The Winter 2018 Anime Preview Guide DARLING in the FRANXX
How would you rate episode 1 of
DARLING in the FRANKXX ?
What is this?
In a distant future, humanity lives in mobile cities on a wasteland threatened by massive semi-mechanical creatures called klaxosaurs. Specially-chosen children are given code numbers rather than names and prepped to become Parasites, members of a male-female team (the boy is the stamen, the girl is the pistil) which will pilot mecha called FRANXX to combat the enemy. 016, aka Hiro, was going to be a Parasite, but his inability to sync with his partner has left him questioning his own worth. He is shaken when 002, a newly-arrived girl with small red horns who is known as Partner-Killer, proclaims him to be “my Darling” and claims that they are alike in being alone. When a desperate situation against an attacking klaxosaur sees Hiro agreeing to be the replacement for 002's incapacitated partner, his sync with her brings out the full potential of the FRANXX in dramatic fashion. DARLING in the FRANXX is an original anime work and streams on Crunchyroll, Saturdays at 12:00 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
Hmm. I dunno. For a show with a pedigree as sterling as Franxx's, I was expecting more from this first episode. Perhaps I've just become jaded, but as technically proficient as this premiere was, it didn't make me feel a thing.
First off, DARLING in the FRANXX shares top billing with DEVILMAN crybaby among this season's “shows with a ridiculous team behind them” productions. That team starts at the top with director Atsushi Nishigori, who contributed heavily to major Gainax works before that studio's not-quite-dissolution. Over at A-1 Productions, Nishigori directed [email protected], which I'd consider the best idol series I've seen and by far the most technically impressive. Here on Franxx, Nishigori has gathered a team of animation all-stars, including classic Gainax animators and a variety of Trigger associates, to elevate his new robot drama. So how does all this talent play out in action?
Well, pretty predictably. Franxx's visual vocabulary is both generally compelling and clearly evocative of classic Gainax robot anime, from Evangelion to Diebuster to Gurren Lagann. The show's plugsuits and frantic alarm bells echo Eva's aesthetics, while this episode's narrative hews to a structure familiar to anyone who knows anything about giant robot anime. Outside of its narrative choices, Nishigori's wide-open compositions give the episode a real sense of grandeur. This show knows how to place objects in the frame in such a way that the overall composition feels iconic, striking that “this is an all-time-great” tone purely through its beautifully composed key shots.
The problem is that the actual narrative is just too familiar and questionably executed to earn that iconic tone. This episode leans far too heavily on its hamfisted symbolism, and we're given little reason to care about our mopey protagonist Hiro. The parts of this episode that felt dramatically resonant relied on cribbing directly from better shows, and the few revisions this series makes on existing formulas are stuff like “what if the old scientist character sexually harassed one of his coworkers” and “what if male-female relationships were venerated by the universe itself.” At least that second point does offer some room for dramatic growth, since it seems inevitable that the society in which our heroes find themselves will turn out to be one of the real monsters.
Still, I can't really fault Franxx for being “less excellent than I'd hoped for” when I'm out here assigning positive scores to stuff like Killing Bites. The show's direction and animation are terrific, its narrative is at least competently told, and there's plenty of potential for this to turn into an excellent giant robot show. I only hope it can eventually rise out of the shadow of its predecessors.
Even over 20 years later, Neon Genesis Evangelion casts a mighty long shadow, doesn't it? Sure, you can see elements of EVA's influence in basically every hybrid-mecha series (meaning neither "real robot" like Gundam or "super robot" like Gurren Lagann, but a blend of influences that's typically informed by EVA's aesthetic), but DARLING in the FRANXX bares its EVA elements so blatantly, with shot choices and production design copying its forebear down to small details in every single scene, that it's impossible for me to see this as anything other than a direct response to Evangelion. Well okay, it's not impossible. If FRANXX isn't seeking to deliberately reflect its most dominating influence, the only other alternative would be that it's just haphazardly ripping off Evangelion imagery because it's cool, like the many EVA clones of the late '90s.
Since it's 2018 and all, the idea that someone would make their own version of EVA with such little self-awareness seems ridiculous, but unfortunately, the writing quality of this premiere is questionable enough to leave that window of possibility cracked open for me. Don't get me wrong; this first episode is propulsively entertaining and, though not creative in its aesthetic, it is handsomely produced from top to bottom. What's the old saying? Amateurs borrow and experts steal? Well, they stole directly from the cream of the crop in memorable anime imagery, and pulling this off without looking like a poor imitation takes a great deal of skill on its own. While this is certainly an imitation, it's far from poor. DARLING in the FRANXX is what Evangelion's world would look like if it was produced by A-1 Pictures with Trigger robots and aliens running around inside it. If you can put this show in a mental vacuum while you watch, there's little beef to be had with its engrossing look and feel.
