– Spoilers Below –
From Crunchyroll: The distant future: Humanity established the mobile fort city, Plantation, upon the ruined wasteland. Within the city were pilot quarters, Mistilteinn, otherwise known as the “Birdcage.” That is where the children live… Their only mission in life was the fight. Their enemies are the mysterious giant organisms known as Kyoryu [Klaxosaurs]. The children operate robots known as FRANXX in order to face these still unseen enemies. Among them was a boy who was once called a child prodigy: Code number 016, Hiro. One day, a mysterious girl called Zero Two appears in front of Hiro. “I’ve found you, my Darling.”
I’ll be upfront. It’s exceptionally difficult to review this show because of the stark difference in quality between its two halves. After its first half concludes, DARLING decides that it’s been aliens all along and ramps the ridiculousness up to 12. In a more zany show, such an absurd twist might have worked. DARLING, however, treats its content with utmost sincerity, and that’s why when the show’s direction changes from straight ahead to straight up into outer space, it just doesn’t work given the lack of foreshadowing and build-up. If the show had prepared its audience for such a drastic shift earlier on, it might have been tolerable. But when DARLING does such a thing with limited time remaining, it derails the entire train.
But I’ll give it a shot.
Throughout its run, DARLING has been compared to Neon Genesis Evangelion. Being the anime connoisseur that I am, I have yet to actually watch NGE. Blasphemous, I know. Regardless, DARLING has been called something of a love letter to NGE, (from what I’ve heard), not-so-subtly borrowing scenes and beats from it. Since I am unable to make such comparisons, I only have my objective opinion on DARLING to work with, and thus I can’t fairly say how it relates to NGE. That said, DARLING very much does come off as a homage to old-school mecha shows, taking their ideas and thrusting them into a more updated, cyberpunk setting. For me, the show still seemed to find reason to exist beyond fawning over its own genre, and that reason rests in its themes of gender, love, and adolescence.
The world has largely been devastated, and humans are forced into mobile cities known as plantations. An organization known as APE, helmed by Papa, rules over the plantations. Inside of Cerasus, Plantation Thirteen, in a location called The Birdcage, live ten children known as Parasites. Their sole purpose is to pilot the FRANXX robots in defense of humanity against giant biological dinosaur-like beings called Klaxosaurs. Squad Leader Ichigo, Goro, Zorome, Miku, Ikuno, Mitsuru, Futoshi, and Kokoro all work in pairs to pilot their feminine-looking FRANXX. I’ll admit, I like the designs of the FRANXX, but I also suspect they half look like that as a marketing plot. After all, we already have three figures for them on the market or soon to available. Main character Hiro, despite being a prodigy in the past, is unable to synchronize with anyone to pilot a FRANXX and thus is considered useless along with his former partner Naomi. Just before he accepts his fate and leaves the plantation behind Naomi, he encounters Zero Two, a half-klaxosaur girl with a reputation for killing her partners due to the strain she exerts on them. In a dire attempt to defend the plantation, Hiro joins Zero Two in piloting Strelizia and successfully synchronizes with her, starting him down his journey in uncovering the secrets of their dystopian world with the rest of Squad Thirteen.
The FRANXX robots can only be piloted by the joint effort of a pistil and a stamen, or for the less botanically-inclined, a female and male. Resident lesbian Ikuno more or less proves this when she attempts synchronizing with female-squadmate Ichigo and fails. This idea of a female-male partnership being the only way to operate the tools to protect the future carries a lot of weight in regards to gender politics and queer individuals, and that’s not even mentioning the position the pistil and stamen are in when operating a FRANXX. (The pistil’s butt is aimed at the stamen’s crotch, and the stamen uses a control panel that essentially extends from the pistil’s rear. It doesn’t look any ludicrous than it sounds. Here, have a look.)
Carrying those themes along for the sci-fi ride is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, as I mentioned, it gives DARLING something that other mech shows lack. The problem is that instead of sticking the landing with something insightful to say about these concepts, DARLING doesn’t even attempt to land at all, and its themes all go spiraling into orbit (along with the rest of the cast and all coherency in the final act). Once upon a time, in its early episodes, DARLING might have had something to say about gender and sex. But by its halfway point, those ideas are either forgotten or, in Ikuno’s case, brushed aside in pitiful dialogue intended to serve as the culmination of (nonexistent) character arcs. Hell, in Zorome’s focus episode we’re treated to our first real glimpse of the inner city of Cerasus — a dystopia where adults are devoid of all emotion and happiness, including romance. While this is a somewhat cliche take on dystopian society, it nonetheless served as an interesting, ominous foil to the lives of Squad 13’s members. Yet by the end of the show, this adult society is never really explored, and its disconnect from the lives of the Parasites is summarized in one extended flashback monologue at the back-end of the series. And even such a drawn-out flashback leaves questions from the series’ first-half completely unanswered, as if the show just decided to abandon its curious examination on human behavior.
