In a distant future, humanity lives in mobile cities on a wasteland threatened by massive semi-mechanical creatures called klaxosaurs. Specially-chosen children are given code numbers rather than names and prepped to become Parasites, members of a male-female team (the boy is the stamen, the girl is the pistil) which will pilot mecha called FRANXX to combat the enemy. 016, aka Hiro, was going to be a Parasite, but his inability to sync with his partner has left him questioning his own worth. He is shaken when 002, a newly-arrived girl with small red horns who is known as Partner-Killer, proclaims him to be “my Darling” and claims that they are alike in being alone. When a desperate situation against an attacking klaxosaur sees Hiro agreeing to be the replacement for 002’s incapacitated partner, his sync with her brings out the full potential of the FRANXX in dramatic fashion. (from ANN)
Darling in the Franxx has been quite a topic of discussion for the past few months. Some people have loved it, while others have accused it of being right-wing propaganda. If you follow me at all on twitter, you’ve probably seen some of my rants about it, both criticizing it and defending it. There’s a lot to say about Franxx, and my goal here is to answer one question: what is Darling in the Franxx? That may sound like a very basic question, but it’s one that anyone watching it week to week has likely wondered about before. Franxx is a complicated show to discuss, so here’s what I think of it on the whole.
Franxx’s early episodes serve as a strong hook. Plenty of its plot points about the kids fighting new monsters that appear each week and being led by a mysterious organization called APE are inspired by, if not straight up copied from, Evangelion and other mecha anime, but this doesn’t drag the show down too much. Most of the similarities are ideas that have been done quite often in mecha anime, and even the shots it copies come off as more homages than straight up ripoffs. Indeed, Franxx’s execution is mostly strong enough to avoid coming off as too derivative. Atsushi Nishigori’s direction and shot framing are cinematic in such a way that shots like Zero Two pulling Hiro into her mech feel like they could become classic moments in the right show. It can be a bit on-the-nose with the parallels it tries to draw between Hiro and Zero Two’s situation and the Jian, a bird that’s mentioned several times and is unable to fly without a mate, but Franxx has enough things going for it that these early rough spots aren’t too serious.
In addition to Nishigori’s direction, Franxx has a lot of interesting narrative hooks and characters. Even though we’ve seen “manic pixie dream girl” tropes before, Zero Two makes for a compelling co-lead early on. Her blatant sexuality gives her an alluring nature without falling into cheap fanservice territory, and her generally energetic nature lets her steal pretty much every scene she’s in. At the same time, we gradually get hints that she’s a pretty disturbed and violent person, and that her relationship with Hiro isn’t exactly healthy. At the same time, there’s enough passion and chemistry between the two of them that their relationship remains compelling and interesting. As the drama and tension between them builds, so to does audience investment. Messed up as they are, albeit in different ways, Franxx gets you to really want to see them be happy. This culminates in a fantastic mini-climax around the halfway point that perfectly capitalizes on all the emotion built up over the previous episodes to become the show’s best moment by a long shot. The supporting cast is less developed, but still has strong chemistry that keeps them from being completely trope-laden. Ichigo in particular stands out for how she tries to both be the decisive leader Squad 13 needs while also dealing with teenage emotions and an unrequited crush on Hiro.
I’ve been praising Franxx pretty heavily so far, but this quality unfortunately doesn’t last, and a big part of why is how the anime handles its themes. Franxx spends most of its run toying with ideas about men and women needing each other to be complete and how reproduction is the only way to be happy in the long term, ideas that are both false and possibly harmful if taken to extremes. Saying that heterosexual love is the ideal love comes very close to saying gay people are “wrong” in some way. Franxx comes dangerously close to making these kind of ignorant statements, but mostly avoids that problem by being overly cagy with what its themes actually are. Sometimes it seems to be hammering in how important traditional gender roles are, while other times it walks back those statements to present more universal ideas about the importance of emotions, individuality, and bonds with others. I spent most of my time watching it hoping that it would come down with a clear theme that isn’t based in outdated gender norms, but it was not to be.
