‘I Like You’

Desire for the Alien Other in FLCL

Satoko Kakihara, Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, California State University, Fullerton [About | Email]

Volume 17, Issue 2 (Article 5 in 2017). First published in ejcjs on 27 August 2017.


Japanese anime has been broadcast on non-Japanese television networks since the 1960s, yielding much scholarship about it. As anime works co-produced between Japanese and non-Japanese companies also have increased since the 1980s, power dynamics behind such co-productions deserve more attention as well. This article examines the anime series FLCL (2000–2001), which has led to Japan-U.S.A. co-productions of additional seasons. Considering the mutually profitable business relationship between animation studio Production I.G of Japan and Cartoon Network of the United States of America, the article shows how FLCL presents a relationship of desire and (re)production between self and Other on two levels: among its female and male protagonists, and between the Japanese cultural production and its U.S.A. consumers. The article argues that the original FLCL capitalises on the ideology of Cool Japan, which hinges on Japan’s self-exoticisation to non-Japanese markets, by reinforcing its circular power dynamic of self-Othering and Other-desiring.

Keywords: FLCL, anime, Orientalism, self-exoticisation, Other.


There was a buzz of excitement in the Internet sphere when the United States of America’s Adult Swim announced in late March of 2016 that it would co-produce, with Japan’s Production I.G, the second and third seasons of the Japanese anime series FLCL. Originally released in Japan from April 2000 to March 2001 and directed by Tsurumaki Kazuya, FLCL (also Romanised as Fooly Cooly) is an anime work that blends comedy, science fiction, and coming-of-age story, defying categorisation into a single genre and appealing to a wide range of viewers. The announcement of a FLCL sequel—not just one, but two seasons—raised many questions in the minds of Japanese anime fans: Will we again see Naota, the protagonist of the original series? Will the band ‘the pillows’ perform on the soundtrack? Most importantly, will Haruko come to reclaim her Rickenbacker 4001 Azureglo, the bass guitar with which she slugged Naota in their first encounter with each other?

Japanese anime has been broadcast on television networks outside of Japan since the 1960s, yielding much scholarship about it. As anime works co-produced between Japanese and non-Japanese companies also have increased since the 1980s, power dynamics behind such co-productions deserve more attention as well. This article begins to fill the gap by examining the Japanese anime series FLCL, which has led to the Japan-U.S.A. co-production of seasons two and three, to be released at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, respectively. In considering the mutually profitable business relationship between animation studio Production I.G and the U.S.A. cable channel Cartoon Network (which includes the programming block of Adult Swim), this article shows how FLCL presents a relationship of desire and (re)production between self and Other on two levels: first, among its female and male protagonists, and second, between the Japanese cultural production and its Western consumers. The article argues that the original series of FLCL (which establishes a base for the upcoming co-productions) capitalises on the ideology of Cool Japan, which hinges on Japan’s self-exoticisation to a non-Japanese market within a long history of Western Orientalism and Japan’s relations with figures of the Other, by reinforcing the ideology’s circular power dynamic of self-Othering and Other-desiring.

The article begins by discussing the significance of anime as an object of academic and popular analysis, suggesting that accessibility and inaccessibility (in the multiple meanings of those terms) influence the quantity of such analysis. It then explains the ideology of Cool Japan, putting it in conversation with bell hooks’s idea of ‘eating the other.’ The article then discusses the business model of a co-production in the entertainment industry, which complicates notions of national marketing and profit. As its main content, the article analyses the original series of FLCL, examining its characters and the relationships among them, as well as the politics between the production and its consumers, to argue that FLCL furthers an Orientalist dynamic among nations.

FLCL: Anime and Incomprehensibility

Anime is a form of popular (and pop) culture well known both in Japan and abroad, which has gained more legitimacy as an object of academic analysis in recent years. In Japan, the word ‘anime’ is used to refer to any cultural product that is animated, including Disney films and television shows such as the U.S.A. series The Boondocks and the French series Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir. Outside of Japan, however, the label stirs debate—such as when the moderators of the online forum /r/anime (dedicated to discussions about anime and hosted on the U.S.A. social network aggregation site Reddit) stated that, on the forum, anime was a nomenclature reserved only for works that are ‘an animated series, produced and aired in Japan, intended for a Japanese audience’ (/r/anime). They thus refused to acknowledge as anime a music video produced by Japanese animation studio A-1 Pictures and U.S.A. electronic musician Porter Robinson, for a song that the latter had produced with French musician Madeon (D’Anastasio, 2016). The moderators deleted threads about the music video, emphasising that a work co-created between a Japanese studio and a U.S.A. artist cannot, by (their) definition, be considered anime.

