The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince anime fans that the direct-to-video series FLCL (aka Fooly Cooly) was a comedy. Oh sure, it’s got all the trappings: vivid, eccentric characters; fast-paced, hyperbolic animation; and a robot with a severe case of diarrhea. But look past the toilet gags, satirical references, and occasional bits of fanservice, and it isn’t hard to discover a darkness that subsumes the series.
And if you have any questions about how far down into the depths a series can descend while maintaining its clownish façade, all you need do is look at FLCL’s third episode, “Maru Raba,” otherwise known as “Marquis de Carabas.”
There’s a stoic, young girl sitting in the back seat of a car, being driven to school by her father’s secretary. The girl is Ninamori, child of privilege and influence and, as class president, of no little power herself. Except she isn’t feeling very privileged, influential, or powerful at the moment—a trashy newsletter has just revealed that her father, the mayor, is having an affair with the self-same secretary behind the car’s wheel, and Ninamori’s parents have now informed her that they will soon be divorcing. The girl’s putting on a brave face—the secretary compliments her on how mature she’s being, not the only time that word will be applied—but it’s not hard to notice how tightly Ninamori clutches a paper bag containing a costume for the school play, Puss in Boots, in which she’s the star. For the girl, the play is more than just another class activity; with her life in turmoil, it’s become a desperate bid to regain control of a world she feels slipping out of her grasp. Sadly for Ninamori, her own efforts—and forces outside of her power—are about to make things worse. Much, much worse.
Kids grappling with a world of which they’re only now becoming cognizant, and for which an anticipated support structure is nowhere to be found, is a key theme of FLCL, both for Ninamori in this episode and more generally for the show’s actual protagonist, Naota Nandaba. An adolescent looking askance at impending adulthood, Naota’s skeptical nature isn’t helped when he’s one day accosted by a sexy, female alien who drives up on her Vespa scooter, beats him over the head with a Rickenbacker bass (thanks to the incredible work of animation director Tadashi Hiramatsu, this looks less silly than it reads), and opens up a dimensional portal in his head, from which robots now emerge. (It’s subsequently explained that Naota’s skull has become hollow, which is as apt a description of male adolescence as any.) The alien, Haruko Haruhara, is subsequently hired as a maid by Naota’s horndog father—who, by the way, is also an amateur publisher and the sole journalist for the rag that dropped the dime on Ninamori’s father—and hornier-doggier grandfather. More distressingly, she also becomes Naota’s roommate, the better to keep tabs on the boy and his new, robot-spawning abilities, primarily but not exclusively for the purpose of engaging the automatons in pitched battle.
FLCL initially appears to be a send-up of the anime-style coming-of-age tale, in which boy meets giant robot, boy discovers a special ability to pilot giant robot, boy assumes the responsibilities of adulthood while deploying his special robot-piloting abilities in defense of family, nation, planet, whatever. The show’s producers, Gainax, previously poked holes in the genre in the controversial TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion, in which the young robot jockey struggles to rise to the expectations of his uncaring father, and never quite gets there. (The final episode of the series caused such a ruckus that the director shaved his head as a gesture of contrition and subsequently released a feature film revision.) But if Evangelion deconstructed the coming of age formula, FLCL turns it completely on its head. It’s not just that Naota’s Very Special Robot regularly swallows up the less-than-dedicated boy in order to turn into a large, enemy-robot-blasting cannon—only to shit the kid out when done—it’s that the whole of society seems rigged to prevent its youth from reaching the maturation that should be their due. When the adults aren’t acting like overgrown children—Naota’s teacher is prone to tantrums and is less adept at chopsticks than her young charges; his father, Kamon, devolves into a mass of sniggering glee in the mere presence of a woman—the elders seem hellbent on pushing their nascent teens back to the sandbox, if not all the way back to the cradle. No wonder Naota and friend and classmate Ninamori have their doubts about what awaits them on the other side of puberty.
