I Am a Product of the Streaming Age

At the beginning of February of this year, I decided that I would henceforth sample all of the new music being released each week for the remainder of the year via Spotify. As a musician and an avid fan of music as a narrative art medium, I thought it would be a fun experiment that would help me find new content to listen to, talk about, and recommend to others, and for a long time it was just that. Early on I discovered a wide range of new music spanning across an endless sea of genres and subgenres for my listening pleasure. For months, this exercise proved to be exceedingly fruitful, accomplishing exactly what I had hoped it would.

However, somewhere along the line my attitude towards the exercise began to shift. No longer did I wake up every Friday morning excited to see what the industry had to offer me. Over time I grew tired of the genres that just months earlier had been plentiful sources of artistic inspiration. All of the music I consumed began to take on a certain sameness. This phenomenon began on a micro level. Every new indie rock band seemed to have the same aesthetic and tone. Every thrash metal song seemed to have the same basic structure. In my mind, pop music was reduced to reiterations of the same lyrical themes and number of chords on different scales and in different sequences. All rap artists started to blend together until I was unable to differentiate one from another. It got to the point where it would take something especially unique to make me feel that sense of wonder and excitement that I constantly crave. There were a few albums that provided me with that experience (DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar, Volcanoes by Temples, 3 by tricot, etc.), but as time went on these beacons of inspiration began to grow few and far between. Eventually, even albums that I had been looking forward to became a chore to listen to. Next, on a macro level, I began to experience something that terrified me: all the music I was consuming began to sound the same.

 

Put another way: I stopped paying attention. I was no longer able to focus myself onto what I was listening to. Music began to take the form of white noise, just something to have running in the background to stave off the eerie sense of loneliness that can sometimes overtake those who spend a large portion of their time working alone in front of a computer. I had lost the passion for discovery and inspiration that had consumed me at the beginning of the year. I was no longer able to distinguish between the numerous songs, artists and genres I was listening to. It’s not that I ceased to experience musical inspiration during this period. In fact, during these last two months I’ve written more original songs than I had during the previous six months combined (album eventually?). Rather, I had become completely apathetic towards music consumption, specifically, and the cause of this phenomenon is just as depressing to me as its effect.

I am a product of the streaming age.

We live in an era in which a vast expanse of media and art is available at the touch of a button for free (and without ads for ten dollars a month), in which nearly every song, television series and film can be consumed on a select few platforms; an era in which there’s no longer a need for physical media at all.

I was born in the late nineties, so I have some memories of the tail end of the era of physical media. Some of my most prominent childhood memories are of watching cartoons and Disney movies on VCRs and my amazement when we bought our first DVD. Memories such as these are remnants from another era whose death I lived through as I grew up. When I finally got onto the internet and discovered I could stream music on Youtube, my life was forever changed. Later I would discover Spotify in my search for an alternative to Youtube since our internet wouldn’t load videos fast enough for me to listen to them comfortably (but Spotify worked fine for some reason—go figure). I got into watching television and later anime through my Netflix account, which inevitably led to my current hobby as a media analyst. I remember the age of physical media, but it was not the era that defined me. My love for music, animation, television and film were allowed to flourish and mature under the tender loving care of the increasingly popular streaming services that would soon revolutionize the way our society consumed media.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I recognize that I’m among the most privileged people alive, both in this era and all that came before. Additionally, I have little doubt that my love for storytelling and writing would have taken a completely different form had I been born a decade earlier, so I’m certainly not one to complain. I’m thankful that I’m able to consume the plentiful amount media that I do with the simple click of a mouse or tap of a screen. However, with this gratefulness and humility, based on my experiences this year I’ve come to believe there may be cause for concern.

