Darling in the Franxx: A Lesson in Disappointment

If you haven’t gotten the hint from many of my essays for the last month or so, I have a weakness for mecha anime. It’s just such a weird and wild concept that has a hard time thriving outside of a medium as creatively unrestrained as anime, especially after attempts like Pacific Rim: Uprising and Power Rangers (2017) underwhelmed. However, if you’ve seen my go at eviscerating the shortcomings in Evangelion, or my many references to Darling in the Franxx being an infamous dumpster fire, you know that my soft spot for the genre is not also a blind spot.

This piece will not be like when I took potshots at Evangelion or at Death Note, because the dominant opinion holds that Darling in the Franxx went off the rails and ruined an otherwise solid mecha experience. If you came here for hot takes, er, sorry, I try my best but I can’t always be contrarian. Despite that, the rotating nature of seasonal anime means that good shows that turn into trainwrecks are forgotten as soon as their potential to be made into memes fades, and I don’t like that. When I see an anime do really dumb things, I need to see why, and that is how I ended up here today, dear reader.

A lesser essayist would be satisfied with calling it stupid when Franxx jumped the shark straight into the far reaches of space, or how it was stupid when Zero Two turned into a giant robot that had skin, hair, and makeup, but me? I’m an even worse essayist than that other guy I just mentioned hypothetically, so I need to dig in to the decision making process of how a writer came up with the idea of a mecha with human skin and hair. I mean, they already did, and it’s called Attack on Titan, but we’re not ready to have that conversation yet.

So in my never-ending pursuit of truth when it comes to these silly Japanese cartoons, I will go over what Darling in the Franxx did well, how it ruined the excellent worldbuilding and character writing that made it a hit, and lost sight of its purpose as a story. Spoilers for the entirety of Darling in the Franxx below.

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Side note: do you know how hard it is to find pictures for a show with this many lewds? Do you?

If you have never seen Darling in the Franxx, you chose a strange essay to read, but I respect that all the same. It takes place in the distant future where humanity has attained immortality at the cost of sterility, and has discovered how to turn magma into an incredible energy source. This leads to clashing with the ancient subterranean klaxosaurs, who don’t like the earth’s core being drained of its magma, and nearly drive humanity to extinction before they invent the Franxx, or mecha that just happen to look like anime girls. Unfortunately, only fertile teenagers in girl-boy pairs can pilot a Franxx, and we follow the misfit Squad 13.

The protagonist, Hiro, was rejected from Squad 13 after he lost compatibility with his partner. He only discovers a second chance after meeting Zero Two, who is kind of every cliche of a manic pixie dream girl, but she makes it work, and takes an immediate and possessive liking to Hiro. The series follows Squad 13 as they clash with other squads and the overseers of their program, culminating in the reveal that the government is being masterminded by an alien hive mind orchestrating the subjugation of humanity and destruction of the klaxosaurs who defied them thousands of years ago.

Despite my frequent criticism, I liked Darling in the Franxx when I first watched it, and I’d even say that I like it now. It’s not utterly irredeemable, and if you enjoy romance anime or fun mecha fights, there’s a lot worse you could do. It isn’t a masterpiece, but a show that is divided between being an 8/10 and a 4/10 still averages out to a 6, and that’s downright watchable.

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Even if most of Franxx’s ideas turned out to not be original, it did have some pretty neat concepts, like the simple idea of having teenagers pilot waifu-bots doggy style. That’s incredibly dumb, but also extremely anime, and so I’m down with it. The ensemble cast has good chemistry that the series’ writing takes full advantage of in the episodes with lower stakes, like the beach episode, or the entire episode dedicated to the boys and girls going to war with each other because the boys behaved predictably when the plugsuits melted after exposure to corrosive klaxosaur blood.

In a more story-driven series, these breaks would feel like disruptions of the pacing, but the dynamic of Squad 13 is the driving force of the show. There are regular fight scenes that are well-choreographed and executed, and this makes the majority of the show very easy to watch. The melodrama pushes your investment in learning what happens next, while the fights and occasional comedic interlude help the whole pill go down smoother. And while I mentioned the beach episode as a bit of easy fun to lighten up an otherwise grim series, they also use it as an opportunity to explore the world better.

I may have explained most of the mysteries in Franxx with my synopsis, but the information I just gave out is hard to come by while watching the show. You get less than half of that exposition by episode 19, where they promptly dump it upon you. This world is presented as enigmatic and as we only see it through the eyes of Squad 13, it opens up in small pieces. A lot of the exposition goes unsaid, simply because many of the things that would be explained directly to the audience are also things that the kids would take for granted. They don’t explain that the world runs on magma, because how often do you think about the uses of electricity or gasoline? It’s a shame they couldn’t keep that worldbuilding up, but I’ll get into that in a second.