Unfortunately, this is going to be impossible for anyone who's seen Evangelion, because FRANXX bites that classic so hard that every copied shot or sound cue leaves indelible tooth-marks in your brain. So all that's left to distract you from a too-obvious comparison is the story, but this script doesn't seem up to the task just yet. There's nothing dramatically wrong with it, but it definitely feels like an amalgam of modern anime cliches I've seen too many times before: child pilots who go by dehumanizing ID numbers, the world's most basic accidental pervert jokes, foreboding monologues about vague worldbuilding stuff over a foggy horizon, and so on. This made me curious about the minds behind this original story, but discovering that this was a collaboration between the creative voice driving The [email protected] anime (director Atsushi Nishigori) and the prolific creator of Steins;Gate, Robotics;Notes, and Plastic Memories (Naotaka Hayashi) didn't help me suss out what to expect. I know absolutely nothing about the first guy and the second guy's track record is basically defined by its unpredictable unevenness.
Anyway, my hope is that scattered new elements like boy-girl pairs piloting a mahou-shojo-esque robot together are intended to add fresh flesh on those old EVA bones. I hope their intent was to make something they know is going to be compared to EVA, and I hope it's the comparison they're ready to invite. I have to believe that, because if the creators are somehow oblivious about how their work will be seen by fans of the genre that EVA created, it won't be a good sign for a story that's already started on shaky legs.
It's become a cliché at this point to open a discussion about a season's prestige mecha anime by comparing it to Evangelion, but DARLING in the FRANXX earns that comparison more than most. It isn't just because of TRIGGER's relationship to Studio Gainax, or that the proto-TRIGGER anime Gurren Lagann stands as the industry's most well known example of a successful post-Evangelion mecha story. Even in this first episode, DARLING in the FRANXX is having a very direct conversation with the imagery, aesthetic, and themes that Evangelion worked with almost thirty years ago. The result is a premiere asks some fascinating questions and sets up an interesting world, all wrapped up in the visual energy and gonzo production design that's become synonymous with TRIGGER (alongside a great deal of assistance from A-1 Pictures, of course).
As someone who's spent a sizable portion of his life obsessing over Neon Genesis Evangelion, DARLING in the FRANXX's deliberate homage to the series was not subtle, though it ran deeper than I expected as well. While there are numerous shots lifted directly EVA, DARLING is also playing with Evangelion's core themes and ideas in interesting ways. We have in Hiro the ineffectual male protagonist that comes pre-packaged with any Evangelion commentary, but his female co-star is an interesting hybrid of Shinji Ikari's female counterparts; 002 possesses Rei's mysterious connection to humanity's monstrous enemy, but she is framed with Asuka's aggressive and headstrong demeanor. I'm sure these characters will have their own unique personalities and arcs to move through, but the parallels here seem really intentional, especially given how Hiro and 002's relationship relates to the FRANXX.
In stark contrast to the ways Evangelion used its mechas, the FRANXX in this show are explicitly driven with the power of human connection and relationships, specifically between adolescent boys and girls. While I hope the heteronormativity of the setup is at least minimally challenged, I like the idea of giant robots being used to bring people together, instead of functioning as symbols of individual actualization. This isn't a new concept, but it feels fresh when paired with TRIGGER's charming aesthetic and storytelling style. While the ideas so far feel very much like the product of having multiple decades to stew on Evangelion's impact, the particulars are 100% TRIGGER, with the vast desert setting and cartoonish character designs feeling very much in line with Gurren Lagann. The FRANXX themselves are especially cool in motion, with magical-girl transformations and an animated face that feels like it shouldn't work slapped on top of a mecha, but it fits perfectly well.
If this episode has any drawbacks, it's that it gets a little lost in the weeds of the world-building and setup required by a premiere episode. It took me a while to figure out the terminology of this post-apocalyptic society, and the cast and premise in general feel only barely sketched out aside from Hiro and 002. I imagine these wrinkles will be smoothed out in time, and none of them are enough to hold DARLING in the FRANXX back from being an eye-popping treat from beginning to end. I've enjoyed the deluge of slice-of-life content we've been treated to this season, but shows like this are what brought me to love anime in the first place, and I can't wait to see where the folks at TRIGGER and A-1 are going to take us this winter.
After tuning in to every single premiere that's aired this season, I can confidently say that it both started and ended on high notes. A Place Further Than the Universe introduced us to surprisingly well-characterized school girls out to enjoy the most of their youth before it slips away. DARLING in the FRANXX is a wildly different setting but shares more in common with Antarctica Girls despite their vastly different genres. Beneath its mysterious monsters, vast post-apocalyptic deserts, and transforming robots is a story centered on human relationships.
DARLING in the FRANXX quickly establishes that this is a world built on forced heteronormative relationships. Duos are referred to as Parasites and are meant to have completely symbiotic relationships to survive. Individually, members of a pair are called Pistils and Stamens, a pretty heavy-handed reference to the reproductive parts of a flower. Further reinforcing the symbiotic symbolism, some plants' stamens and pistils are within the same flower to create a singular, reproductive system. Probably to no coincidence, flowers that carry both are referred to as perfect flowers while those that don't, like kiwi and cucumbers, are considered imperfect.
