FLCL is one of those shows I love for the sheer base aesthetics of it. Yeah, yeah. There is the whole puberty/growing up angle underlying the story, the sexual tensions and metaphors abound, and there are also all the references to otaku and general pop culture, and I can appreciate all that, but I originally liked it just because it was visually pleasing and action packed crazy.
What I would like to comment on here is Medical Mechanica—it just doesn’t get the interest from the fan base that it should. Besides being the vague main antagonist of the show which provides the impetus for the crazy mecha action, not much is said about it other than its obvious metaphor. While searching online, I’ve noticed most people don’t give it much importance and seem to just think its meaning is just arbitrary depending on what the episode needs; that it’s just a generic villain essentially unrelated to the main themes, but I disagree. Of course, there are also those who see that Medical Mechanica is just as central to the themes of the show as anything else that is commonly noted, but I think I’m going to put forth one side of the meaning of its symbolism which links it more strongly to childhood than merely being the foil of boring adult life. My thesis here is this: Medical Mechanica is not just a metaphor of what adult life does to us, but is furthermore specifically the concept of infantilized adulthood.
According to the little bits of information which Commander Amarao reveals over the last three episodes, we know that somehow his organization is a mediator between planets and Medical Mechanica (hence in episode four of the dub he mentions an unofficial agreement being made with it to let his organization destroy Canti without causing any problems). We also know that Medical Mechanica is more than just a factory workplace, that it makes weaponized medical robots, but it’s also in the habit of ‘flattening the wrinkles’ of planets and minds alike so that they won’t think or live independently. It is in the function of this final metaphor concerning independent thinking that the role which Medical Mechanica plays that interests me most. The metaphor is clear as noon day. Yes, Medical Mechanica is obviously about the adult world and its conformity, but, I think it has an even more intimate link to childhood that is almost missed entirely.
The Smoke That Fogs the Mind:
Emotions and Childhood
When does Medical Mechanica come into prominence in the show? Besides the solid giant clothe iron shaped factory that looms over the town, its bellowing smoke clouds come into the scene in moments when Naota has moments of emotional tension. What’s more, weaponized robots come out of his head in moments where emotional/sexual tensions are reaching a climax in the episodes.
Well, the smoke from the factory can easily be interpreted as the clouding of the mind and reason which powerful emotions have. It doesn’t always have to do with Naota either. For example, Ninamori’s head suddenly becomes the portal instead of Naota’s when they get into a heated dispute over the Puss in Boots play she wanted to use as a way to bring her parents together.—[As an aside, Ninamori’s N.O. is activated by bumping heads with Naota earlier since she is similar to him in character and is undergoing the same coming of age problems.]—Smoke clouds sight and makes traveling difficult, and emotions likewise cloud the mind and make thinking difficult. It is an assumption that children allow emotions to overtake them, and that adults think more ‘clearly’ and more consistently. In showing a cool state of emotion and a grasp of rationality one is considered an adult and immune to the clouds of childhood.
So, if clouded mind=not a good rational adult mind, we see link to the ‘ironing the wrinkles of the brain’ analogy and the themes of the show in another perspective different from the standard critique of adult life. Medical Mechanica’s ultimate goal represents the ultimate antithesis of genuine adulthood. If Atomsk’s symbol (which appears on Canti’s face and Naota’s throughout the show) is literally crafted from the Japanese symbols for ‘adult’, and the symbol of Medical Mechanica is (when Canti is absorbed by the core unit and it/Naota merge into the hand that will activate the plant) ‘child’, then the meaning is beyond clear: Medical Mechanica represents the complete victory of childishness over adulthood.—I will expand on the contradictory conception this has in the show further down.