Academic discussions in English use the term ‘anime’ to refer to Japanese texts and use the term ‘animation’ to refer to (or include) texts of other national origins—even though both types of texts are of the animation medium. Such discussions about anime arise from numerous disciplines, from Japanese studies and anthropology to media studies and gender studies. In 2001 Susan Napier published Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke, followed by a second edition in 2005 that was retitled Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle. (The titles reference specific films to signal the timeframe of the books’ discussions, focusing on anime works released between the year 1988, when AKIRA was released, and the years 1997 and 2004, when the two referenced films directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli were released.) Napier’s work is the first academic monograph about anime published in English, and it is often used as a textbook for anime classes taught at U.S.A. universities. In 2009 Thomas Lamarre published The Anime Machine, examining Japanese anime using a media theory framework. He argues in his work that, even when analysing social and cultural issues in anime, analysis must remain grounded in ‘the facts of animation,’ that animation is a series of moving images (Lamarre, 2009). More recently, Ian Condry published in 2013 The Soul of Anime, in which he discusses the significance of collaborative creativity in the Japanese anime and wider media industries, describing the multiple layers of labour in anime production that are provided by studios as well as individual creators and fans. He concludes that ‘the greater the circulation [of anime] is, the more value is created’ (Condry, 2013). In addition to these monographs, journals such as Animation and Mechademia offer venues for intellectual discussions about anime and other forms of Japanese popular culture, including the Japanese comic book form of manga.

Certain anime works and directors receive more attention as objects of analyses than do others in these academic discussions. Examples of oft-discussed works are those by Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, responsible for the films referenced by Napier’s book titles as well as the film Spirited Away (2001), which became the first non-U.S.A. film to receive the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2002, the second year that the award was given out (e.g., Moist and Bartholow, 2007; Rifa-Valls, 2011). In addition, although Daisuke Miyao (2002) has discussed anime works from before the Pacific War, scholarly discussions about anime and manga often begin with examinations of the postwar work of manga artist and anime director Tezuka Osamu (1928–1989), who in 1951 created Mighty Atom (known as Astro Boy in the United States of America) (Szasz and Takechi, 2007; Gibson, 2010). The anime feature AKIRA, directed by Ōtomo Katsuhiro and based on his manga (1982–1990) of the same name, is another popular work in scholarly analysis (Lamarre, 2008; McCrea, 2008).

These examples—Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, Tezuka, and AKIRA—illustrate how anglophone academic discussions about anime are in part directed by the amount of international renown and distribution that specific works have in the English-speaking market and viewership. For instance, the mainstream U.S.A. market did not start actively consuming works by Miyazaki until his 1997 film Princess Mononoke was released in the United States of America (the English dub of which featured voice acting by Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, and Minnie Driver), even though Miyazaki had debuted as an anime director in Japan in 1979. Since the late 1990s, however, scholarship on Miyazaki has increased. Along with Ghibli works, Mighty Atom also benefits from anglophone exposure after being aired in the United States of America by NBC as early as 1964, after it was first serialised as a Japanese television anime the year prior. AKIRA, too, was distributed in the United States of America by Streamline on Christmas Day of 1989, the year after its original release in Japan, and screened in other Western countries the year after that (Akira). Such correlation between exposure and amount of analysis suggests that, as with other cultural products, market accessibility is key to cultivating both intellectual and popular interest in specific anime works.1

Given this context, FLCL presents an interesting case of a Japanese anime that has had much exposure to the English-speaking market—and boasts a certain industrial pedigree—but nonetheless has received little scholarly attention. Co-produced by studios GAINAX and Production I.G, the original 2000–2001 season of FLCL was a six-volume OVA—short for Original Video Anime, the equivalent of a straight-to-video work, in contrast to anime works that are aired on television or screened in theatres (though the ‘Video’ definition has blurred in recent years with the popularity of DVDs, Blu-rays, and online streams). GAINAX and Production I.G are both well-known studios in Japanese animation: GAINAX has produced such works as the OVA Aim for the Top GunBuster (1988) and the television series Neon Genesis EVANGELION (1995) and Kare Kano (His and Her Circumstances, 1998). Production I.G, in addition to numerous television shows, has produced films such as Ghost in the Shell (1995), JIN-ROH (2000), A Letter to Momo (2012), and Miss HOKUSAI (2015). Tsurumaki Kazuya, the director of FLCL, has been working in the anime industry since the 1980s, with involvement in works such as the television series Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (1990–1991) and the OVA Aim for the Top 2! DIEBUSTER (1990). With such a pedigree, FLCL would seem to garner more scholarly attention than it has. Yet, other than a chapter by Brian Ruh in the edited volume Cinema Anime (2006)—in which Ruh examines the postmodern reflexivity of FLCL and the integrality of the main protagonist’s union with robots and cyborgs in his path to adulthood—and Lien Fan Shen’s (2007) discussion of how the work ‘provides possibilities of temporal escapes for its viewers by centring on the meaningless play of signifiers and on the overwhelming sense of bodies’, little has been offered as an academic analysis of FLCL.

