FLCL: “Firestarter”
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FLCL: “Firestarter”

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FLCL

“Firestarter”

Season 1, Episode 2

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While Naota’s difficult and heavily psychedelic trip through puberty is the main theme of FLCL, the second episode turns its eye to one of the three young women in his life, the sad, damaged soul of Mamimi Samejima. From the first episode, viewers know Mamimi is an odd duck, a teenage girl who hangs around her absent (ex-)boyfriend’s little brother, sometimes pretending to explore sex but mainly interested in exercising the power to hold someone’s attention. “Firestarter” reveals why Mamimi is the way she is without losing sight of Naota’s journey. With this sort of elliptical and impressionistic strategy of storytelling, though, there are some plot points that are definite and some that are left to the beholder.

The episode opens with her perspective, watching a building burn by the river. In voiceover, Mamimi explains that she saw God by the river on a rainy afternoon being kind to an abandoned kitten, presumably the same one that she will adopt during the episode. In her mind, though, as we will see, she is the abandoned kitten, and she needs guidance from someone stronger than her. The fact that the god she later sees plays into her addiction to the Firestarter game only fuels the magical thinking that undergirds her belief. All of this feeds into the question of whether or not she is the arsonist who has been striking Mabase, but the question is ultimately more important to the story than any definitive answer.

“Never Knows Best” is the slogan she writes on the occasional cigarette. Perhaps it is something that she overheard or that someone directed at her, but the lack of judgment that it implies is evident in her actions in this story. She skips school to go see Naota at his elementary school, much to his chagrin. His pals Gaku and Masashi giggle about her appearance and call her Naota’s wife, but young Ninamori is clearly unhappy to see Mamimi. Later she loses her shoes under the bridge and has to have Naota bring her some new ones. At that point, she introduces him to her the kitten, who she has also dubbed Ta-kun, and explicitly compares herself to Lord Canti, the fire god in her Firestarter game. Considering the spate of recent arsons, this upsets Naota.

Leaving Mamimi for a moment, Naota is concerned about himself, too, because Haruko has had the TV-faced robot make an X-ray of Naota’s head, and he has a large black spiral where his brain should be. Remember the FLCL splash screen from the debut with the image of the brain? That was immediately before Haruko entered his life. At this point, Naota also has two new horns sticking out of his head, a short one in the front and a huge one in the back. He is concerned with how weird his life has become, which is part of that same pubescent, existential horror that was all over the first episode. In this same scene, Haruko insists that her bike is a normal Vespa and then she reveals that her true identity is a First-Class Space Patrol Officer. This may or may not be true, considering the source. She also tells Naota that the TV-faced robot, who is still living with them, was made by Medical Mechanica, which is, as we shall see by the end of the series, a part-truth at best. In short, Haruko is not the best source for good information, as Naota’s closing voiceover about lies indicates.

After an appealing splash screen with “Firestarter” written in matches (in Japanese, natch), Naota fears about weirdness are all over a scene where his father Kamon has the robot working outside. Kamon thinks Naota is selfish (and wow, what we could unpack here but won’t for another couple of episodes) and then blathers on about the symbolism of having a robot work for him, while Naota explains to Haruko that Kamon’s blather is related to a book he wrote about the deep mysteries of Eva, meaning the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. While all of this is going on, passersby stare at the robot and then vanish with a pop. This is almost definitely a reference to something, but I know not what. It is a lovely visual way to show surprise, however. Haruko helps Naota to connect the robot’s free time with the spate the arsons, meaning that the “Firestarter” of the title could be either Mamimi or the robot in the literal sense—and it could be a figurative term, too. It is worth mentioning that the robot is wearing a halo and black wings in every scene in this episode.

After the scene of Mamimi and the cat Ta-kun (or Takkun, depending on the translation), Haruko slams her Vespa into the side of the Medical Mechanica building. The two policemen who show up are useless, in the manner of every adult on this show. The younger one spends his time looking up Haruko’s skirt, and an older one drones one about how she is an idiot. Naota arrives, claiming that he’s her guardian, and Haruko points out that no one works at the factory. There isn’t even a door to get inside. This makes two consecutive scenes where Naota has brought something necessary to bail out one of the older women in his life. In this case, he brings a “Vesla” box that contains a Gundam robot, which Haruko somehow incorporates into her oh-so-normal Vespa. She rewards him with a dangerously reckless ride by the coast.

