For an anime original that debuted early this year, Darling In The Franxx has already gathered quite the following—even celebs. Kim Kardashian West’s ’Gram blew up because she high-key revealed her best 2D girl by sharing that she dyed her hair pink after the show’s heroine. (We already know that Yeezy’s an otaku so perhaps they partake in “anime and chill?”)
The new mecha series’ reputation precedes itself due to two popular animation companies collaborating in the production, namely Studio Trigger (best known for Kill la Kill) and A-1 Pictures (produced Sword Art Online among many others). Why is this a big deal? Some of Studio Trigger’s employees also worked on Gainax’s Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and an ex-Sunrise producer (home of the Gundam franchise) formed A-1 Pictures. Their collective experience in the mecha genre means there’s a lot riding on this series. Aside from the high-profile fans and production outfit, Darling In The Franxx is best known for the unique way of controlling the robot. The female pilot is bent down on all fours while the male pilot stands behind her to grab the mechanical handles appearing on her hips while leaving enough space for the Holy Spirit. The visual innuendo alone has elevated the show to memetic levels. But will the novelty of its premise wear out anytime soon? Will the narrative be strong enough to withstand the long haul of a 20+ episode arc without reverting to tired tropes? Will Darling In The Franxx be able to stand out from its long line of mecha predecessors?
A dystopian YA novel (with more giant robots)
Darling In The Franxx is set in a post-apocalyptic world terrorized by underground creatures called Klauxosaurs. The remnants of civilization are divided into domes called plantations. We follow the adventures of Plantation 13’s cadet soldiers, or Parasites, as they train to battle these monsters using a giant robot called a Franxx.
The task of piloting the heavy machinery falls upon a group of orphaned teens called “Parasites” as commanded by a small council of masked adults who rule over humanity. These Parasites are grouped into male (stamen) and female (pistil) pairs per Franxx—the stamen navigates the mech while the pistil becomes the robot. Our main guy Hiro has trouble piloting the Franxx and can’t seem to get it up. And by “it,” we mean the willpower and focus to connect with his female partner. The dude is prone to overthinking his every move and feels more comfortable when he’s going solo. (Haven’t we all been there?) That is, until he meets Zero Two, a far more experienced pistil who takes him inside her Franxx and successfully syncs up with him.
Pacific Rim (but from the perspective of a horny teenaged boy)
Using their doggy-style positioning, the pilot pairs give life to the robot. If that wasn’t a blatant representation of procreation, then we don’t know what is. Even the way the pair connects implies something else entirely with the pistil’s breathy moans and the stamen’s guttural groans. (You might want to wear your headphones while watching this part.) And in case you missed all that, the dialogue lays it all out in the open with talks of “entering,” asking the partner how well they’re performing so far, and asking them not to move around so much. The sexual innuendo in the series is about as “subtle” as your average teenage boy telling a dick joke while knowingly winking and nudging your way. The most important aspect of piloting the Franxx is the drift compatibility between its partners. Both parties have to be in tune with each other and consent to piloting for the mech to function.
Exploring issues with intimacy
Obvious fanservice aside, piloting the Franxx holds as a metaphor for the adolescent discovery of one’s own burgeoning sexuality. During their first time using the Franxx, some of the Parasites had difficulty syncing and moving as one. They fumbled their way through battle like a couple of virgins struggling with a condom. Even the ace pilot of the show, Zero Two, has her own problems. She’s infamous for being a “partner-killer” with the men unable to ride with her more than three times before dying. (We guess she’s more of a ride-AND-die kind of chick.) Hiro and his obvious symbolism for erectile dysfunction, can only pilot a Franxx with her, which might be detrimental to his health in the future. Their struggle is understandable considering they are orphaned teens raised in a facility and isolated from society (save for Zero Two who seems to be more knowledgeable) that has no knowledge of romantic pursuits or how to deal with their hormones. There’s no known parental figure of sorts, just a bunch of adults ordering them around.
Dehumanization of child soldiers
In most shounen or shoujo anime, the teen hero is someone you would aspire to be, but Darling In The Franxx shows the downside of answering the call to action. The fact that the student cadets are called Parasites indicates that there’s little value given to these teens other than the military service they provide. The characters are all given numbers instead of names further proving their expendability. As of now, there’s no concrete reason as to why the mechs have to be piloted by teens other than because the adults say so. Is the small council exploiting the cadets by forcing them into adult situations way before their time? (And we don’t mean just the doggy-style piloting but warfare in general.) By showing the obvious power imbalance between the adults and the children, the show seems to be setting up an opportunity for subversive action.
