Flip Flappers – Episode 6

Flip Flappers’ sixth episode is about Iroha Irodori, Cocona’s painting-inclined classmate. It’s also likely the most emotionally searing interrogation of any of Flip Flappers’ mindscapes, and also one of my favorite episodes of all time. I can’t watch this episode without crying, consistently, at every new revelation and emotional blow. It’s about childhood neglect and the contradictions of self-expression, about the fragile necessity of loving and being loved, about the forms we contort ourselves into to survive, and the lingering scars those contortions leave behind. It’s for anyone who finds their heart in the things they create, and learns to love the damage that made them who they are.

We’re reintroduced to Iroha early in this episode, when Cocona and Papika visit with some cookies from home ec class. Cocona is unsurprisingly insecure about her own cooking, but Iroha is a supportive friend, fearlessly eating her misshapen cookies and declaring they taste good with her tea. Papika doesn’t really want to enter the room, claiming it still stinks – and Iroha responds that that’s likely due to her using nail polish in a painting earlier. She finishes that thought with the mysterious “I don’t paint my nails, though. I don’t have the right to,” but we’re not given any more explication of that thought. The girls then scamper off, clashing with Yayaka in one more vision of Pure Illusion.

You can draw a direct line from Iroha’s evocative, fluid use of color and the backgrounds of this latest Pure Illusion. They’re both defined by unnatural colors that nevertheless convey both the texture of landscape and the imaginative vision of their creator. Tumbling through tendrils of painted backgrounds that cradle them like a spider’s web, Cocona and Papika eventually come across a small stone fitted with a rope, like a grave marker for a favorite toy set down by a child. Tapping the marker, a vast and imposing doorway appears, a stone gateway with a yawning red interior – a Pure Illusion literally buried beneath another Pure Illusion, an interior layer so unwanted it was left to linger under a stone marker. Cocona and Papika touch the doorway and are dragged in, their color palettes compressing into pure orange and pure blue as they spin through one more portal voyage.

The episode’s central act begins with Cocona crying outside an unfamiliar house, her character and the entire background around her bathed in orange light. Eventually, she’s rescued by a woman she refers to as “Auntie,” and who refers to her as Iro. Given we only saw the name “Irodori” briefly on Iroha’s canvas, it’s assumed from a show perspective that we don’t actually know whose mind we’re visiting. But the clues add up over the course of this story, each new revelation more devastating than the last.

Iro’s time spent with Auntie is carefree and joyous. The two work together to bake a cake, and when Iro spills the mixture, Auntie comforts her with a gentle “don’t worry if you make a mess.” Auntie consistently encourages Iro to express herself, even if that self-expression might come across as strange or unwelcome to others. She helps Iro find beauty in weird creatures like earthworms, and games in the bath tub. Auntie’s embodiment of the wonder of childhood self-expression is even reflected in the form Bu takes here – a radio flyer wagon, classic symbol of childhood adventure.

Iro’s fear at making a mess is soon given context, when she draws a picture of her and Auntie in the bath. When Auntie steps in, Iro quickly hides the drawing, ashamed of her work. When questioned on this, she says that her art is “weird,” and that her parents don’t approve of her strange, boundless, colorful style of drawing. “They said to draw normally.” Auntie smiles at this, and responds that “it is a bit unusual. But in a good way.” Auntie’s words continually encourage Iro to be happy with her own style of creativity, offering the critical validation that seems absent at home. Children need such encouragement, and strange children with built-in insecurities need it more than most. Society teaches all of us to be ashamed of our difference, and it’s up to each child’s parents and teachers and role models to let them know it’s okay to be their unusual, beautiful, irreplaceable selves.

Slight hints throughout these scenes imply that this understanding comes from a very personal place for Auntie. Reflecting on a class gift framed on her wall, she states that “I used to be a teacher, until I got to the age where they told me to stop. Since then I’ve lived alone.” It seems clear that Auntie has no children of her own, and that the children she taught were the joy of her life. The absence of a spouse or children imply Auntie might not have fit in in this world in more ways than one, and her softened “the age where they told me to stop” may be intended to shield Iro from a far less amicable departure. Auntie’s ambiguous thoughts are given subtle voice when she turns to Iro, stating “I’m the only one left of my generation. Do you think I’m weird?”