Essentially, I think it comes down to a generational difference in how people consume media. Last week, I asked my dad to retell an old story about the Summer of 1975. He was sixteen years old and for two years had been eagerly awaiting the next Black Sabbath album. The British acid rock band had released five albums between 1970 and 1973 (Source), but suddenly there was an extended gap of silence, wherein the band’s current activities and plans for the future were completely unknown to him. Finally, the day came when word reached him that the new album was in the local record store. He recounted how he ecstatically rushed down to the shop, purchased the record Sabotage, then immediately went home and set the vinyl on the player in his room. As the needle dropped and the speaker began to crackle, the anticipation was palpable. This was the first fans had heard out of the band in two years. That gap of time fostered an apprehension that the new record would fail to live up to what the band had previously put out. He explained that during that era you had to invest in the bands and artists you enjoyed. You couldn’t listen to music en masse, you had to pick and choose who to spend your money on, and with that investment there was always the risk that they would fail to deliver. However, as the opening riff to Hole in the Sky began to play, he recalls the waves of excitement that rushed through him as it became evident that Black Sabbath was as good as they ever had been.

That’s how my parent’s generation consumed music. You had to carefully choose who and what you became a fan of, and there was a risk involved with each investment. Each new record signified a tremendous amount of worth going far beyond that of monetary value. My dad sometimes recalls how few entertainment mediums were available to him growing up apart from music. He would sometimes go to the cinema, but the selection was far more limited than it is today, and television consisted of only three stations, the best shows being The Brady Bunch and the like. Music was his primary source of entertainment, and what would later inspire him to become a professional bassist, and as such, its perceived worth transcended its price tag.

In contrast, when Black Sabbath’s 13 was released in 2013, all my generation had to do in order to listen to it was briefly look it up on any one of the numerous streaming services. I remember listening to about three minutes of End of the Beginning before moving onto something else with the confidence that I could return to it at any point in the future should I ever desire to hear more (not a bad song or album by any stretch, by the way, I just wasn’t feeling it at the time). Put simply, I perceived it as only being worth three minutes of my time, and given that I was listening on Spotify, it cost me virtually nothing to consume. If I had lived during the 70s and wanted to hear the new Sabbath album, I would have had to take a risk and purchase it (this risk may have been lessened if their songs were regularly played on the radio, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case for most of their discography throughout the decade). Depending on whether or not my desire to hear it warranted the purchase, I may have opted to spend my money on another band instead. These contrasting mentalities regarding media consumption created by the technology available to each generation is telling of just how much more music was valued by the cultures of previous decades.

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13 by Black Sabbath

I’m not saying that listening to music on vinyls makes for a better experience than streaming or that they illicit a more potent emotional response. Last year I streamed Relient K’s latest album Air For Free on Spotify the day it was released, an album that I had been anticipating for three years and was ecstatic to finally listen to and still rate very highly, but it’s not as if there was any risk involved in doing so. I probably streamed it over twenty-five times before finally buying the physical album (which, for the record, was only released a month after the digital and vinyl versions [Source], an interesting sign of how the streaming age is changing marketing methods, but that’s a whole other discussion for another time). Additionally, any sense of apprehension was nonexistent since they released several singles prior to the album’s full release, and having listened to them I was confident that at the very least it wouldn’t be a major disappointment.

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Air for Free by Relient K

There are clearly monumental differences in how my generation and my dad’s consumed music, and I can’t help but feel that there’s something mine has lost without ever having had the chance to fully experience. All we have left of the dominantly physical era of media are memories and shadows of memories, and those born shortly after the turn of the millennium don’t even have that much.

I don’t necessarily think there’s a correlation between the physicality of media and its perceived value. After all, its not as if physical media is dead. CDs, Blu-Rays and vinyls still sell well enough to continue to be produced, although how long that will continue to be the case is anyone’s guess. Rather, I think the answer lies in the lack of an alternative. Physical media once had an increased perceived worth because there was no other way to consume it. Now, however, our culture no longer has any need for physicality. It’s economics; in previous eras, because of the lack of adequate alternative entertainment mediums and the risk involved in making investments in bands and artists, music increased in value. In this new age, the inverse has become true.

And I am the product of this mass cultural movement.

Have I become so lost in the consumerist “on demand” mentality that pervades this technologically advanced culture that I’ve lost my passion for the things I love the most? Am I beyond hope? Are the children of the streaming age forever doomed to struggle with this overabundance of media until we are so desensitized to it that it becomes the background noise of our busy society and nothing more?

Okay, that was a little over dramatic, but this is the shit that keeps me up at night.

