Thursday 19 July 2018

Anime REVIEW: Darling in the Franxx

Darling in the Franxx is available in streaming form on Crunchyroll

After the success of shows such as Kill la Kill, Space Patrol Luluco and Little Witch Academia, anything involving studio Trigger usually comes along with some fanfare. But their first mecha outing, and one as a collaboration with A-1 Pictures subsidiary CloverWorks, was definitely one to keep an eye on. This is Darling in the Franxx, the first of Trigger's three original works teased at their Anime Expo 2017 panel. Running for a total of 24 episodes (along with three special "making of" episodes), the series was spear-headed by Atsushi Nishigori (The Idolm@ster, as well as involvement in numerous Gainax projects) with character designs by Masayoshi Tanaka (AnoHana, Anthem of the Heart) and mechanical designs from Koyama Shigeto (Star Driver, Captain Earth). Though the exact split in the workload isn't entirely clear, it's largely understood CloverWorks oversaw most of the visuals while Trigger's involvement mainly came from the action side of things as well as a few select episodes.

In a post-apocalyptic future, humanity has attained immortality and traverses the wasteland in huge mobile colonies. Under the constant threat of attack from monsters known as Klaxosaurs, children are partnered into boy-girl pairs to fight back using giant mecha named Franxx. Hiro is a former Franxx candidate prodigy that loses the ability to synchronise with his chosen partner – putting him into a depression as his fellow "Parasites" become their colony's newest unit of Franxx.

That all changes when Hiro meets Zero Two, an infamous Franxx pilot with Klaxosaur blood and two distinct red horns. After Zero Two's former partners all die during attempts to synchronise and fight with her, she offers Hiro the opportunity to become her "Darling". Thus begins Hiro and his fellow Parasites fight against the Klaxosaurs, coming out of their sheltered upbringing as they learn the truth behind their apparent enemies and humanity's darkest secrets.

Oh Darling in the Franxx, where did it all go wrong? As if simply the involvement of Trigger wasn't enough to send anime fans into a frenzy of somewhat unrealistic expectations, the prospect of a collaboration in the vein of Gainax – a studio responsible for arguably some of the best loved mecha shows outside of Sunrise's extensive back catalogue, seemed too good to be true. While Darling in the Franxx did certainly go on to become one of the most talked about shows during its airtime, in many circles it rarely seemed for good reasons. To begin with the discourse naturally centred around the show's unabashed sex position robot piloting – a system which is just as ridiculous as it sounds but doesn't feel all that surprising for the minds behind the show. If Franxx had tried to play such a thing with even an ounce of comedy it might have worked, but instead the show tries to play this plot point entirely straight – barely batting an eyelid when it comes to explaining it and simply tying it in as part of its overall message. Darling in the Franxx is a show actively that actively promotes heterosexual coupling and procreation, and at a time where Japan is suffering from a severe birth rate decline it isn't surprising that people have chosen to read this as a political message. Any divergence from what the show considers "normal" is either barely addressed (such as the reverse positions taken by elite Franxx squadron "The Nines") or met with a somewhat questionable outcome. As someone who falls within Darling in the Franxx's promoted orientation I can't write about these issues quite as succinctly as others, but they're clear enough to see why people didn't take so keenly to them.

Of course there are those out there that this sort of message won't matter to, in which case all Darling in the Franxx needs to do is tell a coherent story to be a success. Unfortunately the series doesn't really manage that either, presenting half-baked concepts that are barely explained or eventually cast aside in favour of some other wacky plot progression. Late-game twists take the story to more and more ridiculous lengths, so much so that seemingly important plot points from the earlier episodes suddenly don't matter anymore. The show is tries to balance both a large-scale sci-fi epic and ethical issues on a personal level, but struggles to do a satisfying job of either. Every episode that shows a glimmer of promise is followed by one that blemishes it even more, creating a cycle where you want to see it through it to the end regardless of how far off the deep end it pushes itself.

However maybe for a second the show could have carried this rather direct message if it had characters interesting enough to support it, but this is another area where Darling in the Franxx manages to fail pretty spectacularly. The one positive with Hiro is that the viewer knows what they're in for pretty early on when it comes to his personality. Hiro is the kind of bland, projectable protagonist that's all too commonplace in anime these days, however the self-pitying that usually gives away to something greater doesn't go the same way here. Hiro's character growth is very minimal outside of his unwavering devotion to Zero Two, which could be considered "honourable" in some respects but completely predictable and uninteresting in many others.

