Did anyone want or need FLCL: Grunge? The original FLCL, back in the year 2000, was a huge, generation-defining work that tapped into both the specific sensibilities of its Heisei audience while being a tale of male sexual awakening that a sizable proportion of the population could connect to. Its self-contained six-episode length didn’t stop it from blowing up among U.S. audiences, including multiple successful runs on Adult Swim. Twenty years later, the folks over at the network decided to revive it, presumably trying to recapture its success, even though the studio that originally produced had long since become a hollow husk. And the sequels, Alternative and Progressive were… fine? I wish I could say the same for this turn, five years later.
I can guarantee that the first thing about Grunge that will jump out to audiences is its animation. It eschews any hand-drawn look entirely, instead utilizing 3D CG by MontBlanc Pictures, a studio best known for motion capture with only a couple of independent animation productions under their belt. It is, in a word, ugly. In other words, the animation is as lifeless as it is failing in nearly every attempt to replicate the madcap energy that defined the original. It’s a bit too rubbery and smooth, and even the more real-looking characters have strangely protruding lips and uncomfortably large hands. The lineless art often plays poorly with the color choices, if not consistently so, creating a look that can get downright eye-smarting.
The story and imagery feel locked in a battle between wanting to reiterate the beats of the original and trying to do its own thing. In the best-case scenario, this would have served to emphasize the differences and similarities between Shinpachi and Naota; sadly, that is not what happens here. Instead, the tension makes it feel like it’s having an identity crisis, self-consciously aware of its past and too timid to forge its own identity. Populated by both humans and rock-bodied aliens that look so much like Fantastic Four‘s Thing I’m shocked it’s not violating copyright; Shinpachi’s town is haunted by the specter of an iron emitting steam. He helps out in his father’s restaurant, serving questionably edible fish to yakuza men with identical faces. He attends school, but few children do; even the adults have given up on their future. Then, clad in a sexy red dress and on the arm of the Boss Baby, I mean mayor, Haruhara Haruko flits into his shop and his life like the puberty fairy herself. From there, it’s more or less a parade of familiar images: a phallic symbol emerging from Shinpachi’s head, Canti-sama, the man with the eyebrows, scooters, a giant hand descending from the sky to grip the iron’s handle, all strung together with a lackluster script that failed to make up for the visual storytelling’s shortcomings. Even the soundtrack by The Pillows feels tired.
Still, all is not lost. While its attempts at copycatting the original’s wacky energy are as embarrassing as Timothee Chalamet’s aping of Gene Wilder, Grunge‘s best moments come when it slows down and turns reflective. While it gestures at taking place in the ’90s with Shinpachi’s Walkman, its most successful element is how it captures a particular kind of Reiwa/Gen Z malaise. With no hope for the future, only a few kids bother showing up for school. Even the adults have given up. It brings to mind the hopelessness of the current generation in the real world, who see the world falling apart around their ears and expect to come of age in little more than a blasted wasteland. If it can lean into that sensibility and thus its identity, it may turn into something worthwhile.