In “Marquis de Carabas,” Naota’s more immediate problem is that he’s been conscripted by class vote into playing Puss in Boots to Ninamori’s also-democratically-elected Marquis, and he’s having none of it. “School plays are for little kids!” he whines. “We are little kids, including you,” Ninamori snaps back, letting her mask of maturity slip a bit. (For the purposes of this article, the dialogue referenced will be from the Funimation English dub widely viewed on Adult Swim. Some puns and nuances are lost in this version, but by and large it’s faithful to the subtitled dialogue.) Compounding the problem is that Naota has started manifesting the signs of the next robot to spring from his head. Ironically, the protrusions take the shape of large, furry cat ears.
Ninamori only discovers this when Haruko, recklessly piloting her scooter, plows into the two kids, knocking Naota’s camouflaging hat off his head and, in a vertiginous bullet-time shot that director Kazuya Tsurumaki admits exists merely because he could do it, gets the youths very close to kissing before Ninamori’s skull clonks resolutely against Naota’s, knocking him unconscious. Espying Ninamori curiously fondling the comatose boy’s feline appendages, Haruko issues a telling, do-not-stray-from-the-path warning: “A young girl like you shouldn’t touch it with your bare hands.” Too late—Ninamori doubles over in pain. She claims the cramping’s in her stomach, but it’s not hard to imagine her discomfort as a harbinger for another, more significant milestone in a young woman’s life.
Reluctant to return to her soon-to-be-divided home, Ninamori instead elects to stay the night at Naota’s. While there, she expresses curiosity at the presence of Naota’s robot—whom Haruko has subdued and domesticated into a housekeeper—and shares a supper of packaged curry with the family (the adults get extra-spicy; Ninamori, pointedly, gets a sweet kid’s brand; while Naota, just as pointedly, has his plate heaped with something that looks suspiciously like an especially healthy pile o’ poop (complete with stink lines!). She’s also obligated to ignore the fawning of Kamon, who appears to be as discomfited by having the repercussions of his investigative journalism sitting at his dinner table as he is concerned about getting his ass sued for Haruko’s lousy driving. Ninamori manages to take the man’s probings in stride—“I don’t think it’s any big deal,” she responds, blandly, repeatedly, to the interrogation, but it’s clear the mantra is meant as much to serve as inward palliative as an outward deflection.
And it’s here, midpoint through the story, that we come to two scenes, one right after the other, that transport “Marquis de Carabas” from farce into something notably darker and more despairing. In the first, Kamon visits Ninamori as she bathes herself. “Do you think I’m a bad person?” he asks, hovering outside the open bathroom window. When Ninamori, a little too pragmatically, absolves him of his sins, he compliments her on her maturity (there’s that word again), and then, paradoxically, reaches in through the window to hand the girl a shampoo hat—a scalloped, rubber ring put on babies’ heads to keep soap from going into their eyes. Discomfort comes from all directions in this scene, from Kamon’s intrusion on Ninamori’s privacy (we never see his face, but a reverse camera angle from outside suggests he’s looking in through the window as the girl covers herself), to Ninamori’s Spock-like analysis of why the man’s exposé was in the end a good thing, to Kamon’s futile attempt, after plying the girl with sweet, kiddy curry, to further push her back to a childhood innocence she’ll never be able to re-attain.
If that scene begins to drop hints at what Ninamori has lost in the brief span of a day, the next, set in Naota’s bedroom, maps out the devastation in heartbreaking fashion. Wearing eyeglasses she otherwise hides at school through the use of contact lenses (and noting offhand that Naota’s pajamas are way too small for her—a real confidence-builder, this kid), Ninamori confesses that she rigged the class vote so that she would be cast as the lead of the school play, while Naota would be her co-star. “You’re Puss in Boots, the one who tricks the prince,” she says, daring to grasp the boy’s hand while leaning provocatively toward him on his bed. “He hides who he really is and pretends to be someone else forever. But in time he becomes that person, so his lie becomes the truth… That’s how he finds happiness.” And while she muddles the story a bit (Puss actually tricks a king into thinking his master, a humble miller, is the Marquis de Carabas, and worthy of marriage to the king’s daughter), her intent is finally, painfully evident.
