Darling in the FranXX (DarliFra) stuns and captivates with its visual prowess.
It’s about teenagers. And sex. And robots.
Brought to life by Gainax veteran Atsushi Nishigori, Naotaka Hayashi of Steins;Gate fame and a slew of talented animators, expectations for DarliFra were sky-high preceding its debut. And, visually, the show rarely disappoints. Trigger and A1-Pictures elevate the production to aesthetic mountaintops by virtue of the art direction and deft animation. Trigger’s Gurren Lagann influence serves the show well, immersing the audience in landscapes of color, explosions, and fluid lines. A beautiful effort, by all accounts.
Then, there’s the plot.
The show centers on a group of gifted orphans known as Parasites. The Parasites must pair up, one male (a Stamen), and one female (a Pistil) to pilot a mecha (FranXX). When inside the cockpit, the Stamen stands behind the on-all-fours Pistil. The Stamen controls the FranXX via handles protruding from the sides of the Pistil’s buttocks.
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that any all dialogue between characters must filter through the question, “is this a euphemism for sex?” Pardon the spoilers, but the answer is, invariably, “yes.” In fact, the entire premise consists of allegory–the plight of the virginal otaku–a series of ham-fisted metaphors regarding bourgeoning adolescent sexuality and performance anxiety in the bedroom.
When the show surfaces from its deep pool of innuendos, it finds itself in a dystopic wasteland of Evangelion tropes–a world threatened by klaxosaurs (Angels), monsters repelled by the esoteric military agency known as APE (Seele) with the help of piloted mecha called FranXX (Eva).
Add in a mildly compelling heroine with horns coming out of her head for good measure and you’ve got yourself a show. Thus, DarliFra forces its viewers to ask themselves a series of unfortunate questions:
- Can I ignore the incessant fanservice?
- Am I willing to stomach the show’s contrived “message”?
- Will the visuals carry the show for twenty-four episodes straight?
A quandary indeed.
I can tell you that, despite its flaws, DarliFra deserves some attention. It frequently dips into “guilty pleasure” territory, favoring style over substance and relying on a patently ridiculous premise. Even so, the series maintains a certain edge. Addicting and magnetic, the show is, as they say, “fun to watch.”
Episode 1 – “Alone and Lonesome”
DarliFra opens by juxtaposing the natures of our two protagonists, Zero Two and Hiro.
Zero Two is a physical creature. Sensual in every sense of the word. We meet her, on board a transport aircraft, embodying her laundry list of desire: touch me, bathe me, make me smell good. The horned heroine makes the lives of her repressive overlords difficult. A carnal force in a restrictive environment.
Compare her to our hero, Hiro, who kickstarts our metaphor-a-gogo with his “Jian” monologue. Through it, we learn all we need to know about his character:
The Jian is also known as “the bird that shares wings.” The book I read about it a long time ago said it can’t even fly unless a male and female support each other. They’re pitiful creatures. Until it finds a partner, it must hide among tree leaves, wait with bated breath, and dream of the day it can take flight into the skies above… If so, where does the bird that never ends up flying go?
The answer to Hiro’s question is (spoiler alert) “nowhere.” Hiro, the Jian, needs a partner in order to lose his virginity (fly). In society’s eyes, he is “pitiful” until this occurs. For Hiro, virginity is the cornerstone of identity. Otaku and/or sexually inexperienced males, now successfully pandered to, can identify with the protagonist as he navigates the frightening wilderness of women.
Luckily, the lonely Jian promptly locates a mate in the form of Zero Two leaping out of a pond, naked, with a fish in her mouth.
Zero Two’s beastly tendencies intensify as she, through taste and smell, searches for the perfect prey. Miraculously, Hiro fits the bill.
Here is the tentative list of reasons Zero Two likes Hiro:
- The fact that he tried to save her from drowning (even though she wasn’t).
- Their shared “aloneness.”
- He tastes like danger.
Hiro offers hope to all anxious, pubescent, heterosexual males. An outcast with few skills or desirable personality traits can still manage to lock down the sexiest girl in town.
