Reaper's Reviews: 'Darling in the Franxx'

Updated on July 23, 2018
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Ilan is a huge fan of anime and video games since he can remember himself. He is also an aspiring author who wishes to write fantasy novels.

Original title: Dārin In Za Furankisu
Production: Trigger, A-1 Pictures/CloverWorks
Genre: Action/Drama/Romance
Format: 24 episodes
Release: January 13, 2018 - July 7, 2018
Source: Original
Review Release: July 20th, 2018

It’s the sheer popularity and controversy of Darling in the Franxx that got me into the series. I’m not one to watch anime while they air, mostly because I dislike waiting for 23 minutes per week and also because I prefer binging series all at once. But after getting a few recommendations about it, I decided to pick it up halfway through its run.

What made Darling such an immediate anime phenomenon and success was its prodigy: a series (co-)produced by the zany animators of the well-known studio Trigger, and directed and written by people who brought us instant cult classics such Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt and FLCL and megahits like Gurren Lagann.

So yes, Darling was slated to become yet another insane GAINAX/Trigger project that will cause people to talk about it for months to come if not years. However, as with almost everything by this duo of studios, Darling proved to be somewhat… hit and miss, and I’m putting it lightly because I will expand it in a couple more paragraphs.

An initially underwhelming showcase of sexual innuendos and melodrama, Darling develops into a very interesting series, but did it take off to the skies like its common bird metaphors? Or did it crash into an ocean filled with predators? Perhaps a bit of both?

Story & Setting

The basic premise for Darling wouldn’t be alien to you if you’ve been an anime fan for several years now, and a handful of its elements will be familiar if you’ve already watched anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion or Eureka Seven, especially the former.

In yet another post-apocalyptic earth, humanity struggles to survive on its dying planet as they fight klaxousaurs, black-colored beings who constantly attack human settlements known as Plantations. To combat them, the human council, called APE, sends the typical anime mecha teenage pilots in mechs called the Franxx.

A function that sets the Franxx apart from most other mechs is the fact that it requires two people of the opposite genders to pilot, named Parasites. However, unlike what we may see in stuff like Pacific Rim, in Darling the male Parasites (Stamen) pilot the Franxx by, ahem, “riding” the female Parasites (Pistils), whose rears become handlers for the Stamen.

This rather irregular and even goofy control design, coupled with the names for the pilots’ roles, are the first of many, many romantic and sexual innuendos and references thrown by the series, and times they feel on the nose as balant as possible.

Darling in the Franxx is not a series of subtlety, containing numerous obvious metaphors, quotations, puns and visual cues to its otherwise solid themes of love, relationships, sexuality and human nature. The series is sometimes too preachy to be taken seriously, but those who can look beyond that may find a rather heartfelt coming of age story, that can be quite endearing.

Darling’s first half is particularly good at that, balancing the initially lighthearted nature of its kid protagonists with the much darker atmosphere of its setting and adult figures. Relationships are teased or heartlessly shot down, sexual desires begin to surface as puberty hits, and the mystery behind the world’s current state is surprisingly intriguing.

Unfortunately as far as world-building goes, it ends up being one of Darling’s Achilles heels, with vague descriptions and thin hints that don’t do much beyond wasting what precious time Darling has. This culminates in episodes 19 until 21, where the series gives a quick, rather illogical and sketchy background to the mysterious APE organization, humanity’s decline and the war with the klaxousaurs before radically moving away with a plot twist so ridiculous and overdone it deserves a medal.

A lot of elements are brought up such as the Franxx’ apparent “berserk mode” and the current state of humanity’s adult figures in a dull immortal-like stage, but eventually they are nothing more than some pointless background noise.

For what it's worth, the finale manages to at least give Darling a proper ending that is surprisingly bittersweet but still somewhat satisfying. It could be a lot better, though, but I'd take it over an abrupt non-ending.

