Darling in the Franxx is the new anime created by Studio Trigger (Kill La Kill, Kiznaiver) and A-1 Pictures (Sword Art Online, Anohana, From the New World), directed by Atsushi Nishigori (The Idolm@ster). A mecha series set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the series centres on pairs of children that emotionally synchronise with each other to pilot giant robots called Franxx. This is in aid of protecting adult-filled cities against the klaxosaurs, organometallic creatures that are drawn to the magma fuelling each city (no, it doesn’t make much sense why they would choose an energy source that would require energy to maintain a liquid silica state and prevent solidification). The protagonist, Hiro, still struggles to synchronise with a partner and pilot a Franxx. That is until the vivacious demi-human Zero Two appears, and Hiro becomes her “darling”. In their first outing, the duo become a fearsome force against the klaxosaurs in their Franxx, Strelizia. Yet Zero Two is a dangerous co-pilot, and she has a reputation for killing her partners.
The premise of Darling in the Franxx has significant potential, but the series falls prey to an increasingly prevalent issue in television: with the advent of binge-watching and the primacy of serialisation, there has been a blurring of distinctions between episodes that negatively influences the narrative advancement within individual episodes themselves. Though the decline of episodic television as a popular format has reduced the sense of “filler” being permissible, with has come a reduced appreciation for the structural integrity of an individual episode’s story. Darling in the Franxx is guilty of this and the resulting loss of narrative tension and coherence hinders an otherwise interesting anime from being truly exceptional.
SPOILERS for Darling in the Franxx Episodes 1-10, especially Episodes 6 and 10, though honestly, as this discussion will hopefully show, the lack of narrative shift prevents these details from really acting as spoilers. However, you have been warned.
It is a common perspective amongst anime viewers that a series ought to be judged as a collective whole, but that notion belies the loss of narrative, emotional, and thematic potency as a consequence of individual episode structure being ignored in favour of the overall story. By distributing a finite number of plot points over a set number of episodes, the consideration of what story beats might be rise organically from the circumstances presented in each episode becomes secondary. In Darling in the Franxx’s case, each episode hints at the grander picture, causing the audience to have expectations about its narrative trajectory, but it is persistently favours stasis, to the point where the series actively disregards the stakes and conflicts it sets up.
The first episode of Darling in the Franxx presents a prominent conflict for Hiro: partnering Zero Two is a danger, because her partners are unable to handle her abominable strength. On introduction, her latest partner is in a coma. Throughout the series, Hiro is repeatedly warned that nobody has piloted with Zero Two more than three times and lived. In the early episodes, this results in uneasy fear between Hiro and his peers, but Hiro resolves to continue alongside Zero Two. It is a character-defining tenacity that deepens the relationship between him and Zero Two, and makes their formidability on the battlefield as heartening as it is dramatic. This is important, because Strelizia, Hiro and Zero Two’s Franxx, is by the far the most powerful one available thanks to Zero Two’s prowess. The power differential and adeptness of Zero Two compared to everyone else calls into question the need for the other Franxx. It is Hiro’s vulnerability that gives a plausible reason to limit Strelizia’s usage.
For Hiro’s choice to fight comes at a cost. He passes out and is bleeding the first time he emerges from a Franxx with Zero Two. As his health declines, the squad coordinators ominously take about the high “yellow blood cell” count. Still, Hiro perseveres. During the first five episodes, the show emphasises Hiro’s predicament: he will die on his third outing, just like everybody else. That unease prevades and gives weight to the actions of the characters. Finally, on the eve of third piloting expedition, Hiro reveals the pulsating tumour over his heart and engorged veins. Of course, the audience knows that the chances of Hiro actually dying are minimal, but by belabouring the points that Hiro will imminently shuffle off his mortal coil and that three outings is a maximum, it creates a significant audience expectation that there will be consequences for Hiro’s actions on his third attempt. It is a deliberate dramatic threshold the series has set forth.
