The development of one’s identity is an important part of growing up. Individuals develop across their entire lives, but the foundation of one’s self is incredibly important. While details frequently change over the decades, deeply-held parts of one’s identity rarely shift. According to psychologist Erik Erikson, this identity formation occurs in adolescence during the stage of development known as identity vs. role confusion.
To be brief, identity vs. role confusion is a period in which an individual feels a conflict between the need to define themselves and the need to fit within societal roles. This should sound familiar to everyone: we all attempt to create a sense of self while still fitting into society’s norms to some degree, though the way this happens depends on the individual.
Erikson’s theory is interesting, and while human development is obviously not in perfectly rigid stages, it does generally match up with the experience of adolescence. As such, this period can be used to look at almost any coming-of-age story, as coming-of-age necessarily entails going through this period. But this theory fits one anime particularly well: last year’s Flip Flappers, particularly Cocona’s development within the series.
Flip Flappers is hardly shy in its use of psychoanalytic imagery. Cocona, Papika, and Yayaka resemble the Super-ego, Id, and Ego at the start of the series, Jakob von Uexkull’s name is lent to Cocona’s pet bunny, and Jungian ideas are frequently referenced. How much any of this means is up to the given viewer, but I don’t think that the strong parallels between Cocona’s journey and identity vs. role confusion are a coincidence given what the series makes reference to.
As the series begins Cocona merely follows her elders and has little sense of self. We first see Cocona as she’s dutifully trying her best in a classroom that’s much too small. This immediately makes it clear that she is, to some extent, trapped by her environment, but she’s still striving to do her best within it. We see that she lacks close friends outside of Yayaka, while also seeing that she has no idea what direction to go in the future. At this point, Cocona has no identity. She’s alive, but she doesn’t have a purpose or a significant sense of self.
This all changes when Papika arrives. Papika is an unknown force, lacking in the structure that has so far controlled Cocona’s life. In many ways, Papika represents the real world that adults speak of so often to their children. She’s wild, she’s hard to discern, and she follows her own will. This forces Cocona to seriously begin to consider her identity.
Of course, it’s not like Cocona instantly has a clear sense of self as soon as she meets Papika. The first three episodes show that this isn’t the case; while she certainly comes to care a lot about Papika over the course of these episodes, she doesn’t get any closer to figuring out who she actually is. If anything, she’s put into an even worse situation. In the past, she was passively reminded of the need to create a sense of self by such subjects as the choice of her high school. Now she’s constantly being reminded by the presence of Papika. Papika, unlike Cocona, has a very clear sense of identity and is very aware that she loves Cocona.
While it’s a lighter episode, lacking any adventures into Pure Illusion, episode 4 stands out as one of the most important in the path of Cocona’s development. After being very specifically told she lacks identity in episode 3, Cocona feels particularly useless and uncomfortable with herself. This only stands out more when they’re stranded on the island since Cocona is almost totally incapable of keeping herself safe and fed in such a situation. At this point, Papika reassures her that she’s not only useful but uniquely skilled in certain ways.
This moment is incredibly vital to our understanding of Cocona as a character. In the first three episodes, she’s clearly a bit put off by how open Papika is about loving her. A big part of this period of personal development is the need to fit within societal roles, and one girl loving another certainly does not do that. When Papika expresses not only love for Cocona but a genuine understanding of her value as an individual, she’s no longer able to brush it aside. Cocona was almost certainly attracted to Papika before this, and episode 2 already covered her shame over sexuality to some extent, but it was absolutely not something she was actively aware of. Episode 4 totally changes that, and the newfound awareness of her sexuality comes with a lot of confusion.
Up through episode 4, Cocona was merely attempting to find a sense of self. She now has found that to some extent: she likes girls, specifically but not exclusively Papika, and this forces her to come to terms with her role in society. It’s that need to come to terms with her own feelings and relationship to society that powers episodes 5 through 7.
Episode 5 is very directly a parallel of Class S stories. It’s absurdly gay, with lilies everywhere and deeply intimate relationships, but as soon as the clock strikes 12 it gets reset, never to progress towards a meaningful romantic relationship. This is how queer women were portrayed in anime and manga for quite some time, and to some extent, you can still see this today. While Cocona is initially happy with this, all too quick to spend her time with Papika, she eventually realizes something is wrong. She’s not happy with this kind of situation; she wants a deeper relationship, perhaps even a sexual one. She wants a relationship that isn’t going to end with them growing up and finding husbands. At the same time, that’s simply not acceptable in present-day society, and those biases are hard to overcome. It’s worth noting that Yayaka fully snaps her out of it by almost kissing Cocona, and given our knowledge of Yayaka’s feelings, it’s not hard to interpret this as one queer girl helping another to break out of this spell.
Episode 6 is less directly focused on Cocona, but its hard not to see parallels between her and Iroha’s story. Iroha too was lonely as a child, though for different reasons than Cocona. Her ‘Auntie’ was the person who helped her to express herself openly and do what she wanted to do. In essence, Auntie served the role for Iroha that Papika serves for Cocona. Another element of this episode that’s worth noting is that both in this episode and in previous episodes, Cocona shows signs of being attracted to Iroha. This is part of a pattern: throughout the show, Cocona is clearly attracted to girls in general. This is pretty important to note because in most yuri stories characters are only attracted to their love interests. It’s only natural that a teenage queer girl would blush when other pretty girls get close to her, but you don’t see that too much, so it’s both nice to see here while also showing that Cocona’s attraction to Papika is a core part of her identity, not a one-off thing. Episode 6 also has Cocona face a new challenge; she feels uncomfortable with the fact that her venture into Pure Illusion fundamentally changed Iroha as a person. So far she’s grown more comfortable making her own decisions, but this makes her realize that her decisions have weight.
