Darling in the Franxx is a curious show, beginning with its origin. The project is a co-production between two major studios: A-1 Pictures (AnoHana, Sword Art Online), a massive animation powerhouse infamous for cranking out a large quantity of shows with varying quality; and Trigger (Kill la Kill, Inferno Cop), a studio infamous for pushing the boundaries of conventional anime and the successor of Gainax, a now disbanded animation studio. Surprisingly, Gainax is what connects the two studios together. Atsushi Nishigori, director of Darling in the Franxx, was a key animator and animation director at Gainax until the studio shut down. He then moved to A-1 pictures where he worked as a director and managed The iDOLM@STER series. Meanwhile, Gainax animators and directors Hiroyuki Imaishi and Masahiko Otsuka co-founded Studio Trigger. Darling in the Franxx may seem to merely be a collaboration between A-1 Pictures and Trigger, but in reality the show is a production of the long-dead Gainax. Why is this important you ask? Because Gainax made the two most genre-defining mecha anime of all time: Evangelion and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. The show has several nods towards its older siblings, from mech designs and movement, to the concept of spirit and bonding as a means of piloting the mechs. This is a good thing to keep in mind when diving into the show.
In a post-apocalyptic world, humans fear mechanical monsters called Klaxosaurs and take shelter in mobile fortresses called plantations, their shield against Klaxosaurs. People defend themselves with mechs called Franxxes, piloted by a male and female pair of children. The mechs rely on its two pilots’ ability to connect with each other emotionally, and fails to move if the connection is disturbed. Hiro is one such pilot, a member of a rag-tag mech squadron that was hastily assembled to defend his plantation. He and his partner are to be sent back to their orphanage as they fail to connect during their training. While things are looking bleak for Hiro, who dreams of defending and fighting for humanity, 002 crashes into his life. 002, a mysterious high ranking pilot with both human and Klaxosaur blood, has been stationed at his plantation as a safety measure. She is infamous for killing her male partners after piloting together three times, and is often feared by people for her Klaxosaur horns. After meeting a flustered Hiro during a skinnydipping session, 002 takes a liking to Hiro and when a Klaxosaur attacks the plantation, she asks him if he wants to pilot with her. Seeing this as an opportunity to prove himself, Hiro accepts and 002 gleefully pulls him into her mech, calling him her darling. As time passes, it becomes evident that Hiro is the only one to be able to pilot with 002 successfully without being “killed”. However, Hiro is prevented by higher authorities from piloting with 002 because of 002’s reputation. This results in the rest of the squadron struggling to fight without her help. As the children fight on, they begin to question the origins of their struggles while trying to sort out their complex feelings of love and sexuality.
While the initial impression may make it seem like your average mecha show, a unique concept that Darling in the Franxx throws out there is sexual imagery. A Franxx is usually piloted by two people, and the position of the pilots and the specific angle of shots clearly indicate the show’s intent on making it as sexualized as possible. It doesn’t stop at the visuals. If you watch the show with sex in mind, you will notice that lots of names and dialogue are double entendres. The male pilots are called Stamens while the female pilots are called Pistils, which are the sexual organs of flowers. When Hiro meets one of his squadron mates after solo pilot practice, he is asked if he “cranked one out alone.” While Hiro is riding with 002, he gleefully shouts, “I feel myself going deeper inside you!”
With its sexual references, what may at first seem like any typical mecha anime turns into an overflowing pool of themes and commentary. The government is essentially forcing children to ‘pilot’ in order to save their nation and discourages ‘piloting’ alone; is this a reference to the Japanese government trying to encourage reproduction? If piloting is a symbol for sex, then why is Gorou okay with having his partner, Ichigo, pilot a Franxx with another man? Hiro is the only one who seems to be unable to pilot a Franxx unless he is with the one he is in love with; does this mean that all of the other pilots are just mindlessly doing it without actual romantic interest? Is this a criticism of how people today view sex as a way of pleasure and showing off instead of a bond between true lovers? These themes are certainly heavy topics and may not be right for audiences who just want an action mecha show. But for those who are interested in deep messages and motifs like the ones that Evangelion provides, then you are in for a treat. A-1 and Trigger have a wide field of topics that they can address, and I can’t wait to see which ones they decide to tackle.
Of course, themes would be pointless without characters to deliver them. Though Hiro is your typical overpowered protagonist, where Darling in the Franxx shines is with two female characters: 002 and Ichigo. 002 is a mysterious girl who has the blood of the very beasts that our characters are fighting. She has a free spirit and does as she pleases, acting as a bright spark in the gloom of the strict and solemn government. However, hints are dropped that she has more secrets than what meets the eye. Her sudden outbursts of anger and animosity always catch me by surprise, while still keeping in character. Her mysterious aura and the way she acts cutesy towards Hiro makes her an overall adorable and lovable character. If you follow any anime meme pages, you know who this girl is.
On the other hand, we have the childhood friend, Ichigo, who is the leader of the squad and is hopelessly in love with Hiro. She is solemn and serious, always listening to orders and trying to keep everyone focused on their mission. A lot of people love 002 over Ichigo, and I find this funny because this is exactly what the director wanted: Ichigo can never win people’s hearts when the bright and cheery 002 outshines her. Although she is the mature and caring figure of the group, she cannot win over Hiro or the audience because of her solemness. No matter how hard she tries, Hiro will be attracted to the independent and free 002, and Ichigo’s hard work will never pay off. Seeing her struggle against the anguish of her unrequited love is heartbreaking, hitting a chord in my heart that I am all too familiar with.
On top of interesting themes and characters, Darling in the Franxx boasts strength in execution as well. Most of the character designs done by A-1’s Masayoshi Tanaka, who also did AnoHana’s character designs, are distinct and adorable. 002’s design is particularly well done, with her green eyes and military clothing perfectly portraying her dominant and sadistic character. The mech designs are also unique, with most of them having a female figure and eyes instead of just a lit-up shape. A-1 seems to be handling most of the dialogue and human interaction scenes while A-1 and Trigger share the cuts for fight scenes. While A-1’s animation is consistent and brings out emotions in the interactions between characters, Trigger’s battle animations, such as the one in episode 4, are absolutely breathtaking. The battle in episode 4 was an absurd fight that only Trigger could have dreamed up with a ridiculously flashy finish that is an obvious nod to Gurren Lagann. With A-1’s strength in character animation and Trigger’s action animation, the visuals in Darling in the Franxx are a treat to the eye.
Overall, Darling in the Franxx is a deep and symbolic metaphor that means a lot more than weird mech piloting and sex jokes. The characters are well shaped with 002 and Ichigo being standouts, and the animation is stellar with the two studios doing what they do best. However, the show may be uncomfortable for some viewers and is certainly not for everyone. But if you are alright with this aspect of the show, you may be in for a ride.