Originally I intended for this observational essay to have a more optimistic conclusion, but while conceptualizing it over the past several weeks I’ve been unable to answer the questions I’ve asked myself. I don’t want my thesis to be misunderstood, this is only intended to be a broad generalization of a cultural phenomenon that I’ve observed in my own life and culture. I know many people from my generation, both musicians and consumers, who value music as a narrative art medium on the same level that previous generations did, and I expect their unique ideas to push the medium into its next form, whatever that may be. However, on a broader scale, I can’t help but feel as if this generation has lost something crucial, and I’m not sure how to regain it. While I continue to struggle with this idea for myself, please tell me about your experiences with generational media consumption. I focused on music specifically for this post, but the same idea could easily apply to film, television and anime as well. Do you feel our culture sees narrative media as less valuable than previous generations due to its increasing quantity and accessibility, or are you more optimistic about the sociological and economical impacts of the streaming age? I’d love to hear your thoughts and hope the discussion will lead us to a better understanding of how to improve the way we experience and consume media for the next generation.

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Scattered Thoughts on Multiple Narrative Perspectives in Scum’s Wish

One of the things that I find most interesting about Scum’s Wish is its structure of having multiple narrative perspectives. In the first couple episodes Hanabi immediately seemed to take on the role of the protagonist, the character whom we would vicariously live through as the story unfolded, experiencing her feelings and thoughts exclusively. However, the series didn’t waste very much time before taking a sharp turn in its narrative and character progression and perspective, proving this original assumption to not be the case. It begins to shift in episode two, which ends in Ecchan’s point of view, and from then on it slowly but steadily breaks free from convention altogether. Half of episode three is seen from Mugi’s point of view, followed by episode four being told from four different perspectives, and it only grows more sporadic from there. As the series goes on entire episodes are devoted to exploring the individual stories of what in any other series would be considered “side characters”, making any semblance of narrative consistency completely non existent.

It’s hardly unusual for a series to devote entire episodes to developing the personalities and backgrounds of their side characters. In fact, amongst critics who hold concepts such as character development in high esteem, it’s intrinsically required for a show to do so in order to be considered to be of high quality.However, narrative consistency is also a crucial factor for many of these same critics. Background characters should be developed, but also shouldn’t distract from the central narrative.

Scum’s Wish blatantly defies these critical standards. What we would think of as being the show’s “side characters” aren’t simply given a momentary place in the spotlight before being pushed aside to return to the established narrative perspective. Most series featuring large casts of characters among whom it would be difficult to distinguish a single protagonist generally take a much broader narrative approach, telling the story from the perspective of an outsider looking in rather directly from the character’s point of view. However, in Scum’s Wish, so long as they’re given focus, the story becomes about them exclusively. They become the protagonists of the series, blurring traditional character roles altogether.

While being one of the show’s most audacious ventures from a narrative standpoint, for many viewers it also became its downfall. When the story required the viewer to separate Hanabi from the role of the protagonist to allow the perspective to shift to the other characters, it understandably created some confusion and ambivalence amongst some viewers. According to the MAL statistics, this aspect of the show’s structure wasn’t overly detrimental to the majority of its viewership, but as the show entered its second half I started noticing people becoming more vocal about their criticisms of the series. The story begins and ends with Hanabi, which, for many of these viewers, made her inseparable from the role of the protagonist regardless of how the perspective would change throughout the series, and seeing the writers temporarily put her development and exploration on the sidelines to examine the worldviews and perspectives of completely different characters, for lack of a better term, feels wrong, and even without sharing this sentiment it’s not difficult to understand why some viewers would feel this way. It’s partially because it provides us with little time to get to know and care about each of the characters individually, but perhaps more fundamentally because it’s radically different from how we’re used to experiencing every day life.

As people, we are only able to see the world through a singular lens, that of our own. We’re incapable of fully understanding what the world looks like through the eyes of others, which is why the best stories focus on creating a protagonist that general audiences can easily relate to and root for, and perhaps most importantly, that they can vicariously live through. By removing the role of the protagonist, Scum’s Wish created a void in its narrative structure that is difficult to fill and justify with plot and characterization.

