In my defense, I first watched FLCL when it aired on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim segment in 2003 – I was 16 years old, which put me about as squarely centered in this show’s strike zone as it’s possible to be.
I start with this bit of apologia because I always feel a bit sheepish whenever lists of my favorite shows come up and FLCL ends up inevitably near the top. There’s more than one complaint floating around out there about the sheer preponderance of coming-of-age stories focusing on adolescent guys in the anime cannon, and to be honest I can’t disagree. Consider the set of shows that fit that and: it’s pretty damn big.
(I’m skirting a further snarl in the conversation here by not bringing up the complementary topic of fiction about adolescent girls, not to mention non-binary folks – which is absolutely worth discussing, but out of scope for this post.)
I can’t really answer the question of whether or not the topic of male (and specifically, het male) adolescence deserves the amount of attention that it gets from the industry in general, but what I can say is: FLCL hit me very hard at a time in my life when I really needed it. It helped me to take the nebulous and heavy mass of Big Weird Feelings that was my adolescence, contextualize it, and start to understand myself a bit better.
I called FLCL a coming of age story before, but the truth is that it isn’t exactly – in some ways it’s almost the opposite. FLCL of a kid – Naota, our protagonist – trying to be an adult, and never quite making it. Each episode sees him trying new and different ways to act out what he sees as maturity, but it never quite works out. He tries to affect cool-guy nonchalance, but Haruko – the self-centered woman who is his main crush through a good deal of the story – can leave him easily flustered with the mildest of bullying or flirtation. He tries to maintain a mature attitude at school, but ends up in bratty scuffles with his classmates. In the fifth episode, Brittle Bullet, high off of of triumph in a previous episode, he’s cocky and domineering – only to end the episode defeated and cast aside, literally ignored beneath Haruko’s heels.
The grand climax of the story, the moment that everything in the final episode is building to, isn’t some grand arrival at adulthood. It’s an awkward, squeaky-voiced confession of love from a boy who’s not even thirteen yet. Naota’s face at that moment isn’t the face of a confident guy who’s got it all figured out. He’s a timid little kid, blushing and looking up uncertainly at a girl who’s got his feelings all bundled up in a confused and messy knot.
Growing up, especially during puberty, I’d always had this vaguely uneasy sense that I was somehow running a good year or two behind on the maturity scale. The youngest of three siblings, I seemed to have a permanent mental image of myself as the most childish person in any given room, and it always seemed like most of the people I knew my age were ahead of me somehow – especially in social settings, it always felt like most of my peers had some preternaturally adult sense of conversation and social awareness. Feeling left out and left behind, I would always make an attempt to emulate what I saw in them, to be the proper adult I felt I had to be, but I was just so bad at that sort of thing, and would inevitably make some awkward hash of it.
To the awkward sixteen year old me, always feeling like I needed to be more mature than I was, and almost as always screwing it up in some way, watching FLCL was like clicking into some hidden signal. I had a clue, finally, that the things I’d been going through weren’t unique, that these were feelings that lots of people had. It was a relief.
FLCL has a recurring emphasis on this theme of trying, but not quite, reaching adulthood, and it’s not just Naota who’s highlighted here. Naota’s classmate, Ninamori Eri, does a more resilient job of maintaining an adult facade than Naota does in the third episode, “Marquis de Carabbas”, but by the end of the episode that pretense of hers has also gotten tangled up and run away from her, and her truer, more childish motives – her desire for a mended relationship with her parents, her love for them, her desire to be admired by them – are exposed.
To be clear, when I use terms like “childish” here, I’m not meaning that to be pejorative or dismissive – the feelings that both Eri and Naota fall back on when their facades crumble are sincere and genuine. They are entirely appropriate feelings for children to have: the messy, jumbled-up feelings of kids who are just about to not completely be kids anymore.
Similarly, when I write about Naota “trying to be an adult”, or about Eri’s “facade”, I’m not saying either of those things are bad – this sort of thing is a critical part of adolescence. They way that people become adults is by having room to try on and tinker with aspects of themselves, to experiment and grow, and we see Naota (and, during her episode, Eri), doing exactly that throughout the series. The results are awkward, and often painful when these experimental trials wind up falling apart – but those failures are exactly where the most learning takes place. They are taking the first steps in a dark room, trying to feel out the shape of the adult selves that they are starting to grow into.
The last words that Haruko says to Naota, in the final episode are: “You’re still a kid, Ta-kun. Save it for next time.” The Naota she leaves behind isn’t an adult yet – he’s nowhere close. But he has the time, and the freedom, to keep figuring it out.
This is what FLCL meant to me when I was an awkward and scared teen, and what it continues to mean to me now that I am a mildly less awkward, mildly more self-assured, but still pretty scared adult.
It’s OK. You can mess up from time to time. You can try new things. If you fall on your face, that’s OK. That’s just a new lesson.
You have time.