The reason behind this lack of academic discussion may lie in the plot line of FLCL itself, touching on another meaning of (in)accessibility: that of (not) understanding. The story of FLCL features three protagonists—Naota, Mamimi, and Haruko—along with a large cast of side characters. The story follows the young boy Naota, a sixth grader who lives in a town called Mabase that he describes as a place where ‘there is nothing amazing. Only ordinary things happen’ (FLCL, ep. 1).2 Yet he also notes that the town is host to a large production plant of the Medical Mechanica company, which is shaped like an iron and daily lets out a dull alarm along with white smoke that Naota himself describes as an ‘ominous smoke signal’ (ibid.). Naota has an awkward relationship with 17-year-old Mamimi, who is—or was—the girlfriend of his older brother, who has left Japan to go play baseball in the United States of America. In the first episode, Naota and Mamimi meet a human-looking alien named Haruko, who has come to their town in search of Pirate King Atomsk—who has been captured by Medical Mechanica, and with whom Haruko is enamoured. The six episodes follow the three characters of Naota, Mamimi, and the alien Haruko, as they battle alien robots and the Department of Interstellar Immigration while in the search for Atomsk.

On the surface, this plot line sounds simple enough. Yet scholarly discussion of FLCL remains far outnumbered by popular reaction to it. What is more, popular reactions among anglophone viewers consistently highlight the work’s incomprehensibility (or, as one student enrolled in a Japanese anime class in the United States of America referred to it, ‘Madness’). Described as containing ‘all the oddness unique to classic anime’ (Wilson, 2011)—though it is unclear what ‘classic anime’ means—FLCL seems to have become popular for that very incomprehensibility and inaccessibility. Odell and Le Blanc write, ‘the only possible answer to this question [“Do any of you guys have any idea what’s going on?”] is “No.” Or, if you wished to provide a more detailed response, something along the lines of, “No, but I’m really enjoying everything that I’m not understanding”’ (2014, emphasis in original). They add that ‘any lack of understanding of the plot is both expected and unexpected’ and that FLCL is ‘an anime aimed at those already versed in the culture, but all the more enjoyable for it’ (Odell and Blanc, 2014).

The ‘lack of understanding’ that ‘is both expected and unexpected’ echoes the Orientalist ideology of knowledge production. Edward Said theorises how the relationship between the Occident and the Orient establishes structures in which the Occident attempts to understand and define the Orient, even while the Orient remains an exotic and illusive invention. What is more, the idea that FLCL is ‘all the more enjoyable’ because it is ‘aimed at those already versed in the culture’ is puzzling. To what culture does the statement refer—Japanese culture, or anime culture? And how can we explain the enjoyment of being exposed to a text that is not meant for those not versed in that particular culture? Even the charm of the manga version of FLCL, likened to ‘an experimental American alternative comic’ (Raiteri, 2004), is in ‘trying to figure out what’s going on,’ where ‘your guess… is as good as mine’ (Galuschak, 2004). Popular discussions about FLCL thus point to the inaccessibility of both the text and its cultural background, unrelated to the text’s availability in the English-speaking consumer market.

With such discourse attached to the work—and the lack of academic analysis juxtaposed with the amount of popular discussions about it (and its incomprehensibility)—we must now consider why Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim would co-produce the second and third seasons of FLCL with Production I.G for its Toonami programming block.

Packaging Otherness

This article analyses the first season of FLCL as an instance of U.S.A. exoticisation of Japan, as well as of Japanese self-exoticisation and self-commodification that, in fact, sets itself up for additional seasons of the show in the form of co-productions. The analysis is framed by the theory of Cool Japan, first discussed by Douglas McGray in his article ‘Japan’s Gross National Cool’ (2002). In it McGray explores ‘Cool Japan’ as a nation-state that produces (and exports) ‘national cool’—a form of soft power with more cultural influence and potentially more power than economic or military hard power. McGray analyses cultural productions such as Hello Kitty, sumo, and tech gadgets, describing the existence of two Japans: ‘a Japan for Japanese and a Japan for the rest of the world’ (ibid.). These two versions of Japan arise from the desire for profit within the context of tradition and innovation, wherein the Japanese economy profits from both the exportation of commodities to consumers that desire such ‘national cool’ and the increase in tourism due to visitors who want to experience for themselves a simultaneously traditional and innovative Japan.

The Orientalist exoticisation inherent to the Cool Japan ideology is embedded within a larger context of national and state relations—for the archipelago that came to be called the nation-state of Japan has a history of recognising, and desiring relationships with, figures of the Other, whether they be non-Japanese or non-human. Research on medieval Japan through the 12th century discusses how the Japanese government interacted with China and Korea for cultural and economic gain, while also attempting to define itself as a nation separate from others in East Asia. Whereas Japanese national literature came to be defined in the modern period as independent of the Chinese language, for example, Heian literature included as its central core both the language and literature of China (Smits, 2007). While the knowledge acquired through such interactions with geopolitical Others served to empower Japan, however, the range of exchanges that were recorded during this period unsettled the power relations within Japan as well as between Japan and other states, as officials in the capital were not able to control every single moment and means of such contact (Batten, 2007; Borgen, 2007).

