Flip Flappers’s Chrono-Complex
Possible speculative spoilers for Flip Flappers ahead!
I feel like I shouldn’t write this post just yet, since I’ll be hemmed by speculation, but I’m going to do it anyway. This seems like the best time to point out a powerful storytelling technique—as we are all experiencing it live. I want to emphasize: this essay’s primary purpose is not to analyze the show, but to analyze the meta and mechanics behind the story.
Every episode of Flip Flappers has been a goldmine for analysis of symbolism, subtext, color, and allusion, but (and I don’t mean to belittle any of that analysis) all of that been relatively surface-level. That is, the show wants us to notice all of it. You can say: Cocona and Papika are like two halves to a whole—they swap hair color when they transform, they can only enter Pure Illusion with the other’s help, one is super energetic while the other is reserved. Yes, definitely, and that is worth talking about, but I don’t think any of that is something viewers are meant to dig for. It’s all right there, immediately accessible, as if Flip Flappers is pushing all of its latent content to the mainstage alongside its plot. As a result, the show can be playful in its storytelling. By first investigating the way Flip Flappers tells its sub-stories, we can uncover a complexity that shapes the show as a whole.
As a starting point: let’s say you want to analyze Gurren Lagan for some meaning related to masculinity. You think about robots and drills and certain characters, and eventually you pull some meaning out. Standard analysis/close reading. The meaning you derive is not of immediate consequence to the characters or plot—not such that the story falls apart if you don’t analyze it. I would argue that Flip Flappers cannot exist without its latent content or, rather, in ignorance of it. Actually, I would argue that Flip Flappers’s latent content is made into manifest content—made front and center—while the actual meaning of the show is being developed. In other words: there are levels to this.
What does this look like in practice? In Episode 3, the major conflict is that Cocona is being controlled by a helmet made by some arachnid seductress, whom the girls later fight. The seductress literally tells Cocona that she’s “so lacking in identity that [she] couldn’t stay in control of [her]self.” This is a very clear example of what we can call “immediate” or “simultaneous” latent content. If the seductress said nothing, or if Cocona’s lack of identity wasn’t so directly incorporated into the conflict, then this meaning would be something we have to parse. Instead, the meaning is delivered to us outright like the moral at the end of a fable. These episodes become equivalent to their supposed latent meaning much in the same way The Boy Who Cried Wolf is equivalent to its moral. As if the only purpose of the story is its immediate latent meaning. When you see the helmet, you ask: “How does that work?” and your answer has to be Cocona’s lack of identity.
Continuing this comparison, each episode of Flip Flappers is indeed fable-like. On a basic level, they boil down to learning a lesson or providing a path of judgment. Episode 5—the “qrE3TInqs” world—is an extremely typical enchantress story you could find all over Greco-Roman mythology. Our heroes are quelled into complacency by a pleasurable, routine life, temporarily abandoning their quest for some sacred object. In this case, the girls stop looking for the amorphous fragment to enjoy a quiet daily life in some MariMite-like private school. As you’d expect, our heroes eventually choose the righteous path and return to their quest. Flip Flappers is built out of traditional tales of morality. Even the ending theme makes visual reference to Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and other fairytales and fables.
Flip Flappers does present these rather typical narratives in unique ways, like giving the enchantress episode elements of horror, but the actual stories of Pure Illusion are simple and their meaning readily accessible. The “point” is delivered in a simple way. This isn’t to say that because these episodes have immediate latent content there isn’t a layer of complex meaning below that. That’s kind of what this essay is all about. Flip Flappers is shrouded in mystery, and the truth is what we are really seeking beneath our initial interpretations. That’s why we interpret so much of the plot, dialogue, and visuals—we know we’re missing some sort of truth. The truth will change or “flip” our understanding of this content. So what is the truth we’re missing?