I might as well just get it out there; I wasn’t a big fan of Scum’s Wish, primarily because I don’t relate to or connect with any of the characters personally like some viewers are able to, and its multiple narrative perspectives certainly didn’t help in this regard. I understand that the characters aren’t necessarily supposed to be likable, but none of them were focused on long enough for me to become attached to their personalities and individual stories. It’s not that I can’t become invested in or enjoy a show with unlikable characters, it’s that it didn’t give me the time needed to become invested in them. With that in mind, I can actually agree with many of the criticisms I see of the show and understand from my own experience how it left some viewers unable to relate to it.

Despite its narrative perspective being the source of my disconnect with the series, I think this unique style of storytelling reflects and enhances the interpersonal nature of its conclusion. Thanks to the show’s multiple perspectives, throughout the series we explored how each character saw themselves as the protagonists of their stories. Each had their unique individual goals and wanted to experience a traditional “heroes journey” to achieve them. However, by the end of the show, none of the characters were able to accomplish their goals, or at the very least didn’t gain the result that they would have preferred. But their stories didn’t end just because they didn’t get the happy ending they wanted. In the final episode, each character prepares to move on with their lives with all of the emotional baggage that they picked up along the way, and in this moment I was finally able to make an emotional connection with them. They all seemed to say, “Yeah, we made some mistakes, and now we have to carry their weight, but that’s okay. We’ll live on”, and the show’s structure of having no protagonist allowed me to understand what this realization meant to each of the characters individually, making the conclusion to the story feel almost personal, something I can’t say for most of the show.

Maybe I’m being too romantic about all of this, given I was more than happy to put the series to rest when it finally concluded. However, paradoxically, the part of Scum’s Wish that has caused me to feel so indifferent towards it as a whole is the very same thing that intrigues me about it the most. Its multiple narrative perspectives exemplify a fascinating and audacious style of storytelling that I rarely encounter outside of the literary field, and despite some of my critiques of its application within this particular series, I’d really like to it see done again. If this storytelling method was able to keep me engaged in a series as personally unmoving as this one, then I’d be interested in seeing how I would respond to a show with a similar structure featuring characters that are a little bit easier for me to connect with and relate to.

Youjo Senki: Parallels and the Mistake of Being X

Youjo Senki’s finale was utterly fantastic. It concluded its story in a way that felt like the creators had accomplished everything they set out to do while still leaving it open to future additions, which is no small feat. It didn’t end in a spectacular battle, despite its intense depiction of war being among its strongest elements. It ended dramatically, thematically and decidedly through dialogue and monologue. One of the things that made this finale so fantastic was how it tied its conclusion back to the beginning of the show through the use of parallels, while providing us with further insight into the show’s more subtle narrative.

The parallel it establishes with its premise is displayed most prominently in Tanya’s conversation with the Lieutenant Colonel at the beginning of the episode. She begins by claiming that the Empire’s Strategic HQ was doing a poor job making use of their victory, inviting future conflict, to which the Colonel quickly responds by pointing out that the situation Tanya was suggesting, a country deciding to sacrifice itself to prolong a meaningless war, would be ludicrous. Tanya readily agrees that his assessment is logical and rational, but incomplete. She begins by claiming that despite the Empire’s team of strategists being brilliant and knowledgeable, they were unable to grasp the full weight of the situation because they approached it from a strictly rational perspective. She goes on to explain that humans are not driven primarily by rationalism, but by emotion, specifically hatred. Later in the show she goes on to describe how the collective hatred and fear harbored within the defeated nations of the victorious Empire created the first world war. What the Empire’s strategic team had failed to do was account for the emotional response that would surely follow their victory, and it cost them everything.

The Empire’s strategic team was unable to understand primary human motivations because they had been separated from the battlefield and human desperation for so long that they had forgotten what those foundational motivations are, and Tanya recalls a time in her own life when she too failed to understand the dual nature of humanity as both rational and emotional, and had paid the ultimate price for her ignorance. However, the Empire’s soldiers, despite being first hand witnesses to human desperation, were unable to see its full repercussions because of their lack on analytical expertise. In her reincarnation, Tanya is not only a brilliant analyst, but a soldier working on the front lines with the experience leading to her death still fresh in her mind. As a result, she witnesses more acts of human desperation in defiance of rationalism and logic than the country’s strategists, and therefore understands them more fully. Her knowledge of strategy and human nature were what allowed her to see the temporary nature of the Empire’s victory while everyone else was completely oblivious. This is a fascinating expansion of her character in of itself, but there’s a parallel in this dialogue and the rest of the episode that’s easy to miss but present nonetheless.