Naota, in doing just as Haruko wants without knowing what or why—only that it will please the woman he has fallen in love with—gives in to emotion completely without rational restraint. He lets love not only cloud his mind, but completely loses capacity of seeing the complexity of the situation and loses grasp of the wrinkles of the world—his mind has been smoothed by the heavy iron of unhinged love. However, just at the moment where Medical Mechanica’s victory seems immanent, Naota opts to take on Atomsk’s power and seemingly reject childhood, taking adulthood for himself. However, this doesn’t end as someone like Haruko expects. She is initially furious that he took Atomsk’s power for himself and will live the dream she had of being a real adult. Naota, instead, gives up Atomsk’s power and admits to Haruko his emotions and tells her he loves her, but in doing so he also admits that he is not ready for adulthood by letting go of grasping for the ideal of adulthood he once had. He finally recognizes he cannot jump over childhood as he had thought, and in doing so also accepts that childhood is a necessary step into adulthood. His acceptance of his childhood puts him at ease with it and he no longer feels hurry to grow up anymore, especially when realizing that the so-called adults are in truth nothing but old children.
Neither Medical Mechanica nor Amarao are the future of Naota, that is because both are the same false conception of adulthood which in truth is childish (this shall be expanded further). Haruko, however, is clearly not his destiny either. Naota has found himself and portrays the true balance which grounds genuine adulthood; thus, he already is truly an adult in the process of making this acknowledgment of his own childishness. Much hinges on the question of what the ideal of adulthood even is.
Ironing The Wrinkles Away:
The Fear of Childhood
“I’m an adult now. I can buy my own insurance and everything!”
Normal childhood is full of smoke clouding our minds and causing inconsistent thinking, but eventually one is expected to grow up—to gain mastery over emotion and not let the smoke rise so high and thick that seeing is impossible. Medical Mechanica’s ironing of the wrinkles of the world and mind is the symbol of the child mind forced within reality in two ways: 1) the conforming of all minds to the form of a dependent childish mind and 2) the false promise of adult life encountered in entering the work force as the lure to accomplish 1.
In the first sense of ironing: Children are seen by adults as having a smooth mind, and at certain ages, they tend to have stages where they do not want to and cannot see the wrinkles in the world. They want it simple and smooth—black and white. Their minds may as well be smooth. They lack a true individuality beyond natural character, and they have no independence of any kind, just as Commander Amarao says Medical Mechanica intends to make things. This seems, of course, in almost complete contradiction to popular interpretations of the show which take it to be vindicating childhood over adulthood, for it is the adults who are mad and illogical in the world, not the children; it is the adults who can no longer think outside the box. This point, however, is itself contradictory if it fully considers what the child mind is along with yet distinct from the child imagination. In imagination and genuine emotion children are often seen to be virtuous above the average adult. They are more genuine, more individual, more creative, and more capable of immersion in actual life (the wrinkles) unlike adults who are trapped in ideological social constructions with no true rational basis. But from the side of comprehension and intellect the reality of childhood and adulthood is the opposite. Children do not understand the world because they cannot, for their minds are flat and incapable of grasping the wrinkles of the world in concept. In fact, flat surfaces cannot even grasp another flat surface; hence, children cannot even understand other children. Adults, even if rare, can grasp the wrinkles in such a way. This grasping of the wrinkles of the world in the mind is key to the genuine individuality which children in fact do not have: a self-determined rather than merely naturally given individuality. An adult can choose to be a certain self and not just be the self they are, and this choice is based on a grasp of the wrinkles—of knowing the factors of the world and how and why we are who we are. The wrinkles in the world already are given, but the wrinkles in the mind must be made. Children start out flat, and if all is successful, they will gain wrinkles and become adults.
In the second sense: The fact that Medical Mechanica’s existence in the world is a factory, a place of work where one earns one’s living to be materially independent, is not an accident at all. When we are children, we are all sold the myth that adulthood is freedom and independence, which is real only in our working and earning a living for ourselves, but the reality is entirely the opposite for virtually all but a very rare few. The workplace, rather than making us free or even being the foundation of our freedom, only epitomizes the worst aspects of childhood (the incapacity to grasp the wrinkles) and ends up infantilizing us all precisely in making the mind childlike through the homogenizing force of working and social life pressures of expectation. The factory model of work, which extends beyond factories into our schools and our lives in mass consumed products, destroys our individuality and capacity to think in new and interesting ways, likewise social expectations force us to conform and eventually give in and accept them despite their irrationality. Medical Mechanica as such represents an adulthood that is in truth childishness concealed. It is the false vision and lie of adulthood, and this is why Amarao consciously rejects it, but what he is actually afraid of is that Medical Mechanica is his truth revealed without any mediating facade. Amarao himself is literally this fake promise which society offers us, hence his silly pride in saying “I’m an adult now! I can buy my own insurance and everything!”