There is some obvious mystery like what happened to Cocona’s parents, but there’s also mystery that’s easier to forget about. The first time Cocona and Papika enter Pure Illusion, Papika hugs Cocona and says, “You’re alive!” Furthermore, when we first see Papika, there is a dead body lying on the ground that Papika refers to as a “bust.” This suggests not everyone can survive matching impedances with Papika. Even more curiously, the failed partner is wearing a bodysuit similar to Papika’s original, hinting they may have also been part of the FlipFlap organization. Clearly you can die by trying to enter Pure Illusion, but we only ever see the one shot of the dead body and then Papika’s one line about Cocona surviving. It’s easy to forget this once the LSD trips start, but if you think back you find yourself asking, “Why?”
And why are alarms going off when Papika leaves FlipFlap? Is she a prisoner or an experiment or what?
And what’s this hand chasing after the girls during the ending theme? Who is Dr. Salt? What the hell is he talking about all the time? We don’t know answers to any of these questions and we’re not given much to go off. All we ever do learn are some ways Pure Illusion affects reality. That is, until Episode 7.
Episode 7 represents the first time since that opening scene that we learn something substantial about the mechanics of entering Pure Illusion. First, Hidaka says “Not just anyone can go to Pure Illusion. [Cocona and Papika] attract fragments” so they have to be the ones to go. This seems to imply that Pure Illusion is brought to the girls, rather than the girls are being brought to Pure Illusion. The fragments seek the girls; the girls don’t seek the fragments. This is interesting when compared to Papika’s line in Episode 2 that she’s “not powerful enough to go [to Pure Illusion] alone.” Cocona apparently amplifies the attractive force Papika produces. Later in Episode 7, Yayaka is told she “can’t find any amorphous unless [she] follow[s] someone, and [she’s] inferior to the amorphous children.” Thus, it is the twins in Yayaka’s group that seem to attract amorphous fragments. And this is where speculation on Flip Flappers’s true latent content can begin.
We see the “amorphous children” holding hands and sitting back-to-back in a way similar to how we’ve seen Cocona and Papika portrayed in the past. They appear to be meditating, attempting to “feel” something—something probably related to amorphous fragments, judging by the particle that shoots up the cult’s totem afterwards. This tells us a lot. If Yayaka can’t enter Pure Illusion, but the amorphous twins can, then that suggests being made of (?) or having a connection to amorphous fragments is what allows you to enter Pure Illusion.
Going off of that, we’ve seen Papika’s ankle and Cocona’s inner thigh glow both when they retrieve amorphous fragments and when they transform. We also see amorphous fragments themselves glow when the girls retrieve other fragments or when they are in sync. We can only conclude that the girls are either born from amorphous or are connected to it in some primal or biological way. What this connection may be and what it may mean are questions at the heart of the show’s latent content. As it stands, each adventure in Pure Illusion is like a standalone fable that circumscribes the overarching plot of the series. Currently, the girls’ experiences in Pure Illusion are not actually developing the truth behind Dr. Salt’s plans, the cult, or the girls’ true identities. But, like I said, that changes.
At the end of the episode, Papika makes Cocona a crown of flowers, which causes them both to laugh and synchronize impedances. As usual, the amorphous fragments glow, but Papika also has a vision of a woman holding a child being swept away by some force. Rewatching this scene, it’s easy to connect Papika, Cocona, and Dr. Salt to the people within the vision. At least, we’re supposed to suspect Papika and Dr. Salt are within the vision because Papika is the one who sees the memory and Dr. Salt acts sketchily when he’s on-screen during the scene. The vision triggered when Papika synchronized with Cocona, so it’s safe to assume Cocona is involved as well.
I’m not sure where to begin speculating on this scene, but for the purposes of this essay, let’s say two things. 1. Cocona, Papika, and Dr. Salt have a common past that binds them physically or emotionally to amorphous fragments. 2. When Papika is looking for a partner, it’s no accident that she “found” Cocona. Given the evidence discussed thus far, these are reasonable claims. Even if my understanding of the vision is slightly wrong, these claims hold up, and so we can use them to re-interpret the series thus far. I admit I don’t know where we will be pushing our analysis to, but that’s not important. We can better discuss that once the series is finished. For now, we will be concerned with the strategy of the plot, with understanding the mechanic by which past meanings are altered in Flip Flappers. So, what am I talking about? Well, let’s have an exercise in re-analysis.