NGE, is that you?
Teen pilots with emotional baggage who are forced into sketchy situations by equally suspicious-looking adults? That sounds vaguely familiar. The comparison to cult '90s anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion is inevitable for any mecha show that doesn’t fit the Gundam or Macross formula. Hiro is already being dubbed the new Shinji Ikari due to his inability “to get in the fucking robot” and knee-jerk reflex to cockblock himself from getting it with Zero Two. The main heroine is like the ultimate waifu fusion of Asuka’s straightforward personality (flirting included) and Rei’s mysterious, otherworldly appeal (the girl has actual horns). NGE was the show that launched a hundred clones that dealt with the deconstruction of the mecha genre. Darling In The Franxx mirrors the existential dread of facing one’s own mortality and the inevitable destruction of humanity by their own hand. A bit of world building a few episodes in hints that not all is what it seems. But it also adopts the camp and audacity to “go beyond the impossible” that embedded Gurren Lagann and its phallic oversized drills in the minds of anime fans. DITF takes several tried-and-true tropes from other mecha series but uses them to establish its universe and individual motivations in order to make us emotionally invested in the characters (mainly Zero Two).
Women running the post-apocalyptic world
With all this talk about the aforementioned suggestive position inside the Franxx, There’s a notion that going down on all fours or even just the act of receiving assumes a submissive role. This is far from the truth in real life and in the context of Darling in the Franxx (not to mention the real world) because these women are topping from the bottom. The de facto leader of the Parasites is Ichigo, who calls the shots in terms of battle strategy and formation. She’s selfless and would risk her life for the safety of her team. Ichigo also struggles with self-doubt and jealousy but powers through it. The main heroine Zero Two is the most popular character in the series thanks to her unapologetic aggro nature, skilled piloting, and not to mention the generous amounts of fanservice she provides as nudity is not a big issue with her. She possessively pursues the protagonist in an almost predatory manner deemed problematic by some characters in-universe. Zero Two’s brash nature may be her fatal flaw as her reputation of draining her partner’s energy has left her socially stunted. On the other hand, her strong will allows her to defy overbearing authority and helps Hiro gain self-confidence.
The women are strong but struggle with their own issues outside anything romantic, giving them more depth. They both call the shots and have a say in choosing their male partner.
The joint effort between Studio Trigger and A-1 Pictures is most evident in the battle scenes with the former’s fast-paced sequences combined with the vibrant CG models and detailed environment—a signature style of the latter, which is mostly inspired by a Mad Max-style landscape. The Franxx take on the shapely, buxom form of a fembot reminiscent of the mech design in Star Driver. The whimsical and colorful design of the Franxx robots easily stands out from the army of Gundam knockoffs. On the downside, the show has the tendency for off-model animation, where you can clearly see where the studio made budget cuts. The soundtrack takes you where you need to go at that moment, quickening the tempo for the action scenes and slowing for the poignant scenes dedicated to character development. However, it’s forgettable and doesn’t leave a visceral impact in the same way Attack on Titan’s first season OP “Guren No Yumiya” made you want to do an impromptu jog and parkour session.
Setting itself apart from the mecha crowd
If Darling In The Franxx would like to pull an NGE and explore darker themes and be taken more seriously, then the series will need to learn how to balance the fanservice and points of plot progression. Don't get us wrong, there’s nothing bad about displaying some classic T & A. However, there’s a way to integrate it into the storyline without distracting from the plot. Even Kill la Kill came up with an explanation, albeit a flimsy excuse, as to why Life Fiber-users are practically naked in their battle suits.
Hiro’s characterization fits the bland protagonist stereotype and is overshadowed by Zero Two. While the heroine is the obvious breakout character in the series, we hope that she can further develop so that she becomes more than an MPDG archetype for the protagonist. Fortunately, we see hints of it already as Hiro also provide emotional support. Zero Two’s rebellious nature hints at a greater movement to shake up the status quo. If this will include challenging the heteronormative setup of the Franxx pairing remains to be seen.
Hopefully, the show doesn’t get lost in all the mecha elements and creates its own identity.
Only time will tell if Darling In The Franxx can grow beyond its initial impression as a sexually charged Eva clone. But we don’t mind tagging along for the ride.