It is an obvious joke in the show that Amarao is a child regardless of his looks and position. This mix also explains his pseudo-mediator role between Medical Mechanica and the planet’s government. He represents the appearance of someone who has one foot in the adult world and one foot in the children’s world, but in truth, he is fully in the world of the child and does not want to leave it. Amarao fears Medical Mechanica (adulthood), yet he also fears childhood. He himself is nothing but a mental child, and just like a child, he is afraid of being seen as a child. Amarao has, unfortunately, always already lost against Medical Mechanica, for it is the metaphorical mirror of what he truly is.
The Fear of Adulthood
Medical Mechanica wants to stop Canti/Atomsk and are willing to activate the factory and flatten the world. They want to stop adulthood, and so does Amarao. The difference between them is that Medical Mechanica wants to stop genuine adulthood by using it as a lure into permanent artificial childhood, but Amarao wants to stop adulthood precisely because he thinks it will destroy childhood (the world, Mabase—the natural child mind). He wants to at least be able to imagine and play about being an adult, to engage the wrinkles without really doing so, but Medical Mechanica prefers to just completely give up the entire facade and make explicit his already implicit reality. He wants adulthood without relinquishing childhood thinking as its core, yet Medical Mechanica wants exactly the same thing merely wrapped in a different package.
To expand on Medical Mechanica’s use of adulthood as a lure, Amarao makes the claim in episode six, “They’re using the pirate King to lure you in!” Here he makes it clear and explicit that he thinks adulthood is a lie to lure you into the flattened adult world, and he is right. This explicitly explains Amarao’s mission in episode five where Kitsurubami is charged with destroying Canti. If Atomsk is the idea of adulthood, however, it is interesting that Amarao and Medical Mechanica both are against it. Why is Medical Mechanica willing to turn on the plant if Canti (as Atomsk) is not brought into ensured control? This can be understood in two ways: 1) because in the eyes of Medical Mechanica a real Atomsk (as the ideal of adulthood) is dangerous to the actual existing false adult world 2) because, in Amarao’s eyes, if Naota continues to buy into the myth of adulthood (Atomsk/Canti) it will result in the opposite of what he thinks; instead of freedom, he will find slavery as Medical Mechanica flattens his world (mind). To Medical Mechanica Atomsk (adulthood) is useful as a lure; they want people to chase the idea without ever getting it. Amarao knows what they do and how they do it, thus for him adulthood is a dangerous myth used to lure you into accepting a life which will kill your creativity and smoothen your mind—ironic, since he already buys half the myth. To buy the myth of adulthood wholesale for him is a grave error: the spicy food, the sour and pulpy drinks, and the power to act and do what you want through money are all in truth self-destructive acts that lead to the flattening of the mind by the iron of the reality of adult working life. For Amarao, if there is to be any adulthood at all, it must be merely one that appears to be it yet never should be allowed to actually be it.
Something else in episode six: Amarao yells, “I can’t hold on to these wrinkles!” as the hand is about to activate the plant. This is his admittance to being in over his head in the situation: I cannot comprehend the real world; it is too complex for my mind to grasp. Remember that he thinks all hope is lost when Haruko uses Naota to get into the plant and find Atomsk for her, and remember why Naota lets her use him. Amarao thinks that accepting raw emotions and living on impulses is insane (Haruko) and childish, but it is the irony of life that the very problem we have imagined is its own solution: in order to overcome childishness, we must have experienced genuine childishness and gotten it out of our system. Naota gives in and recognizes his own childishness, but he does not actually succumb to childhood like Amarao does.
Childhood is the necessary movement to adulthood when we manage to temper this acceptance of it with reason, but first we must recognize it and accept it. This is why the only way to get to Atomsk is through the activation of the plant as the metaphor for the completion of childhood. Why else would the activation of the plant as a whole need Naota to be in the core? It is the complete unity of childhood experience as its imagination (robots arising from the mind), blinding emotion, flat thinking, and it is the point of contact with adulthood in the experience of its world (sour drinks, swinging the bat, spicy curry). I think it is in the final scenario where it is sufficiently clear that Medical Mechanica does indeed represent the child mind overall and in fact is a critique of the ‘adult’ world of the other adults in the show as truly childish.
