Updated: Mar 15, 2021
Darling is such a nice English word, that after seeing Kimagure Orange Road where the term of endearment appears frequently, I naturally went for a more recent series where the borrowed term enjoys pride of place. Both are romances, but share nary any content, although if anyone should locate fan art of Hikaru and Kyosuke piloting a giant robot together, please tell me. On checking our past articles, I see our editor DewIso made DARLING in the FRANXX the subject of his first review back in March 2018. Happy 3rd, Meganime! https://www.meganime.org/post/darling-in-the-franxx But as the series was still ongoing, a take with the whole 24 episodes of the 2018 anime past us seems in order.
Only as DARLING in the FRANXX continued developing and revealing itself, did I come to realize how much salesmanship was needed to get the audience to bite into something so meaty. A series that became an instant hit with both fans and critics, around halfway through a schism peeled many away, or at least alienated them as they continued to watch the anime take an unforeseen direction. They had been hooked, but there was a real reason to conceal such a sharp, catching hook—viewers sometimes balk when a program goes serious and enters lecture and lesson mode without coaxing them on first.
In the future—how distant a future is a question—humanity has abandoned life on the earth’s surface, living in domed cities called Plantations that rove about a scarred landscape. Unfortunately, they are imperilled by giant robotic creatures called klaxosaurs (kyoryu) attracted to the golden magma mined as an energy source. A few groups of adolescents, reared in a nursery called The Garden and then, if they show promise, assigned to a squad tasked with defending a plantation, pilot giant robots called Franxx (after their namesake inventor, Dr. Franxx, an aged man often seen in decisionmaking with other adults). The robots are large and lanky, with animated, expressive faces, but otherwise reasonably realistic: there is none of the wackiness of Gurren Lagann. To defeat a klaxosaur, one needs to destroy its golden, molten core, or it can regenerate.
The youths, called parasites, were referred to simply by their code numbers—the lower, the more promise shown as a Franxx pilot—until 016 literally makes a name for himself, Hiro, and goes on to name all his companions in The Garden. By the time they form Squad 13, they are already a cohesive and peculiar bunch.
Franxx have to be piloted in pairs. This is where the sex, one of the first things to strike viewers, comes in, and it is glorious. The female gets down on all fours, and with the benefit of a spinal brace bears a screen displaying that staple of mecha anime, synchro, behind her head, and a pair of handles on her rear, while the male is seated but mostly upright behind her. This goes a long way toward righting a wrong dating back at least to the days when Shakespeare said “the beast with two backs” is how it’s done. Not here. The sexual position necessary to control a Franxx is commonly known by an animalistic name, but since both partners face the same way, I prefer to think of it as ad orientem. This anime does much to show how fitting for human relations it can be. First, defying my early expectations, voyeuristic shots showing up the bodies are minimized; surprisingly, this is not ecchi. More practically, Why does this arrangement help the parasites make war? I expected no answer, just fanservice, but later on a very clear reason is given: this is not about opportunistic body shots, but something in man’s nature that makes him a fighting animal.
Next is that height of character design, Zero Two (002). As DewIso says, “Overall I would give this anime 4 out of 5 stars, and of course, Zero Two would get 5 out of 5.” Some of the other females are attractive (the males are a bit scrawny and pint-sized, with one fattie), but she is the real draw. A veteran pistil with many successful sorties behind her, she’s also known as a man-killer: none of the stamen co-pilots survive their third time with Zero Two! This might’ve alarmed Hiro, but after proving incompatible with his prior pistil, he gets to pilot with her by chance; highly intrigued, he has no plans to abandon her, and she becomes very attached to him, dubbing him her “darling”. Mysteriously, Zero Two is said to have klaxosaur blood, as evinced by her horns. Why she looks nothing like their oversized, mechanical foes is a question for later.
So with this setup, what drama takes the stage? The parasites live in dormitory style housing, and as taught, see their vocation in life as piloting Franxx and killing klaxosaurs, in service to the all-powerful Papa, the head of APE, the organization directing all mankind now. But why did klaxosaurs become a threat, and why is the rest of humanity depending on kids? They intract only with a few professional adults, and are kept away from the city beneath the Plantation’s dome. Moreover, the adults are unaging, and bereft of the passions. From childhood on, the parasites wonder of they will ever become adults too, should they survive. They aren’t given clear answers (I will say, at least some of the adults handling them were pistils and stamens once, and have their own traumatic pasts).
As the parasites slowly, in moments clear of Papa’s gaze, learn about the way humans lived in the past, and how adults (but not children) live now, it becomes clear that the species has made a choice to pass beyond its natural limits with science, but has nearly lost something not only irrecoverable, but essential to survival in a newly hostile world. In trying to keep itself safe, a small number of children are kept as all once were, but are forbidden a key part of life that has become anathema to the new existence: romantic love, and all it entails. The parasites of Squad 13 didn’t even know what a kiss is, until they learn from Zero Two that it helps achieve synchronicity. As they discover more by chance, one couple doesn’t stop there, and when the powers that be find out, they are not happy.
Neither were some of the critics, their worldviews and careers vested in a view of sex disconnected from its place in continuing the species. It may seem strange that in a very sex-chock entertainment world, this would be rebellious, but again, the relations in DARLING in the FRANXX are never XXX. At most they’re TV-14. (The only thing I do object to, is when the parasites stop praying for Papa before meals: the most wayward may be those who most need prayers.) There’s never any question among our leads that sex or love could be just for pleasure, or that feelings are everything, though in case of pregnancy the adults offer the real world cure-all for said disease, abortion. The anime even addresses the question, What about same-sex attraction? and answers, stunningly beauifully, that those passions wouldn’t even begin to have sense, context, or legitimacy were it not for the opposite sex love on which they’re modeled, and before whose primacy they must yield.
Had DARLING in the FRANXX hit the ground running with these themes, the forces of evil might’ve succeeded in supressing or slandering the show, but as it was, their lateward complaints were too late to stop this timely masterpiece. Keep in mind, too, while watching, that DARLING in the FRANXX was brought to us by the same people who made Gurren Lagann, which I found so objectionable, and many of the visuals, from the barren apocalyptic, desert landscape, to certain character designs, to a certain turn near the conclusion that I won’t spoil, recall that vaunted anime. It can be hepful to have seen both before hopping in: sometimes it seems like the makers went back, element by element, and having grown more mature and wise, made everything that was wrong, right.