Cocona is a smart, but aimless and unmotivated middle school girl whose greatest concern is being unable to decide what her goals are in life ... then her world is turned upside down by the arrival of an overenthusiastic and overfamiliar redhead named Papika, who takes her on an adventure in a kaleidoscopic parallel universe called Pure Illusion, where they find magical shards that enable them to transform into superpowered magical girls. However, they aren't alone: not only are these worlds occupied by beings (both benign and malignant), but they aren't the only ones seeking these shards, and Cocona and Papika are caught up in a race against time, all the while trying to sort out their lives and their newfound feelings for each other.
Hyperkinetic, visually inventive, chock-full of references spanning through much of the history of anime, and at times emotionally hard-hitting, Flip Flappers is one of those frustrating series that could have landed on my all-time favorites, if not for some extremely unfortunate, counterproductive, and crass pandering to otaku audiences.
First off, I need to address the elephant in the room, because I've been doing this far too long to want to dance around the problem: Flip Flappers sells itself on the fetishization of middle school girls, and if this bothers you, you may want hit the back button. Now.
Okay. Now that that's over with, let's get to the nitty-gritty.
It's pretty clear early on from the copious and intentional use of yuri-genre imagery that Flip Flappers is clearly meant to be an exploration of the sexual and philosophical awakening of Cocona -- albeit one that at times feels heavily forced on her by external circumstances, leaving audiences to openly question how much she is truly consenting to this whole scenario, especially given that the creators themselves are indeed smart enough to invoke Stockholm Syndrome as a trope during the course of the series. The maddening thing though, is that while there are times the imagery is, in context, so blatant as to be virtually comedic (it's useful to know that "comparing shells" is a Japanese euphemism for lesbian sex), it's also disturbing when paired with middle-schoolers (who are, unlike Sailor Moon, *actually* proportioned like middle-schoolers), one of whom (Papika) spends an inordinate time naked for basically no good reason. I would love to write that off as a case of casual nudity in Japanese society, but the camera angles and suggestive situations basically throw that out with the bathwater -- it's deliberate, and the problem with all the fan service (juxtaposed with "Pure" this and that everywhere) is that it actually cheapens and demeans what the writers clearly intended to be a tender and heartfelt love story between two girls.
Geez, yes, it's really sweet how Papika LOVES LOVES LOVES Cocona, now can you get the camera dude to point away from their privates long enough for us to enjoy the ridiculous, over-the-top magical girl action, PLEASE? GROSS.
(Also, in before the inevitable "Flip Fappers" doujinshi.)
Honestly, by about episode five, you could have put a fork in me; at that point, though I respected the technical aspects of the show and understand the references, I was emotionally checked out. Then episode six came, and suddenly, here was a genuine story with the girls reliving the memory of one of their classmates, complete with a realistic portrayal of domestic abuse as well as the effects of Alzheimer's-related dementia, and Flip Flappers was suddenly a show I absolutely needed to see through to the end.
Herein lies my frustration with Flip Flappers because, at its heart, this is actually a really, really, REALLY good show that shouldn't have had to sell itself so crassly. "Come for the loli fanservice, stay for the feels"?!? Oh come on! But yet here we are, and somehow, despite the worst instincts of some of its creators, there really is a lot to like, and even love about Flip Flappers.
A lot of this was the main character work: while Cocona takes a while to grow as a character (she's sort of a gender-swapped Ikari Shinji), she grows more assertive and confident over time; Papika's enthusiasm is infectious, though her character shows plenty of range; you also get to see a lot of Cocona's bratty, sarcastic (yet pretty cool) friend Yayaka. If any character feels like a complete misstep, it's pervy, handsy robot Bu-chan (probably the aforementioned cameraman) who is basically the series butt-monkey and manages to serve even less narrative purpose than Cocona's pet rabbit. If, perhaps, they'd used Bu-chan as a means of examining the nature of the anime industry's paraphilic fixation on youth and "cuteness", this might have gone somewhere, but he's less of a character than a seriously unfunny running gag.
The way the actual story handles Cocona and Papika figuring out how they feel about each other is also really interesting: this is definitely a yuri love story, but one with significantly more emotional depth and gentleness than most. Granted: same-sex attraction is hardly anything new in the magical girl genre, but the openness with which this is handled is refreshing -- there's no "hiding the gay from anyone", as is par for the course in a yuri series, much less minimizing this as "just friends" or, worse, implying this is only a phase, and temporary. So Flip Flappers deserves credit for not falling into those ubiquitous pitfalls, though, frustrating, the writers do seem to lift a really disturbing page from Twilight in the late game that nearly ruins all the good work here.
The visual appeal of this series is readily apparent from the get-go, with scenes that intentionally invoke everything from Nausicaa to Madoka Magica to Maria Watches Over Us to Kill La Kill, this is really an "anime fan's anime", even more than it is an anime strictly for otaku; it is not enough for the creators to reference these shows, but the degree and skill with which they handle these scenes is outright stunning. These folks really know how to set tone and atmosphere, and in its moments of clarity, Flip Flappers also reminds us why we got into anime in the first place; it's really hard to visuals this evocative on a television show from anywhere else, and at one point Flip Flappers even seems to emulate John William Waterhouse's paintings of Ophelia and the Lady of Shalott. It is really, really, really hard for me, as a reviewer, to reconcile that level of artistic sophistication with "hey, let's zoom in a little closer on Papika's thigh gap".
So, yeah, this leaves me at a quandary. Flip Flappers is technically skilled, visually refined, and emotionally heartfelt, but extremely problematic in its borderline salacious treatment of the incipient sexuality of young teens. Honestly, how do I weight these against each other in a way that makes any sense?
Flip Flappers is perhaps the ur-example of potentially great late 2010s anime being held back from greatness by the anime industry's unexamined fetishistic infatuation with youth and self-reference. Some fans may remove as many as two additional stars depending on how much fan service annoys them. — Carlos Ross
Recommended Audience: Papika spends an inordinate amount of time naked, and the skinship between her and Cocona is neither played for laughs nor innocent; the magical girl transformation sequences are also markedly less innocuous than most. There is also a fair amount of violence (including violence towards children), and some blood, though the most disturbing character deaths, strangely, involve clovers. Viewer discretion STRONGLY advised; not recommended whatsoever for young children, and teens and up with strong reservations and parental discretion.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital source, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (13/13)
Flip Flappers © 2016 FliFla Project
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