In the show, Atomsk is recognized by Haruko and Amarao alike as the only real adult, i.e. the ideal of the promise society failed to deliver. The difference between them is that Amarao gave up on adulthood, turning inward away from the real world because he thought he was lied to and that the ideal could never be real, while Haruko fully believes it can be real and decides to do all she can to be the one to live the ideal. What makes Haruko unfit to take Atomsk’s power, however, is that she has the same idea of adulthood as Amarao: the ideal of the fully free individual capable of doing anything they wished. This ideal seems real in Atomsk…but Atomsk is not a human being (it is astral according to Amarao); its reality is not something any human can actually achieve and therefore is indeed unreal and bound to lead to disappointed delusion (Amarao) or insane destructive delusion (Haruko). Haruko fails to be an adult because she destroys the world and others as mere tools for a blind desire (she is in love with the idea of being an all-powerful adult).
Amarao says something interesting right after Naota reveals himself to have taken Atomsk’s power, revealing of his own childish character: “This is our chance! We can gather all the outsiders and get rid of them all at once! She’s just as bad as Medical Mechanica!” This clearly reveals his ultimate truth and betrays his proclaimed intents and appearances: there is no room in his world for others, for there can be no wrinkles allowed in his world, and worse, they cause pain. Thus, he retreats back into childhood—into the safety of the walls of smoke that make the external world invisible—every time he comes into contact with the adult world (sweet drinks instead of sour drinks or spicy bread). For him, the adulthood promised to him by society is something worse than remaining in childhood—being an adult is the ultimate childhood lie. Seeing that Atomsk is real and under control of someone like him (a child), however, does not change Amarao’s feeling towards adulthood. Rather than be inspired to reach for it and finally grasp its essence like Naota did, Amarao does what all children must do: hope that the adults will do their bidding and make the world what they want since they themselves have no agency nor power.
One other thing here: Amarao’s eyebrows. He mentions in the show that he believes they protect him against N.O. Now, why is that? They are the physical representation of his belief that adulthood protects from childishness, i.e. that they will protect him from his own imagination creating problems. The irony, of course, is that they are the products of childishness: the eyebrows are a representation arising from a false conception of what it is to truly be an adult. An interesting thing here is that it seems Amarao knows this yet deludes himself willingly. It is as if it were an ironic desire for adulthood, wanting to play at it while knowing full well that it is not true.
Recalling a prior episode, Naota says Haruko is the only one who makes him feel “there really is a world out there.” He opened himself up to Haruko, seeing in her the adult power of the brother he idolizes. Haruko is a necessary event for Naota to grow up, the manifest ideal of adulthood that made him desire to truly grow up—she is the mentor which really connects to him and to whom he genuinely looks up. She walks through the walls of smoke, enters into his world, and is so genuine that he must accept she is a real other and not just another boring figment of his inner life. He comes not just to care for her or idolize her capacity, but falls in love with her as well, and this sets him up for pain caused from the uncontrollable outside.
This weakness of depending on another, however, is key to growing up and learning “there really is a world out there,” that we are truly not isolated in our private world, that we do not have to be alone. This is something Amarao explicitly does not want to accept nor experience after his painful history with Haruko.
A Place Without Doors,
Robots, N.O. & Imagination
N.O. is obviously a straight forward symbol: it is the word ‘no,’ the power of negation. This is supremely important, and Atomsk’s fame is entirely built on it. Atomsk is the pirate king because it states the only ‘no’ with power; none can say ‘no’ to Atomsk, and it takes whatever it wants. The ‘no,’ however, is not only possible in this manner, and this is clear because it does not only allow one to take from the world, but also to bring things into it. I shall expand on this further below.
