Anime Review: Darling in the FranXX

So one of the things I did not know until recently is that A-1 Pictures is one of the anime studios that has benefited from the exodus from former Anime industry titan GAINAX (in addition to other studios like Trigger and Khara popping up in the wake of this as well). Consequently, a lot of discussions I encountered on the lead up to the anime series Darling in the FranXX started out as a discussion of the series as a Trigger joint, before moving on to talking about it as a sort of GAINAX reunion. I’d consider that analogy not that far off. The series feels something like the Anime equivalent of the Led Zeppelin reunion concert – the band getting back together to revisit their old hits (in this analogy, the newer staffers from A-1 Pictures and Trigger would represent Jason Bonham).

The show is set in a dystopian future where the Earth has become something of a blasted wasteland, with humanity surviving in mobile arcs called “Plantations” while menaced by giant monsters known as Klaxosaurs. They are defended by giant robots known as FranXX, piloted by young teenagers called by the adults who run human civilization as “Parasites”, in gender-based pairs (with the robots having a fairly… sexualized cockpit design). The children are deliberately kept ignorant of any concept of gender or sexual identity, while the civilization they seek to protect has renounced any ideas of those concepts – and even the concept of emotion itself. These children are only known by their numbers

The focus, in particular, is on Squad 13, a special test organization supervised by Doctor FranXX – the developer of the robots mentioned earlier. They have a little more general freedom, with the members being permitted to take on names, and generally having a little looser hand from the Adults. The world of our protagonists is thrown somewhat into upheaval when they are joined by Zero Two – a girl who seems to be a Human-Klaxosaur hybrid. Our protagonist, Hiro, has failed to be compatible with any other team member, and is due to wash out of the program, but is given one more shot piloting with Zero Two. She adopts him as her “Darling” – and they, along with the rest of Squad 13, will end up discovering some of the dark secrets of the world in which they live, and the truth of what the Adults have planned for them.

That description of the premise I gave just now is pretty close to the description given in the promotional materials and taken from the early episodes, and it also reads as close to Evangelion, with a frank discussion of youth and sexuality. And, well, I don’t think the show went far enough (especially with a discussion of non-heteronormative sexual identities) in that direction for what a lot of viewers expected. I will admit, going in, I got the impression that the studios were shooting for something not exactly like Trigger and A-1 Pictures creating what they thought Ikuhara’s take on Evangelion would be, but something close. This isn’t that.

To be clear, the show does have a couple characters who are GLB (but not T+). One character is Bi (who starts off having homosexual romantic feelings for one character but ends up in a heterosexual relationship), and another character who is a lesbian (I’m not saying who on either front because I don’t want to spoil too much). However, they don’t go very far on those fronts.

It’s kind of a problem I’ve observed with discussions of LGBT+ interpretations of anime (and characters within those anime). Long story short – with some exceptions, anime’s track record isn’t great. Those exceptions are a big deal, certainly (Ikuhara’s filmography, Moyashimon, Yuri On Ice, etc). However, otherwise, these topics tend to fall into four tacks:

  1. Unexamined Prejudice: i.e. Ouran High School Host Club – where while the trans characters we see are sympathetic, they’re also comedically predatory stereotypes. Additionally, transphobic slurs are frequently tossed around both in the Japanese and English versions. These depictions are less out of deliberately intended prejudice but unexamined internalized assumptions. The creators do not know that these depictions are not okay, and haven’t had anyone within their circle tell them otherwise.
  2. Actual Prejudice: i.e. numerous 80s & 90s OVAs with villainous gay characters. These characters are like 1 – except the prejudice is examined.
  3. Single-Target Sexuality: Characters are only attracted sexually to a single person of the same gender, but otherwise are repulsed by the idea of homosexuality – they otherwise view themselves as straight with an asterisk).
  4. Neglect out of Ignorance: LGBT+ characters may be present, by they have little narrative agency with regards to their sexuality, and if they have a relationship, it’s more through implication rather than openly being in a relationship with a person. This not born out of malice, but general ignorance combined with a desire to not rock the boat. Their prejudices are imagined, but they haven’t quite drawn the right conclusion.

Consequently, Darling in the FranXX somewhat falls into #4 when it comes to depictions of LGBT+ characters. Instead, the focus of the show’s themes reminds me some of the themes from another anime I reviewed a while back – Parts 1 & 2 (and in particular part #2) of Megazone 23 (and, for that matter, Gundam Unicorn) – Young People need to be able to pursue their own destiny, and it is the job of older generations to enable them to pursue their that destiny, either through getting out of the way or providing the help they require when needed.

It’s just that the particular focus on heteronormative romantic relationships combined with the Japanese government’s pressure on younger generations to have more children due to the country’s declining birthrate unintentionally undermines the message some.

Anyway, as the series goes on, tonally it moves not towards a dark mind-fuck like Evangelion, and closer to a melancholic bitter-sweet mecha action series like Gunbuster where the ending is either going to be sad but kind of triumphant (a pyrrhic victory), or heartwarming with a sad undercurrent. This is fitting considering that some of the staff on this series had been with GAINAX for Gunbuster and Daibuster.

Ultimately, the show’s biggest strength is less the worldbuilding, and more the characterization. GAINAX, in a lot of respects, from the very beginning, was built on the idea that the characters were what was important. Yes, some of their shows had excellent worldbuilding, but it was more important to get you interested in Haruhara Haruko, Naota, and his friends; or Shinji, Rei, and Asuka; or Mahoro and Suguru; or, well, Noriko and Kazumi.

Because the FranXX works on pairs of pilots, and their compatibility determines the performance, the narrative focus becomes entirely on the connections between those characters, both in terms of piloting pairs and as a larger team. In turn, the investigation into the secrets behind their society feels more inclined towards pushing character growth than it is toward pushing construction of the world. Consequently, while a twist around episode 20 can be construed as “ruining” the series worldbuilding, I think that is, to a degree, missing the point. It felt like it leaned more towards the characters learning that everything they thought they knew about their world was wrong so their reactions could push further development and growth.

Ultimately, I’d describe Darling in the FranXX as the anime equivalent of a moderately dark snacking chocolate – say between 60% and 70%. It’s enjoyable, but it’s definitely bittersweet – and you might want something a little more fluffy as a chaser.

Darling in the FranXX is available for streaming from Funimation (where I got the Header image), and Crunchyroll. As of this writing, there is no physical release available for pre-order. RightStuf does have a Nendoroid and a Kotobukya figure of Zero Two available for pre-order as of this writing – purchasing anything through those links helps the site. If that doesn’t float your boat, TokyoOtakuMode also has a variety of material available as well (through a non-referral link).

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