While the first half hints at these ideas here and there in between mech fights, the second half concerns itself far more with the show’s themes. Franxx continually edges toward making a clear thesis statement, only to walk it back the very next episode. It’s a frustrating experience, and only gets worse when the anime all but abandons any real themes in the last few episodes as it tries to dump in basic plot information that the first half had been so cagy with. Franxx spends most of its run holding back information on the klaxosarus, APE’s real goals, and how the world ended up as a destroyed wasteland. All of these mysteries do a good job of keeping viewers interested, but ultimately become major problems when the anime is forced to give us so much information and so many twists in the final few episodes.
I’ve been beating around the bush a bit with this, but I’ll be blunt: Franxx’s last few episodes are awful. When it only has a few episodes left and a lot of plot and thematic baggage to unravel, Franxx pulls a completely nonsensical twist that’s both laughably jarring and clogs up the final episodes with just resolving that twist. Having plot twists is one thing, but Franxx does this one without any real setup or foreshadowing, which makes it come off as completely random and incoherent. I won’t spoil it, but I will give this point of comparison: it’s an idea shamelessly copied from the final third of Gurren Lagann. For anyone unfamiliar with Gurren Lagann, it’s another mecha series that, unlike Franxx, doesn’t take itself at all seriously and rejoices in being as over the top as humanly possible. This allows it to get away with quite a bit of silliness, which doesn’t work in Franxx’s more serious world. Following that, the anime goes completely off the rails with more plot points that are blatantly copied from Gurren Lagann, Gunbuster, Evangelion, and Diebuster. Unlike the earlier ideas borrowed from Evangelion, Franxx doesn’t do anything to distinguish these; it just tosses out plot points from other shows to the point that it becomes distracting.
As Franxx continues to deal with the aftermath of its poorly-conceived twist, it almost seems to stop trying. Sub-plots around the supporting cast are either completely forgotten, or handwaved away like the writers couldn’t figure out how to fit them in. The supporting cast becomes so inconsequential in the finale that it almost makes you wonder why they were even in the show if they weren’t going to do anything significant in the end, while Hiro and Zero Two just grow less interesting and more generic as the show draws nearer to its conclusion. Compounding this is the fact that Franxx starts pulling twist after twist without taking the time to properly explain anything or make it fit in with the world the anime has established. There are some good moments mixed in, and Nishigori’s direction is still solid, but the last act of the show leaves you wondering if Franxx ever had any idea where it was going or what it wanted to say. I can’t emphasize it enough: Franxx’s final arc is far and away the worst part of the show.
I won’t get into the aesthetics too much since this review is already one of my longest yet, so here’s a quick rundown. Franxx’s animation is pretty solid throughout, combining slick mecha action with character designs done in Trigger’s distinct style. Even though it’s generally thought of as a Trigger show, most of Franxx’s animation was done at A-1 Pictures, with Trigger just handling the planning and some of the mech fights. Franxx’s soundtrack is solid without being particularly distinctive, but the opening, Kiss of Death, stands as one of the best openings of the year, even if the show its attached to is not.
Darling in the Franxx isn’t an easy show to sum up. On one hand, the first half or so is an excellent, if flawed, coming of age mecha story with a lot of heart behind it. On the other, the latter part of the series is a thematically incoherent mess that has no idea what story it wants to tell. If it had maintained the quality of the early episodes, I’d easily place it as one of my top anime of the year. If it had always been like the later episodes, I’d have dropped it long ago. If I had to give it a clear recommendation, I’d say watch the first 15 episodes if the premise interests you, then pretend it ends there. The last 10 episodes or so just aren’t worth it, and episode 15 is emotionally satisfying enough to serve as a pseudo-ending anyway. The ultimate question of what Darling in the Franxx is doesn’t have a clear answer. It toys with various themes, but abandons them later on without making a clear statement. It has a lot of strong ideas, but they never come together in the end. After all is said and done, Franxx doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be about, and squanders a lot of the potential it presents early on. It could’ve been a classic-it had the basic ingredients for that-but that just wasn’t how it turned out. Franxx’s ideas and early episodes were promising, but the end result is a show that has a lot of strong moments without any coherent goals to tie everything together.
Final Score: 5/10