The plot device of N.O. portals being tied to Medical Mechanica and Atomsk is no coincidence; it is in fact a necessity to portray the metaphor Medical Mechanica is meant to serve. Medical Mechanica is a place without entrances or exits for people to come in or out. Its outer shell is impenetrable; it is enveloped in solid walls of ‘smoke’ to which no outsider has any rational way to enter, nor any insider to leave; its shape is smooth and without wrinkles. It is also no coincidence that what is made there are the acting antagonists of the show: mindless robots that manifest at key points of emotional climaxes. Medical Mechanica is the child mind itself, and its products are the unconscious psychic creations of a mind seeking a way to comprehend through imagination problems it itself creates without knowing. Since the child mind seals itself off from others, there is no rational (physical) bridge into it or out of it. Thus, only an irrational path remains: an immediate connection of imagination and emotion unmediated by reason. This is the main purpose which N.O. serves in the show. Once again, it is no coincidence that N.O. only opens portals in brains/minds. It is a gateway directly into the unconscious imagination fueled by raw emotion which can only comprehend problems new to it in fantasy forms (mindless robots against Naota).
So, Naota’s own way of coming to terms with his problems of coming of age is to transform them into fantasies. It is, then, absolutely no surprise that Canti is initially his fantasy shell (a symbol of his brother/adulthood) for dealing with these fantasy forms of his real issues. With Canti, Naota gets to proxy himself into the adult role and slowly work up into his confidence to take the reigns in the last episode and be an adult for himself instead of through using Canti/Atomsk to channel the power he imagines his brother has.
Now, that is what N.O. is for, but what is it that explains why it works with only certain people? Amarao reveals to Naota that N.O. works by using both sides of the brain and their processes to open a portal. Why both sides of the brain? Well, here it is just a matter of pop-neurology. It is a common belief that the brain’s activities are divided in two kinds respective to the sides: one side is rational and calculative, the other is emotional and creative. The implicit assumption about this in the show is that only select kinds of brains can generate such a portal: those in a kind of balance between emotional and rational thinking; not fully childish, but not fully adult. Now, I say this is implicit because the explicit assumption is only the difference between child brains and adult brains thanks to Atomsk’s N.O. level as a major plot point.
Atomsk as Ideal Adult
Naota and Ninamori both have a large enough N.O. because they are both more mature/adult in mind than the aged adults in their world, and Atomsk has the most powerful N.O. because he is the ideal adult with no child traces. Atomsk makes the world his plaything and acts on it rather than be acted on by it. Hence, he steals whatever he desires. Atomsk is pure adulthood personified. He is a bird because he is the ideal of an adult: fully self-determined, self-grounded, and free from any ground on which he would otherwise depend. In truth, Atomsk is the ideal of abstract absolute freedom which children believe adulthood to be. He can can do anything and is seemingly a god in the world, capable of stealing (negating) anything. Haruko tells Naota at the end that she has lost Atomsk again, but the truth is she will in fact never have him because he does not in fact exist. Adulthood is not such a pure abstract freedom as Atomsk symbolizes; thus, just when we think we have found and captured his power, the pirate king always flies off again beyond our reach to retreat back into the astral realm of abstract ideas.
My implicit interpretation about N.O.’s power coming from a balanced brain is cashed out in that both Naota and Ninamori are the only ones who show a strong portal capacity. They both happen to also later actualize adulthood in themselves via their acknowledgement that they are indeed still children and accepting that it is nothing bad from which they need to run—this acceptance is the most adult thing they could do. Unlike Haruko, who believes in the false ideal that Atomsk represents and thus believes she can only be a true adult through capturing the power of a myth, Naota and Ninamori both come to comprehend what adulthood truly is and manage to actually be adults unlike everyone else.
There is something else curious to note between regular N.O. and Atomsk’s: they are inverted. While normally things only come out, for Atomsk things only go in. This is supposed to differentiate adult N.O. from child N.O. Children project their mental fantasies into the world; the ideal of children is creative generation. The ideal of adults, however, is pure consumption without limit. This exacerbates the ideality and utter unreality of Atomsk as the ideal adult. Genuine adults have a balance, not just as perspective, but as being. They take in the world: they consume at leisure and pleasure, but also project back into it, create, and give. Sometimes the world is so bad you just shouldn’t take it in. This extends not merely to artistic pursuits and consumption, but also to rational constructions: we project reason and morality into the world. We make the world in various ways and cannot simply take from it.
Now, what about the medical part? Well, work is the medicine that cures childhood. Who hasn’t been told that they’ll understand things once they get a job? That you’ll learn responsibility then? Pretty clever, eh?