Throughout the series, Papika is constantly saying she’s found Cocona. In Episode 1, she’s “looking for a candidate.” After breaking the helmet in Episode 3, she says she’s “found [Cocona].” In Episode 4, she’s “met the person [she] wanted to meet,” implying Cocona. In every single episode, she’s running at Cocona with her arms open, screaming her name like they’ve been separated for years and are now finally reunited. And, obviously, Episode 7 ends with a confusion over which girl “found” which. If we consider the vision, and how Mimi and the child seem to be disappearing while the Papika-like girl and the Dr. Salt-like man yell after her, then these moments take on new meaning and their complexity multiplies.
Suddenly, Papika is not simply looking for someone who can help her enter Pure Illusion. She might be looking for “family”—to quote Episode 4—that has disappeared. Just as the amorphous fragments in Pure Illusion are attracted to the girls, the girls may be attracted to each other because of their relation to amorphous. Suddenly, Cocona’s lack of identity is not simply that of a teenager unsure of her future. Cocona may have lost her physical or emotional being during/because of the events in that vision. Why exactly is she connected to amorphous if she’s just a normal girl? She must be special, a result of something related to amorphous, just like Papika seems to be. The fact that Papika is looking for Cocona all the time only makes Cocona’s lack of identity more complex. Is Papika looking for what was lost in the vision, thus making Cocona herself what was lost? See how we can no longer take earlier episodes as simple metaphors for self-discovery, blossoming sexuality, etc. Those interpretations are only the beginnings of larger, more complex ideas.
To compound this complexity even more, consider Cocona’s recurring dream. This dream contains latent content in a more traditional sense—much more traditional, since Freud’s original definition of latent content pertained only to dreams. Cocona is on a boat with a figure who resembles the young-lady-old-woman optical illusion. She asks the figure, “Who are you?” to which the figure replies, “Welcome back.” This is more traditional in the sense that the latent content is not immediate at all. The meaning beneath the confusing surface cannot be deciphered, cannot be reapplied to the current situation. We as viewers lack the information necessary to decode the scene. Notice how this is unlike so many of the adventures in Pure Illusion, the latent content of which is elevated rapidly to the surface by symbols, tropes, and more.
But, if Episode 7 begins to change our perception of Pure Illusion, does it also allow insight into Cocona’s dream?
Yes. Again, we’re only 7 episodes in, so we don’t have all the answers yet, but we can speculate. First, the figure welcomes Cocona back, following the trend of Cocona being something that was lost in Papika’s vision. A boat on a misty river calls to mind the River Styx, which the dead must cross to reach the afterlife. We can’t say for sure that Cocona is dead/connected to death, but it’s worth considering the possibility that this dream is a reference to Styx. Alternatively, the duality of the figure’s identity that leads Cocona to ask “Who are you?” points to Cocona’s struggle to find her own identity. Perhaps the figure is welcoming Cocona into an understanding of herself that she pursues via Pure Illusion. Perhaps this dream represents Cocona asking herself, “Who am I?” No matter the case, notice again that our understanding is delayed from our perception. There are no easily identifiable symbols, such as the helmet, and no easily understandable plot devices, such as the looping school day, for the viewer to decode in real time.
As the name suggests, the idea of immediate latent content revolves around time—specifically, the time between perception and understanding. Was this essay just a long-winded way of saying something obvious, then? Is the whole point that we can’t fully understand a story until after it’s finished? Yes and no. Yes: the basic idea is that stories provide the most meaning after they’re complete. But also: Flip Flappers is playing with that concept to provide a unique experience.
