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.