Some scholars have argued that, since the Meiji Restoration, Japan’s fascination with the Other has marked its desire to advance modernisation and enable its imperialistic ventures, while other scholars have focused on the ways that interactions with the Other signal a form of incorporation and generation of something both new and domestic—in literature, for example, as translations or explorations of marginalisation and motherhood in fiction and non-fiction (Morton, 2009). Such elements of imperialisation and domestication also have appeared in Japanese accounts of interactions with spiritual, non-Human Others from premodern and modern times. The anime film Pom Poko (1994), directed by Takahata Isao of Studio Ghibli, is a recent text that explores the coexistence of human and tanuki, the trickster raccoon dog. Pom Poko shows how, just as the racialised Other becomes the object of oppression under imperialism, the non-human tanuki becomes marginalised and erased in a postwar Japan that cannot come to terms with its own heterogeneity (Ortabasi, 2013). Contemporary anime with non-Japanese/non-human characters, starting with Mighty Atom and including more recent works featuring cyborgs, yōkai, and aliens as in FLCL, thus offers stories capturing intimate relations involving figures of the Other set in time periods spanning from the past to the not-so-distant future.

Relationships between Japan and foreign or nonhuman Others (as well as the representation of those relationships) can, however, be pushed and pulled to benefit Japan or to reveal the fissures in Japan’s performance of a modern and unified nation-state. Japan’s relationship with China during the Heian period, for example, has been obscured in the postwar period in order to reposition Japan as a cultured and peaceful nation independent of such a relationship (LaMarre, 2000). Furthermore, the desire for and fascination with the Other, whether harboured by Japan or other nations, have been paralleled by Japan’s own efforts at a self-exoticised performance to a non-Japanese audience. Daisuke Miyao (2002) discusses how, as early as the Taishō era, Japan’s Pure Film Movement ‘encouraged a performance of Japaneseness within the forms of American and European cinema, and for international audiences,’ an artistic movement that quickly became political with the state’s increased militarisation in the first half of the 20th century.

In the more recent Cool Japan context, the Japanese government has encouraged the exportation of its national cool through various cultural and commercial channels. For example, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has on its Japanese language site a page dedicated to Cool Japan and the Creative Industries (Kūru Japan). The page states that the Japanese government works to transmit ‘the charm of Japan’ (Nihon no miryoku) to both domestic and international audiences. One of the page’s seven sections is a collection of links to external sites; the first link is for the Kūru Japan kikō (Cool Japan Organisation), whose English translation is the Cool Japan Fund, and whose Japanese subtitle is the Overseas Demand Cultivation Support Organisation, Inc. (Kabushiki gaisha kaigai juyō kaitaku shien kikō) (ibid.). Other links take the METI site visitor to sites such as ‘sakefan World’ (for lovers of sake), ‘NIPPON QUEST’ (which suggests that the ‘Nippon, the world has never seen’ that visitors can discover is primarily composed of food, pottery, and kimono), and the site for Japan Traditional Crafts Aoyama Square, the online presence of the physical store (located in the moneyed Aoyama neighbourhood of Tokyo) that specialises in traditional Japanese crafts from all over the country, such as lacquerware and woodwork. The English site of METI, if not as abundant in linked reports and announcements, also features a PDF of a map that locates various traditional crafts in their geographical origins across the Japanese islands (Cool Japan).

Alongside this promotion of tradition, the ‘cool japan’ television show produced by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), the country’s primary public broadcasting channel, promotes eclectic and innovative aspects of Japan as pointed out by foreigners. With a host of cast members coming from nearly 30 different nation-states, the show’s premise is to discuss aspects of Japan among non-Japanese individuals, while also asking ‘foreigners’ about their seemingly unique and different practices (Cool Japan NHK). The topics of the different episodes can range from bonsai and business hotels to snacks, sweets, and figurines. Jonathan Abel (2011) describes this show as an instance in which the Japanese can hear from foreigners what is interesting or cool about Japan—which can then be marketed right back to other non-Japanese viewers. This effort of self-exoticisation, we recognise, follows Japan’s history of Orientalism at the hands of the West, as well as its co-optation of the racist fascination for its own profit.

The ideology of Cool Japan, in which Japan’s cultural productions both cultivate and fulfill a desire in the global market for Japan’s ‘national cool,’ is reminiscent of bell hooks’s discussion in her piece ‘Eating the Other,’ included in her 1992 text Black Looks: Race and Representation. hooks discusses the idea of eating and consuming (or sleeping with) the Other as a display of power and a way for the consumer to transcend one’s own identity—in her words, to ‘be changed utterly’ (1992). Yet hooks also points to how the Other can be attracted to such a relationship: ‘Concurrently, marginalised groups, deemed Other, who have been ignored, rendered invisible, can be seduced by the emphasis on Otherness, by its commodification, because it offers the promise of recognition and reconciliation’ (ibid.). Lured by the expression of the consumer’s desire, the Other finds ways to package itself in more marketable ways. Yet hooks is quick to point out that, even in such an instance, ‘[t]he acknowledged Other must assume recognisable forms’ (ibid.)—in other words, the Otherness projected by the commodity must still be palatable to the non-Other consumer. Similarly, Japanese exports must also work to embody a cool factor that remains different but nonetheless desirable.