The episode ends with Hiro and Zero climaxing together in Strelizia over a backdrop of explosions, mecha acrobatics, and Gurren Lagann-esque splendor. Taking stock of my experience with DarliFra‘s inaugural episode, I find myself both insulted and titillated. Cognitive dissonance abounds.
Episode 2 – “What It Means to Connect”
Ancillary characters continue to remind the audience that the third (not the first or second) time a Stamen engages in intra-Eva intercourse with Zero Two, they die. Three–a highly symbolic number. Clearly representing holiness or completeness. Definitely not a contrived plot device to build suspense!
Hiro remains undeterred by his impending doom, explaining, “If I can’t pilot, I’m as good as dead anyway.” Using critical analysis, honed through years of post-graduate studies, one can decipher this message as, “If I don’t have a girlfriend, I’m not a real man.”
Luckily, Zero Two staves of Hiro’s identity crisis in the following scene, once again reminding the audience of her unquenchable thirst for bestial pleasures, dripping sauce off her hands during a meal and licking it off, all while straddling her Darling Hiro. He receives a much-needed jolt in the pants and once again averts an existential breakdown.
Episode 2 introduces a new dynamic between Hiro and his Stamen posse–sexual competition. The schoolyard banter and “ball play” serves as an extremely subtle metaphor for the one-upmanship inherent in male sexual conquests. Each Stamen wants to prove their own copulatory worth by emasculating their rivals–a technique preferred by the impressively annoying Zorome.
To cope with his frustration, and his inability to ride his Darling, Hiro resorts to masturbation (training in a test unit).
Zero Two, also miffed at her prudish overlords, settles for licking a Pistil. Ichigo appears shocked, but Zero Two likes her taste. Perhaps her action chips away at the show’s heteronormative bonds by revealing another facet of the heroine’s spectrum of desire? Or maybe Papa never told her that licking people is rude.
But, I digress.
Back to the primary themes–teens, sex, robots. Okay.
The final scrimmage between Hiro/Ichigo and Zorome/Miku provides a somewhat deeper look into the show’s driving metaphor. First, Hiro can’t “get it up” for Ichigo (Zero Two spoiled him) and chemistry in the real-world relationship determines the success of the FranXX’s performance. The botched chemistry between Ichigo and Hiro affects the latter more than the former. Ichigo must suffer both physically and emotionally for Hiro’s poor showing, whereas Hiro escapes with nothing more than a bruised ego. Now Ichigo knows that she doesn’t satisfy Hiro as much as Zero Two does and the relationship between the two ladies continues to sour. Our horned hero punctuates the bitterness with an (epic) hair flip.
While DarliFra continues to impress visually, the second episode pummels the audience with the same tired metaphors. The show does, however, introduce a somewhat interesting Zero Two/Ichigo subplot to complement the inexplicable (but cute) Zero Two/Hiro romance. The two women’s inevitable scuffles will draw interest from its “trainwreck factor” alone. Still, the show has a lot to prove at this point.
Episode 3 – “Fighting Puppet”
The episode opens with an unexpected burst of exposition. A flashback reveals that Hiro gave names to his fellow orphaned pilots during their childhood years, providing them with a new dimension of identity–one that goes beyond their unexpressive code names.
Zero Two quickly walks (or waltzes) that sentiment back as she smuggles Hiro past the security gates and onto a ledge overlooking Tokyo-3, I mean, Plantation 13. Zero Two is a nihilist, deflecting Hiro’s attempts to name her, and insisting that all Parasites are simply a “statistic.”
Perhaps Zero Two’s worldview explains her utter devotion to Hiro. She desires one thing, a “Darling” who shares full compatibility with her. Only the pleasures of sex and companionship can stave off her despair. The shallow connection shared between the other FranXX “partners” can’t protect humanity from the threat of klaxosaurs. Klaxosaurs = the unknown variables inherent in any relationship. And Zero Two’s oft-mentioned “ocean”? The fairy-tale happy ending.
