How Flip Flappers Gets Expressions Wrong

If you’ve been following my Flip Flappers impressions at all this season you’ll know that I’ve found myself hugely disappointed by the series, which is quite odd considering the subject matter. A show about a queer couple exploring fantasy worlds as directed by the guy who made my favorite episode of Space Dandy? That’s totally my kind of thing. Yet I’ve found myself ultimately cold on the series, especially in regards to the focal relationship between Cocona and Papika, and I’ve realized that it’s more of an issue of its visuals rather than its narrative.

Despite being a heavyweight sakuga series, Flip Flappers is rigid with its animation, rarely leaving room for individual animators to express themselves through their drawings outside of effects-laden action sequences. This is especially the case for its character animation, which is always kept so closely on-model (presumably due to chief animation director Takashi Kojima’s corrections) preventing the main cast from ever coming off as truly emotive. Each character has only a handful of facial expressions they’re capable of emoting, none of which are particularly convincing due to the blank, wide eyed designs that are kept so closely to form. And unfortunately this gives an impression of poor acting. Indeed, one of the primary functions of an animator is to make their characters believable, so limiting the range of visual emotions that they can convey can have a catastrophic impact on the audience.

Consider the above cut, one of the most technically detailed instances of character acting in the show so far. Ignore the psychedelic color deign and examine only the movements and expressions of the characters. You’ll notice that, despite the high number of drawings, there’s not much feeling in them. Not only are their faces unconvincing (look at Papika’s blank smile as she grabs for Cocona’s hand) but they’re rather samey, especially when their colors are mixed up. While the intended purpose of the short segment is easy enough to parse in context the drawings don’t carry enough energy to make the cut believable. And this is a pivotal scene, a highlight!

For comparison let’s examine another anime series starring pink and blue magical girls, HeartCatch Precure. Led by director Tatsuya Nagamine and character designer Yoshihiko Umakoshi, HeartCatch relishes in expressiveness, featuring a pair of leads strikingly similar to those in Flip Flappers. Tsubomi, reserved and anxious, has trouble adapting to the pace of her eccentric and outgoing friend, Erika, in a way not too dissimilar to Cocona and Papika’s own relationship, and though they may not be written as lovers their connection appears far more intimate. That’s because there’s immediate chemistry between Tsubomi and Erika as soon as they meet, making their interactions inherently fun to watch, and most of it is carried by their wide catalog of facial expressions.

It’s amazing how much a face can add to a scene, from enhancing a gag to revealing a layer of untold personality, and Umakoshi knows this better than anyone. He often creates many separate character design pages covered in mockup expressions that are so charismatic you can likely gleam the essence of a character just by looking at them. Furthermore, while he outlines some faces as examples, they’re never enforced as the only facial range a character is capable of. Animators and storyboarders are given much more freedom to use their drawings for expression, which only adds more creativity to the pool. The result of this is clear: more memorable and engaging character interactions, even with fewer drawings.

I’m sure some are already objecting, “But Precure is a kid’s show! It’s meant to have a childish aesthetic! Flip Flappers would be worse off that way, it’s supposed to be a serious, realistic piece of animation!” This is true, I’ve only described one way of producing visually charming characters with believable emotions, yet there are other schools of animation that focus on conveying realism through more nuanced expressions. Kyoto Animation’s productions particularly excel at this through their detailed conveyance of subtle gestures, though it’s a significantly more difficult process requiring an excellent understanding of motion and the talent to transfer it to paper. Constantly maintaining the illusion of realism is far more difficult than it appears, and even in Kyoani’s case the animation often slips off-model when it needs to get more expressive (not a bad thing at all). Flip Flappers on the other hand never comes close to reaching a convincing level of realism, and personally I feel it’s a show that shouldn’t approach its characters from that angle to begin with. It’s a collection of fantasy tales with bug-eyed character designs and explosive action more suited to cartoony drawings than grounded verisimilitude, but it fails to give any sort of liveliness to its cast.

