I should preface this by saying that major spoilers follow, but it’s a short and fast little show so I’m not sure that any spoilers qualify as major. That said, I loved the tragedy of FLCL the second time through and here’s why: it almost exactly reverses Albert Camus’ The Stranger given, as judged by his actions, a near-identical protagonist while developing a micro-mythology based on psychological tropes. (Also worth noting is that it’s on YouTube. Thanks, Funimation!)
Disclaimer: I can’t guarantee that the authors meant any of what I’m about to describe. They may have just been thinking “Hey, it would look cool if I put some [whatever] there.” I would also be surprised if the following article makes any sense if you’ve not seen it. Who am I kidding? I’d also be surprised if the following article makes any sense — I’m a software developer, not a psychoanalyst, and wouldn’t bet $10 on the validity of any of this.
I. In Naota’s Head
The premise of FLCL increases as the show goes on, but starts with Naota roughly on the edge of secondary school living in a family structure of his dad and grandpa, neither of whom seem to be particularly successful at being adults. His older brother (Tasuku) has left to be a baseball player in the United States. A somewhat deranged older girl, Mamimi, that the brother had saved from a fire some years before proxies Naota in for this older brother as the object of her desires, even referring to him by his brother’s name. A mega-corporation called Medical Mechanica has recently open a large (clothes-)iron-shaped building in town. Series starts. Naota, in the manner of non-empowered un-individuated kids all suburbia-over complains that “nothing exciting happens, only the ordinary.” At this point, indeterminately-older woman Haruko enters, clobbers him with a guitar and moves into his house. The guitar-clobbering sprouts into a robot that erupts from his head so that the anime-decorum required battles can take place. Her living in an all-male house sets up the sort of sexual tension you don’t need to know Freud to comprehend. Later in the series, special agent (male) Amarao will enter in pursuit of Haruko, reveal that they’are all aliens, and they’ll fight but never actually to the point of anybody getting hurt or brought to a stand-still. Finally it turns out that Medical Mechanica has been ironing out the wrinkles in everything — inclusive of the wrinkles in brains that people think with — and, more importantly to Haruko, had captured Atomsk (pronounced strangely like Animus in the Netflix stream) as Haruko wanted to possess and/or consume him, and her plan to free him is why she pulls things out of Naota’s head on a regular (per episode) basis.
I’m going to skip the obvious double-Oedipal conflict between Naota and his father over Haruko and Naota and his brother over Mamimi and go straight for the mythos mostly because it seems painfully obvious, and also I mostly agree with Jung’s analysis of Freud (from Memories, Dreams and Reflections).
Looking at the setup from a Nietzschean point of view, Haruko is Naota’s Dionysian potentiality. She may also be id unleashed and possibly even an archetypical anima, as the timeless image of a woman that the man keeps to drive him to be a better man and more complete person (going Jungian). While her obvious capabilities are chaotic and primal, she can also pull things out of Naota’s head that he didn’t know he had in there — but will regard as perfectly ordinary in relatively short order. Put another way: she’s tapping his sub-conscious to irrationally manifest new things in the world. The flip-side is Amarao, the Apollonian law-bringer and superego stand-in since Naota’s dad isn’t doing the job. He talks directly to Naota’s sense of duty, family, and maturity. He warns Naota about Haruko repeatedly (without ever staking Naota out or using him as bait). During a brief period while Haruko is away, Amarao claims Naota by giving him (seaweed?) eyebrows which allegedly will stop things from coming out of his head — or sub-consciousness. These two characters, the chaos and the law, the female and the male, are the irreconcilable opposites that Naota has to balance in his life to individuate his Self.
Part of the tragedy of FLCL is that Naota, like Nietzsche, finds order to merely be a convenient framework for the chaos he truly desires, but when he gives himself over to it he finds that — even at his best — he’s not enough to hold the attention of chaos. The Jungians can claim that this was inevitable since he didn’t actually master any of the three symbols available to him (Atomsk, Medical Mechanica, or the double-guitar) and thus couldn’t contain the chaos, but instead over-identified with Haruko. Haruko couldn’t reciprocate a complete love because her desire was already consumed by Atomsk, her animus, creating a recursion of desire. Whether Jung speculated shadows having shadows or not I don’t know, but the love-triangle-trope and its ilk tend to suggest that anima/animus personality recursions deep into the subconscious is a natural extension of the basic theory. Regardless, it seems perfectly natural that Atomsk flies off without a backwards glance as soon as he’s free and Haruko goes chasing after him on her (suddenly interstellar) Vespa.