The courses of Mamimi and the robot converge at this point. Back at the bridge, she sees it picking through the grass. Taken by the halo and wings, she immediately decides that it is a god. Her surprise indicates that her opening salvo about seeing God might have been an invention or a hallucination, possibly to justify arson and possibly to spice up her horrible life. She follows the robot to a burnt-up building that is very meaningful to her, although the creators of the show wisely hold that information for the moment. The iconography that FLCL borrows here is stunning. The robot climbs to the top of the building without disturbing the many birds nestled there, and then fires itself into the golden light of the twilight sky, knees bent and hands clasped together in a simulation of prayer and supplication.

That night, Mamimi has followed the robot back to Naota’s house, taking pictures with her. Haruko mentions that she saw the robot at 7-11 reading Hustler. There is some gorgeous animation as the kitten plays with the family cat, Miyu Miyu. The robot, who Mamimi is now openly worshipping as Lord Canti, lands in the courtyard with plenty of noise and lights. As it turns out, he has been running errands for Haruko and Naota’s grandfather Shigekuni, neither of whom are happy with his purchases. The Hustler, it seems, was for Shigekuni, although he wanted the one with Anna Nicole Smith. The point here is how quickly they and Kamon have assimilated the robot—who we will now call Canti and give a male gender—into their lives as an inferior while Mamimi, the outcast who cannot even enter their house, literally worships him.

The next scene shows us what Canti has been doing with his free time, which is searching for the pieces of metal that Haruko broke off when she hit him with her bass. This scene also provides evidence that he might be the firestarter, as he is at the boathouse that burned down in the first scene. He hides as Naota and his grade-school friends approach, talking about the fire and eventually revealing that Mabase once had an elementary school that burned down. A shoe floats towards them, drawing their attention to poor, tragic Mamimi, who is washing her clothes in the river upstream. As his friends talk about seeing her being bullied by older kids sometimes, Naota looks at her haggard face and realizes that she has nowhere to go, and then the Medical Mechanica plant billows steam far behind them.

This is the crux of the story, really. Mamimi has been trying to exert so much control over Naota, but in actuality, she is utterly powerless. Although she wears a school uniform all the time, it is not because she attends school regularly but because she has nothing else to wear. The next episode will more strongly imply that she has no home, but it is hard to beat the image of her idly washing her clothes in the river and losing her shoes in the process. The kids in the devastating 2004 Japanese movie Nobody Knows were younger, but Mamimi is from the same stock of outcast children.

After dark, as she trudges along with Naota, shoeless, she drops her Firestarter game while lighting a cigarette, giving Naota his most visceral insight yet. It is depicted in an absolutely stunning sequence that combines mutiple voiceovers, images from this episode, and Japanese text that shimmers like flame. The main voiceover has Naota explaining how to play the Firestarter game, which has no clear victory, only the repeated burning of the town until no one has a place to live (just like Mamimi!) at which point the player is blessed by Lord Conti. This sequence implies that Mamimi is not only homeless but also the arsonist plaguing the town.

As Naota realizes that there is another fire in the distance, he becomes aware that he’s lost Mamimi, and then flashes on the elementary-school fire six years prior. He remembers that there were rumors that it was arson as he pictures a young Mamimi, who his brother apparently rescued from the flames. Again, there is a strong suggestion here that she is the arsonist, but I do want to point out that Naota is coming to this belief from a combination of speculation and memories that might be faulty. The transition from his memories to the real world is handled by an utterly delightful moment when the song on the soundtrack becomes the diegetic song that Mamimi is listening to when he finds her while the camera whirls through abstract images that soon focus into the new scene. This is a neat editing effect that I most often associate with the Coen brothers, but they probably picked it up from somewhere else. Anyway, Mamimi is in the center of a circle of burning cigarettes set on end with burning lighters in her headband, sitting the same burned-out building where she saw Canti take flight earlier, her old elementary school. Canti is searching through the remains of the building for more broken pieces of his head, although he tries to hide when he realizes that Naota has shown up.

Mamimi’s little speech here is as important to her psyche as the other revelations of this episode. She tells Naota that she hated the elementary school and that she was happy that it burned down. But, she says, “even if it burns down, the wreckage and ash are still there.” That’s a wonderfully concise way of talking about the persistence of the past. Extrapolating from this and the other glimpses and innuendo about her life, we can guess that she has not been homeless for long and that she perhaps thought it would be a measure of freedom. Instead, some aspects of her earlier life persist, but now they are wreckage and ash, burned-out ghosts of the home she had, the school she attended, her relationship with her boyfriend. In a fit of religious ecstasy, Mamimi floats to Canti for a kiss, causing Naota’s eyes to widen suddenly. He groans as the head portal theme cranks up on the soundtrack and the Medical Mechanica klaxon screams. Haruko, not far off, realizes what is happening as another robot pulls itself out of Naota’s head. Haruko arrives on the scene just in time for the new robot to toss Naota into the path of her Vespa.