Then the sixth episode unfolds. The fight itself is an emotionally torrid affair for Squad 13. Against a monolithic klaxosaur, the children and their Franxx are outmatched and beaten back. As Strelizia is about to deliver a decisive blow, Hiro faints, shutting down the Franxx, and instead the klaxosaur repeatedly pummels Strelizia. Inside the cockpit, Zero Two becomes wild as she struggles to energise the Franxx, while Hiro watches as he dies.
Except that he does not die. The illness is broken by the power of resolve. His veins return to normal, the metastasised tumour immediately disappears, and the previously dangerously high yellow blood cell count is reduced to zero. By the next episode the only reminder that Hiro had been sick at any point is a cross-shaped scar. It is not that Hiro surviving is an issue (your regular shounen protagonist rarely dies) and fever and disease being overcome is fine, but the instantaneous manner in which these things happen is egregious. Most prominently though, there is no permanent alteration to the course of the story for breaking the three attempts rule previously established, rendering the complications that the the fear of dying engendered moot.
Ignoring self-imposed parameters completely is bad storytelling, all the moreso because it somewhat weakens Zero Two’s characterisation as well in that she suddenly cannot cope alone anymore. The Franxx synchronisation connection has been shown to be based on emotional connection up to that point (another pair, Miku and Zorome, fall out of sync and are left stranded), which a comatose or fainted person cannot do either. Zero Two’s previous pilots were comatose, yet still alive, so following the previous plotting, Zero Two should have been able to pilot competently alone still, and merely strengthened by Hiro’s return to life. This is not what happens however. You could plausibly argue that Zero Two is emotionally crippled by her “darling” dying, but the audience has seen her red-eyed animalistic state before and it only resulted in a massive klaxosaur killing spree.
Returning to the issue of undercutting the narrative, Hiro surviving unchanged eradicates the conflict of the preceding episodes and lessens the dramatic stakes for what the audience can expect from the series going forward. It is a disappointing resolution to the audience expectations that have been built up. This is partly due to directing of Episode 6, which increases those suppositions that Hiro will drastically transform. As a whole, the series features multiple close-ups of Zero Two’s distinctive turquoise eyes, and contrasts them with the regular anime eyes of Hiro and other members of Squad 13. In Episode 6, faces are rarely shown, and there is a conspicuous lack of focus on Zero Two’s eyes until the ending minutes, when they turn red. The other major eye-shot is that Hiro’s discoloured irises as he dies. They are a shade of cyan, similar to Zero Two’s. On revival, Hiro’s eyes return to normal. Yes, this is a visual shorthand for making death and life distinct, but a combination of Hiro’s illness symptoms, his cyan eyes, and the three attempt limit makes this a squandered opportunity to transform Hiro into a “monster” like Zero Two, as a ramification for surpassing the odds. The only actual effect of Episode 6 is that Hiro explicitly confirms his allegiance to Zero Two rather than simply piloting to protect adults. This feels fairly minor, because Hiro made an impassioned declaration of loyalty to Zero Two in Episode 4 and has been enchanted by her since Episode 1.
In essence, what might have been a shift in the course of the series, becomes an explicit de-escalation to keep Darling in the Franxx in a relative holding pattern in spite of being so firm about Hiro’s mortality. There is a reason for doing so: the series has 24 episodes to cover and seemingly only a few key plot beats. However, by not following through in an organic manner now, Darling in the Franxx is content to create certain stakes for immediate gain, and then unnaturally postpone the result when those stakes come to a head. It makes the individual episodes poorer. For the audience, the drama subsides, and with expectations spurned because they can no longer trust the series to be consistent, investment in it declines. This is flawed storytelling derived from not being attenuated to the elements of the individual episode, because of the artificial constraints of servicing the overarching plot.
Were this a single incident, it would be palatable, but Darling in the Franxx is evidently keeping the story as static as possible until a major event is needed for advancement. Taking this approach in mapping the story onto a certain number of episodes, rather than seeing how each episode alters the paths of the characters, undermines the consistent development of the characters. This might be partially a result of the anime being a co-production and A-1 Pictures and Trigger alternating episodes, but the effect is that it seems like backsliding within the episodes themselves, because they have to adhere to the whole story and cannot go beyond those points. The Episode 10 is especially guilty of creating expectation of change and then delaying gratification as it is inconvenient for the total story at this time. Worse still, it is holding back the other driving conflict of Darling in the Franxx: the exact role of people in society.
