The Game-Changing Soundtrack of FLCL

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself with less and less time to listen to and appreciate good music. It’s a shame because there was a time in my youth when I would just lay back and spend hours listening to CDs on my Sony Walkman. Back then, I paid a lot of attention to bands. I learned all about them and took the time to absorb and appreciate their albums. For me, music was an art that was meant to be carefully appreciated and enjoyed. Naturally, this consistent dedication also led me to appreciate soundtracks. Whether it came from films, TV, or video games, I thoroughly loved pouring the track lists of new and popular titles. These collections were always a treat, as they could feature anything from original compositions to remixes, to current (for the time) licensed music. And while band albums typically made a bigger impact on me, there would occasionally be a few stand-out soundtracks that held my attention. One of the more memorable ones came from the anime FLCL (or Fooly Cooly). That show was, and remains, the most influential, cerebral, and visually stunning series that I have ever seen- but I think the biggest part of it for me, was the music.

The shtick

The Pillows, the band behind FLCL’s soundtrack.

The creators of FLCL chose to license the music of Japanese alt-rock band, The Pillows, for most of their soundtrack. Using licensed tracks is unusual for anime, but limiting it to one band for nearly the entire soundtrack is rather unique. I’m not sure it’s something that would work for just any band or any anime. Yet in FLCL, it works exquisitely. Perhaps it’s because I’m an American, with little-to-no knowledge of the Japanese rock space. But for me, the music of The Pillows is inseparable from FLCL. I can’t imagine the show without the music, any more than I can imagine it without its crazy visuals or innuendo-clad writing. It’s almost as though the group’s music has become a part of the fabric that composes the show. That concept is one that I wrestle with a bit because it’s likely an unintended consequence of my unfamiliarity with Japanese artists. But I like it. I should also mention the work of Shinkichi Mitsumune, who is responsible for the show’s non-Pillows music. But those pieces are both rare and inconspicuous, to the point that they mostly get lost in the background. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were intended to be filler, bridging the gaps between the main set-pieces in the musical lineup. In this way, The Pillows’ music feels incredibly deliberate, almost like a kind of narration, coming out when necessary to help push the story along and at times, even contribute to it. Their inclusion, it seems to me, is more an artistic choice than a hallow licensed music grab by a lazy studio. And while I don’t have anything to back that up, other than my own experience with the show, I certainly hope I’m right. The show would just be better that way.

As for the music itself, I suppose it’s a product of its time. The Pillows’ sound consists of upbeat, energetic alt-rock that fits in well with the other “greats” from the 90’s like The Pixies, Weezer, and Radiohead. That being said, it’s damn good! It’s been a really long time since FLCL came out (about 15 years at the time of this writing). Since then my music-listening habits have fizzled, replaced by work and other self-inflicted obligations. Yet I still find myself coming back to this soundtrack over and over again- and with good reason. Few albums are as energizing as this soundtrack. Many a time have I put it on in order to get me through a shitty day at the office. And it only takes one song! Once the hook starts, I can’t help but move to the music, with my body revived by the auditory caffeine blaring through the speakers. In fact, I started listening to it while writing this post, and I’ve had a hard time typing because all I want to do is tap and move and air-guitar to the music. With a response like that, a person could easily claim that I’m more of a fan of The Pillows than of the FLCL soundtrack. After all, the soundtrack is all from one band. But like I said before, the music and the anime are inseparable, and each song carries with it vivid images of the show. I can’t listen to some of these songs without seeing familiar characters and environments. That ability to “take me back” is the soundtracks biggest strength.

The ending credits song “Ride on Shooting Star” is just as catchy as anything else in the show. It results in a situation where you can’t even look at these visuals without immediately hearing it.

And take me back, it does- in so many different ways. FLCL is a show about growing up, and all the sad and wonderful things that come with that part of life. Its characters are all fun and charming, yet they all must deal with very serious issues about maturity and self. The protagonist Naota is overly eager to cast off childhood and quickly become an adult. The troubled Mamimi struggles with letting go of relationships and with the effects of using others. Commander Amamaro deals with insecurities regarding his level of masculinity. Despite FLCL’s whimsical and comical feel, these traits make for some pretty deep scenes at times. In fact, the anime’s tones are all over the place, ranging from mundane to chaotic, to melancholic, to inspiring! And each song somehow pairs perfectly while still maintaining its upbeat nature. It feels as though the animators and musicians worked side by side, playing off each others’ beats like a glorious concerto! That harmony is made all the more impressive by the fact that nearly all of the music pre-existed the show. So while it would be technically incorrect to say that FLCL and its music were made for each other, to say that they weren’t, feels equally disingenuous.

FLCL has such a phenomenal soundtrack. Yet its greatness isn’t the result of a single influence. Rather, it’s the product of many things coming together and making something much bigger. It’s the stellar work of the Pillows, masterfully paired with the genius writing of Yoji Enokido, and the gorgeous animation of Gainax and Production I.G. This soundtrack is not just music. When I listen to “Bran-New Lovesong”, I don’t just feel the melodies and lyrics. I also feel the first time I saw Mamimi smoking sullenly on a bridge while eating stale bread and reflecting on her sad state. When I listen to “Hybrid Rainbow”, I can feel the sight of Canti rising into the golden afternoon sky like some kind of deity. And sweet Jesus! Who could possibly disassociate “Blues Drive Monster” from that absolutely kick-ass battle at the end of episode 5??!! Even now, it still gives me goosebumps! I guess what I’m trying to say is that FLCL is an experience- and one from which, the soundtrack is a tremendous and inseparable part. Sure, it can stand alone, but frankly, it’s incomplete that way. Its true soul lays in reliving many of the great moments and feelings that come with watching the show. FLCL is something that has left a permanent, but wonderful, mark on me, as well as on my collection of music. Even now, fifteen years later, I can’t stop listening to it. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon…