A lot of hopes were pinned on Flip Flappers before it aired. Based on early art and trailers, it looked to have the same vibrant, intelligent and novel appeal of Kyousou Giga, a series that charmed the pants off many fans and is something of an under-appreciated gem. There simply aren’t enough shows out there that dare to be as daring, so anything even hinting in that direction is welcomed with open arms. This doesn’t always work out – Rolling Girls had a similar reception only reinforced by its earliest episodes, but ultimately disappointed in a major way. ‘Cautious optimism’ summarises most attitudes going into Flip Flappers; hopeful for its promise but aware of the potential for failure.
The first episode delivered in a big way. It was supremely energetic and sweet, fiercely imaginative and creative, and stunningly animated and presented – but so was Rolling Girls. Unlike Rolling Girls, Flip Flappers sustained this. It never ran out of ideas, never started dragging its heels, and never compromised on anything that made it stand out. Not content with that, it also displayed a great deal of depth and intelligence, and while that only emerged a few episodes in it quickly became apparent that it was hidden in plain sight from the beginning.
Flip Flappers can be best described as ‘relentlessly charming’. The core premise alone – of a normal schoolgirl living with her grandmother being taken on adventures into dreamlike lands by a mysterious, quirky, energetic girl – hearkens back to Peter Pan and the Disney animated fairytale canon, and with its magical girl/sci-fi dressings you get this absolutely delightful little setting. This mashup – especially when filtered through its thoroughly anime lens – is such a strong aesthetic that gets carried through the narrative, the music and the visuals.
It is bright, vibrant and imaginative in its appearance, resplendent in candy and pastel shades with captivating, otherworldy backdrops. It is so gorgeously animated with a style uniquely its own that it is an impressive, often stunning technical accomplishment that never loses sight of its own inherent joie de vivre. Nor is it flashiness for flashiness’ sake; there is thought and consideration into how the visuals reflect the mood, the characterisation and the story itself. This can range from simple things like Cocona and Papika’s hair all the way to entire episodes, in particular episode 6 where the colours carried a lot of the narrative weight. Flip Flappers isn’t just beautiful, it is smart with its beauty!
And those visuals are far from wasted. The creativity displayed on an episode by episode basis is nothing short of amazing. It goes from snowfields of sugar that give way to dark, looming forests, through Mad Max by way of femdom, to lesbian Groundhog Day, with a brief stop at neon mecha fighting for good measure. Flip Flappers is given unlimited options where to take the characters and takes full advantage of it, continually surprising me with its breadth and depth of ideas. There’s a knack for dynamism too – for every epic, massive or super high-concept episode there’s one much quieter, closer to home and more contemplative. But regardless of where the sheer variety takes it, they all have meaning and significance, even if it’s not immediately apparent. Flip Flappers isn’t just throwing these ideas out there for the hell of it, it’s exploring its concept as carefully and as thoughtfully as it can.
But what’s all that without charming characters to drop in the middle of it? And, again, Flip Flappers delivers superbly. Papika is the most visible, being the active, driving agent, but also because she’s basically an over-excitable puppy. She’s extremely open, forward, hyperactive, unconcerned and loving, and just such a sweet girl. She injects a sugar rush of energy into the story and presents a tremendously upbeat presence, even if she has complete tunnel vision on things she thinks less important– that is, things that aren’t Cocona – to the point of even being inconsiderate. The connection these two develop is simply lovely, and you get a strong sense of love between the two of them. They truly play to each other’s strengths and cover each other’s weaknesses, and even if they bicker a lot it’s just a sign of their closeness. After all, Cocona is a pretty no-nonsense girl who didn’t really want adventure, being forced into all this, and is far more self-doubting and pessimistic than Papika. She provides strong, necessary contrast, but more importantly forms the emotional core of the show – her growth and maturation as a person, especially with respect to her relationship with Papika, makes for a powerful and heartfelt story.
