When I saw DARLING IN THE FRANXX was set to come out this year, like a lot of mecha anime fans, I was pretty excited. ROBOTECH, MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM, and CODE GEASS are among my all-time favorite shows. Honestly, just the prospect of a new mecha series alone gets me excited, but DARLING seemed to have a lot of other things going for it as well.

Aside from the large robots battling, it had an interesting title. I mean, DARLING IN THE FRANXX? What does that mean? It’s a nonsense phrase and you’re immediately curious about its meaning. Not only that, but it just looks great. The FranXX are cool and there’s a strange pink-haired girl with horns and fangs. Even if you just saw the poster, there’s enough there to pique interest. This is a gorgeous looking show, with a lot of eye candy.

Directed by Atsushi Nishigori, DARLING IN THE FRANXX anime spans twenty-four episodes. Nishigori, an anime veteran, has performed various roles on a slew of impressive titles, including KILL LA KILL and GURREN LAGANN. These two shows do a great job at parodying their respective genres and set the bar high for DARLING.

The cherry on top was that DARLING had already earned quite a bit of critical praise. Initial reviews were great, for the first few episodes especially. Everything about this show seemed perfect. I was completely on board. This was going to be a slam dunk, right?

Well… not so fast.

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What is a Darling and Who Put it in the FranXX?

Set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future, DARLING IN THE FRANXX focuses on mankind’s fight for survival against a race of giant creatures known as Klaxosaurs. the anime follows a team of teens bred and raised by the government to pilot the large humanoid mechs known as FranXX. In order to command them properly, two pilots are needed. However, the most effective teams seem to be male and female partnerships. Our squad is just one of many, though we see time and again they’re no ordinary group.

Zero Two stands in front of a FranXX
It’s a pretty big robot… I guess… | Image from Crunchyroll

We specifically follow the main protagonist, Hiro, as he meets a strange and sexually aggressive girl known simply as Zero Two (or 002). She kisses him and calls him “darling” a lot and already we have our title explanation. The story follows their blossoming relationship and how it affects the other members of the group. We also learn that Zero Two is easily the most powerful tool humanity has. The only catch: no pilot ever lasts more than three rides with her before they’re killed. Intense.

As we progress, we learn that humankind has seemingly done away with the need for sexual relationships. And while they’ve “evolved” beyond the need to procreate in this way, they ironically have come to rely on these boy-girl pairs syncing up with each other to pilot for the survival of the species. It’s a metaphor!

And so the show becomes focused on this dynamic: the tension between these children, going through puberty and sexual awakenings, versus the sexless, and often tyrannical, confines of the adult society which surrounds them. It’s a pretty interesting premise. Honestly, it sounds like a pretty realistic depiction of what going through puberty can be like.

My Darling, I Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe

The most important theme of DARLING IN THE FRANXX is defining love. Growing up in a culture without this concept, our heroes often struggle to place the feelings they have for one another. With the exception of Zero Two, the squad grew up together and have bonds that go way back. There are many intertwining love-triangles going on here, but at the forefront of it all is the relationship between Zero Two and Hiro.

Zero Two asks her Darling if they'll always be together
Umm, at least until college, sure! | Image from Crunchyroll

This is honestly where the show thrives. In this exploration of what love means to these characters and how they cope with and without it, Hiro, whose inner thoughts sometimes doubles as the show’s narration, often uses an analogy of a one-winged bird from Chinese folklore. The story goes that these birds obviously cannot fly, for they are incomplete. A left-winged bird requires a right-winged bird to fly. Hiro posits that this is a beautiful metaphor and I tend to agree with him. This comes up several times throughout the show and usually to great effect.

Love, whether it is requited or not, allows our characters to find a piece of themselves they had been missing. Once our characters acknowledge their love for another member of the crew, they usually develop a better understanding of themselves.

Trying to come to terms with love and the complicated baggage it brings makes up for a large part of DARLING’s thematic focus. Is it better to go through all that messy emotional stuff? Or did the adults get it right when they decided that these emotions were simply a distraction? That mankind no longer needed love? I personally tend to root for love, but hey, to each their own.

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An Ecchi Mess

Actually not to each their own—because these sinister adults, who banished love forever, get their comeuppance in the end, obviously. Without going into too many spoilers, the show’s thesis is that love is good (surprise). Love, both romantic and platonic, is shown to be superior through our squad’s unprecedented success in combat and their perseverance through adversity.

DARLING IN THE FRANXX's Hiro's quirky innuendos from his cockpit: "I feel myself going deeper inside you. I can't tell where I end and where you begin anymore."
Hahahahaha this show… | Images: Crunchyroll

But while it has some interesting discussions about coming of age and finding love, the fan service in this show is a little out of control. DARLING is unafraid to be ecchi and while that may be okay in some situations, here it’s simply superfluous.