It is significant that Naota’s first head-portal experience was brought on by Mamimi, too. In the first episode, he had just delivered the news to her that his brother Tasuku was seeing a new girlfriend in America. She doubled over, saying that she was going to overflow when Canti and the robot hand burst out of Naota’s head. In this case, she is also overflowing in some way, building a shrine to Canti and kissing him in front of Naota.

The new robot, defined by a hand with an eye in its palm that it can whip around, makes short work of Canti and Haruko despite her valiant attempts to bass-punch it. Naota’s main role at first is to rescue Mamimi from being crushed by the robots. Then, as the fight continues to go badly for Canti, Naota flashes on images from the elementary-school fire and calls out, perhaps involuntarily, for his brother Tasuku. Immediately the red symbol that appeared on Canti’s screen when he first emerged from Naota’s head in the first episode pops back up. Wikipedia reports that it is a corrupted version of the Japanese symbol for “adult,” which makes sense because, as I pointed out in the last review, Tasuku is the only near-adult whom Naota respects. Canti sprouts enormous jaws with jagged teeth and monstrous eyes, which he uses to swallow Naota whole. Inside the whirling vortex of Canti, a straw-like screw bores into Naota’s head, burrowing deeper until it reveals that it has a light bulb on top. When it is entirely screwed in, the light bulb pops on. Although this seems random, when FLCL gets around to explaining its mythology in the last episodes, it will make more sense. For now, let us just say that Canti is using the portal in Naota’s head to access his full power. Because that makes more sense, I guess? Describing this show makes me into a gibbering idiot sometimes.

Now merged with Naota, Canti turns red and this fight scene evolves into something weird and wonderful. First, Canti beats the hand-bot with some kung fu. Then Canti morphs himself into an enormous mortar-like gun with insect-like wings and a oddly pink brain-like material sticking out the back. The Canti-gun fires a ball of light into the hand-bot, blasting a hole in it, and the ball then flies up and back to Canti’s barrel where the robot re-absorbs it. With the hand-bot debilitated, Haruko delivers the fatal bass-punch. The hand-bot erupts into gas-blue flames and then explodes. Fortunately, Canti has pulled the Vespa and Mamimi to safety. Canti then pats Mamimi on the head, giving her the absolution she has been desperate to receive, before turning blue as it mimes an unmistakable urge. There is no way around this next scene: Canti shits Naota out, a visual metaphor for how both Haruko and Canti, when he’s red, at least, think of the boy: fuel to be used and then disposed of. Naota has an enormous bump on his forehead, which will become clearer in later episodes when they explicitly show that he is the mortar that red Conti fires. Naota tries to point out to Mamimi that the ashes of her old school are finally gone, but she is disgusted by how sticky and smelly he is.

With sirens approaching, Haruko and Canti make to leave, but Mamimi and Naota are frozen. Naota voices over that he will stay by Mamimi’s side forever. Ride on, shooting star. While Naota seems determined in this moment, later episodes will soon show that Mamimi will never hold his attention in the same way again. The point here is that Naota has become aware of how keenly Mamimi needs guidance, and he has developed the emotional strength to want to help her. He is still a child, but he is learning responsibility. Soon he will learn that some of the people he feels most drawn to protect, in this case Mamimi, must find their own path.

Stray observations:

  • Kamon’s book about the symbolism of Neon Genesis Evangelion is definitely meant to be another sign of his immaturity, and yet here we all are, looking for meaning in FLCL. Oh, the bittersweet irony!
  • “Lord Canti” is also written in some of the resources out there as “Kanti,” but I like the former spelling better.
  • I haven’t mentioned yet that Haruko contacts her superiors through the medium of the family cat, Miyu Miyu. In her contact scene this week, her superiors show their unhappiness with her work by having Miyu Miyu bounce around the room and off of Haruko’s head like a malevolent racquetball.
  • Apologies for inverting the final vowels in “Haruko” during part of last week’s review! I’ll try to keep it straight from now on. 
Filed Under: TV, FLCL

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