The ‘emphasis on Otherness’ in the non-Japanese desire for Japan’s national cool (as well as Japan’s exploitation of that desire through self-exoticisation) means that the incomprehensibility of FLCL becomes an object that the Adult Swim audiences will, figuratively, eat up. In the spread of cultural influence through Cool Japan, the (re)production of the anime show by Japan and the United States of America equals the commodification of, and profit from, the Other—including Japan’s profit from self-exoticisation, where its elusiveness plays to global desires for Japanese cool. In her discussion of Hello Kitty as a site of negotiating identities in a globalised society, Christine Yano (2013) explains how ‘global desiring’ serves as a way for consumers to respond to ‘an overwhelmingly seductive tide of powerful images: modernity, freedom, and individuality’—or, in the case of the desire for Japanese goods and services, images of cuteness, cool, tradition, and innovation. Yet ultimately, the Cool Japan ideology enables the Japanese nation-state to vie for power in that context of globalisation, notably through economic profit. Koichi Iwabuchi (2002) writes about how globalisation’s ‘boundary-violating impulse of cultural flow’ nonetheless remains bound to nation-states and their ‘nationalising forces.’ Even through a co-production, in other words, the circulation of FLCL is ultimately about Japan.

Yet considering Japan’s positionality within this cultural co-production brings to the fore the larger economic and political context in which it is situated. Examining the animation industry in the United States of America, Hyejin Yoon and Edward J. Malecki (2009) use the concept of Global Production Networks to explain how multiple studios from different countries are often connected through a single animation production. In Japan as well, anime production often involves outsourcing of production work from the major Japanese studio to smaller studios in other parts of Asia, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam (Daliot-Bul, 2014). Under globalisation, the labour of drawing, colouring, and inking is thus often performed by animators outside of the more powerful nation-states. In addition to subcontracting, co-productions—which multiply the bureaucratic regulations and business concerns that become involved, such as approval processes and marketing—often are supported and encouraged by the state (Walsh, 2012). In their discussion of popular culture co-productions in Asia, Nissim Otmazgin and Eyal Ben-Ari (2012) also refer to the power dynamics that produce (or rather, maintain) a hierarchy in which East Asian geopolitical agents such as Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea continue to occupy dominant positions in both politics and entertainment industries of the region. Whether the work is outsourced or co-produced, in other words, anime production already reinforces structures of power built upon wage inequality and perceived levels of cultural capital. Japan-U.S.A. co-productions thus complicate the economic and political relationships between and within Asia and the West, as they involve not just desires between East and West but also power dynamics within Asia—though such dynamics will continue to shift as more Asian cultural products are exported to Western consumers. Nonetheless, the upcoming seasons of FLCL serve as profitable (re)productions between Japanese and U.S.A. moneymakers that reinforce a hierarchy of Japan as a neoimperial power in Asia and the United States of America as one that facilitates such reinforcement.

The dynamics of self-Orientalising and Other-desiring arise through the contact between the Japanese cultural product and its non-Japanese consumers—in this case, the U.S.A. consumer market. What elements of FLCL, then, make it such a text? On one level, it is the relationship among the three protagonists of the story. On another level, it is the relationship between producer and consumer of the original series, and the relationship between the co-producers for the upcoming seasons.

The Girl, the Boy, His Alien, and Her Pirate King

The relationships among its male and female protagonists exemplify the self/Other-exoticisation within FLCL stemming from the Cool Japan ideology, wherein the three characters of Naota, Mamimi, and Haruko present a triangulation of the dynamic between Japan and the United States of America. Their various forms of desire are dramatised by the many genres that FLCL invokes, including drama, horror, mecha, romance, and war film. Another genre is coming-of-age—yet the coming of age of the main protagonist, Naota (or even of the two female characters), is problematic. Will the sixth grader become a man by sleeping with Mamimi (as he suggests wanting to do in episode 5), or by having his ‘like’ reciprocated by Haruko? Or will he become entangled in an incestuous relationship with the high schooler and his own absent brother, or be infantilised by the pink-haired figure of the Other (who seems to take on a maternal role in place of Naota’s missing mother)?

Of the three main characters, Naota is the youngest and the only male—though in the story he embodies the figure of an emasculated and disempowered (or, to frame him as the protagonist of a coming-of-age story, a yet-to-be empowered) male. In the opening scene of episode 1, we see Naota and Mamimi hanging out by the river, under a bridge. Naota claims he is doing homework, while Mamimi (who calls Naota ‘Takkun’) claims she is practicing how to swing a baseball bat. She says, ‘You should play baseball too, Takkun,’ suggesting that he does not. Her next question to him is thus puzzling: ‘Why do you always have a baseball bat with you?’ We learn that the bat with which Mamimi practices her swings is, in fact, Naota’s—or more precisely, Naota’s older brother’s. Naota carries it around as a memento of his brother, who has moved to the United States of America to play baseball and thus provides a distant symbol for the Western country. The bat is also a symbol of Naota’s efforts to stand on his tiptoes to achieve the manhood equivalent to that of his brother. By carrying around the bat, Naota emulates his older brother (who, we find out later in the episode, has forgotten about his former girlfriend Mamimi and found himself a new ‘blonde girlfriend’). Mamimi, however, is the person who actually makes any use of the bat. Rather than embody the figure of the woman left behind—a potential Madame Butterfly forsaken by Pinkerton for his American wife Kate—Mamimi displays more power and agency by practicing her swings than does Naota, who only manages to carry around the bat for show. Naota, stuck in his hometown of Mabase in Japan, has neither sense of self nor girlfriend (blonde or otherwise) to speak of. In comparison to Mamimi, a female with resilience, he is pictured as weak and still very much a child.