The story itself as a whole did leave me wondering, mainly of its overall point. At some stage, probably during the final 7 or so episodes I simply looked at the screen thinking what the show is trying to tell its audience, exactly.

It did have its fair share of well written moments and character arcs, even some intelligent criticism against man’s greedy desires and our heartlessness towards the world and nature, but it wasn’t a particularly cohesive ride.

Maybe it was too ambitious for a two-cour anime, maybe it thought it had enough time to tell all that it wanted to tell, or maybe it even believed its narrative fitted its own characters’ fragile and messed up minds. Who knows, really. Darling’s story is a bumpy ride, for better or worse.

The Characters

In comparison to the overall plot of Darling, its characters fare significantly better with well-rounded personal arcs and surprising amount of depth, particularly the characters of the children who I’ve grown so attached to over the week watching this show.

The main protagonist sit of Darling is shared between Hiro and a pink-haired girl referred to as Zero Two. You know who she is; she’s one of 2018’s most notorious female characters so far!

Hiro and Zero-Two are the skeleton of Darling’s narrative, their story of love, pain and redemption being the central glue that keeps everything connected and in progress. Despite its initial cliched premise, their romance becomes a fascinating, sometimes heartfelt - sometimes sorrowful bond that while getting a little too sweet, is also boldly reflected on the harmful and toxic effects it may have on both Hiro and Zero-Two.

Personally I would say that Hiro does suffer from a mild case of blandness in his characterization, but his complex relations to his fellow Parasites and romance with the far superior and interesting Zero-Two manage to cover it up.

The other major Parasites is where the true heart of the show lies, with them often depicting far more complex personalities, development and character arcs than Hiro and even Zero-Two… Well, most of them but we’ll get to that later.

The blue-haired Ichigo, for example, is brought up as the “Betty” to the love triangle that surrounds her, Hiro and Zero-Two, and the following involves her slow acceptance that she will never win her love interest’s heart, coupled with her accepting Zero-Two as a comrade despite initial hostilities.

Ichigo’s partner Goro suffers from a similar situation, being the third wheel of Ichigo’s situation with Hiro in the beginning of the story. His gentle nature and kind attitude do not help him hiding small hints of pain by the fact he’s incapable to win her over, while subtle interactions and animations help enhancing his own helplessness.

And this extends to three or four out of the other six Parasites, such as Ikuno’s own depression and bitterness regarding her different taste, or Mitsuru’s growth from a highly confident and smug child to a livelier and nicer figure who mends his problems with Hiro.

Zorome might be my favorite of the bunch, starting off as a loud brat with massive dreams about being adult and living with the other adults before they begin to slowly collapse as he realizes sad truths about the world. Unsurprisingly, the episode focusing on him was among my favorites.

Futoshi and Kokoro both get decent if somewhat rushed development, but I’d say they manage to get out of it as the series continues. Sadly the series seriously sidelines the final Parasite, Miku, who in comparison to even the second least developed Parasite, gets barely exposure, and I was disappointed by this because she showed so much potential, had good chemistry with the other Parasites and was all-around fun.

Out of the supporting and minor cast, the only ones worth mention are the Parasites' handlers, Nana and Hachi, and the designer of the Franxx, after which the mechs are named. The former two struggle with balancing between being the Parasites' overseers and the closest they have to parent figures, and Nana especially gets a decent little character arc for herself even if it wasn't much.

Unfortunately, Franxx himself falls flat, especially after being the star of episode 19 which actually weakened the mystery surrounding and his more interesting personality glimpses. It doesn't help that his personal episode was also one of the series' low-points.

Animation & Art

The common knowledge to most people is that Darling is a Studio Trigger production, and while this is true and Darling boasts typical Trigger/Gainax elements visually, it’s also a co-production with A-1 Pictures. Specifically, a relatively new subsidiary called CloverWorks, the group behind the Persona 5 anime adaptation.