Flip Flappers has an end goal that we can’t understand until the show is over. That’s how stories usually work; bravo, I’m a genius. Yet, on the way to that goal, Flip Flappers gives viewers something to chew on. Each episode contains a main subplot that can be interpreted and analyzed and understood in isolation. Within those subplots are hints of truth that are useless on their own and useless in relation to analysis of the subplot. This would be: why Papika says she’s found Cocona after breaking the helmet, what exactly the seductress means by “giving [Cocona] a role”, how Cocona and Papika are able to take turns being Iroha, etc. These details are so void of information on their own that they are overlooked or misused in any analysis thus far.
We become caught up in analyzing what we do understand that we ignore what we don’t. Rather, we aren’t aware of what we don’t understand. Then, the gears of the main plot slowly turn, bringing what we don’t understand closer to the foreground again. This is what we are currently experiencing. We are gaining tools of knowledge that allow us to go back and reevaluate certain scenes. The more we learn, the more we can parse out of the past. The supposedly clear symbols and plot devices are deconstructed by our new context and we as viewers can no longer take them for granted. We can no longer take for granted that a looping school is just a plot device. We can no longer take for granted that Papika found Cocona or that Cocona is a girl without a sense of identity. As Dr. Salt would say, each world of Pure Illusion has “friction” with every other world, and what happens as the plot moves forward changes what we believe has happened in the past.
Flip Flappers is a continuous deconstruction of our understanding, with the temporality of meaning existing as a sort of circle, not a line. That is: meaning is not built on top of itself as time proceeds. The story doesn’t move down notches on the timeline, adding a new Lego block to a single construct of meaning as it goes. Time and meaning are related complexly. We understand the story by moving forward, looking backwards, and combining both now and then. Meaning that was established “then” must be deconstructed and reconstructed by new meaning obtained “now”. This is the sensation of not having any idea what’s going on, but knowing that whatever is happening is part of a cohesive message. This is not the frustration of not having any idea what’s going on because the story is a mess.
Bobduh touched on this idea in an article he wrote for Crunchyroll. He claims Flip Flappers “tells all sorts of stories without actually saying anything.” Keeping in mind that Bobduh wrote this article around the time of Episode 5, it makes sense that he would think these fables are all “disjointed.” Viewers had yet to understand Dr. Salt’s idea of “friction” that erodes the show’s meaning. Looking back with the privilege of new understanding, I disagree with much of Bobduh’s interpretation, but—when I read it two weeks ago—I found his thoughts quite valid. Obviously I did, for I expanded on the connection he noticed between Flip Flappers and fairytales in this essay. But I would, for example, no longer accept that Papika is “leading Cocona to a more honest and unreserved self.” Not that this reading is wrong, but I can no longer accept it as right. My immediate thought is: “Yeah, okay, but…”
But Cocona and Papika need each other equally. But Pure Illusion influences the girls as much as they influence it. But Cocona’s existence itself appears unnatural, so what exactly does it mean to find an “honest self”? So on.
As each of these “but’s” is reconciled, we reconstruct the original interpretation—not by building on top of it or erasing it, but by altering its “chemistry”. Unlike a murder mystery where I may suspect one character as the killer, but later have to erase my speculation as it becomes entirely impossible for that character to be guilty, I can keep the essence or form of my original speculation. As an example: yes, Cocona and Papika are two halves of a whole, but the details of what exactly that “whole” is constantly change. The original speculation was not misguided, but it did oversimplify an issue I was not aware was complex. This is what I argue is unique about Flip Flappers.
Flip Flappers is not necessarily breaking new narrative ground. We can see similar storytelling even in other anime, such as the –mongatari franchise, wherein Araragi’s/the viewer’s expectations are often found to be right, but in the wrong way. In a sense, even Western films have utilized similar methods. Memento comes to mind as a movie that achieves a similar circular temporality of meaning (although discussing temporality in that movie in general is a nightmare). However, Flip Flappers brings genre conventions and fables into the mix, using those to both define and deconstruct meaning.
The ultimate result for us as viewers is a show that is riveting during real time, during rewatch, and during contemplation. Flip Flappers is entertaining by being immediately parse-able, while remaining complex by encouraging the viewer to challenge what has already been parsed. Whether we are flipping or flapping, we find ourselves in love with the show.