Moving on from Botany 101 to our primary duo, Hiro and 002, who are imperfect. Hiro had problems synchronizing with his previous partner and both were kicked out of their child-staffed giant robot team. 002 devours all her partners so she's unable to truly connect with anyone. This seems further metaphoric on types of self-destructive behavior in relationships. However, we don't have the full the picture yet, so I don't want to assume too much but I'm certain that the Trigger team is gearing up for another action-heavy title with a hidden message and I am here for it.
Despite some of my misgivings about Kill la Kill, it was crazy entertaining and had some interesting things to say. I'm a little tepid on how strongly Darling is pushing the male/female partnership stuff right out the gate, but there's still time to disassemble its setup. The robot designs (and transformations!) are really my jam, so it looks like I've got yet another must-watch anime to put in the queue this season.
Someone needs to educate Hiro (orphan no. 016 in the story's dystopian world) about flightless birds. DARLING in the FRANXX opens with two monologues, one given by heroine 002 and one by Hiro, about a type of bird called the jian that can only fly in pairs. 002 thinks that this is romantic, and she sees it as a beautiful metaphor for what she hopes for in life. Hiro, on the other hand, sees it as a failure on the part of both birds that they can't pull off flying on their own, revealing (and repeating) that he thinks of himself as a flightless bird, doomed to uselessness. While I realize that ostriches are probably extinct in his world, all I could think about was how their utility and power would blow his mind.
Imperfect bird metaphors aside, this looks like the start of a solid, if somewhat rehashed, mecha story. Almost nothing about the basic premise is particularly original, from the slightly monstrous nature of 002 to the idea of adults sticking orphans in dangerous mechs in boy-girl pairs for Some Reasons, but that doesn't stop this from feeling like it might have promise. All of the familiar elements are well-handled, and the concern the fellow cadet pilots feel for each other is effectively at odds with the way the masked adults treat them – it's even implied that the kids gave themselves their names, and we certainly never hear a grown-up refer to a child by anything but a serial number. This adds a chill to the proceedings, as if the adult population either couldn't be bothered by the existence of children or sees only those who survive piloting as the ones worthy of attention – they even ominously call pilots “parasites,” a word with virtually no good connotations. While this is a familiar dystopian theme, it's a good example of how the show uses such well-known bits of world building well.
Less impressive is the blatantly sexist doctor, who not only grabs his female assistant's ass but also refers to 002 as “high maintenance” for the unspeakable fact that she wants a shower. (My god, does she want to eat too?) There's also some fairly hackneyed fanservice when Hiro sees a naked 002 doing her best Sexy Nessie impression in the lake; it's only saved by the fact that she doesn't care that she's nude and he doesn't grab her boob. Add to this the ludicrous scene where the mecha transforms into a humanoid female form complete with the detail of it sprouting breasts, and this could have some issues on the horizon.
That said, right now anything that isn't adorable is on track to stand out this season just by virtue of being different. And DARLING in the FRANXX is certainly different by comparison, even though so much of it is familiar. Lack of cuteness notwithstanding, this has some dark promise, even if Hiro never does learn about the wonders of ostriches.
The first (and only?) mecha series of the season, DARLING in the FRANXX is a co-production of A-1 Pictures and Studio Trigger. Anyone familiar with past Gainax and Studio Trigger works won't need to be told that they are involved though, as their signature visual style is obvious and pervasive; everything from the way character designs are handled to the way that the feature mecha action scene at the end is animated is reminiscent of their past works, especially Gurren Lagann. Whether you normally love or hate the look of their series will probably go a long way towards determining whether you like this first episode or not.
On the story front, the premise seems like a mish-mash of elements borrowed from numerous previous series, not the least of which is Chome-Shelled Regios; in fact, the series could simply and broadly be described as a cross-pollination of it and Eureka 7. Reduced to its essence, the concept is run-of-the-mill for mecha series: a lonely boy who has taken to doubting his ability and place suddenly finds it in an encounter with a strange, not-entirely-human girl, and that encounter allows them to team up to make a mecha do dynamic new things. That allows for successful combat against giant creatures which threaten humanity. What makes this a little different is that the mecha teams specifically have to be male-female, and the prospective pilots are inhumanly codified (apparently any names they have were given to each other), presumably with the implication that they're disposable if they don't work out.
All of that may make this sound ordinary, but the execution of the concept makes the difference here. Hiro may be ordinary so far, but 002 isn't different just because of horns resulting from having some klaosaur blood in her; she's wholly astounding and incomprehensible to Hiro, and that is portrayed clearly in her every action, from the way she carries herself to the way she isn't fazed in the slightest by Hiro seeing her naked to her propensity for tasting things. The sense of both of them being alone but seeking a complement to themselves is also effectively and poetically portrayed. The first episode also wastes no time in exposition, which may leave many questions about the setting unanswered for the moment but also provides numerous intriguing tidbits which can be expanded upon later; if you want to entice viewers with your setting without revealing much up front, this is the way to do it. This results in a perfectly-timed pacing, one with no lulls or wasted scenes. That the mecha takes on a face which the pilot can apparently actually talk through is also an interesting angle.
Despite a dearth of originality and not being a huge fan of the character design style, I see a lot of potential here in the details, and that closing mecha action is pretty spectacular. That's enough to get me on board for now.
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