Thursday, August 16, 2018

Flip flappers animators cross the line and ruin what could have been a great show (Anime Review)

Flip Flappers Cocona and Papika
Cocona and Papika

I'd heard about Flip Flappers for a while but continued to resist watching it. When I opened it up on Crunchyroll last week I remembered why. When looking at the art they chose to promote it, it appears highly sexualized. Thankfully, overall, that turned out to be a mis-representation of the show and yet it also is an interesting clue into what this show really is and who it is for.

The entire time I was watching Flip Flappers I had one recurrent question: Is this a children's show or an adult show? It is certainly not unusual in anime to have an adult show with middle-school aged characters, but more often than not I was pleasantly surprised that Flip Flappers actually seemed to be a show for children about children. Mostly, it had the right mix of fun, action, irrepressible characters, and an art style that supported a child-age demographic. However, there were some concerning aberrations from this.

Every so often in the show, a choice by the animators would have me questioning whether Flip Flappers really was an anime for children. Not in the same way that the nearly unrivaled Puella Magi Madoka Magica did, because that was clearly meant as a subversive take on the magical girl genre for older audiences, and it succeeded incredibly at that. No, this was more like: here's a nice happy-go-lucky kids show and don't look too close but here's some middle-school girl crotch for you, or here's a robot making lecherous advances on nearly naked women, or here's a completely unnecessary shower scene, or a phallic looking joystick in a mecha being squeezed by a girl in a close-up shot, or this character's power comes from her upper thigh, or WHAT THE HELL IS SHE WEARING? (Yeah, I'm talking to you, third child that appears out of nowhere in the last few episodes - I mean, it's skimpier than underwear in the front and we get regular butt crack - NOT OKAY).

So the fact that Crunchyroll used promo art that shows clear middle-school girl cleavage/side-boob on a show that is 99% pure tells us that the 1% that isn't pure is exactly who this show is really for. That doesn't mean real kids can't enjoy it, and it doesn't mean honorable adults can't watch it, so long as we're doing it with a critical eye. Let's look quickly at the differences between the art in the show and the promotional art:

Flip Flappers Cocona and Papika
Here's a shot from early in the series. Cute, modest, fun!
Flip Flappers promo art
Here's the promotional art used on Crunchyroll. Notice the side-boob,
they're wet in water, the high slits on the thighs, etc...
Flip Flappers Cocona Papika and Yayaka
Here's a shot from the show.
flip flappers box set art
And here's the box set, also with art that looks nothing like the
series and is clearly meant to further sexualize the characters.

 What message does it send when we let a robot (who we can assume is male) have several instances of making google-eyed faces at scantily clad women? Instead of those costumes being female empowerment choices made by individual women based on how they want to present themselves, it becomes clear that the costume choices were made by animators for the purpose of titillation. There can be no excusing or hand-wringing, or plausible deniability on the grounds that there is nothing objectively wrong about skin and naked bodies other than what puritanical society has created because now you have put in a robot who leers at them. We now understand, through his surrogacy, that we should leer too. We have now just instructed every male (young or old) who watches this show that women can be objectified and we've instructed every female (young or old) who watches this show that times still haven't changed and they still must be afraid for their bodies around men who cannot be asked to control their most animal instincts. Stupid writers/animators.

However, that was 1% of the show. What about the other 99%? Well, it was okay. Not as great as the potential plot setup would suggest, but probably worth watching. Cocona is a middle-school student who meets the manic-pixie-dream-girl (yes, it's still a thing) Papika and enters a strange parallel universe called Pure Illusion with her to find fragments of something that will apparently grant them wishes. Cocona intermittently questions why she's doing this, given that they really can get hurt. But I wondered why Cocona doesn't question the strange and dark Mr. Salt who is their boss and why she would work for his organization, Flip Flap, without proof that they're the "good guys?" Especially when it turns out her best friend Yayaka (maybe the best character in the series) is working for another faction. How does she know Yayaka isn't with the good guys and Papika is with the bad guys? The only real conclusion I can draw is that Cocona is somehow infatuated with Papika in a way she has yet to admit to herself.

That's actually the context in which I first heard about Flip Flappers, as a yuri-baiting experience. Without spoiling anything too much, there are certainly plenty of moments when Papika seems to express genuine love, leaning slightly towards the romantic (if only vaguely) for Cocona. Cocona barely seems to want to be real friends, until she gets jealous, that is. However, other than occasionally telling each other they love each other and a little hand holding, there is no yuri. Sadly, very little of their connection with each other gets explored. We are given historical information by the end that cements their connection, but not a lot of actual day-to-day interactions that would suggest a growing friendship or even an eventual romantic one. This writing too suggests more of a children's show than a developed adult show.

I did love the hand-drawn aesthetic of the art. It's not all full of CGI, even in the action scenes. I like that it looks like a cartoon. I have to admit too that Papika is completely winning as a character, you just can't help but want to follow her. I also like that Cocona's grandmother is in a wheelchair, we see so few people with disabilities in any show, let alone in anime. I'm not a huge magical girl fan, but at least the monster-of-the-week thing here was more of "universe-of-the-week" and so the adventures were a bit more varied. I do think the transformation scenes were also a bit too risqué if this is a children's cartoon (as in, they should already have underwear on during the transformation - but no, alas, here they are naked and then the underwear appears in a full-screen butt shot, sigh).

So what do we really have in Flip Flappers? Some good magical girl adventures, a couple good characters, interesting art, a family plot that I won't give away that drives the end of the story and has some interesting nuggets, but overall a show that doesn't really explore any significant emotional connections or growth. Relationships are very superficially established and yet the final arc hinges on believing these relationships are that intense. It wasn't a bad show, it might even have been a good show, but it wasn't a great show, and yet it COULD have been. It was sooooo close.

If I were rating this as a kid's show, I'd give it a 7/10 (it would be higher if not for the sexualization). But rating it as an adult show, I think I need to give it a 5.5/10 for its lack of depth and for the subtle, not-so-subtle, adult sexualizing of middle-schoolers that crops up at points. I mean, imagine if stuff like that cropped up in Fineas and Ferb? Never would happen, so why is this okay in anime? It's not. We don't have to excuse it and I won't even call it culturally-bound because cultures are allowed to change and it's time to stop sexualizing youth in anime.

Where we can hopefully excuse an adult viewer as a critical viewer who can separate out any value a show might have from its problematic points. But we cannot assume that children are critical consumers of media and imagery. Therefore, this exposure to sexualization and the male gaze places these developmentally fragile children in harm's way (both girls and boys who are each learning different things about how the world works from these exposures).

Skin and nudity aren't the problem. There is nothing objectively wrong or sexual about the human body. It is the overt use of props, clothes, imagery, and actions that directly call for sexual arousal or that hint at the legacies of pervasive male dominance and loss of sexual and bodily agency by women that must be seriously rethought. I'd love to see an edit of Flip Flappers where those issues are removed. They are so few overall in the show, but broke the spell for me each time and truly ruined my experience with this show.

For a great, and slightly different take on this series, that still references some of the same critical problems, check out this review on www.anime-evo.net: http://www.anime-evo.net/2016/12/30/flip-flappers-13-series-finale-review/

Here's a fascinating look at Flip Flappers from an animator's view of how it fails to provide emotional expression in the facial animation: https://wavemotioncannon.com/2016/12/20/how-flip-flappers-gets-expressions-wrong/


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