In the end, Naota turned his back on structure and discipline, only to have passion and chaos turn its back on him. Even after saving the world (repeatedly), controlling robots, meeting aliens, and briefly possessing a demigod, Naota ends the series complaining that nothing exciting ever happens, only the ordinary. The slight glimmer of hope the audience is left with against Naota’s fading enlightenment is that he has Haruko’s old guitar, suggesting that he may be able to develop his subconscious in the future when his ego has developed enough to keep it in check.
II. Stranger Than FLCL
As for The Stranger, there are a few comparative points to note, not inclusive of whether Naota did or didn’t try to kill his father with a baseball bat (which was totally Freudian and thus not part of this). This first comparative point is that, as with Hamlet — and kids, take note of this for your AP essays — the protagonist is not a trustworthy source. In FLCL, Naota’s unreliability is laughable — he claims that robots and aliens are “ordinary.” In The Stranger, Meursault claims “I have never been able really to regret anything in all my life. I’ve always been far too much absorbed in the present moment or the immediate future, to think back.” — except that the first half of the book was him thinking back and recounting inane details with little reflection and no particular regret. In both cases, their unreliability springs from their maladjustment to the world around them: regardless of what is happening around them, they insist that their grasp on an ordinary reality is functionally accurate — even when they’re losing control of their conscious selves, Naota to the robot or Mamimi and Meursault to the environment or Marie. Or anything else, really — they’re both interested in avoiding asserting themselves for fear of creating conflict beyond their most certain objections, and generally go along with anything that they don’t have major objections to.
So both main characters are similarly disengaged from the reality that they find themselves in. As far as I’m concerned, Naota is the far more sympathetic character — as a juvenile, he lacks clearly defined agency to control his reality, and having his head bludgeoned by a sexy guitar-wielding alien isn’t something that most adults could necessarily handle. Meursault, meanwhile, just seems un-alive in a flat substantially too large for him with unsavory neighbors he only likes because admitting that he doesn’t care for them would thus require him to show ambition and initiative in changing his life. It’s one thing to be in denial of your brother leaving home and not needing his bunk, it’s another thing to vacate most of your flat because you’re just not using it. So it makes perfect sense that the image of Naota’s active sphere is a fog or steam (actually produced by Medical Mechanica) which obscures the outside world — or, from a point of view of agency, his options. It is bizarre, by comparison, that the employed Meursault with sexy girlfriend and opportunity to move to Paris, would use the image of a “dark horizon of my future a sort of slow, persistent breeze had been blowing toward me” when his fixation on inane, generally emotionless details denies his agency in his own life as an addling haze (actually produced by the Algerian heat) might’ve been more sensible. The key difference is probably in the perception of mortality: Naota feels pain, but not mortality, while Meursault accepts mortality as — up until the end of the book — one of the more boring facts of life, so while Naota feels no direction and thus senses obfuscation, Meursault senses the direction of the future and feels its velocity.
But here we cross the threads back again as the “winners” and “losers” both get reversed. The larger tragedy of FLCL (again drawing comparison to Hamlet — heck yeah!) is that even though Medical Mechanica was defeated, they still won: in as much as Naota was projecting ordinariness onto a wildly un-ordinary reality, Medical Mechanica didn’t need to iron the wrinkles out of his brain. Meanwhile, while “the People of France” defeated Meusault in asserting their normality over Meursault, Meursault effectively uses the spiteful adoration of fate (which Camus also framed the Myth of Sisyphus with) to steal their victory. There’s some ambiguity here, though: most readers are given to assume that Meusault is executed because he’s pretty much a sociopath with poor judgement, but he still had an appeal open and the priest thought it would go well for him — so there’s a possibility that Meursault’s beloved fatalism might be forestalled by the ironic mercy of the court.
But there’s another ambiguity which would rob Meursault of his subverted victory which he doesn’t even consider: that his funeral won’t be attended by a hateful crowd, but rather by kids like Naota who will see him decapitated, then shrug and wander off saying “Nothing amazing happens here. Only the ordinary.” And that is where the tragedies of The Stranger and FLCL intersect, but going in opposite directions.