Reviewby Theron Martin,
DARLING in the FRANXX
Part 1 BD/DVD Limited Edition
In the future, humankind lives in giant mobile cities on a desolate landscape. While the adults live in the inner cities, older children live apart from them and work in male/female pairs to become Parasites, who pilot the FRANXX mecha that defend the cities from ravaging Klaxosaurs, monsters who seem to be attracted to the magma energy that mankind uses for power. Number 16, aka Hiro, failed to sync with his partner, leaving him devastated questioning his value to the world. Then 02, a mysterious pink-haired girl with small horns sprouting from her head, appears on the scene and immediately takes a liking to him, calling him “darling” and seeking to make him her new partner. Unfortunately, there's a huge catch: 02 has a reputation as a partner-killer, with none before Hiro able to endure even three missions as her copilot. Despite the potential dangers, 02 represents both a chance at redemption for Hiro and maybe something more.
This 24-episode original anime production debuted in the winter 2018 and quickly became one of the most controversial titles of the last couple years. In this case, the controversy was not over blatantly objectionable content, but rather what exactly the series was (or was not) trying to say. That hasn't stopped the series from being popular enough to generate lots of cosplay at major anime conventions, but I suspect that its controversy will always dog this anime, especially given the generally mixed feelings over the series' conclusion.
But that is beyond the purview of this release, which covers the first half of the series. My initial impression of the series was that someone had decided that the largely forgotten Chrome Shelled Regios was due for a remake with a fresh coat of Gurren Lagann-style paint. While that impression never fully goes away, this series has very different narrative goals. For all the mecha-vs-monster action and relationship-building between Hiro and 02, at its core the series is most interested in exploring burgeoning teen sexuality: early, often, and with little subtlety.
Male pilots are Stamens while female pilots are Pistils (the male and female parts of flowers respectively), their relative positions within the FRANXX cockpits are strongly suggestive of a common sexual position, and the reactions of the girls to synchronization with their partner is equally suggestive of sexual penetration. Synchronization failures bear strong resemblances to sexual dysfunction in their portrayal, and when one of the girls fails at an attempt to sync with another girl, this opens its own long-standing can of worms about the series' stance on same-sex attraction. Amidst all of this, you have a bunch of kids who are just starting to figure out things like love and physical attraction, without being educated at all by adult figures.
Not everything in the series is meant to be interpreted along those lines, but figuring out where exactly the dividing line falls can be dicey. The most interesting case on that front is 02 herself. She can easily be seen as the experienced aggressor intruding into a pack of innocents, and she certainly flummoxes all of them with her sensuality, from the way she clings to Hiro or the way she eats honey in a particularly suggestive way. She also seems to be above the more childish antics of the other Parasites. However, other aspects of her character – such as how her nature isolates her from the group, her almost desperate need to fight Klaxosaurs to validate her humanity, and vague suggestions about something extremely unpleasant in her past – do not fit that metaphor well at all. She is the bridge that connects the antics of the Parasites to the greater story, which makes her a fascinating character. The rest of the cast offers up other respectable personalities who get their chances to shine, but none of them reach 02's level of intrigue. Unfortunately, this is especially true for Hiro, who stands out as one of the blandest members of the cast.
The “greater story” of FRANXX remains frustratingly vague at this point, as the first half of the series spends a lot of time dropping hints but not clarifying much of anything. These episodes give off the strong implication that children are wholly separate from adults not just in terms of their physical location and duties, and that children growing up to become adults is just not something that happens anymore. In fact, every indication is given that children are now an expendable resource used by adults for their own purposes, though whether those reasons are sinister or practical is unclear. Even the name for the pilots – Parasites – communicates specific connotations about how children are regarded. This sets up a distinct paradigm where children are the ones who are actually living their lives in communion, while the adults have settled into monotonous conformity and emotional distance from each other. Given common Japanese perceptions about modern society, this is no doubt intentional commentary of some kind.
For all its other trappings, the series is still a mecha action series, so mecha action features in most episodes. All the mecha battles follow a conventional “enemy of the week” pattern, with each new Klaxosaur posing either a wholly different challenge for the Parasites or else their own internal issues are causing them new problems. While these battles are occasionally solo affairs, they soon develop into more team-based exercises. Strong comparisons to Neon Genesis Evangelion can be drawn in this aspect, though the animation style used in the battles hearkens much more to Gurren Lagann. The portrayal of the FRANXX is also unique; when active, they take on the facial features and voices of their Pistils. Also quite significantly, Parasites are rarely seen talking to each other directly within the same cockpit; if a Pistil talks to a Stamen, it is usually through the mecha rather than directly, with the Pistil not even in the picture and the camera focused on the Stamen. For all of the odd things that the series does, this is one of the most curious directorial choices.
The overall technical merits of the series can vary greatly due to the animation often sliding into an looser style during action scenes. At least some of the credit for this doubtless goes to action director Hiroyuki Imaishi, as the stylistic similarities to his work on various GAINAX and Trigger projects is clear. The costuming for adult characters is rather novel, 02 is a stand-out character model, and the girls in general have more distinctive designs than the boys, but otherwise the aesthetic elements of FRANXX are not the most inspired. The mecha violence can be intense, but the results are not very graphic. Prurient fan service is occasionally present as well. Backing all of this is a musical score that achieves the bold driving sound you might expect from a classic mecha series. Opener “Kiss of Death” is a memorable song, while the series uses three different ending themes over the course of these 12 episodes, none of which especially stand out. The English dub for the series is remarkably strong, standing among the better efforts that Funimation has put out recently. The pivotal performance is Tia Ballard's sultry rendition of 02 and Brittany Lauda is also a stand-out as Ichigo, but all of the other significant roles are well-cast and on the money in delivery; even the metallic resonance added to Dr. Franxx's voices sounds appropriate.
Funimation has also gone the extra mile with the Blu-Ray/DVD limited edition release. On-disc extras include clean opener and closers, one English cast/crew audio commentary, and one video commentary. The box set, which comes in a translucent plastic slipcover (which is designed so that either Hiro or 02 is exposed on the cover, depending on which way you slide it on), also includes an artbook featuring concept and production artwork of the cast, although fair warning that some of the images have spoilerish details for the second half of the series. It also includes an interior box containing art cards for all of the core cast and a version of a picture book that plays a significant role in the second half of the series; it is printed in the original Japanese with translated text summarized on the final page.
On the whole, it's not hard to understand why Darling in the FRANXX made such a strong impression in the fan community. Its mix of stylish action, a coming-of-age story loaded with romantic entanglements, and "adults are a separate species" attitude provides an immediate appeal, while its overt symbolism and suggestions of bigger ideas offers at least some promise for more cerebral goals down the line. Its strengths (like 02) routinely compensate for its weaknesses (like Hiro). However messy the story may eventually become, at least the first half of the series got off to a pretty good start.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Compelling female lead, good action scenes, solid musical score
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