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DARLING in the FRANXX At Crunchyroll Expo 2018

by Zac Bertschy,

If you're a fan of DARLING in the FRANXX, this year's hit collaboration between A-1 Pictures and TRIGGER, Crunchyroll Expo 2018 was definitely the place to be. In attendance to spill some secrets from the show's production were director Atsushi Nishigori, producer Yūichi Fukushima and character designer Masayoshi Tanaka. The trio were introduced to a roaring audience by host Evan Minto, who promptly launched into a crackling discussion about what it took to put this show together.

Much of the discussion revolved around Mr. Nishigori, who performed a number of roles on the series – from the screenplay to storyboards and key animation. “I just did whatever I wanted to do” Nishigori explained. “When you're creating an original series, it's important for the guy who says “I want to do this” to actually show everyone – including the staff – what he wants to make. I have to write the scripts and draw the storyboards and tell them exactly what I want to make.” Everything about creating an original series was difficult, according to Nishigori. He got the team of superstars he wanted together, but then the pressure was on to make sure he had put all of these talented artists in the roles best suited for their considerable skills.

Masayoshi Tanaka – character designer behind the distinctive leads of Makoto Shinkai's worldwide phenomenon your name. – spoke about his design process on FRANXX. “The character design team was around 5 or 6 people, we brainstormed a long while, then took all those ideas and refined it to create the final designs.” Minto asked about Tanaka's involvement in the series' mechanical design, to which Tanaka described a creative process wherein the FRANXX design team would have designated theme days – mech day, character day – that involved sketch contests. “Everyone on the design team would sketch something related to the day's theme – I had contributions to those contests here and there, but I wasn't that involved in the mechanical design.” When asked who won those sketch contests, Tanaka abstained, explaining “This design team has 5 or 6 people on it who would be character designers in their own right – it's hard to be a character designer on top of all of them. I felt a lot of pressure to make sure my work was up to par. Remember – (director Nishigori) is a character designer too – and he was the pickiest one of all!”

“We had a huge argument over whether or not that one lock of hair would cover Ichigo's eye or not.” Nishigori explained. “Tanaka-san really liked showing their foreheads of the girls for some reason. I was like No! Give me bangs! Give me bangs!”

Producer Fukushima shared some lighthearted insights from his days wrangling all the talent behind DARLING in the FRANXX. “You can already tell how hard my job is just from listening to these guys, right? And on top of that, I had to deal with TRIGGER. I'm glad to still be alive.” Nishigori then gave that answer a little more context, explaining that the design process on an original series is usually contentious and difficult. “For the first half of the series, I had battles with Tanaka-san, and then for some reason, on the second half of the series, I had battles with Fukushima-san. There were times when I said “this is the last time I'll ever work with these guys!” but once it's over, it was fine. It was fun. I was totally cool with it.” Once the series takes form, Nishigori explained, the team coalesces behind what the show's about, that's where they find solidarity. Tanaka-san described their dynamic a little further: “Nishigori-san is a very picky guy – he couldn't come to a decision too easily. I kept asking myself 'is this really coming together?' and he would reassure me – “it's okay, it's okay” but then it did really come together, and I thought 'oh, this is a guy who really creates things'. It was a very fun project to work on.”

Fukushima spoke about the harassment he faced on social media after the airing of episode 14. “My Twitter account exploded halfway through the series, but for better or worse I learned that a whole lot of people watched this series, not just in Japan. I kept hearing all the voices from Japan and overseas – it made me feel like people are actually watching what I'm doing, so it was actually a good feeling in the end. I can't go to sleep when the Twitter notifications are going off, though, so please hold off on your passion for a bit.”

Nishigori spent some time discussing why they used the same opening theme song for both cours of DARLING in the FRANXX, which - as Evan Minto mentioned - is an unusual move in modern times. “When you're creating an original series, it's good to have a strong theme song," Nishigori explained, "so when people hear the song they think 'Oh, it's DARLING in the FRANXX.' If you use a different song between seasons, the recognition becomes split between seasons, so it was partially my decision to say that I wanted the same theme song for both seasons with a slightly different arrangement.”