And then the clock strikes, offering one more echo of the previous episode. Like in the Class S school, the clock’s tolling signifies the end of this heightened, temporary world, the limit beyond which we cannot embrace our forbidden love or express our strange creativity. The clock means our happy fantasies of honest selfhood must end, and we must re-enter the judgmental real world. Auntie tells Iro it’s time for her to go home, but her own feelings are clear in how tightly she hugs her small friend, the one person still here for her in this world.

The following scenes both introduce the crucial nail polish and offer more glimpses of Auntie’s fragile life. It’s clear that Auntie’s joy at supporting one more child isn’t some performance for Iro’s sake; when Iro returns with more gifts of drawings, Auntie actually tears up at the gesture. It’s also clear that Auntie cares deeply about Iro, even at the expense of her own happiness. When Auntie notices other people taking notice of Iro associating with her, the strange spinster, she suggests the two of them go straight to Iro’s house, minimizing the possibility of more malicious rumors. But Iro needs this relationship just as much as Auntie, and Iro doesn’t want to go home.

We receive a full portrait of Iro’s situation in the next sequence, as she returns to a cold and empty home. The separation of Papika and Cocona into orange and blue selves thus shows itself as extending to this entire world, and reflecting a clean separation in Iro’s own mind. The contrast of colors is dramatic, beautiful, and a terribly clean metaphor for how we compartmentalize our suffering, not allowing our unhappy life to taint our golden moments. Tiptoeing up to her bedroom, Cocona-Iro is confronted by Papika-Iro, who begs her to “switch with Iro!” No one girl could accept such an unhappy home life, and so Iro became two girls, one who suffers under neglectful parents, and one who skips gaily home to the supportive Auntie.

We get an even more full portrait of Iro’s home life in the following scene, when Iro brings one more of her strange drawings to her parents for approval. Iro’s parents are portrayed through wild, morphing, angular animation, emphasizing their verbal violence as they bicker over who’s not supporting the family, and yell at Iro to return to her room. Iro flees this cold place, but after that, even the outside world has turned cold and blue. She pleads with Papika to trade places, and the two tumble together, falling out of Iro’s subconscious. The two are startled by this experience, but their following dialogue reflects both Cocona’s increased confidence and the degree to which the two of them have come to respect each other’s feelings. Coming to a formal agreement, they return to Iro’s world, hoping to find some real answers about what they’ve discovered.

Unfortunately, the answers they receive are not happy ones. It swiftly becomes clear that Auntie is suffering from progressive dementia. In one of the episode’s most subtly devastating moments, Iro actually feels happy to help Auntie find lost objects, enjoying being of use because she doesn’t understand the reason she’s needed. Auntie can’t remember or recognize things anymore, and as her whispering neighbors reflect, she has been abandoned by this society at large. A possibly queer woman who only lived for her students, and now lives alone – at this point, Iro is her entire world.

Things come to a head when Iro runs away from her parents, and awakes in a hospital bed. Wandering the hallways, she comes across the missing Auntie, and rushes into Auntie’s lap. But not so much of Auntie is left now – she’s muddled her memories, and can’t recognize Iro’s pictures. Iro staggers back at this, and the two sides of her world collide, dramatic angles emphasizing the clash between orange sunlight and blue despair. Running through the orange streets, Iro herself has become fully blue, and actually flees back to the home she hated. Iro was happy in that world, but with Auntie gone, even the cold of an empty home is better than the pain of Auntie’s absence. She begs Papika to switch back, but Papika can only offer the truth: there were never two Iros. There was only ever one.

As with their last exit, the merging of Cocona and Papika forms the conclusion of this repressed memory, a period of separation Iroha herself likely doesn’t remember. But this time, Iro’s memories don’t necessarily have to end with the pain of losing Auntie, and the guilt of not fulfilling her promise to remind Auntie who she was. It’s now clear why Iroha “doesn’t deserve” to use nail polish – nail polish was both a gift and a promise made to Auntie, to rescue the lonely woman who rescued her. In the real world, Iro didn’t have the strength to return to that room. But here in her memories, Cocona and Papika can do what Iroha could not.

It’s a heartwarming moment, but also a strange and unearned one. Iroha’s memories aren’t happy ones, but they’re still her memories – these are the choices she made, these are the scars she bore, and these sacrifices are what made her into the person she is. Returning to the real world, Cocona and Papika are excited to see the fruits of their work, and rush to the art room. But Iroha has left that world behind – standing happily out in the school fields, she smiles and shows off her painted nails to her friends. Cocona and Papika may have taken away Iroha’s trauma, but her trauma was not theirs to take.

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