Naota as an emasculated male also stands in as a symbol of an emasculated Japan—albeit in a setting known for its patriarchal society oppressive to non-males—in direct contrast to the character of the interstellar alien Haruko. Being an alien, she is not Japanese (or Asian) and exists as an Other to the Japanese Naota and Mamimi; furthermore, in the East/West binary, being non-Eastern places Haruko in the category of being potentially Western. Haruko rolls into town (and onto screen) on her Italian Vespa, carrying her American bass guitar. Her character as a whole signifies non-Japaneseness, the West, and an alien Other. Haruko’s pink hair also marks her as alien Other in relation to Naota’s black hair—a significant colour choice in the anime medium, where numerous ‘Japanese’ characters are given hair colours ranging from blonde and brown to blue and turquoise. Even in relation to Mamimi (who receives a typical visual representation as a Japanese character with her magenta hair), Haruko marks herself as being an alien Other: in episode 1, when the three characters first meet, the second and third lines that come out of Haruko’s mouth are directed toward Mamimi, who rushes toward Naota after he has been hit by Haruko on her Vespa: ‘STOP! Stop, the native gal!’ (ep. 1). Mamimi is thus framed as ‘native’ Japanese in relation to Haruko’s embodiment of alien (Western) Otherness.

The story progresses, and Haruko comes to live at Naota’s house, with his father and grandfather, as their live-in housekeeper. In a household marked by an absence of the maternal figure, Haruko comes to perform the mother role for Naota, albeit in a skewed way. While Naota’s relationship with Mamimi is difficult to explain, his relationship with Haruko is even more so: is he to become a male, romantic counterpart to Haruko, creating a relationship similar to those in the mother-son incest stories of 1970s Japan of which Anne Allison (2000) writes?3 Or will he simply be infantilised by the pink-haired figure of the Other and be treated like her son, a little boy? The latter seems not to be Naota’s preference, as in the climactic moment in the final episode, Naota confesses his feelings for Haruko by telling her that he ‘likes’ her. Naota’s desire for Haruko—however puppy love-like it may be—represents, in the context of the story, Japan’s desire for the West. Yet the object of Haruko’s unfulfilled desire is not Naota, but the Pirate King Atomsk. In the final episode, Haruko’s plan to use Naota to capture Atomsk backfires, when he unexpectedly merges with the Pirate King. Having wanted to be the one to merge with Atomsk herself, Haruko charges at Naota enraged, screaming, ‘The one who’s going to eat him [Atomsk] is me!’ (ep. 6). Haruko’s declaration (as a Western Other) echoes the sentiment analysed by bell hooks: the figure of the West desires to eat the mysterious Pirate King, rather than the emasculated Japanese child who exudes no alluring exoticism. After Haruko’s plan fails and Atomsk eludes her once again, Haruko asks Naota if he wants to join her in her next adventure in search of Atomsk—but she answers her own question for him, saying, ‘Then again, no—Takkun is still a child’ (ep. 6). Haruko’s parting with Naota underscores her continued search for the exotic, as well as Naota’s unreciprocated desires for the non-Japanese West—an incomplete coming of age.

If Naota represents an emasculated Japan and Haruko the alien Western Other whom he desires, what positionality does Mamimi occupy? As the ‘native’ Japanese girl whose lover has left her for ‘America’ (the country and the woman), Mamimi is mired in the tangles of desires of which Naota and Haruko are a part, but she is also aloof and apart from them. A Japanese female not wholly desired by the Japanese male of the story (Naota), she occupies a place of isolation—she is the object of bullying (ep. 2), her parents never appear, and she comes to Naota’s house to ask for leftover bread crusts (ep. 1). Naota’s family does not take kindly to her, either: his father flatly asks Naota if Mamimi’s family is poor, and his grandfather calls her ‘sageman ichigō’ (ep. 1), the prototype of a woman who brings down the luck of the man with whom she becomes involved. In the moments of intimacy she shares with Naota, she nearly constructs a relationship of what Françoise Héritier (1999) describes as a secondary type of incest, wherein a single figure engages in the exchange of bodily fluids with two individuals who are related to each other. Just as Haruko’s potential incest with Naota never comes to pass, however, neither does such a relationship between Mamimi and Naota. Yet Mamimi’s lack of connections with others, while perhaps a source of loneliness, also gives her liberation. In the final episode, after Haruko has left and life in Mabase seemingly has returned to normalcy, Mamimi leaves the town in order to become a photographer. She is more independent than is Naota, and between the two there exists no exoticised/exoticising desire—both must turn to other places (and Others) to fulfill such longing.