The first thing anyone who glances at an episode of DARLING IN THE FRANXX will assuredly notice is the position of our co-pilots in the cockpit of their FranXX. The girl is on her hands and knees and the boy sits directly behind her, using controls that seemingly come out of her ass. It’s butt shots galore. And while this is certainly a clever design, it is clever in the way that an evil genius is clever.

The cockpit of a FranXX. The girl pilot and male pilot are in an explicit position.
… Is this real life? | Image: Crunchyroll

In fact, it feels like this sexually suggestive idea is what came first and the rest of DARLING came from it. Like the author saw PACIFIC RIM, thought of placing the pilots in a more explicit position, and then tried to build a world around that concept. As far as a metaphor for sex goes, this whole thing is a little too on the nose.

Oh, My Darling, What Are You Doing?

Perhaps the most disappointing element of DARLING IN THE FRANXX is how messy it becomes, especially towards the end. DARLING’s plot, like a lot of post-apocalypse stories, is a mystery. We’re given a ruined world, a shadowy government, a mysterious enemy, and other secrets we want answers for. Engaging, but this isn’t necessarily the easiest way to tell a story. It requires a keen sense of pacing. Knowing how and when to divulge important bits of information so that the audience stays engaged over the course of the show. It can be a difficult high wire act. (Remember LOST?)

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Unfortunately, DARLING fails. Not only does it dump all of our answers out in a monologue of exposition, it suddenly introduces a new problem, completely changing the nature of the entire conflict. Right in the middle of the final battle, at the very peak of the action, the stakes are diminished and the target is moved.

Now, I understand why they did this. It adds a layer of irony to the original conflict. Man and Klaxosaur aren’t so different after all. They’ve become what they’ve been fighting. But the twist is completely unearned. It’s not even hinted at. It’s just thrown into the mix and leaves you scratching your head and thinking, “Wait, what? But— why?”

Let’s Just Fight Some Of These Black and Blue Shapes Already!

This is exactly the kind of show GURREN LAGANN was making fun of. There is even a correlation between size and power which becomes just as silly as LAGANN’s planet-sized showdown. Instead of finding an interesting way to escalate the action, the writers simply decided to increase the size of our enemies. However, instead of becoming more frightening, they end up becoming these almost formless mountains. In fact, it would have been more interesting if our heroes were told to go fight actual mountains made of stone. The combat is one of the least engaging aspects of any given episode. It is often without suspense and rarely does it achieve a creative or noteworthy sequence. On top of that, DARLING will build several episodes towards a big fight with no payoff.

DARLING IN THE FRANXX's gutenberg-class klaxosaur
I’m not sure what I’m looking at. A bad guy? | Image from Crunchyroll

The main problem is that the enemy just isn’t compelling. Klaxosaurs are these vaguely dinosaur-like monsters whose intelligence is questionable. For the most part, they feel like fodder rather than a real threat. They have no personality at all. Some of them don’t even have faces. In DARLING IN THE FRAXX, the government of adults is actually way more menacing than the monsters our heroes actually fight each week.

In most mecha anime, action sequences involve skilled maneuvering and clever weapon usage. Our heroes will find themselves in a bad situation and someone will come up with a crazy plan to save the day. Here, we mostly just see our squad mowing down countless enemies. While they struggle from time to time, we usually don’t see interesting resolutions. Usually, it’s Zero Two’s brute strength which triumphs more than anything else.

Putting DARLING IN THE FRANXX to Rest

The house is divided in half with the boys on one side and girls on the other. Dialogue reads "Boys are banned from setting foot on this side."
This might be when they just stopped trying. | Image from Crunchyroll

And yet, if it were just outright bad, it would be much easier to stomach. As a finished product, DARLING IN THE FRANXX feels like a missed opportunity for something really special. There are moments in the show when you think, “Oh wow, that’s a neat idea.” But it all falls apart thanks to tired cliches and lazy writing. It felt like it was building towards something more, but in the end, it took an easy way out.

So how could they have done it better? Honestly, it wouldn’t have taken much. Better pacing for one. It’s fine to have a few reveals and twists at the end of your show, but in the last six episodes, it seems like we’re mostly getting exposition, which detracts from the climax. In fact, it needs a completely new ending. What we get is just silly. DARLING needs to either stick with the bad guys we’re given from the beginning or drop some clues that something bigger is afoot.

I’m not saying DARLING IN THE FRANXX is a bad show, it was fine. In fact, the first act of the story is pretty good at times. That’s one of the reasons I felt obligated to see it to the end. However, it fails to live up its potential just as it fails to justify its blatant fan service. If you want to just sit and binge on a show that’s mostly bright colors and simple fight scenes, this is that show. But if you’re looking for substance, you might be disappointed. While it’s a very good looking show, this DARLING’s beauty, it turns out, is only skin deep.

Feature image courtesy of FANDOM.

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