FOOLY COOLY first aired as a six-episode OVA in Japan. The show performed well in Japan but didn’t become an overseas cult classic until it aired on Adult Swim in August 2003. Since then, FLCL gained critical and commercial acclaim alike, winning “Best Comedy Series” and “Best Short Series” at the first-ever American Anime Awards in 2007. Almost 20 years later, FLCL is back. The second season, FLCL PROGRESSIVE, aired in June of 2018 and received similar praise to the show’s first. A few months later, Adult Swim released the third season, FLCL ALTERNATIVE, and it’s the best season of FOOLY COOLY so far.

That’s right folks, I said it. The third season, produced by Adult Swim, Production I.G & Toho, is the current best season of FOOLY COOLY. “But how,” you might be asking yourselves, “can FLCL ALTERNATIVE be the best?! It had the least action!” Be at ease, fellow anime fan; director Yutaka Uemura gave us something much more meaningful than action. He gave us a window into our adolescent pasts.

Breathing New Life into FLCL

It’s no secret why fans love FOOLY COOLY. It reminds us that shows are allowed to cut loose and have a good time. With the amount of acclaim heaped on shows that glorify drama, it’s easy to understand why so few shows are willing to have fun with their audience. FLCL is willing to let loose and poke fun at itself, bringing us back to the days of cereal and Saturday morning cartoons. In its broadest sense, the show is about the antics that ensue whenever intergalactic traveler Haruko Haruhara visits the boring old town of Mabase. Spoiler-alert, it usually involves alien robots popping out of teenagers’ foreheads.

Haruko from FLCL ALTERNATIVE squishing us between her fingers.
Haruko crushing us between her fingers. | Image: IMDb

When FLCL PROGRESSIVE came out, I was thrilled! The sequel did well to honor its predecessor, hitting a lot of the same narrative beats. As a fan, I was treated to something familiar. However, the more I watched, the more I realized that the second season was too familiar. While it was nice to see more of the show I loved, I would have preferred something new, especially considering the new cast of characters that was introduced in the sequel. Unfortunately, it felt like FLCL PROGRESSIVE cared more about honoring its source material than establishing its own identity, making it feel hollow.

That’s when FLCL ALTERNATIVE stepped in. Any critic of the third season would scrutinize its lack of spontaneity and action. I celebrate it. Writer Hideto Iwai took a bold step away from the silliness FLCL was known for. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of bits throughout the arc that could make anyone laugh, but it didn’t feel like the narrative was dictated by silly antics. Instead, Iwai drew us in by offering human characters that almost anyone can relate to.

Something We Cherish

FLCL ALTERNATIVE follows the story of Kana Koumoto and her group of friends who are just finishing high school. Besides the introduction of luxury space travel, everything in their world is normal. After school, the group of girls loves to get together and have fun. The kind of fun that’s carefree, and only possible without adult responsibility. That is until Haruko Haruhara shows up and starts fighting the soldiers of Medical Mechanica. All of a sudden, things are changing at a rate that Kana doesn’t feel comfortable with.

Readers who haven’t seen the show would probably assume that the change I’m referring to has something to do with alien robots. It doesn’t. No, the thing that Kana fears most throughout the story is growing up. In fact, coping with adulthood is this show’s main source of conflict. In the past two seasons, the adolescent themes only served the subplot. The focus was always on Haruko and her intergalactic escapades. Here, the action takes a back seat to the interpersonal stories that take place in the halls of Mabase High School.

Kana and her friends from FLCL ALTERNATIVE all lying down together.
Kana and her friends bonding after class. | Image: Adult Swim

Iwai writes these characters with extreme precision. The dialogue is good enough to make them feel real. Instead of cramming exposition down our throats every two seconds, the writer lets us make our own discoveries. This leaves a lot of room for the dialogue to be organic. The conversations between characters usually revolve around gossip or banter. One of my favorite scenes was about the girls making a bottle rocket after school. Why make a bottle rocket? Why not? Through these silly interactions, we get a sense of who the characters are without being told directly, making it much more rewarding when we find out for ourselves.

FLCL ALTERNATIVE is Itself Alternative

The title of this season reflects the show’s change in emphasis. Not only does the plot move in a more subtle direction, but the tone does as well. Without as many comedic skits, we get to see the animation in a more serious context. This isn’t a serious show, it just isn’t trying to be as random as its predecessors. As a result, transitions feel smoother.

Speaking of transitions, the only character that appears in every season is Haruko. She’ll come to Mabase, fight some Medical Mechanica robots, get involved in debauchery, and be on her merry way. In FLCL ALTERNATIVE, Haruko didn’t appear in as many scenes. Although I like her as a character, the constant shenanigans she gets into can get old after a while. Her relegation to the supporting cast this season gave some new characters the chance to carry the story forward, offering the plot a fresh perspective.

Haruko from FLCL ALTERNATIVE aiming her guitar gun off frame.
Haruko aiming her guitar gun! | Image: IGN

Cutting some of Haruko’s scenes was a risk that paid off. It felt like she had matured since her past two visits to Mabase, adding depth to an otherwise one-dimensional character. More often than not, she’s providing Kana with guidance, albeit in her own way. For example, when Kana developed a crush on the manager of the basketball team, Haruko began flirting with him relentlessly. Not thinking much of it at the time, I’d assumed Haruko was up to her old selfish antics. However, it is later revealed that Haruko only did that to frustrate Kana to the point where she’d let the boy know how she felt. For once, we got to see Haruko act out of kindness instead of self-interest.

A Must Watch

FLCL ALTERNATIVE is a series high. With fewer antics and a bit more interpersonal conflict, everything seems to click into place. Even the score from The Pillows (although it always sounds great) sounded better in a more emotional context. It makes sense; alternative rock often appeals to our emotional sensibilities. As does this season. Director Yutaka Uemura gave us characters and a conflict that we can relate to. FLCL ALTERNATIVE is all about fighting the future. Whether that future involves fighting alien invaders or a close friend moving away, FOOLY COOLY’s third season reminds us that change is inevitable, no matter how scary that might be. The emotional pungency surrounding that conflict is universal and unavoidable, which is why this season is so incredibly good.

Haruko sitting next to Kana from FLCL ALTERNATIVE.
Haruko and Kana. | Image: IMDb

Don’t believe me? Watch FLCL ALTERNATIVE for yourself! The six-episode season ran on Toonami from September 8 to October 18 and can be streamed on the Adult Swim website. For more on FOOLY COOLY, check out our interview with Kari Wahlgren (the voice of Haruko) here!

Feature Image Courtesy of Adult Swim.

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