Emotion and Repression in FLCL Progressive

The recently concluded FLCL Progressive had a tough task, being the official sequel to a wildly inventive anime series whose reputation has only grown over the 18 years since its initial release. That it didn’t live up to that task in many fans’ eyes is perhaps not surprising. I was, however, interested in the series’ thematic arc and what it has to say about emotion and desire.

In essence, FLCL Progressive sketches a dichotomy between emotional repression and expression. The series’s protagonist Hidomi is all repression. She wears her headphones constantly, creating a barrier between herself and the world. She is quiet, rarely expressing much in the way of emotion and desire. In one episode, where her headphones begin drilling into her brain, she moves to the opposite pole, becoming manic and overly affectionate. We can see the Terminator-like form she assumes in the final episodes as another move to the pole of emotional expression, as her repressed anger forces its way to the surface. Hidomi, in other words, cannot find a happy medium, a way to express her emotions and desires without being consumed by them. Haruko, the main carryover from the first series, similarly embodies the repression/expression dichotomy. She is literally split into two bodies: a blonde teacher overflowing with sexual desire and impulsive emotion, and a stoic white-haired woman named Jinyu who is desperate to contain the desires of the other side. Haruko, particularly in her blonde incarnation, is driven by her unrequited love for Atomsk, who never appears. Her inability to rationally respond to her desires leads to conflict and chaos.

We can see the relationship between Hidomii’s classmate Mori and his rent-a-date Aiko in the same light. Mori’s emotional desires — both his longing for romantic love and his desire for the acknowledgement of his peers — allow him to be exploited by the cold and calculating Aiko. On the other hand, Aiko’s need to separate her performance of love from her real self leads to her denial of real affection for Mori and his friends. This is all tied into her family’s rehabilitation of the robot Canti somehow, but I haven’t quite figured that out yet.

The original FLCL also dealt with this topic, but did so through the lens of puberty. The emotions Naota had to deal with were those stemming from his emerging sexual desire and maturity, represented by the phallic horn growing out of his forehead. I don’t think this is the case in Progressive, at least not primarily. For one thing, the teens in Progressive appear a bit older than Naota and his classmates. In the first episode, Haruko shows Hidomi porn in class, to no response. While this is indicative of Hidomi’s repression and Haruko’s attempt to draw her out of it, the scene also suggests that the desires Hibojiri is struggling to express are not chiefly sexual. And while Haruko’s lusty joy for life serves as a model for Naota to emulate in the original FLCL, Progressive suggests that it is just as immature as Hidomi’s repression.

Ultimately, both Haruko and Hidomi need to attain a synthesis of emotion and restraint. We begin to see signs of this solution when Haruko re-absorbs Jinyu into her body, regaining the pink hair colour we recognize from the original series. In the finale, after duking it out, the two both kiss Canti, and come to simultaneous epiphanies that lead them away from their emotional extremes. Haruko realizes that Atomsk will never return her affection — in other words, that she’s been lead astray by her unchecked desire and emotion. Hidomi’s headphones crack, and she is finally able to express her love for friends and family. And Aiko, uh, turns into a plant. Like I said, I haven’t entirely figured her role out.

If you’ve ever studied Freud, or read his Wikipedia page, this might sound a little familiar. In Freudian psychoanalysis, the mind is composed of three parts: id, superego and ego. The id is the selfish lizard-brain that is only desire and instant reaction, while the superego is a socially-provided sense of restraint. The ego is the conscious force that navigates between these two contrary desires and makes decisions. Maturity is all about developing a healthy ego that can both maintain healthy relationships with others and function in a capitalist society without becoming either a miser or an addict.

In FLCL Progressive, Hidomi is all superego and Haruko all ego. True to form, Hidomi’s eventual resolution of the crisis marks her return to the social norms of both family creation and the economy: she tells her Mom that she’ll help out with the shop more, and it’s suggested that she will now begin a romantic relationship with Ide. By developing an ego that can resist the withholding demands of the superego, she becomes a productive member of society with all that entails.

And yet there is something unsatisfying about this narrative. Reception towards the new season of FLCL have been mixed to negative, and while there are plenty of other factors involved (the confusing release, rushed animation, 18 years of nostalgia, and the fact that we all had to watch the dub), I think that this core thematic narrative has something to do with the indifference that’s greeted the new series.

These days, there’s not a lot of call for narratives of emotional moderation and discretion. Any call to restrict desire is suspected, not without reason, as being an instrument of repression from above. After all, shouldn’t we embrace our full fury at the wretched world around us, and express our loves and lust with all their intensities and complexities? (Of course, in the age of social media call-outs we may need to exercise our superego quite a bit, but we’re not supposed to admit that we have any problematic desires to restrain.) As Freud’s books turn yellow and musty, we are moving away from a singular model of healthy development and towards one that imagines a diverse array of healthy emotional presentations — that may include, say, wearing your headphones everywhere or being a manic guitar player.

Despite all its apparent randomness, I hope I’ve shown that FLCL Progressive actually has a solid emotional core with larger thematic and philosophic resonance. But, despite being well-formed, this story is perhaps one that is at odds with how we now understand the world and ourselves.

A guy hiding underground shouting at the TV.