Flip Flappers – Episode 5

Flip Flappers’ third episode introduced us to the barren world of Cocona’s psychology, an inhospitable place defined by the dichotomy of fierce self-denial and total hedonism. Cocona escaped that place, with the help of Papika, and seemed by the end of that episode to at least be able to acknowledge Papika’s friendship. In its fourth episode, we turned from Cocona’s world to Papika’s, where our two leads learned to trust each other far more completely than ever before. By the end of that episode, it seemed like Cocona was ready to accept Papika’s love, and perhaps even reciprocate.

Here in episode five, Pure Illusion offers a vision of what society has to say about all of that.

Episode five’s world is simultaneously both the most menacing and most familiar dreamscape we’ve visited yet. This Pure Illusion is a reinterpretation of the girls’ original school, a fact emphasized through familiar touchstones and repeated compositions. But this world is a place of endless rain and constant twilight, a place where all the students have coagulated into one unsettling, faceless whole. Drawing on equal parts horror and Class S touchstones, Flip Flappers’ fifth episode is all of the greater world’s harsh, unforgiving eyes, condemning these girls for their potential love, slotting them into the one role their feelings can belong.

It’s worth explicating just a bit of Class S’s historical origins, since this episode’s imagery and narrative draw so heavily on that specific tradition. In the conservative world of early twentieth century Japan, there was little room for overt lesbian romance. What did exist in this space often fell into the “Class S” category, stories about “close bonds” between female classmates. These bonds could toe the line of overt romance, but this was only acceptable due to the assumption that such bonds would dissipate after their school years, and these girls would eventually slot into the male-female relationships society expected of them.

Influences from these early novels bled through into a great deal of formative women-focused manga, and its influence is still felt today, both in terms of popular inheritors of the genre and also in the general style of ambiguously romantic female-female relationships shows in many genres seem to see as the “acceptable line” of gay romance. Any show which prompts the question “why don’t they just kiss already” has a solid chance of having one foot in Class S roots, roots which were once transgressive and liberating, but which now reflect an overarching societal conservatism that stifles gay self-expression in society and media alike.

In the eyes of Flip Flappers, a Class S setting seems to be the only way Cocona and Papika are now allowed to interact. You could easily interpret this world not as any specific person’s Pure Illusion, but as a collective societal dream, the way a vast number of people square an unaccepted reality. The touchstones of Class S imagery and storytelling abound throughout this episode, from the inescapable presence of lilies (literally “yuri” in Japanese) to the emphasis on “ladylike” schoolday activities, and the fact that their own school has been reinterpreted as an all-girl boarding school. Even this episode’s “everything resets when the clock strikes midnight” conceit reflects the ugly assumptions of Class S – this may be the world where Cocona and Papika are allowed to be together, but it’s a world that only exists briefly, and only in this tiny schoolhouse setting.

Given Cocona and Papika’s relationship is the core of Flip Flappers, it’s unsurprising that this Class S setting is framed as a stifling, terrifying haunted house. Yurikuma Arashi also contrasted Class S against horror tropes, for likely the same reason: horror stories tend to reflect fundamental human fears, and one of the most consistent fears of conservative horror is a puritan disgust with youth sexuality. This same fear is readily apparent in American horror, underlined through cliches like “the couple who have sex die first, the ‘pure girl’ is the one who survives.” Reframing a Class S narrative as a horror story emphasizes the oppressive conservatism that still lives in both genres, their shared demand to conform to society’s expectations.

Angry subtext aside, Flip Flappers’ fifth episode also demonstrates a clear love for and understanding of horror storytelling. From the moment Papika and Cocona are thrust into this world, we are beset with off-kilter angles and ominous windows, shadowy figures that appear and vanish without a trace. A textured filter over the background art makes everything in this place appear decrepit, like there are coffee stains over the original drawings. Long, imposing hallways increase the sense of alienation, while a highly restrained, almost black-and-white color scheme banishes any sense of warmth. We pass mirrors that shift to reveal shadowed hand prints, and eventually run into this school’s faceless, terrifying inhabitants. When Cocona and Papika flee outside, they collapse in this nether world, clothes stained in ominous red.

From there, this world begins its process of integrating Cocona and Papika into the roles they are meant to play. They are given uniforms identical to the faceless girls, and join them in their respectable daily activities. Cocona’s unease is disarmed by Bu’s contentment, and soon the two of them are playing the exact cyclical roles expected of them. “Love” here is holding your friend’s hand, sleeping with them on a bed, or kissing their finger when they get a cut, an act that dances on the far edge of “acceptable female friendship.” Flip Flappers is generally more of a character story than a moral lesson, but the ease with which Cocona and Papika are swept into this routine still seems to echo how when the whole world around you expects you to conform, giving in can feel less like a prison than a kind of release.

It ultimately takes Yayaka’s intervention to break through this world’s spell. Though she claims to have an “entirely different mindset” from Cocona, the fact that she intervenes at all reveals her true feelings, her concern for her friend. And so Cocona and Papika return to investigating, Cocona’s focus and Papika’s resourcefulness making them stronger together than apart. Beset by creepy dolls and faceless girls and shots ripped straight from The Shining, the two eventually reach the unsteady boundaries of this world, and arrive at the clock tower.

Episode five’s finale is pure exhilaration, an action sequence elevated through its striking clock tower setting. Papika battles Yayaka, the twins abandon their ally, and Cocona eventually rises to the summit. Conjuring a giant mallet, she completes the clock’s ringing with a twelfth strike, physically demonstrating that her feelings will survive beyond the eleventh hour. Struck with this truth, the world collapses, and Yayaka saves her friend one more time. No matter what forces disapprove, the relationships these girls share seem strong enough to weather the storm.

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