Now, the much maligned ending of Franxx has its bright spots too. All of Squad 13 getting to grow up on an earth they reclaimed and have families is quite nice, even if it’s a bit saccharine. These were all kids who had the truth of their bodies and biology denied to them, so the story coming full circle to humanity reconciling with nature was thematically fitting. Hiro and Zero Two’s fate was elegantly done, even if I’m quick to criticize the jump to space. These two characters have wanted nothing more than to be together and to pilot a Franxx, and while they might die at the end of their journey, it still feels like a complete story. Plus, they get reincarnated, so that takes off the bitter edge of the show’s ending.

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I’ve already mentioned the world building in Franxx, but here is where I have to actually bash the show. The first episodes do a wonderful job of crafting this large and alien world, sprinkling only the barest bits of information in to leave you wanting more. Anime usually relies heavily on telling, not showing, so to see a series embrace one of the basic rules of screenwriting was actually refreshing. Well, until they spend an entire episode explaining how the world ended up like it did and it turning out to be the least interesting explanation possible.

They revealed their hand and that they pretty much had no unique ideas that the show was founded in. The big plot twist is that the Franxx were made from the klaxosaurs, basically one of the biggest plot twists of Evangelion. The true villain is a primordial entity from space hellbent on subjugating or eradicating humanity, the second half twist of Gurren Lagann. Darling in the Franxx got a lot of mileage out of showing you a world bathed in mystery, and when they finally explained it to the audience, they had nothing left for them.

So humanity messed up by taking magma from the earth and becoming sterile and immortal, which made them enemies of the klaxosaurs, but the klaxosaurs were also fighting the hive mind aliens. So the lesson is that people need to treat the planet good, have lots of children, and also communism bad, I think? The writers throw every conceivable theme at the wall in the hopes that one sticks, and none do. I know the birth rate is declining, but there has got to be a better way to communicate that the Japanese youth need to go out and…breed, as gross as that sounds.

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Mitsuru was a halfway interesting character before the writers gave up and diagnosed him with dad.

So if the show lost all of its tantalizing world building and slow drip of exposition, then maybe it could have honed in on the melodrama that gave the early episodes a soap opera type of appeal. The first fifteen episodes of Darling in the Franxx are a gripping teen drama, exploring finding your purpose, coming to terms with who you are and your sexuality, and rebelling against a system that grinds individuals into cogs in a machine. It is a story that effectively communicates relevant messages to its core demographic.

The last episodes are about going into space and fighting evil alien communists, how the power of love conquers all (but especially evil alien communists), and a half-hearted theme about family. It doesn’t just shift the focus away from the series’ original intent, it just is a downright lazy substitute for the emotionally charged writing and character dynamics that came before.

Every character who was interesting in the first half is just done with it. Hiro’s character arc is about being unable to pilot a Franxx, or by joining his fate with Zero Two, the alleged ‘partner killer’. Once he and Zero Two smooth over their relationship and get the hang of piloting a Franxx, he has nothing left to do in the story. Zero Two loves to start arguments and get under people’s skin, but once she and Hiro are happily together, she loses any semblance of a personality. Ichigo gets no closure for her arc except that the guy she loves rejected her and she doesn’t need to move on, but at least she gets Goro as a consolation prize.

The entirety of the show hinges on these characters, their quirks and their flaws, and then they just…move past them. The show spends the next three episodes on Mitsuru and Kokoro, who have only received the barest characterization up to this point. They’re not complete nobodies, but they definitely can’t carry an entire arc of the show, or be the crux of a major plot beat like this. Now that the main conflict of the show is over, though, they have to.

Outside of Zero Two, Hiro, and Ichigo, and Goro half the time, Squad 13 are side characters. They could be the focus of a single episode, but they didn’t have the depth to rival any of the main trio. It really felt as though the writers had been given 24 episodes even though they didn’t initially plan for that many, and they made no effort to fill that run time with meaningful content.

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Also, Ichigo is best girl and I am not taking questions at this time.

Darling in the Franxx is a lesson in disappointment, and in properly pacing your story. If you have 24 episodes, and want to pull out a second villain, then there are ways to do that without making the previous villain redundant, and filling the story with needless clutter. It would have been fine if the series made it more obvious that they were going to make the move into space from the beginning, so as to make the tonal shift less jarring. They could have introduced the alien hive mind earlier, or dispensed with the klaxosaurs as a threat before the last minute so it doesn’t feel like a bait and switch.

It would have been a smoother ride if they had decided on a 15 episode run and leaned into being a generic mecha with no original ideas. It’s better to imitate what has come before, rather than lead the audience on so that they don’t think you’re going to do anything you won’t. Anime needs its cotton candy series, not everything can have the emotional weight of Your Lie in April. I’ll give so much more credit to an anime for acknowledging what it is, what the creative team is capable of, than aiming for greatness and falling horribly short.

Is Darling in the Franxx completely without merit? No, I think the bulk of the show holds up, even if you’re better off skipping the ending. The disappointment comes from this good show being loaded up with so much unnecessary baggage and a bizarre ending, and how much damage it has done to the popularity of mecha, and the likelihood of more original mecha anime being greenlit in the future.

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