Producing and Consuming the Textual Other

In its production and consumption as well, FLCL exemplifies the relationship between Japan and the United States of America, wherein the upward ticks of both demand and supply maintain the circular dynamic of Cool Japan. For example, Haruko is not only a non-Japanese, alien Other, for feelings for Haruko felt by Naota in the story also mirrors the U.S.A. market’s desire for the Japanese FLCL. In such a reading, Haruko—the female character more prominent than Mamimi in the cultural production—occupies the positionality of the ‘Japanese’ Other, rather than a non-Japanese Western. At its textual level as a cultural product, both the character of Haruko and FLCL itself embody the Japanese cool desired by U.S.A. anime viewers.

Haruko performs well the part of the alien Other—she is ‘a hyper, irresponsible extraterrestrial who is the very definition of hip’ (Odell and Le Blanc, 2014) as well as a fragment of the exotic Orient. With her ability to gun down any opponent in one episode and then wear a maid uniform while ordering around a robot to prepare dinner in another, Haruko complicates the tropes of female characters in anime, who are often sexualised and empowered as scantily clad fighters when they are young, and then made to conform to hegemonic gender roles as non-sexualised wives and mothers once they enter adulthood (Saito, 2014). In FLCL, the character of Haruko instead leverages ‘the promise of recognition and reconciliation’ that bell hooks describes, and in so doing, takes advantage of the profit that she—and the anime FLCL—can gain in the international market. Even in moments when she seems objectified as a mere female body, she is cast as being in control of the situation. In Lien Fan Shen’s discussion about a scene in which a police officer attempts to look up Haruko’s skirt as she squats by her Vespa that has broken down, Shen points out that Haruko is aware of the officer’s gaze and controls herself how she is looked at (2007). Haruko thus may be consumed by the male gaze, but she has agency in that process of consumption—much like the way the cultural product of FLCL controls the way it is consumed by an Orientalist market against the backdrop of a Cool Japan ideology. The character of Haruko occupies the dominant position in, for example, the parasitic relationship she develops with Naota’s father (ep. 4). She also is rarely caught by surprise in combat, always remaining one step ahead of her opponent. (The exception is when Naota merges with Atomsk ahead of her—and even then her reaction is not one of vulnerability, but of wrath, a masculinised emotion.) Like Haruko, the FLCL production directs and controls its exoticisation by U.S.A. viewers, though it nonetheless is the object of an Orientalist (self-)Othering.

FLCL also capitalises on the mutually-reinforcing relationship in the production and consumption of Japan’s national cool (where the cool is both desired by non-Japanese consumers and produced by Japanese corporations and government to whet such an appetite) by incorporating various pop culture forms and genres. Ruh (2006) mentions how FLCL is rife with intertextuality, as it incorporates other forms of Japanese popular culture. In episodes 1 and 6, for example, the scenes in which Naota comes downstairs from his bedroom to the family living/dining room and discovers Haruko sitting nonchalantly at the dinner table is depicted in manga form, repeated in the two episodes with slight variations. The actors vocalise their lines as the camera pans across an enlarged page of a manga. The OVA’s six episodes also include elements of every genre imaginable, including action, comedy, mecha, romance, and sci-fi. For example, the story incorporates elements of the sports genre, specifically the baseball motif: although we see early on that Naota does not practice his baseball swings often (ep. 1), the town of Mabase gets excited when Haruko becomes a powerful addition to one of its baseball teams (ep. 4). The fifth episode of the series also contains several Japanese pop culture references, including the character of Lupin the Third (based on the manga by Monkey Punch first published in 1967), a bunny suit (an element common in Japanese manga and anime works, though as Cavallaro (2008) explains, also a reference to the origin story of GAINAX), and a jumpsuit-clad rock guitarist reminiscent of Elvis (though arguably not Japanese in origin, certainly incorporated into Japan’s popular culture through the spread of anglophone music since the 1950s and 1960s).

In addition to forms and genres, episode 5 also features scenes done in the visual style of the animated television series South Park, an explicitly U.S.A. reference. The sudden cut to the different style is jarring, yet for viewers familiar with the U.S.A. series, the scene presents a moment of recognition and familiarity, a kind of ‘reconciliation’ offered by the creators as a way not to lose viewers confused by the fast-paced story. Such references, Cavallaro asserts, are a way for GAINAX to counter the Orientalist Othering of its work by non-Japanese viewers, ‘by simultaneously perpetuating indigenous tropes and presenting [viewers] with materials that are intimately related to Western pop culture’ (ibid.). Yet they also make the original FLCL a ‘parodic metacommentary’ on the history and development of the studio in the two decades since its inception until the release of FLCL (ibid.), particularly for viewers who can catch and identify the references. These and other examples of highlighting various forms and genres indicate that the creators packed into the original series of FLCL numerous pop culture allusions known to viewers (both Japanese and non-Japanese), for their consumption by both Japanese and non-Japanese audiences. By offering viewers such a taste (and including references to U.S.A. pop culture), FLCL accentuates the ‘recognisable forms’ of Japan’s popular culture and also Others itself to an audience that desires such a palatable incomprehensibility.

