Even in the strange and wondrous world of anime, 2000’s FLCL feels like a one-of-a-kind show. The original series follows a 12-year-old boy who meets an alien woman, gets thrown into her conflict with a corporation that apparently seeks to “iron out” all thought, and as a result, progresses on a journey to adulthood. But that doesn’t even begin to do justice to the anime’s specific blend of absurdity and emotional intimacy. Original series director Kazuya Tsurumaki encapsulated it best when he said, “difficulty in comprehension should not be a factor in FLCL.”
No matter the circumstances, the spirit of the series seems like something that would be incredibly hard to recapture. But 17 years after the show ended, that’s exactly what Production I.G. and Adult Swim are trying to do with their two sequels — the first of which, Progressive, is nearing its conclusion. Polygon spoke with executive producer and Adult Swim Senior Vice President/Creative Director Jason DeMarco to learn how everyone involved in the project attempted to reach the level of the original series.
Getting the band back together (kind of)
The obvious way to harness what made FLCL special would be to bring back as many of the original creators as possible. But while this was largely the sequels’ approach to music — The Pillows, the alt-rock band who provided the soundtrack for the first FLCL, returned for both new seasons, though other changes were made on the audio side of things — it generally wasn’t the case for everyone else.
For one thing, after years of Adult Swim and Production I.G. being interested in seeing more FLCL happen, Gainax — the studio that produced the original anime with Production I.G. — sold the rights to the series to their former co-producer, and Adult Swim came on board. But on top of that, though people who were part of the original creative team were involved in the sequels, the producers mostly opted to use new creators to get back to the show’s origins. As producer and Production I.G. USA President Maki Terashima-Furuta said in an interview for Toonami, despite starting out thinking they needed to enlist well-known names in anime, they ultimately decided to “bring in a new group of younger, passionate, motivated creators like [they] had back when [they] made [the first FLCL].”
Tsurumaki himself came up with this idea, which may have come from the fact that he was unable to direct the two follow-ups. According to DeMarco, when they first spoke with Tsurumaki about him returning to the series, he was uninterested, having done all he wanted to do with the first FLCL. However, he became “intrigued” at the prospect of coming back after they began meeting with him seriously. Because of his commitments to other projects, DeMarco thinks, Tsurumaki decided to only join the revival in a supervisor role. After acting in that capacity for about a year, he suggested the key piece of the puzzle.
”’Look, what you guys need to do is find the next generation of young people who have their own thing to say, who maybe haven’t even heard of FLCL — or maybe they have but they’re not afraid of telling their own version of this story — and just let go of the shackles of my version of this story,’” DeMarco recalled Tsurumaki saying, in a phone conversation with Polygon. “‘Because that’s the only way that it’s going to stay true to the spirit of FLCL.’”
To better align the sequels with the original series, the creative team decided to produce a self-contained, six-episode story like the first FLCL. But in order to justify the investment of time and money into relaunching something that had “been dormant for seventeen years,” they couldn’t just do six episodes, DeMarco explained. As a solution to this, Production I.G. proposed doing two, six-episode seasons with completely different show units, which unintentionally led to a degree of competition between the two that was similar to Gainax and Production I.G.’s relationship when they worked on the original anime.
”We felt like [the competition] would be a good thing because that’s kind of how the original FLCL started,” DeMarco said. “Some very talented people from Gainax and some talented people from I.G. sort of trying to outdo one another.”
Taking the Series in Old and New Directions
In the end, the new creators didn’t fully take Tsurumaki’s advice about “[letting go]” of “his” FLCL to heart. Though Progressive makes some moves into new territory — by focusing on a female character, Hidomi, instead of a male one, among other things — the implementation of these ideas feels familiar. Not only because much of the action is still centered on the alien woman Haruko’s desire to be with the Pirate King Atomsk, whatever that entails, but because aspects of the original series are reused while only being tweaked slightly, particularly in the first episode.