The dystopia in which humanity resides is an austere one. Children are raised without any awareness of sexuality in their own secluded domes, and long to visit the golden-lit cities. Yet adults living in the city have an Orwellian conformity and emotionlessness, wearing masks and suits that only leave mouths visible. The world is reminiscent of other famous dystopias, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World when it comes to sex and societal stratification; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for the role of disposable children; and Satoshi Ito’s Harmony for the pill-addicted adults obsessed with maintaining healthiness.
The tenth episode is initially a compelling episode that takes Zorome, the character most motivated to be an asset to adult society so that he can be regaled when he joins them, and forces him to confront the mundane reality. The fabled city seems lifeless, the adults ignore him, and his conversation with the one adult woman who will talk to him is stilted and deflating. The woman lives an eerie coexistence with her male partner, devoid of emotional connection. She cannot even remember his voice, which shocks the forever bickering Zorome. The episode furthers Zorome’s maturation in how he appreciates his partner, Miku, but it also tantalises the audience by stating that children are infected with something (though whether this is actual infection or radiation poisoning or an extension of the militantly sterile environment is unknown), and the implication that the woman is Zorome’s birth mother.
The frustration with the episode occurs in the final few minutes: Zorome asks whether he and the woman can be friends once he becomes an adult, with her replying, “That’s obviously out of the question…After all, you are…”, only to be interrupted by the doorbell ringing. The audience does not hear the reveal, and any hope that Zorome himself is affected is dashed by Zorome returning to his bickering couple routine with Miku, while a voiceover informs us that he forgets about the woman with time in spite of thinking she was familiar. It resets the series to a status quo, while giving the illusion of progression.
Once again, this feels like a missed opportunity to avoid telling a “truth” to one of the characters least able to handle such revelation, which would have been narratively interesting and propelled that character to have an internal conflict. Thematically and narratively, postponing the reveal in Episode 10 prevents what would be the logical culmination of the encounter. Instead the series side-steps the subject, because it is a fulcrum around which the story revolves. If giving away the revelation now that no child can become an adult —which has been insinuated enough times that it is not going to be shocking unless it is for a totally bizarre reason—rather than waiting until the mid-season finale, unravels the the dramatic force behind the series, then the story needs more inventive material.
After all, Darling in the Franxx has relentlessly suggested the imperfect nature of its world, outright said that children die while piloting, and had Squad 13 visit an abandoned wreckage of a past human civilisation akin to present-day society. The series has chosen to emphasise these points, encouraging the audience to contemplate that information, and yet remains unwilling to really delve into the repercussions of that knowledge, preferring to keep it on the periphery. It is particularly distressing because Studio Trigger’s first series, Kill la Kill was very willing to lean into the stakes it set up and then surpass them. Though perhaps Kill La Kill was able to successfully obfuscate the stalling, because of the general zaniness and being oriented towards action.
Darling in the Franxx does not have such leeway. It presents itself as a character drama, with time spent exploring the teenager’s burgeoning adolescence. Its best episodes are the ones centred on interpersonal relationships, and the combination of the subtle animation and writing makes it engaging. The evolution of the dynamics in episode feel natural and empathetic, but they are neutered by the imposition of needing to fit the complete story. Likewise, enticing an audience every episode with a greater conflict and then neglecting to pull the trigger (pun-intended), because of a pre-ordained episode when the reveal is allowed to happen, rather than when it is organically conducive to doing so, suggests a certain degree of creative bankruptcy. If the story is unable to sustain incursions into one of the main conflicts presented, and is reticent to allow genuine character growth as a result, then it has a frankly disappointing narrative structure and trajectory.
Thank you to MementoMorie and Ryoma-Nagare for their helpful suggestions.