Hidden beneath the alternate historical war setting fused with fantasy and the supernatural is a psychological and ideological battle between the worst of human nature and God, a contest between creation and creator, humanism versus theism. As the two exchanged blows throughout the show there was crucial mistake that God, or Being X as Tanya calls it, made that only served to prolong the ideological war, and it’s the exact same mistake that the Empire’s strategists made: they failed to understand human nature and motivations. Tanya’s struggles with working within the military are a parallel to her much bigger struggle against Being X.

It isn’t extremely difficult to imagine how this situation came about. Being X, like the Empire’s strategic team, is separated from the harsh realities of human nature. Just as Strategic HQ keeps themselves protected from outside influence inside the government’s richly decorated meeting rooms, Being X, if truly God, keeps itself separated from mankind in the celestial realm, and by admission rarely interferes with his creation personally, its actions concerning Tanya being a rare occurrence. Additionally, in just about any religious text, encounters with God or angelic beings almost never fail to bring mankind to their knees. However, in episode two when the two have their first encounter, Being X expresses his surprise that despite experiencing a physical revelation of the power of God, Tanya refuses to accept it. Tanya’s ideological beliefs and humanistic philosophies have been so hammered into her throughout her life that the concept of God, even as a physical reality, does nothing more than make her laugh.

Nothing about her position makes rational sense. Originally she attempts to raise logical arguments against Being X, but by the end of the show she’s filling its vessel with bullets, an act of violence that serves as a stark contrast to the refined, rational businessman she had been in her previous life. Despite her inability to logically argue against Being X’s existence she still refuses to accept its identity or authority as God, which confuses and baffles it to no end. The post credits scene in the finale make Being X’s mistake more clear than ever before. Tanya’s actions are no longer rationally driven, but the result of pure, untainted hatred, and Being X completely misses it.

This psychological warfare is what makes Youjo Senki such an interesting show that appeals to me both on a surface and conceptual level. Despite the obvious fact that Being X is far more powerful than Tanya, she completely has the advantage over him because of his ignorance concerning human nature, and the question I continuously asked myself throughout the show was “which side is going to learn first?”. Would Tanya finally see how her emotions have clouded her rationality and accept her defeat? Such a plot twist would negate the show’s whole premise, but I did consider it to be a possibility for the end game, and the way Tanya lowered her rifle in the church scene in the finale almost made it seem as if this she had gone soft. Or on the flip side, would Being X realize his mistake in being ignorant of the stubborn, emotional driven nature of his creation and choose to accept his defeat, either by letting Tanya live on or by eliminating her? Since the story is ongoing, neither of these conclusions came to pass within the show’s run, so the question still stands for each viewer to decide for themselves. Which is the stronger force, hateful and irrational man or ignorant and rational God? Instead of answering this question for us, the finale leaves us with Tanya’s redeclaration of war against Being X, a reminder that she’s as psychotic and unrelenting as ever, and this powerful dialogue scene between her and Erich that, while not directly about the ideological narrative, provides us with a parallel that allows us to better understand the nature of the battle the two entities wage with each other.

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ACCA’s GENIUS Details (and Less Genius Generalizations)

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It was the cigarette detail and others like in the first few episodes of ACCA that first captured my interest. When Lotta tossed Jean his pack of cigarettes in the first episode, I think not only considered it to be a great addition to the show’s aesthetics and setting, but was also elated to discover that it played a crucial role in understanding the show’s world.

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A while back Under The Scope Reviews did an excellent video on world building, specifically on the importance of details, and it is details that ACCA specializes in and why I was able to remain interested in the story despite it’s leisurely pace and occasional scenes of exposition.