“The show unit decided exactly how they wanted [the first episode] to flow, and how much they wanted to reference existing things within the FLCL world,” the Adult Swim exec said, “like the Medical Mechanica irons and Haruko’s bass and stuff like that, and the horn, and someone getting hit by a vehicle, and I think that they themselves wanted to include those things because they were key moments they felt should be brought back but just done differently.”
While Progressive may only end up representing a small shift from the original series, though, the third season, Alternative, will supposedly be a bigger departure. “Alternative definitely does try to do something different in terms of story than the original,” DeMarco said. And based on the focus of the season, it’s easy to see why that might be the case.
Rather than examining “the beginnings of puberty” with middle school protagonists like FLCL and FLCL Progressive, DeMarco said that Alternative will center on high schoolers going through the “totally different kind of experience” of late adolescence. Going off of IGN’s article on Alternative’s premiere episode, the season will also show off a side of the typically selfish Haruko that we haven’t seen before, something which Progressive’s finale could help explain.
Contending with the Changing Times
Though DeMarco said the “show unit had total freedom to do whatever they wanted,” he touched on one factor that seemed to have forced the creators to deviate from the original FLCL: the changes that had taken place in the decade-plus since the original series ended. From the five episodes of Progressive that have been released, “updates” to make the show feel modern are small and don’t play a huge role in the story, except in the case of Hidomi’s light-up headphones. According to DeMarco, these kinds of changes were essential.
”We really just wanted the day-to-day lives of the characters to feel relevant to how young people actually experience the world,” DeMarco said in a follow-up email to Polygon. “The more ‘real’ the day-to-day, humdrum elements of the show feel, the more the nonsensical elements will stand out (hopefully)!”
The passage of time’s effects on the sequels weren’t limited to new things they had to include, however. DeMarco said they tried to steer away from subversive elements that were used previously in the series. He cited the appearance of a Nazi uniform in FLCL’s fifth episode as something they clearly had to avoid, if there was even a chance of that imagery coming up again. Changes were also made to the sexual content of the new project.
”We’re a little more tame than the original was because I think that social mores are different now. Obviously, it’s seventeen years later and what was appropriate for [an] adult woman to be doing to an adolescent boy [onscreen] then is less so now,” DeMarco told Polygon in the original interview.
”We did try to stick to the spirit of particularly Haruko,” he added later, “because what activates what they call the N.O. in the show [the ability to “call” things through people’s heads, at the very least,] [are] feelings of sexuality or feelings of romantic longing, so it’s just embedded in the show’s DNA, and we didn’t want to turn from that for sure.”
Considering our current IP-driven, streaming-ready landscape — which was one of the reasons Adult Swim was particularly interested in seeing a revival happen now, according to DeMarco — it seems unlikely that Alternative will be the last we see of FLCL if the sequels attract an audience. But would the creators even be interested in telling more stories in that universe? And after three seasons, how would they reinvigorate the franchise again?
”Tsurumaki might be done with his Evangelion movie in the next couple years, and then maybe I can finally convince him to come back and let him take another crack at what he worked on when he was young and come at it from the point of view of being older and wiser,” DeMarco said. “Obviously there are some people who disagree with me, but I think there’s aspects of this world to continue exploring through different lenses that would make more FLCLs worthwhile. But it all depends on the creative team and what ideas they came up with.”
For now, though, DeMarco has simple hopes for the sequels. “I hope [that Progressive and Alternative] [illuminate] some part of [the viewers’] past like the original did…in terms of growing up and those feelings we all have of learning who we are and learning our sexuality, whatever that may be,” he said. “I also hope that they’re just entertained. Look, for me, it’s a victory if someone watches it and doesn’t feel like we wasted their time. [If] they don’t feel like this is a stain on FLCL’s legacy, then I did a good job.”
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity. FLCL: Progressive is currently airing on Toonami, and new episodes are available for streaming on the Adult Swim website. Only an English dub is available at this time.