kind of a real future given their significant age gap. She also finally admits to herself that she’s basically using Naota as a surrogate to replace his brother, a role that is so idealized that nobody could fill it. She does seem to genuinely care about Naota, but no longer interprets those feelings as romantic or sexual attraction, and she does this just as Naota has convinced himself that he wants a “grown-up relationship” with her. That rejection causes a gun inside Naota’s head to fire and manifest a giant mafia robot that attempts to activate the Medical Mechanica factory, which is actually a doomsday device and part of the whole galaxy homogenizing thing. Later Mamimi finds the core for the machine in the form of a doglike robot. She allows it to eat her phone, which contains Naota’s brother’s number. She then proceeds to have it eat the vehicles of everyone who has bullied her, feeding it and letting it grow to be enormous. Her rejection breeds a machine to destroy the world, and her anger and loneliness feed the core that activates it. That’s some Shakespeare-level manga geekery right there. We see Mamimi go through a steadily increasing stream of emotional turbulence, eventually escalating from inappropriate romantic encounters to vandalism and even a relapse into arson. Eventually, though, she experiences the same catharsis that the show’s climax represents for Naota and moves on to become a photographer in “the city”, beginning the next chapter in her story.
Lastly but perhaps most significantly, Haruko. Haruko Haruhara is a nineteen-year-old alien. Right from the beginning, Haruko is overtly sexual to Naota. If Eri and Mamimi represent early and late adolescent relationships, Haruko represents pure fantasy in two ways. First, and most obviously, she is arguably a parody of anime women. A badass “galaxy patrol officer” who has apparently gone rogue, she is also incredibly sexy and fully aware of it. There are numerous references to the fact that Haruko knows she is an anime character and overplays the part; she wears a generic “bunny suit tuxedo” at one point and even releases a spring loaded fist trap from her vagina to ward off unwanted advances. Second, she’s the “mysterious but accessible older girl” who triggers Naota’s first real romantic and sexual awakening. She’s essentially the combination of numerous “fantasy woman” stereotypes and tropes combined and brought to life. While it is clear that Naota has no idea what he actually wants from a relationship with Haruko, the two do form a relationship nonetheless.
Much like Naota’s relationship with Mamimi, there is a significant age imbalance between these two. While her real age is impossible to determine, what with her being a transdimensional alien and all, she presents as nineteen. While Mamimi is depicted as an adolescent right on the verge of becoming an adult, Haruko has already crossed that threshold. Both of Naota’s other relationships explore concepts of power dynamics, but this one directly deals with exploitation. Haruko openly admits that she “needs [Naota] to get what [she] wants.” Naota is directly made aware that she is using him and that the byproduct of that exploitation may be the destruction of Earth, but he still chooses Haruko. He is so in love with the concepts Haruko represents to him (maturity, sexuality, freedom, rebellion, excitement, mystery, strength, etc…) that he accepts that he will make the “wrong” choice to be with her.
Even though we regularly see Haruko explicitly use her sexuality to manipulate Naota, she also does seem to have some feelings for him and regularly remarks on how “you’re the one I met first” or “yours is the only head that works”, and later in the series even takes him on the road with her, sharing a sleeping bag as they crash on park benches. In the end, though, she tells him “you’re really still just a kid” and leaves him. While, unlike the other two women, Haruko is implied to have actually engaged in some form of sexual intercourse with Naota, she is arguably used to highlight the “manic pixie dream girl” trope by magically showing up to fix his problems. In reality, she creates more problems, thoroughly confuses Naota, and leaves him to process the emotions she has unlocked in him. This relationship is one of the more controversial aspects of FLCL, as it arguably presents a morally ambiguous take on pedophilic relationships, but it does this in a way that addresses the coercion and manipulation inherent in those relationships, even when they seem consensual to those involved. The genuineness and relatability of Naota’s emotions, though, gives younger viewers a chance to explore the issues with this type of relationship vicariously, hopefully avoiding the abuse that virtually always accompanies them in real life.
The process of forming that relationship is key to the central plot, and here the metaphor comes together. When Naota and Canti fuse, they gain access to the power of Atomsk and are able to defeat any of the robots they face. Usually what prompts that to happen is one of these three women inspiring a strong emotional reaction in Naota. In Haruko’s case, those emotions are particularly intense. She makes him feel Oedipal rage at his father, which culminates in a surreal murder/resurrection/robot clone incident and the activation of a bomb satellite. She makes him feel safety and familial love when she briefly reminds him of his brother while saving his life. When she leaves without a trace for a while, he breaks down crying and hugs her when she returns. The penultimate episode sees Naota saving the town from the satellite bomb by “swinging his bat” and hitting it with a guitar; requiring help from Haruko to succeed. The entire thing is a meta pun on baseball terminology being used for sex. The whole town is counting on him to hit one out of the park, and if he strikes out, the game’s over. When he swings his guitar-bat, it ends the same way many first sexual encounters do: it quickly climaxes in a massive explosion, leaving everyone involved trying to figure out exactly what just happened and what happens next. Many young people often feel like the entire world revolves (or is supposed to revolve) around having sex, even though they don’t really know quite what that means yet. Naota doesn’t have much of a real sex drive until he meets Haruko, and when it peaks it’s as significant to him as a bomb going off.
Ultimately, Naota gains full access to the Pirate King’s power while trying to stop the doomsday machine, and Haruko tries to kill him to get it for herself. In the resulting battle, Naota exhibits nearly godlike powers and easily defeats her. But just as he is about to deliver a DBZ-style killing blow, he stops short, says “I love you”, blushes, and kisses her. That, in turn releases the Pirate King and he saves the world. His ability to accept his feelings and admit them to Haruko sets Atomsk free and stops the destruction of Earth.
Afterwards, both Haruko and Mamimi leave to continue their own stories. Naota is still in middle school and can’t go with Haruko to roam the galaxy or with Mamimi to become a photographer. He gets on with his daily life and everything goes back to normal.
Phew! Ok, so I’ll repeat, FLCL is incredibly dense. There’s a lot of ways to interpret it. But next time you rewatch it, pay attention to all the little details, often hidden in a barrage of obvious double entendre or anime in-jokes, that point to that central metaphor. What I think you may see, if you haven’t already, is an incredibly nuanced coming-of-age story that treats romantic and sexual discovery with a level of emotional complexity, genuineness, humor, and respect that still holds up. It encourages young viewers to be honest about their feelings and do what feels right for everyone. Even if that message is delivered by extradimensional robots and scooter-riding aliens, it’s one that we all need to hear and one that remains relevant all these years later.