The process of production and consumption, however, is unpredictable and difficult to control. When asked (in an interview commemorating the Blu-ray release of FLCL in 2010) about memorable reactions from overseas in response to the original series from 2000–2001, its director Tsurumaki stated that he was surprised that non-Japanese audiences liked the melancholy of adolescence depicted in the work. Having thought that viewers abroad would enjoy the slapstick comedy of FLCL the most, Tsurumaki was delighted that those complicated feelings of youth that he had wanted to portray in the work were easily accepted and even appreciated (Noguchi, 2010). Whereas Tsurumaki had thought to forefront the comedy of the story for non-Japanese viewers, it was in fact the mixed emotions of adolescence for which many remembered FLCL. Such gaps between projected and actual receptions of cultural products and the performances therein complicate exchanges within the Cool Japan ideology: exactly what is desired as Japan’s national cool? In her discussion of Japanese anime’s internationalisation, Amy Shirong Lu asks whether ‘Westerners watch anime… to indulge themselves in some faded Orientalist dream or… to continue their consumption of the familiarity of another industrialised nation’ (2008). Yet considering bell hooks’s discussion, Lu’s binary question seems to miss the point, for the Orientalist desire of Cool Japan is to have, precisely, both of those things: the Oriental exotic and the industrial familiar. We can also understand that anime characters and stories are not always exactly Japanese, or any particular culture at all (Walsh, 2012)—and therefore the discussion of what is ‘familiar’ can be replaced by the discussion of what is relatable. Many non-Japanese anime viewers often say that they watch anime because they can relate to the stories and the conflicts that the characters go through, while also learning something about Japan in the process. Furthermore, any claim at familiarity and relatability is itself an attempt to homogenise and consume. In this sense, FLCL occupies the optimal position between Other and self, between desire and fulfillment.

Conclusion, or, Maybe Kids Don’t Need the Masters

Season 1 of FLCL exemplifies the buying-into of the Cool Japan ideology by both Japanese producers and non-Japanese consumers of anime. The former is supported by the state, as the Japanese government has promoted its soft power campaign under the Cool Japan umbrella through branches such as METI and NHK since the early 2000s, building up to the hosting of the 2020 Olympics by Tokyo that was first announced in September 2013. The exportation of Japanese cool is a cultural, economic, and political project, and anime works are but one example of the many cultural products marketed to consumers outside of Japan through globalisation.

Yet aside from its denomination as ‘art,’ anime in Japan and abroad is ultimately a profit-making commodity, and its profit scheme is one that exploits racial and gender dynamics both within Japan and between Japan and the West, what Laura Miller refers to as ‘the pimping of Japan’ (2011). Miller argues that the state project of Cool Japan is an objectification of women and feminised trends, at the direction of men, for the profit of men. Such criticisms of Cool Japan address both the production and consumption sides of the ideology. A piece in the English-language Japan Times remarked on the need for the Japanese government to listen to non-Japanese audiences when giving out awards for Japanese texts popular outside of Japan (Boas, 2016). Jonathan Abel (2011) has critiqued how the popularity of anime as stimulated by Cool Japanology has failed to lead to—or, in fact, prevented—a critical understanding of the country or even a willingness to help the country in times of disaster. Globalisation and the circulation of texts in general can also prompt creators to create works that bound the idea of Japanese culture, in an effort to protect an authentic essence of Japaneseness, however constructed (Napier, 2006).

These arguments complicate the co-production (and co-consumption) of FLCL as a commodified national cool. Yet however odd or confusing it may be, the original series of FLCL excites viewers in their journey through the six episodes and has garnered enough of a fan base to warrant the production of new seasons outside of Japan. To find out whether the future episodes of FLCL challenge any of the dominant dynamics in a globalised world, however, we shall have to wait until season 2 comes out at the end of 2017.


I thank Benjamin Balthaser for initial discussions that produced this article; the members of the CSUF RACE RWG for their encouraging feedback; and the editor and two anonymous peer reviewers of ejcjs for their insightful comments. Mistakes are my own.


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[1] Another anime work that has been the object of much academic analyses in English belongs to the Ghost in the Shell franchise, which originated with a manga series by Shirow Masamune that started in 1989 and was made famous outside of Japan because of the 1995 animated feature directed by Oshii Mamoru and produced by Production I.G (e.g., Gardner, 2009; Gonzaga, 2002; Orbaugh, 2008). The franchise increased its market exposure in 2017 by adding a U.S.A. live-action feature film, which has sparked discussions about Hollywood’s desire to exploit Asian cultural productions while erasing representations of people of colour from mainstream U.S.A. media.

[2] Translations of FLCL from Japanese to English are my own, not the subtitles from the commercial release.

[3] In Permitted and Prohibited Desires, Anne Allison (2000) writes about the circulation of mother-son incest stories in 1970s Japanese popular culture. She argues that, while these stories (whether fiction or non-fiction) seemed to present cases of sexual transgressions, they in fact reinforced dominant gender ideologies in postwar Japan of mothers as excellent caregivers to their children and sons as able to succeed in both academics and professional careers.

About the Author

Satoko Kakihara is Assistant Professor of Japanese at California State University, Fullerton. She has published on topics of Japanese imperialism and immigration, analysing issues of gender in literature, comic books, and photography.

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