As far as the characters go, well, let’s just say they are severely underutilized. Hiro and Zero Two both get arcs early on, but then in the second half they wind up as vomit-inducing codependent lovebirds who don’t give a damn about anything else. Not only is this obnoxious, it’s a complete slap in the face to Zero Two, whose entire character was built on her fiery nature and independence, despite her want for companionship. In the second half, she’s just a pleasant, agreeable, innocent girl, which is just hard to watch. Her 180 is largely steamrolled in by mandate of the plot, just as Ichigo’s eventual acceptance of Zero Two is. Neither development, particularly Ichigo’s, makes sense to occur so quickly, yet the plot rushes things along, not giving a care about proper pacing or build-up. Futoshi, Ikuno, Miku, and Zorome are largely relegated to the sidelines with nothing to do (especially Miku, who never even gets a focus). The cast was never standout, as most of the characters were cookie-cutter tropes, but that doesn’t mean they have no stories to tell. So it’s just an enormous waste that all they do is engage in mundane activities most of the time, when there’s certainly a lot more digging that could be done into their psyches and personalities. Even characters that do receive focus, such as Mitsuru and Kokoro, have their development rendered pointless by disastrous writing in the long run. (I don’t even want to talk about Goro, who, after his applause-worthy scathing call-out of Hiro toward the end of the series, completely ignores his own words and decides to do exactly what he berates Hiro for.) Character dynamics were at least a fun part of the first batch of episodes, so when the show decides to tunnel vision in on the unhealthily co-dependent relationship of Hiro and Zero Two in the second half, it’s a shame to see that spark of life evaporate.
Then there are the Nines, clones of Zero Two who, like other Parasites, obey Papa without question. From their first appearance, Alpha and the other Nines are at odds with Ichigo’s squad, not understanding the human emotions by which Squad Thirteen operates and instead choosing to follow blind, unwavering allegiance to Papa no matter the circumstances. Like almost everything else in the show, the Nines were full of potential for interesting writing as a foil to Squad Thirteen. However, they are never really fleshed out, instead only popping up every so often to display what James Beckett of Anime News Network justifiably calls “vague antagonism.” (I can’t phrase it any better than that, so thanks, James!) They butt heads with Squad Thirteen but never actually do much of anything, which, given their attitudes and beliefs, is a real shame. The cherry on top is how at the end of the series, Alpha claims to have learned a lot about being human from Squad Thirteen before sacrificing himself for the sake of humans. It’s the sort of dialogue and action that would punctuate a well-realized character arc. But it just rings laughably hollow considering just two episodes before Alpha was threatening to kill Ichigo’s squad just because Squad Thirteen made a decision without Papa’s approval.
At the very least, DARLING manages to still be fun for most of its run. The action sequences are engaging and exciting, though the Klaxosaur enemies themselves could stand to be a little more … interesting in terms of their designs. Unfortunately, the thrill of the spectacle also wanes in the final quarter of the show, as the direction becomes so sloppy that even the action scenes are boring and nonsensical. But like the majority of the second-half, it’s best to just forget these particular scenes.
Actual Footage of DARLING in the FRANXX’s plot development:
DARLING in the FRANXX was initially full of boundless potential. It’s dystopian setting was engaging, its characters fun, the mechs vibrant, and its themes full of curiosity and mystery. But once its second half arrives, the show casts away its shell and becomes something completely new and devoid of any of its former positive qualities. It attempts to cram what should have been a full-season arc into around four episodes, losing all coherence and sacrificing both character development and engaging battles along the way. When DARLING takes a step back to focus on character narratives or thematic quandaries, the show is generally successful. But every time it tries to return to the larger picture, it stumbles over the railing and plummets hard. If you want to watch a show shoot itself repeatedly in the foot, I can’t think of anything better. Before now, Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V was the champion of trainwreck anime endings for me, but I think 2018 has crowned a new king. For better or worse (it’s worse), DARLING in the FRANXX at least has that achievement under its belt.
DARLING in the FRANXX
- Mech designs are vivid and unique
- Manages to successfully tell a handful of smaller narratives without imploding
- Maintains appropriate balance between its juxtaposed cyberpunk and more antiquated settings
- Commits narrative suicide halfway through
- Characters are rarely given anything of note to do
- Plot overshadows character arcs
- Themes remain muddy
- Hiro and Zero Two