The panel then transitioned to a slideshow the crew had brought with them – preproduction materials, character sheets, image boards and more. Included in the slides were a bevy of early concepts - Zero Two with a much more subdued, mysterious personality (changed for story purposes – “you know how Hiro is” says Nishigori) complete with dark hair (changed to pink to assist in marketing her as an icon for the series, according to Nishigori), and a whole closet's full of school wardrobe options. Even the wild original concepts sent over by TRIGGER's inimitable Hiroyuki Imaishi were on display – beautifully chaotic monster and mecha concepts that resembled Imaishi's doujinshi, according to host Evan Minto, but didn't much resemble anything that made it into the series. “This looks like typical TRIGGER stuff, doesn't it?” Nishigori remarked. “I can't make an anime that looks like this. If you want to make an anime like this, go make it yourself. I didn't throw everything away, though – I kept some things, like “I can do this” or “I can change this around to something I can do.” Everything he gave me was great, though – I'm sure if he made an anime out of it, it would be great. But I feel I chose the elements that helped create the best anime that I can make.” The slideshow ended with just a few minutes to spare, with rapturous applause concluding the panel.

All three men appeared together at Crunchyroll Expo's DARLING in the FRANXX press conference, where even more questions were answered about the show's production.

Q: This question is for Mr. Tanaka – the design of Zero Two is really important to the series. How much creative freedom did you have designing that character, where so much of the show's marketing is going to rely on her look?

MASAYOSHI TANAKA: Well, we had these brainstorming sessions where we'd take the best ideas from a bunch of different people. The one consensus we had was that she needed to stand out.

Q: For Mr. Tanaka, you're credited as both the character designer and chief animation director. That's a lot of work! How'd you manage to balance that huge workload?

A: I tried to alternate – “this week I'm doing designs, this week I'm doing animation” but then Nishigori said it's just that I work fast. I'll take that – I just work very fast.

Q: How much feedback did you get from TRIGGER during production, on an episode-by-episode basis?

YUICHI FUKUSHIMA: I served mostly as mediator. There weren't too many times where we asked Trigger – or Trigger asked us about much. We split the production on an episode-by-episode basis. For the episodes Trigger worked on, if they had issues, they came to me. For the episodes A-1 Pictures worked on, if they had issues, they came to me. So there wasn't much of a feedback “loop”.

Q: The gender politics of the show were quite controversial, particularly the relationship between Mitsuru and Kokoro. What message were you trying to communicate and what sort of response did you expect?

NISHIGORI: Hmm… Honestly, “gender” means something different in every country. I think that it's quite a sensitive issue. Without it, we wouldn't have marriage or children. So with the anime I think the idea that gender has meaning, and that it's necessary to distinguish between boys and girls is something that naturally came through. But that's not the whole story. There are people like Ikuno, who doesn't find happiness by marrying someone, by being with a man. I wanted to show lots of different pairings and ways of life. [Mitsuru and Kokoro] are just one part of that, not everything.

But it's not like we decided on that from the beginning; it just naturally developed along this line. So it's not like we approached DARLING in the FRANXX with a theme or message to say. How you interpret it is up to you.

One more thing. I wanted to contrast the choices of the other characters with the protagonists Hiro and Zero-Two, who put their lives on their line to save the Earth and even battle in space. On the other hand, Mitsuru and Kokoro stay on Earth and have children. I think that people have scrutinized those characters because it's such a big contrast.

Q: Your experience on this show – it generated a tremendous amount of conversation. Mr. Fukushima experienced some harassment on social media because of it. Were you taken by surprise by the amount of conversation you managed to create, and will your experience with the fans this time around change the way you interact with your audience on future projects?

FUKUSHIMA: Well, the reaction for episode 14 was unexpected. Episode 13 created a little hubbub, but episode 14 just exploded – mostly it was from overseas. Not many Japanese people expressed hatred, but we got plenty of hate mail from America and Europe. We were taken by surprise, but it isn't going to change how we do things. Besides, all that feedback died down by episode 15.

Our thanks to Crunchyroll, Atsushi Nishigori, Yūichi Fukushima and Masayoshi Tanaka for this opportunity.

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