DARLING in the FRANXX
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 1 of
DARLING in the FRANXX ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
DARLING in the FRANXX ?
I covered DARLING in the FRANXX's first episode in the Winter Preview Guide, so I won't dwell on that premiere too much here. Despite an astounding amount of Evangelion references and a plot that may be too complicated for its own good, A-1 Pictures and Studio TRIGGER's jointly produced mecha action series turned out an overall gorgeous, entertaining, and thematically compelling premiere. Of the winter's many new series, DARLING in the FRANXX was one of the few that I was genuinely excited to follow through to the end. Heading into “What It Means To Connect”, I was curious to see where this series would take its amalgam of classic tropes in a modern eye-catching style.
As it turns out, the answer is a very simple and emphatic “SEX!”, shouted from the heart of the world in a great and guttural yawp that's absolutely impossible to ignore.
This isn't literal sex, mind you, but rather using the titular FRANXX fighting machines as an incredibly direct metaphor for sex and burgeoning adulthood. This is a trick as old as Evangelion if not older, and while DARLING is by no means the first show to put so much emphasis on a “teenagers + horniness + robots = METAPHOR” equation, it may very well be the most brazen example of the concept. The first episode drove this point home with zero nuance, using Hiro and 02's first meeting and the piloting of their FRANXX as a clear analogy for Hiro's sexual awakening. While this setup is hardly fresh, the show's strong character animation and the generally compelling chemistry between the show's two leads made up for the lack of originality.
However, the second episode of DARLING in the FRANXX doesn't just throw out the pretense of subtlety, it straps subtlety to a rocket and sends it blasting off into another galaxy. After some obligatory character introductions and exposition-dumping at the Parasite home base, Hiro and 02 take a back seat while the other boys (aka Stamens) and girls (aka Pistils) prepare for a test run of their own FRANXX units. It was already established that the robots require both a Stamen and Pistil in order to function, which made the whole “SEX!” metaphor clear from the beginning, but DARLING takes a good chunk of this episode out to make absolutely sure that every single person understands the analogy. As the boys get dressed for the occasion, a pilot named Zorome rags on Hiro because he can't believe that Hiro could have possibly “piloted a FRANXX” before the other boys. In the other room, the girls wriggle into their own unnecessarily skimpy clothing, while a pilot named Kokoro wonders if she'll ever get used to how “weird” connecting feels, since it's nothing like the training units they started out with. Ichigo herself enjoys the feeling, though she obviously carries some jealousy over Hiro connecting with 02 instead of her. This simple rundown of the innuendo doesn't properly capture the full blatancy of the dialogue, but even those scenes come off as small potatoes compared to how these teens actually operate a FRANXX.
You see, in order to pilot a FRANXX, the male pilot assumes the dominant position at the helm, with the female pilot kneeling in front of him in a manner that resembles a certain immediately recognizable canine-themed sexual position. Not only do the giant head modules that the girls wear serve as the FRANXX's HUD, the piloting controls are literally attached to their behinds, which means that the boys literally grab onto the girls' rears and handle them like reigns as they pilot. Just to make things as crystal clear as possible, the connecting process inspires a mix of euphoria and pain in the girls, who heave and sweat and quietly moan, before the flustered boys inquire about how they performed.
If all of this sounds kind of sleazy, that's because it is, leading us to my biggest problem with how DARLING's second episode developed this world and its themes. Naturally, I still hope that these incredibly heavy-handed parallels are being made to establish an uncomfortable status quo so that it can be subverted over the course of the next two cours. As it stands in these first two episodes, however, the show is trying too hard to have its cheesecake and eat it too, and when the sexual parallels are this absurdly overt, wrinkles in the execution will become much more noticeable.
It isn't just that the episode is filled with excessive fanserivice; my main concern is the darkly voyeuristic edge that it carries when coupled with this premise. The adults in charge of the FRANXX initiative stress the emotional delicacy of connecting, and emphasizing the mix of discomfort and pleasure that female pilots like Ichigo go through when connecting makes the entire metaphor feel as emotionally charged as it is physically charged. This isn't just an opportunity to stick the main characters' butts in our faces; these are kids whose bodies and blossoming sexuality are being exploited to pilot their FRANXX.
Late in the episode, Ichigo demands that Hiro connect with her for a practice drill, in a transparent act of defiance against 02, who has made her possessive affection for Hiro very clear. The two are able to get things going rather quickly, but Hiro quickly buckles under the pressure. This metaphorical attack of sexual dysfunction is made all the more awkward when Ichigo, breathless and confused, wonders aloud if it was her fault that Hiro couldn't get it up. The thin figurative veil of the mecha-piloting conceit may as well not exist at all in these scenes; it just feels like we're watching two young teenagers engage in a humiliating sexual encounter. The final painful note arrives when Ichiro tries to recreate Hiro's intoxicating kiss with 02, only for him to despairingly admit that he didn't feel any kind of spark or connection between them.
If I'm being honest, this brazen examination of adolescent sexual anxiety could be fascinating on paper, but the constant leering shots that linger on the female pilots' breasts and buttocks sours the potential for honest allegory. Even though the show is ostensibly inviting the audience to empathize with these characters and their emotional troubles, it also makes sure to take time out to watch all the girls squeeze into their absurdly tight underwear. Even disregarding how unnecessary and distracting the fanservice is on its own, the way in which it clashes with these ostensibly serious themes does the show no favors. Its ridiculously obvious metaphors are meant to develop and humanize these characters, but then it uses those same methods for bog-standard exploitation and objectification.
We're only two episodes into a 24-episode run, so it's too early to say whether or not DARLING in the FRANXX will succeed in subverting the tropes it presents, or if it will merely revel in the basics of its imagery instead. This was an excellently animated and well-directed episode that definitely had its entertaining moments, but the way it handled its themes and imagery has me concerned. The series' composers for DARLING are Naotaka Hayashi (Science Adventure series writer) and Atsushi Nishigori ([email protected] director), and their involvement with the rest of the talented crew at A-1 and Trigger assures me that DARLING in the FRANXX will remain an entertaining, ambitious, and visually compelling series going forward. Still, this second episode raises a lot of red flags, and it remains to be seen if this series will be able to rise above such a rocky first impression to deliver a story that doesn't jeopardize its human touch for the sake of an over-sexed and over-simplified premise.
DARLING in the FRANXX is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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