Episode 7, of course, is the real culmination of Cocona’s questioning of her sexuality. Episodes 5 and 6 have clearly shown her that she doesn’t see Papika as just a friend who she likes to hang out with, but societal pressures are still very strong to her, as they are to most people. For that reason she enters a Pure Illusion in which she’s on her own, forced to confront various possible Papikas.
This is Cocona’s last-ditch attempt to rationalize her feelings towards Papika into another, non-romantic form. She imagines Papika as a little sister, as various types of friends, even as boys, or at least boyish girls. She has fun spending time with them, but for every Papika she meets it becomes more and more clear to her: this isn’t how she sees Papika.
This all leads to her confrontation with the succubus form of Papika. This Papika offers Cocona something she probably wants: a sexual relationship. But that’s really all that this Papika offers, and that’s where Cocona has problems. Even in her conversation with this Papika, Cocona attempts to downplay her feelings towards the real Papika as merely platonic, but the show doesn’t take that seriously, and by this point, neither does Cocona. Hard as she’s tried to deny it, Cocona is now fully aware that she’s in love with Papika. It’s this awareness that brings her to Papika at the end of the episode, and she’s now able to safely and happily join together with her in escaping from Pure Illusion.
Of course, the series does not end there. Realizing and accepting that you’re queer is important, and it definitely counts as a part of identity formation, but it isn’t all that there is to the story. Papika has helped Cocona in more ways than simply realizing she likes girls. Papika makes her feel valuable as a person: it’s for that reason that Cocona fell in love with her as opposed to the other girls she happens to find attractive. This help from Papika has allowed Cocona to make decisions for herself, at least to some extent, because she has a sense of self now.
Having accepted her love for Papika, Cocona coasts through the 8th episode, which is significantly more focused on Yayaka’s feelings. She’s still somewhat nervous and nowhere near as wild as Papika, but that’s just a part of her personality, not some fundamental lack of identity on her part. The same applies to episode 9: both of these episodes make it incredibly clear how deeply Cocona and Papika love one another, but Cocona doesn’t progress nearly as much. That said, episode 9 does show that Cocona is not done with her development. When she’s forced away from Papika she reverts to her old self to some extent, showing an extreme lack of self-confidence. While finding someone you care about is important, that person clearly can’t be the only one in your life. One person can’t fundamentally change you: they can be the impetus for change, but if you rely solely on them you’ll grow over-dependent and vulnerable to the lightest of challenges, something that comes back to bite her in episode 10.
Over those few episodes, Mimi keeps getting brought up, and that always puts Cocona on edge. As Papika explains, Mimi is her past partner, and this does not make Cocona happy. She feels betrayed knowing that Papika has not always cared only for her. This is a very bad attitude to take; humans live long lives, and we can’t expect our romantic partners to have never had feelings for anyone else. But for someone who just recently came to terms with being in love, it’s understandable. Jealousy is all too common and given the secrecy surrounding Papika’s past it’s easy to see why Cocona would freak out the way she does. Unfortunately, this jealousy combined with further feelings of betrayal allow Mimi, Cocona’s mother, to exert control over her, threatening to reverse much of the progress Cocona has made in developing an identity.
Mimi’s takeover represents the final barrier to Cocona’s identity formation. To children and adolescents, parents are the ultimate authority figure, the representation of what society says and what society wants you to do. Cocona was capable of rejecting society at large’s heteronormativity, but she has a much harder time rejecting her mother’s influence. Her entire life she’s wanted to have a mother, and her difficulty in developing a sense of self is related to that. Unfortunately, Mimi is not interested in allowing Cocona to freely choose her direction: she wants total dominance over her daughter’s life. An important part of adolescence is developing a sense of self, independent of your parents, and Mimi does not want to allow that.
Fortunately, while Cocona is happy to finally have a mother and still angry at Papika and Yayaka for hiding things, her love for Papika is stronger. This allows her to break free of Mimi’s control, fully demonstrating her own identity as an individual. Over the course of the series, Cocona has gone from a girl who was unable to make decisions and unwilling to admit her sexuality into a girl who willingly fights her mother alongside her girlfriend in wedding dress battle armor. She has found a place for herself within society while still being able to express herself more truthfully. In other words, she has conquered the hurdle of identity vs. role confusion.
Flip Flappers focuses particularly strongly on the sexual and romantic part of personal identity. For many, these are significantly less important than they are to Cocona, but that’s not true for everyone. Humans build wholly different identities during this period, and while we all have to relate to gender, sexuality, race, and other such groupings in some ways, the extent to which these make up our personal identities greatly varies. Flip Flappers simply decided to use Cocona to pursue a coming-of-age story through the lens of a queer girl, and I greatly applaud it for that.
I hope I’ve done a good enough job looking at how the show approaches Cocona and her development. While she is the main character, there’s plenty more to the show, and there’s even more to her that I didn’t get a chance to cover. I totally glossed over the specifics of Yayaka, Mimi, Papika, Salt, and many more characters. This show is a wellspring for interesting analysis, and while there’s been less of that since the series ended, I have hopes that the cult community surrounding the show can continue to write interesting pieces about it. It’s very possible that I’ll return to the show one day, and I hope you’ll be there at that time as well.