I find it incredibly odd that a production led by animators would neglect character acting so much, but unfortunately that’s how things have played out. It seems the dry visuals haven’t done much to exhaust fans of the show at large, but personally it became a deal breaker as soon as the series shifted away from the creative and moody exploration pieces it began with to character drama. To invest in these characters I must first relate to them, but Flip Flappers gives me nothing to relate to, only a collection of cardboard cutouts.


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8 Comments

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  1. The main problem with this criticism is that well…they don’t lack “feeling”. At least, not to me. Or to many other people.

    Sure, they aren’t as cartoonishly expressive as, in your example, the Heartcatch girls. (and don’t get me wrong, I love me some cartoonish expressions), though I’d hardly call them restrained. And yes they don’t have the almost flawlessly subtle perfection that KyoAni has made their trademark…but I still totally get everything about how they feel in that moment!

    Also, and yes I know you are talking about animation specifically, but watching that clip without sound completely eliminates an entire channel of how its conveying what its saying. The fairy-tail like intro to the ED song, Cocona’s yells of panic until Papika grabs her hand, their repetition of “zettai zettai”, their giggles as they look into each others eyes as we fade to the ED proper.

    Yes, Flip Flappers expressions are as, well, “expressive” as some other shows. But that feels like saying that that is objectively *better* than some other technique.

    Now, would I like the version of Flip Flappers that has more cartoonish expressions? Sure. But it would probably be visually different across the board. And who knows if that would be “better” or not.

    That being said, this show is still pretty goddamn cartoony.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Omitting the sound in that scene does take away a lot from its effect, I admit, yet in a usual episode there isn’t even anything on that level. I can only speak from personal experience, but the moment-to-moment interactions with Cocona and Papika are simply not enjoyable based both on the animation and writing, and I think that would be best remedied with more cartoony character animation. And I’m not saying that a show that isn’t HeartCatch or Hyouka can’t have strong feeling in it, I’m just examining the obstacles to my own enjoyment in detail. I’m glad you’re still invested in the show, though. I understand a lot of folks see things differently and I’m not trying to undermine anyone’s personal perspective, just trying to get my own out while it’s still relevant.

      Liked by 2 people

      • The point you are making about the character design is precisely the reason I have not watched an episode of Flip Flappers yet. While I have been hearing a lot of praise for its animation, the character design really put me off. The faces, and especially the eyes, in the screenshots and cuts I’ve seen just feel really blank and almost uncanny. I might still give it a try since the action scenes look neat, but I’m rather sceptical.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Think a get your point, but it really does make much difference here on Flip Flappers?
    What emotions the characters needed to express with those disappointments of characters? Emotionally FlipFlap is pretty superficial (IMO). Now that we know the backstory and which points will be developed in the end, the animation is doing enough, there isn’t much to get “wrong”.

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  3. OMG, you perfectly summarised my own problem with this show as well!
    Up until now I thought that I just dislike the character designs, which is a very personal thing, not a flaw of the series. But yeah, there was something more disturbing there, I like bug-eyed cute children in other shows, I also like sakuga.
    Now I see that it’s not Papika or Cocona separately that seemed creepy to me, but their relationship and interactions are unsettling and just feel not genuine. Especially since Cocona hates Papika at the beginning and looks like Papika is forcing herself on Cocona.
    This still is a personal issue, of course, as there are plenty people crazy about their exploits, but to me it just feels soulless and now I understand why.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. If you’re talking about facial expressions, that’s exactly my problem with March Comes in like a Lion.
    Except if the other elements are good enough I’m sometimes able to overlook the weird facial expressions.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well done Jimmy. I really enjoyed how you articulated your thoughts here without coming off as preachy.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I seem to be in a rare minority among PreCure fans in that HeartCatch is my least favorite artstyle. I also definitely prefer everything about how Flip Flappers is animated to HeartCatch.

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