It seems the DarliFra Metaphor Lexicon (DFML) requires some revision:
The Parasites had no parental warmth or guidance in their upbringing–no one to help them navigate through life’s tough questions. They must rely on the education provided by State Institutions (APE), but this proves cold and unhelpful. The klaxosaurs symbolize the anxiety this lack of support produces and the unknowns of sexual intimacy. Zero Two, a klaxosaur/human hybrid, has accepted this fear, thereby sapping it of power. Moreover, she has no fear of sex, allowing her to vanquish klaxosaurs with ease. Ichigo may feel intimidated by Zero Two’s confidence, potentially even mislabeling her a “slut.” The other Stamens can’t ride with Zero Two because they feel intimidated by sexually enlightened women. Hiro doesn’t fear her because he welcomes the presence of a (beautiful) sexual coach (and he doesn’t want to die a virgin). He wishes to brave the ocean waves, hand-in-hand, with his Darling!
Time will tell if the prophecy holds.
The rest of the episode loops back to the “sexual conquest” beat. Mitsuru wants to try his hand at taming Zero Two, (gee, I wonder what will happen), so the much-anticipated union of bliss between our Darling couple gets postponed once more. And we all know what Hiro does when that happens:
“Fighting Puppet” maintains DarliFra‘s visual fidelity and succeeds in adding some thin characterization to both Hiro and Zero Two. Now that the writers have (hopefully) ensured that even the densest members of the audience understand the show’s underlying message, it can (hopefully) pivot towards more robust world-building and character development.
Episode 4 – “Flap Flap”
“Fap Fap” propels DarliFra into the animation stratosphere. Trigger rather than A1 gets the spotlight this episode, opting for impressionism over on-model consistency, and giving the show a more kinetic and unhinged aura.
The modified style works well to highlight Mitsuru’s shock after his completely unexpected failure to ride with Zero Two in Strelizia. Yet I’m tempted to interpret Zero Two’s deadliness in the FranXX sack as less “she’s too good at sex” and more–
Well, let’s take a step back and revise the DFML:
Klaxosaurs are STDs. And the Parasites must model safe sex for all the adolescents in Plantation 13 to prevent a pandemic from spreading. Zero Two has herpes (from her klaxosaur blood), an STD that flairs up occasionally (usually after the third liaison). A “Darling” is someone who doesn’t mind having intercourse with an STD positive partner (because love).
As the APE-men march Zero Two back to the “front lines” (a location with very disturbing metaphorical implications), Hiro demonstrates a predictable, albeit endearing change in his conception of Zero Two. “I need her because she gives me value as a Stamen” shifts to “I need her because I love her.” Hiro reaffirms, after convincing his lover to stay, that, yes, he would in fact like to ride Zero Two again. Her expression in response is, admittedly, adorable.
But, hesitant to allow us to bask in the moment for too long, the writers hit us with a barn-burner of line. Hero says, “I feel myself going deeper inside you. I can’t tell where I end and where you begin anymore. I love it!” Guess they ran out of ways to code the innuendo.
We’ll let Hiro close out the review with a monologue:
I’d always dreamed of the day I could take flight to the skies above. And, for a while, I’d given up on it ever coming true. But now, I may have finally found a pair of wings to call my own. Even if they’re double edged wings that will slowly destroy me, I’ll be able to fly one more time.
Even though he will contract a disease, Hiro relishes the fact that an attractive horned woman will jump his bones for no apparent reason. Excuse me, there ARE reasons. In fact, let’s add “he doesn’t consider me a monster” to the list. What a titanic gesture of goodwill from our Jian. It must have taken a lot of mental fortitude to swallow his disgust and go ahead and not view this insatiable sex-beast who drools over him as a monster.
In conclusion, I find myself enjoying the show more when I embrace its unintentional humor. The visual splendor, along with the occasional successes with Hiro and Zero Two’s characterization are added bonuses. Strangely enough, the episode itself felt like a finale. Now that the two protagonists have “found each other,” what more does the show have to offer? Time will tell if DarliFra can continue to entertain without relying too heavily on visuals and/or the robo-consummation occurring inside Srelizia’s cockpit.
And, please remember:
~ Don’t Shoot the Messenger