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Flip Flappers: Magical Girls and Thematic Presentation

Flip Flappers is one of the most well constructed shows in its thematic presentation that I’ve seen recently. Everything about it’s conception and structure are brilliantly designed to communicate its ideas and messages. Even the most fundamental element of its complex infrastructure is in service of one of its core themes. If you strip away the references to classic anime, literature, tropes and conventions spanning across a wide variety of genres, Flip Flappers is, at its core, a magical girl show. Even as the two lead characters traverse through the psychedelic call back to Alice and Wonderland, the barren landscape of Mad Max, the haunted Yuri school, the futuristic sci-fi mecha parody and many more, this foundation is always present. So why magical girls? Out of all the genres the series explores and pays tribute to, why settle on this one as its core element?

The idea of magical girls is often associated with adolescence. It’s something that one enjoys as a child but over time is expected to grow out of. It’s acceptable for one to look back at those genres with fondness and nostalgia, but without actively participating them. Since society dictates that genres of this kind are things one is supposed to leave behind as they mature into adulthood, the fact that Flip Flappers, a show specifically dealing with maturity and adulthood, uses a symbol of feminine adolescence to deliver its themes raises the question at hand. The key factor here is that the show never “grows out of it.” Even as it neared completion and began to abandon most of its fantasy aspects in favor of the science fiction genre, in the final two episodes the magical girls make their return, more feminine and powerful than ever before, almost as if the creators were blatantly pointing to it and declaring, “Yes, this is still relevant, pay attention.”

In the first episode, Cocona is introduced as an apathetic and confused middle school student who is being pushed into the adult world when she’s forced to make a weighty decision regarding her future. This is difficult for her because she’s unsure of what she wants out of life and is confused about her identity. It’s hinted at that her parents are absent from her life and that she isn’t very close to the grandmother she lives with. This would seem to imply that in the absence of adult figures in her life to look up to and learn from she’s had to form her own ideas of maturity and identity, and when those ideas are put to the test as she becomes responsible for her own life she becomes confused.

The show gives us a couple hints as to her ideas about maturity. When we first see her room in the first episode, what stands out to me is how ordinary and empty it is. There’s a book and a phone on the table, implying that she’s been studying diligently, a few books, a painting, a cage for her pet rabbit and very little more. In contrast, in the final episode when Cocona wakes up in Sayuri’s home, there are hair supplies, clothes hanging on a line, and anime posters on the walls. What this and some of Cocona’s actions throughout the episode tell me is that she has abandoned her personal identity in an attempt at maintaining a guise of maturity. She’s long since put away any personal interests or casual enjoyments because she’s convinced herself that such things have no place in the life of a mature adult. She appears to be disconnected from all of her classmates except for Yayaka, who she sometimes criticizes for not being serious enough. When Papika comes into her life and drags her into the world of magical girls, Cocona refuses to go with her a second time immediately and without hesitation, symbolizing that she’s she believes that concepts such a childish adventuring, magical girls, and other ideas associated with adolescence, are things she shouldn’t care about. In the few moments that she finds herself having fun, she immediately buries it within herself, returning to her facade of apathy. However, in the end, the magical girl gig is what leads her to an understanding of true mental and emotional maturity and a discovery of her identity. This childlike adventuring that she had been so adamantly opposed to was the very thing that enabled her to grow and develop as a person.

The fact that the show uses the magical girl genre as a symbol for Cocona’s personal journey says volumes about the intentions of the creators and the specific messages the show attempts to convey. Cocona had tried so hard to bury her childhood and personality underneath a guise of apathy that she stunted her personal growth. In order to come into her own as a mature adult, she had to search deep within herself and return to her childhood, a time when preserving her self image by pretending to be mature was something she didn’t care about. She had to let go of her preconceived notions about what it meant to be an adult and learn to enjoy life, abandoning the burden of the identities of her parents that she had carried for so long and learning to accept herself for who she was.

As mentioned earlier, the moment in which Cocona decides to separate herself from the identities of her parents, act on her desires and become her own person is accompanied by another magical girl transformation. Cocona realized that maturity doesn’t mean abandoning who you are and what you enjoy in favor of more “adult” things. The creators couldn’t have made their point any more clear; adulthood and childhood are inseparable, and maturity is embracing who you were, are, and want to become, and when you tie this unique metaphor back into the show’s theme of queer discovery, it becomes even more fascinating and relevant.

Just by being a show about magical girls, Flip Flappers tells us more about Cocona’s personal journey than dialogue ever could.