Flip Flappers – 01-03 Review
Guess, somebody’s watched Mad Max: Fury Road…
Flip Flappers 01-03: Take a teenager who doesn’t enjoy life, lives in a weird world and then catapult them into the center of the universe, figuratively. It’s certainly one hell of a way to grow up, I guess. Cocona, a girl who lives a comfortable life with her weird grandma, suddenly gets thrown into the world of Pure Illusion. With her new friend Papika and some robot called Bu-chan they do the usual adventuring in order to weird jewels that make wishes come true. Of course, that isn’t of much value to Cocona who still has no idea what to do with her life. Thankfully, the world of Pure Illusion is a nice distraction from having to deal with that.
Well, at least, this time around the protagonist isn’t some whiny brat with a milquetoast-y personality.
The beginning of Alice in Wonderland sees Alice chasing a rabbit down a hole without considering the consequences or showing awareness of the strange world waiting at the end of it. Cocona has a very similar experience in these first three episodes. Entering a strange world called Pure Illusion she has gone on three very dangerous adventures so far. The comparison with Alice in Wonderland is especially apt since the strangeness of this series ranges from uncanny to grotesque, similar to Alice’s story.
Despite the apparent strangeness that colors a lot of the series’ plot-developments, there are a lot of familiar tropes present as well. Cocona’s character-motivation is the most familiar route of every coming-of-age-story. What pushes her forward is the simple quest for identity and purpose. Figuring out what her place is in life and what she’s living for are familiar story-beats for characterizing a teenager. Add to that the usual school-setting that comes with its own trove of tropes that get used without hesitation in these two episodes (transfer-student, for example) and the strangeness ends up seeming less oppressive than you’d think. In addition, the revelations at the end of episode 03 already start to undermine a lot of the strangeness in the earlier episodes and take away from the initial charm of the series.
Said strangeness of this series is an enigma as well as a way to illuminate the essential nature of the setting. It’s an enigma in so far as it’s turning plot-points into question marks. Cocona’s strange house and the groundhog-day-esque awakening-cycle are opportunities for curiosity. Meanwhile, the adventure of the second episode is strange for the sake of illumination. Could there be a reason for why Uxekull turned into a protective, male guardian-figure? Why was the vacuum-cleaner an access-point to the Pure-Illusion world? But these questions seem less necessary and more like a fanciful resistance against plot-logic. And with the start of episode 03 the whole thing has already started to feel like an indulgence of the series instead of an intricate storytelling-device.
The lack of purpose is what takes away from the strangeness. What’s familiar in the series doesn’t clash with the weird. Instead, it just feels like another escape towards the fanciful and weird and away from the mundanity of daily life. And all the mysteries of the world are just hurdles keeping Cocona away from self-actualization.
Finding the familiar in the grotesque is where weird stories like David Lynch’s movies for example shine. The way Mulholland Drive deals with the artificiality of Hollywood is bizarre but poignant. It’s the elements that make the series so familiar that matter in this comparison. In David Lynch’s movies the strangeness intrudes into the characters’ world as a dark force (with a few exceptions) and changes the world they see and live in accordingly. But Cocona’s place in the series’ world isn’t so solid that the appearance of Papika becomes a disturbance. Here, it feels like liberation and the strange seems fantastic (in the idealistic sense) instead of threatening and alienating. There’s no loss and anxiety accompanying the intrusion of the strangeness. Rather, it’s that intrusion which seems to invigorate Cocona’s life.
Where the series shines the brightest is in how it presents the strange as a spectacle. It isn’t just the visuals that matter here but the absurdity and grotesqueness that permeates the world of Flip Flappers. In the first episode, Cocona and Papika arrive in a parallel dimension that’s covered in sweet snow and in which only giant slug-like creatures live. The true standout-moment for me was, though, when the robot got damaged and Cocona tries to repair it. They open the robot and find a human brain. And they just close it while making some deadpan joke about how they have no idea how to repair such a robot. This is the series’ strangeness at its best: Instead of pointing out how strange something is or try to rationalize the strangeness, the characters simply accept it. Because imagine if Cocona had opened the robot and had discovered overly complicated circuitry. The scene could still work the same way but the unexpected sight of an actual brain is what sells the joke as well as adds to the general strangeness of the series’ world. Sadly, such moments of genuine weirdness are rare so far.
But what is actually happening in the series? That’s the most difficult thing to grasp so far. Both the villain and the apocalypse don’t seem to threaten the somewhat normal world. The girls are supposed to gather shiny stones which grant wishes. And whenever the girls transform as well as when they’re able to go to the other dimension it’s because of strong emotions and desires. Of course, that ties into the whole self-actualization-topic again as the stones don’t respond to just any desire but only the strongest (read: purest).
All in all, Flip Flappers has done enough so far to seem interesting but not enough to be captivating. And it has the potential to be the latter. What stands in its way is everything generic that sadly seems to be the groundwork for whatever story is about to unfold. The third episode already showed some inspired visual ideas but was accompanied by a predictable story.
An important part of the series’ imagery so far is how often characters go into hidden places whenever they’re about to enter the world of Pure Illusion.
It isn’t the presence of the school and other generic elements that make this series seem so tepid but in the way, those elements are used within the story. Despite the fact that Cocona is an outsider who takes little interest in school besides getting good grades and not standing out, the school is still treated like some sort of refuge of normalcy, for example. The willingness to escape that kind of normalcy doesn’t always have to come from boredom (as in this case) or escapism (every average straight-laced or perverted male teenager who escapes into fantasy to become a hero is an example of that). Even if the overfamiliarity of these tropes doesn’t bore you, I’m pretty sure that the relationship between average teenagers and school is more complex than what animes normally do with that. And this series doesn’t try to find strangeness in its mundane story aspects but rather tries to find the mundane in its stranger elements.
But that’s the decisive question for this series: How much does it want to embrace its stranger elements compared to simply relying on its more familiar tropes? No matter how much strange spectacle the series may throw at the audience, it still may end up feeling “normal”. And the third episode has already started down the path of making this series seem generic. That’s the danger this series currently faces. Sure, too much strangeness might alienate parts of the audience but this is the realm this series has stepped into with its first three episodes. In its better moments, it kinda reminds me of these weird animes that came out in the 90s post-Evangelion, like Soul Taker for example. But after three episodes, I’m frankly starting to lose interest. Whatever the series had in those first two episodes is strangely absent in the third episode. The series needs to materialize its stakes and essential conflict in the fourth episode. Even if the series wants to be chaotic in its visual choices and use that to their advantage by creating a sense of spectacle, ultimately the whole thing needs to be about something. And so far, that ‘something’ isn’t really present.
- So far, the story-beats of the series have remained familiar but regarding the strangeness, a pattern is definitely forming. I’m talking about this here because the story has done little to address that or have characters think about it. One element is the name of the other world “Pure Illusion”. There certainly are illusions happening but instead of the fantastic worlds hiding things, they reveal things. The ice-hills which turned out to be giant slugs, the bunny in the second episode and the third episode had a villain who had disguised herself as well as Cocona had a mask that supposedly showed her true feelings. It all amounts to the idea that nothing is what you think it is. Now, the series can go very dark with this (everything is a lie in some way or other but the protagonist can’t do anything about it) or the series goes with the usual world-kei-route (the problems of the protagonist are deeply tied to the mysteries of the world and both get resolved at the same time).
- I wonder if there’s any deeper meaning to the harem of the villain in the third episode. Is that something you do with those stones Papika and Cocona collect? Do you use them to create little “paradises” for yourself and that’s how all the worlds in Pure Illusion came into existence?