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A Suburban Fantasy: Nothing Amazing Ever Happens Here

August 12, 2012

“Nothing amazing ever happens here. Everything is ordinary.”

Those two sentences combined with a series of shots showing the animated Japanese town of Mabase; with it’s quiet streets, winding river, and ominous Medical Mechanica building open one of the most ridiculous anime series known to man. The series is FLCL, and it is about many many things. I once described it to a group of sixty people who then voted to watch it as, “About the Space Pirate Atomsk and Growing Up.” Many people, who had seen it, and then those who saw it afterward agreed that yes, that is what the show is about.

While the internet has already written pages upon pages of theories regarding FLCL (and what exactly the pronunciation Fooly Cooly really even means), I’m drawn to that opening line and its reflection on suburban ennui. It’s spoken by the lead character Naota, a twelve year old denizen of Mabase, who is obsessed with appearing mature. Part of this maturity, and a major part of his life, is the almost negative nonchalant way he interacts with and reflects on his town, and his place in the life within Mabase.

Even when mecha are exploding out of his head and he’s being seduced by a crazy alien woman who fights with a bass guitar, Naota pretends to be unphased. Yet throughout the series, he freaks out when minor changes occur in his world. Naota is grumpy if he has to eat the spicy curry or if someone gets him a drink that’s too sweet. Fighting robots? No problem. But letting the neighbors see that you have a fighting flying robot that protects the town? What will they think?!

This is because Naota is a suburbanite. Stuck in this place where he both disdains the concepts of suburban life and yet is hopelessly formed by them. He’s the type of kid who’s going to grow up and everything will be running smoothly in his life, and then when a friend comes over, he’ll become acutely aware of dust on the underside of his toilet bowl. As a part of his life, he pretends that everything is horrible because he has nothing else to do, there are no real challenges for him so he instead makes them. He wants to be more mature, he wants to leave and go on an adventure, he wants all of these things and yet, he refuses to try the spicy curry.

Over the course of the six episode series, Naota learns about growing up, and in part what it means to be a kid. He also comes to a sort of peace regarding his suburban existence.

Yet for those brief several weeks when he was twelve years old, his little town of Mabase (where nothing exciting ever happens) was the crossroads for an intergalactic showdown between space pirates, a villainous woman, Medical Mechanica, and a shadowy government agency. Lurking beneath the veneer of calm was a world that few people could even comprehend. Yet, the townspeople of Mabase are never truly bothered by it. Robots flying around, giant hands looming over buildings shaped like clothes irons, and a woman who both flies and fights with a Rickenbacker bass guitar. They never really seem bothered by it. The fact that a little old lady who owns a dinky shop still sells Crystal Pepsi though, that’s worth discussing.*

These are the little facets that make the whole series interesting to me. In many ways, these little slice of life moments and the head-in-the-sand opinion of the townsfolk is part of what made me connect to this show when I first saw it. Anyone who’s known me for longer than a few hours probably knows that I grew up in suburbia and hated it. After college, I lived in a suburb outside of DC and hated that even more. On some level, FLCL was a little acknowledgment when I was fourteen or so that someone else had dealt with the things I had been dealing with.

You know, coming of age under hazy orange skies while battling robots that would burst from your brain.

Or in reality, taking long walks or bike rides and thinking, “Nothing exciting ever really happens here.”
Now, I live in the big city, and I own/operate a restaurant out in the suburbs. I ride a train and it goes clickity-clack while pushing through miles upon miles of fenced in houses, downtown areas with bars and boutiques and restaurants, and lonely highways and byways cutting through illusory clumps of vegetation. In theory, by day I work in a quaint village and at night I come home to a place of danger, with looming buildings and deep dark alleys waiting to swallow you up.

Yet, I’ve never felt that that was the case.

Even growing up, I felt that there was another aspect of suburbia that people always overlooked. You overlook it because, when you’re growing up as a little kid you get home by the time the street lights come on. When you live/work there as an adult you go home after work, have dinner, watch tv, and forget about the world outside.

When you’re a teenager though, you might begin to notice it. The long stretches of darkness, the silence that can reign for miles broken only by the far-off laughter of some other sixteen year old having a good time. It also hits you when you’re a young adult who wants to be in cities. One night, a few months ago, I had visited friends on Long Island and we were in this vast parking lot. The lights were a dim hazy orange, and beyond their light was just this vast swath of darkness. Besides us chatting through car windows, there was little to no other sound.

I was far more acutely aware of our vulnerability as human beings than I ever have been walking through one of those tight, dark corridors of steel and plywood that get erected around Manhattan construction areas, in the middle of the night.

The comfort, quiet, and psychic distance that people crave from suburbia also creates this sort of inherent danger alongside its persistent ennui. We sit and believe that nothing happens, yet there is so much that might happen that we never know about. In the silence and the shadows, what if things were moving?

I’ve always been a fan of Urban Fantasy.

And I fully understand why it is so focused on cities. Cities are cosmopolitan, they don’t sleep, they’re vast, they’re shadowy, and they’ve long held this reputation for being dangerous and corrupting. Yet, nothing terrifies me more than the beast that lurks among us. Nothing strikes me as more interesting as the willingness of people to look the other way if their property values remain the same. What happens when the peace of suburbia is discovered to be tainted?

These sorts of questions have driven some interesting works, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and (not fantasy but certainly driven by suburban questions) Breaking Bad.

They are also questions that have been haunting me for some time.

What I’m trying to get to, in a very very roundabout way, is that I’m starting work on a new novel. Work on the previous endeavor ground to a halt, and even though I have it just so in my head when I was some 40,000 words into it, I came to realize that it can’t be just so. It must be so. If that makes any sense to anyone.

So instead, I’m turning my focus toward this (sub)urban fantasy piece that’s been bubbling in my brain for…quite some time. I’m going to hush up on the details beyond the little spurt I dropped before and the things I’m thinking about in this little diddy. If all goes well, I hope to return (and maybe finish?) the other novel idea by the end of the year. That novel by the way, since I was so exceedingly hush-hush about it the last time, has the working title of, “Oh Elisgia!”

This…well, this humorously has never picked up a title in all the time I’ve spent thinking on it on-and-off. Hopefully, while working on it a title will reveal itself.

*: I can’t remember what this is in the original Japanese. The cultural reference was changed out in the phenomenal English dub, and it’s been too long since I watched it subbed.

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