And if the story and its handling of themes and symbolism can be considered one of Darling’s weaker aspects, then the animation can be considered one of its better ones, but only when it doesn’t fall to Trigger’s trademark off-model style, which just doesn’t fit the overall feel and style of Darling.

The action sequences are the bloody high mark here, often boasting dramatic swings, vivid imagery and creative shots. What was most striking to me during Darling’s action scenes is its usage of vibrant colors for some of the more… explosive scenes involving gorier shots, with strong yellow, orange, red and blue filling in the screen in scenes that somehow reminded me of Gurren Lagann.

There isn’t much to talk about the character designs, which are pretty standard fare and even take some cues from series like To Love Ru. What is noticeable is the design for the Franxx, and their lean, streamlined and feminine appearance, which is not something you often see in mecha anime. The unique expressiveness the Franxx have starts off as a little uncanny, but I became used to it, and even enjoyed the various expressions and human-like touch they have over time.

Audio & Sound

Composed by Asami Tachibana, the soundtrack for Darling is mostly serviceable. The score itself is rather forgettable or average, ticking off all the boxes without doing anything remarkable. On the other hand the few theme songs appearing here and there throughout the more critical moments in Darling deserve a special mention for being rather… beautiful and lovely to listen to.

The opening song “Kiss of Death” is notable for being one of the most popular opening themes recently, and while I don’t see myself listening to it on endless loops or putting it in my top favorite opening songs, it’s still pretty good, including the second version playing during the second cour.

The various ending themes for the series were performed by a group called XX:me, comprised from the voice actresses of the female leads in Darling. I was actually surprised to find out about this fact, but either way I'm happy to declare that all ending themes used were really good, especially the theme "Torikago".

As for the dub - yes, an English dub aired alongside the Japanese release - I mostly watched the show subbed, but the English is pretty decent as well. No, the word "Darling" won't get stuck in your head as much as it was if you were to watch it subbed, but the performances by Matt Shipman (Hiro), Tia Ballard (02), Brittany Lauda (Ichigo), Austin Tindle (Goro) and others were solid and if you're a dub lover, you'll be at home here.

Oh, and as for the Japanese dub, I just want to say that Kana Ichinose has done a wonderful job as Ichigo in what was her first voice acting role in the anime industry and I hope to hear her voice more characters.

Final Verdict

Darling in the Franxx is a series of many, many ups and downs, that never quite manages to find its footing even when it approaches its ending. When it wants to be good, it can be REALLY good, and for all of its flaws, it often handled its core - the characters and their relationships - really, really well.

But the story that surrounds said characters and relationships was ultimately a lackluster ride that drastically shifted its tone, setting and conflict over time. And it's not helping that Darling's writing crew downright slapped such balant and obvious metaphors, wordplays and references about love, reproduction and sexuality that any novelty it had flew out the window.

I enjoyed my time with Darling, but I struggle to call it a good series; it has some true 5-star moments scattered through its run, and a slew of likable and relatable characters, but in the end the entire thing feels somewhat disappointing with its melodramatic and over the nose approach. It's definitely a show for you to pick up if you enjoy Gainax/Trigger works or mecha anime (given the decreasing number of them), but beyond that, there are other shows that worth your precious time.

The Good:

  • Story can be heartfelt and relatable with its dealing of aging and sexuality
  • Likable main characters with believable personalities and growth
  • Vivid and lively action

The Bad:

  • Overarching story ends up being disappointing
  • Lacks any subtlety in regards to its themes, messages and puns
  • Takes itself too seriously at times and falls into melodrama territory

& The Ugly:

  • 2018's nastiest waifu war

Alternate Recommendations

My first recommendation should be no surprise, as watching Darling reminded me of Neon Genesis Evangelion, which besides the similar premise, shares several themes and ideas concerning human maturity and sexuality, as well as unique mech designs and plot threads.

As for the second recommendation, Eureka Seven, which is somewhat more upbeat than either Darling or Eva, but still overall fits with some of the former's romantic tropes.

© 2018 Raziel Reaper


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