Meanwhile when we first meet Zero Two she oozes both confidence and ferocity – a personality the likes of Hiro hasn't truly encountered before. She's the driving force in getting Hiro to take his place alongside (or rather behind) her in Strelizia's cockpit, and the one that encourages the rest of the cast to take what they want rather than to simply to take orders. But as her back story is revealed and her relationship with Hiro develops, all that attitude that makes Zero Two a character you want to invest in is completely taken away – leaving her in this painfully co-dependent relationship where the two characters can do little but exclaim how much they want/need each other. The parallels the show makes to the fairy tale book Zero Two clutched onto as a child are appropriate, because their whole relationship is equally as sickly. It's telling that despite the climax of the main story focusing almost entirely on these two characters at the very end, it's only what everyone else is doing at that time that manages to hold any interest.

Though the extended cast may be the far more interesting characters once Franxx's main plot makes itself clear, even they are fraught with their own problems. Ichigo is repeatedly framed to be in the wrong despite usually being the level-headed leader the team needs. Similar things can be said about her partner Goro, who despite being largely forgettable in early episodes becomes much more of a likable character as Hiro and Zero Two show their true colours. Ikuno is notable as the show's only clearly gay character, but is woefully underfocused and as previously mentioned met with a somewhat harsher ending than everyone else despite doing so much more in the background. Mitsuru and Kokoro are integral to one of Franxx's wider plot points, but their development is pointless cut short for the sake of unneeded dramatic tension. Zorome gets one interesting episode but is otherwise mostly loud comic relief alongside his partner Miku, who is arguably the most superfluous of all of them. Finally there's Futoshi, whose is ultimately to be "the fat clingy one". These thinly applied traits don't just apply to the Parasites either, as most of the adult characters also suffer from similarly wasted potential. Dr Franxx, Nana, the Klaxosaur Princess – these are all just characters that fill roles rather than anyone the viewer can ever successfully connect with.

But if all the heteronormity, views on childbirth and bad characters weren't enough to break the camel's back, then Franxx's painfully beat-for-beat copying of Gainax's past treasures will be. Even from its very beginning Darling in the Franxx has very obvious parallels to Neon Genesis Evangelion, painting a similar picture of emotionally-charged teenagers fighting against monsters in a post-apocalyptic world and ordered about by shady adults. But as the story progresses Franxx just delves further and further into the Eva comparisons, going so far as to eventually recreate one of its most iconic and explanative episodes almost note for note. But none of this really matters, because with a few episodes left in hand Franxx decides to throw out a late game plot twist and go full Gurren Lagann instead. Then if that wasn't enough, the show then finally chooses to mirror scenes from the original Gunbuster for its showdown. Of course this is all done with a twist of Franxx's far from subtle symbolism, but it isn't enough to make it feel like there's any hint of originality in this beast that's just begging to be put out of its misery by the end of it. APE aren't just the name of the show's villains because of its commentary on human evolution, it's also because Franxx's biggest evil is an insistence on simply aping its peers.

One of the show's few saving graces are Koyama Shigeto's wonderfully unorthodox mechanical designs, which continue the style of his previous work on both Star Driver and Captain Earth. Piloting mechanics aside, each Franxx does an excellent job of blending humanoid and mechanical elements into truly unique designs – with each individual unit distinct from the other. Similarly the Klaxosaurs vary in design but pull off an effective alien aesthetic, each sharing that striking black and neon blue colourscheme. However as expected by now even this element of the show is woefully underutilised, as episodes go by without any sort of mecha action and the Franxx are relegated to set-pieces reminding you there's a wider plot beyond our chosen group of Parasites. Elements like Stelizia's ability to transform into a lion mode when Zero Two isn't with a suitable partner are completely overlooked, while Trigger's trademark action sequences are few and far between. At its best Darling in the Franxx could definitely be considered a pretty series to look at, but even that doesn't amount to much when some of the best visuals are again carbon copies of much better works.

Darling in the Franxx could have been something great. Two big name studios collaborating to relive the glory days of Gainax. However the end result is anything but that – a series of dull and/or wasted characters, terrible storytelling, questionable politics and an over-reliance on slavishly copying past Gainax works rather than progressing from them. But in spite of all of this, I was never actually bored watching Darling in the Franxx. Even if the show was little more than a disappointing mess, there's definitely a perverse pleasure to be had watching its failings fold out onscreen. And of course visuals are the one area Fraxx never feels like a letdown, so even if you do feel like you're watching a car crash you are at least watching an extremely pretty one. If you find love in Darling in the Franxx then more power to you, just be sure to check out Evangelion, Gunbuster and Gurren Lagann to see what are arguably all of its best bits done a billion times better.

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