But it’s when she explains her rationale for presuming she could get away with this crime—“They wouldn’t think the class president would do a thing like that…”—that the full measure of Ninamori’s corruption comes clear. In the wake of trauma, she’s learned a valuable life-lesson from the behavior of her father. It just happens to be the wrong lesson.
Naota, still harboring concerns about taking on the responsibilities of adulthood, wants nothing to do with this, even when Ninamori, on the day of the school play, angrily reveals that all these machinations are to maneuver her parents into seeing the play together. The conflict between the two kids is cut short, though, when Naota’s magic robot-spawning head-portal finally fully activates. Unfortunately, due to his earlier collision with Ninamori’s noggin, the function has been transferred to the girl, and poor, emotionally battered Ninamori now has to bear the physical turmoil of sprouting an automaton from her skull (while just coincidentally getting a preview of another purportedly joyous milestone in a woman’s life). Turns out those cat ears are two leg-tips of a tripodal (and, because of their fuzziness, maybe insectoid?), mollusk-like robot. Regrettably for Ninamori, the birthing process is not quite as refined as with Naota, and the machine fails to fully detach from the girl’s head. (One of the more disturbing images of the episode has the blank-eyed Ninamorobot grappling Naota with her flailing legs, pulling the boy, face-first, into her crotch.) It’s Haruko, in battling the robot, who manages to dislodge the girl, albeit in the most mortifying fashion possible, by accidentally spilling Naota’s lunch—more curry!—into the machine’s gaping maw, with the resulting defecatory repercussions forcing Ninamori from the robot’s hold (while also baptizing the child in, um, not nice stuff).
After all the horrors, psychic and physical, visited upon Ninamori over the course of an episode, its resolution, delivered in voice-over by Naota, is comically glib: The girl’s father will not be charged for his crimes, and the much-feared divorce is no longer in the offing. Naota acquiesces to donning the cat suit, and the final scene shows Ninamori alone on-stage, basking in her curtain call. So…happy ending.
Nah, not really. There’s one more indication that Ninamori’s world has been definitively and inextricably altered: When Naota notes that the girl is taking her bows while wearing her glasses, she pokes a finger through the empty frames and responds, “They’re fake.”
“Until now, she’d been lying to herself, trying to be a leader and grown-up,” says director Tsurumaki in his audio commentary. “Even though she’s still a kid, she would play a grown up, and she lived in a lie, deceiving herself. But Ninamori has changed from this experience. Setting aside the idea of whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, rather than fooling yourself, it’s better to fool others. It’s a little more adult. By doing that, she can have a better life.” So, yeah, a triumph, of sorts. But, upon reflection, a truly soul-withering one.
“Marquis de Carabas” represents the psychological valley of FLCL’s six-episode arc. In the next episode, Haruko will dragoon Naota into taking agency in his life, albeit for her own, selfish reasons. From there, the series will wend its way back to the expected coming-of-age path, although its protagonist will still face pushback to his growth from nearly all corners. Within its own boundaries, though, “Marquis de Carabas” serves as a worst-case counterpart to the series’ overall optimistic arc, about a girl seeking to regain control of her world, and achieving her goals in a way that, when you think about it from the psychic standpoint, is downright horrific. That it comes wrapped in a brightly colored, happily ’toony package, with raucous, frequently rude humor and truly brilliant animation (by the formidable anime studio Production I.G), only makes the depths to which the tale descends land with an especially affecting impact. The girl may have found her way by learning the value of fooling others, but we’ve had our eyes opened to the steep price she pays.
Dan Persons has been knocking about the genre media beat for, oh, a good handful of years, now. He’s presently house critic for the radio show Hour of the Wolf on WBAI 99.5FM in New York, and previously was editor of Cinefantastique and Animefantastique, as well as producer of news updates for The Monster Channel. He is also founder of Anime Philadelphia, a program to encourage theatrical screenings of Japanese animation. And you should taste his One Alarm Chili! Wow!