Other characters deserve mention and praise, but discussing them in any depth unfortunately invites major spoilers. Suffice to say, those that have depth are handled excellently and those that aren’t are still charming as heck.
That said, my only real complaints about Flip Flappers stem from the characters. The first one is the robot Bu-chan. I genuinely fail to see what he brings to the show, in terms of story and entertainment. He gets a few jokes (or rather, gets to be the butt of a few heavy slapstick scenes) and acts as a way to get the girls out of some sticky situations, but that’s it for positives. He has no real narrative significance, doesn’t contribute to advancing the characters, and as comic relief leaves a lot to be desired. Further, his characterisation as ‘comically lecherous’ seems to just be a way to work fanservice into a series where it feels wholly out of place. His is an annoying, apparently unimportant but largely ignorable, presence in a show where everything else has meaning, and contributes to some tonal dissonance.
Less in respect to characterisation and more with presentation of characters, but fanservice extends beyond Bu-chan too. While Cocona and Papika’s transformations are wonderfully animated and stylish, the way the camera leers over them is pretty off-putting. And it’s not exactly rare for there to be a surprising focus on their upper thighs, to the extent that sometimes you’re left wondering if the show’s trying to shove the camera up their butt. Oh, and then you have Nyunyu, a clearly very young girl who behaves as such introduced late on who’s outfit is disgustingly pervy. Why? Why was this necessary? It’s not like Flip Flappers is sexless – when it broaches the theme it does so pretty damn well – but why sully something so fairytale-like in tone and execution with crass and creepy objectification?
Moving on from fanservice: the hyperactivity and general personality of Papika. I personally loved her, and think her personality is a central element to Flip Flappers’ appeal, but I could easily see her being an element that annoys the shit out of vast swathes of people. Lord knows similar characters have in the past!
Anyway, enough with complaining, because there’s still one thing that elevates Flip Flappers into greatness that I haven’t covered yet. I’ve alluded to it, but not, I feel, gone into the depth it warrants. And that’s Flip Flappers’ depth and intelligence.
It’s a surprisingly dense show. You might not pick up on it until a few episodes in – I didn’t, many others didn’t, and it seems there is a real turning point for first time viewers – because it spends a lot of time seemingly indulging in fantastical adventure and interesting or entertaining scenarios for its own sake. It’s not until later on – if you even remember – that you realise that a lot of imagery, scenes and dialog from those early episodes, no matter how innocuous, has huge significance to the overall story, themes and characterisation. A rewatch feels almost necessary, and I imagine those early episodes will take on entirely new meaning with the benefit of knowing what it’s all working towards. And of course, even after the deeper meanings become more obvious and open, it never lets up; there is a tremendous amount of meaning behind just about everything to Flip Flappers, and the best part is that it’s all in service of its core story.
Everything ultimately ties together to the true nature of Pure Illusion – to what it is, to its history, to its purpose, and to what it means for Papika and Cocona. This, in turn, all contributes to their personal stories and growth, which ultimately is all in service of their relationship – the heart of Flip Flappers. What we have is an entire show – thematically, visually, narratively, character-wise, I mean everything – that has been carefully, thoughtfully, coherently and completely constructed with the sole aim of developing, nurturing and vindicating Cocona and Papika’s love.
The initial fun and joy Flip Flappers opens with belies a show with tremendous narrative and emotional depth. It is smart, it is consistent, and it is focused. It creates these fantastical, immensely creative scenarios, smacks Papika and Cocona right in the middle of them, then quietly turns the whole world around them. It dreamt on a huge scale about a story of the love between two girls, and delivered with sincerity and conviction. It revelled in open bliss and consoled in hopeless despair, but at no point did it ever lose sight of that initial sense of fun and joy. Flip Flappers had a narrative, thematic and emotional ambition that others would dare not hold, and was matched by a craftsmanship rarely seen – it truly went above and beyond my expectations.