written by Laurie Tom
Darling in the Franxx is a mess of good ideas marred by poor pacing and an unwillingness to make the most of its material. On the surface the premise is absurd. Teenagers who don’t know the first thing about sexual relationships due to never getting educated on the subject, are raised to pilot the Franxx mecha in male-female pairs. This involves the girl crouching bent on all fours over with a display on her back and handles attached to the butt of her uniform that the boy sitting behind her uses to pilot. Darling is not subtle with its imagery.
The series follows five pairs of pilots, but for the most part it’s Hiro and Zero’s show. For some reason Hiro fails at being a pilot for anyone other Zero, despite his high aptitude scores, and Zero is a hybrid that is both human and klaxosaur (the klaxosaurs being the kaiju the Franxx were created to fight).
At first their relationship is refreshing. Zero is worldly in a way Hiro and his friends are not, so she’s happy to introduce Hiro to this thing called kissing and she makes it pretty clear that she likes him in a setting where the characters don’t even have a word for romantic affection. Zero and Hiro become a couple before the first few episodes are over, which is incredibly fast for an anime, and their relationship is probably the biggest joy in the first half of the series.
Which is why it’s unfortunate that their relationship also becomes one of the worst things about it in the second half. It’s not just the feeling that the writers didn’t know how a relationship naturally progresses, but their behavior towards each other and the promises they make are inconsistent at best, head-banging at worst, to the point that in the final third they passed from my favorite characters to my least favorite.
And the series is constantly doing this. It sets up something really well in the first half, either through its plot or its worldbuilding, and then stumbles in the second. The real enemy of the series doesn’t even get revealed until the final five episodes, by which point there is so much to unpack that it’s not possible give the series the proper send-off it deserved.
Also worth noting is what the show does with its queer characters. Ikuno is a female pilot, and would love nothing more than to co-pilot with the girl she cares about, but the Franxx mecha literally will not work that way. They try, though the girl she likes, Ichigo, doesn’t read into the situation at all, and Ichigo is firmly heterosexual.
Mitsuru, who is implied to be bisexual, has a functioning co-pilot relationship with Ikuno (odd that the two queers start the series piloting together), but clearly doesn’t click with her, and it’s only with another female pilot that he eventually finds acceptance.
While it’s fine that a bisexual character ends up in a heterosexual relationship, the series’ forced heteronormative pairings send a message by letting Mitsuru find happiness, while Ikuno is left irritable and single. And the thing is, the show could have not addressed this at all and just had all the characters be heterosexual without bringing up that some people would have a real problem in this setting. Instead it brings it up, but any possible social commentary shoots itself in the foot.
On the animation front though, the mecha designs are unique, featuring cartoon-faced robots on spindly legs that don’t quite look like anything that has come before, drawn in the signature style of the lead animation studio, Trigger. Though Trigger shares animation duties with A-1 Pictures’ CloverWorks, it’s possible to see that it handled a fair number of the combat scenes due to the animation style it established in previous series like Kill la Kill.
The klaxosaurs themselves are impressive. Though they aren’t distinct enough for the average viewer to start categorizing them on their own, each fight is unique and the series doesn’t recycle previous types so the fights don’t get stuck in a routine. I don’t quite buy the worldbuilding once the series gets around to explaining them, but early on they’re a satisfying menace and one that cannot be negotiated with.
I find Darling in the Franxx difficult to recommend because its downhill slide is so steep. It had a lot of promise in the beginning, and I think the failure to live to up that hurts more than if it had been a mediocre project to begin with. It’s not terrible, and there were still some parts of the ending that I liked, but it’s clear that the main plot took too long to get going and the writers really didn’t know where to take Zero and Hiro. The rest of the cast, though they don’t get as much focus, come out of the experience a lot better.
Number of Episodes: 24
Pluses: Interesting exploration of adolescence with no knowledge of human reproduction, unique mecha and monster designs, promising world building
Minuses: Plot falls apart at the end, Zero loses the agency that made her such an interesting character at the start, LGBT characters are not handled well
Laurie Tom is a fantasy and science fiction writer based in southern California. Since she was a kid she has considered books, video games, and anime in roughly equal portions to be her primary source of entertainment. Laurie’s short fiction has been published in Galaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and Intergalactic Medicine Show.