Rhododendron – A Darling in the Franxx Review
By Noah Johnson
Studio Trigger announced three new projects at Anime Expo 2017. Promare, the next tantalizing collaboration between director Hiroyuki Imaishi and writer Kazuki Nakashima, SSSS.Gridman, an anime adaptation of the Gridman the Hyper Agent tokusatsu series (Known as Super Samurai Syber-Squad in the States), and Darling in the Franxx a coproduction between studio trigger and anime studio A1 Pictures. Of the three, Darling in the Franxx garnered perhaps the most intrigue around the nature of its production. Both studios have established very different reputations amongst the anime community.
Trigger is seen as carrying on the spirit of studio Gainax and the audacious maverick style of directors like Imaishi. The hype around their breakout hit, Kill La Kill, had many proclaiming the studio emerged to “Save Anime”.
The industry trend that Trigger was saving fans from is perhaps best typified by none other than A1 Pictures. According to anime youtuber Canipa Effect, who has been featured in articles on animenewsnetwork.com, A1 Pictures project staff are largely comprised of freelance workers within the industry. This has lead to the general conception that A1 lacks the unique, identifiable style that helps fans rally around studios like Trigger. A1 has also garnered ill will from stories of production assistants under their employ committing suicide from gross overwork (Though this is a problem throughout the anime industry and not unique to A1 Pictures) and their responsibility for the whipping boy of modern anime criticism, Sword Art Online. While there is plenty of room for discussion of the quality of A1 Pictures productions, there is no denying how prolific their output has been since the success of 2012’s Sword Art Online. What left many anxiously awaiting Darling in the Franxx was the intriguing prospect of how these two studios would collaborate and the potential for Studio Trigger to benefit from another highly successful A1 Pictures production.
Darling in the Franxx opens with the stark aesthetic of clean black bars framing a white bird with two heads surrounded by billowing snowflakes. A female narrator (Zero Two) describes a mythical bird, the Jian, which can only survive in pairs. The Jian is a real mythological creature belonging to Chinese legends and is symbolic of the bond of marriage. Meanwhile a sorrowful young man (Hiro) pities the same mythical Jian for their dependence on another. These are Darling’s male and female leads. Hiro, a young pilot aboard one of humanity’s last vestiges, a mobile city called a plantation, who anguishes over his inability to successfully pilot the titular Franxx mechs. Zero Two is a capricious young girl with horns who is a skilled Franxx operator, but her male copilots are unable to handle her and deteriorate rapidly after only a few sorties. Together with a team of young pairs of male and female pilots, Hiro and Zero Two protect the plantations from the Klaxosaurs, gigantic creatures with mechanical, geometric bodies.
Darling in the Franxx was first revealed with a visual of a girl with horns and military garb caressing the cheek of a young man from the cockpit of a mech. It featured slick converging orange and blue lines on an otherwise clean black and white color palette with only a few colors highlighted. I believe Darling in the Franxx started off strong by adhering to this aesthetic and the intrigue of its premise and clear themes of male and female duality. The opening scene of the dark forest contrasted with white trees and snow allows the red girl and blue monsters to really make an impression. The brief flashes of these designs were distinct enough to get me invested in the potential of seeing more of them later. The music is timed nicely to lend gravity to these scenes and the snappy editing leaves viewers with a sense of mystery surrounding the early events. The only issue I had with these early scenes is the Jian that is so prominently featured. The themes it clearly represents and the dialogue that further explains it felt far too blunt and on the nose. Perhaps those opening scenes would have done better to remove the narration all together and rely on the near constant barrage of visual symbolism to convey the theme. In these early segments and throughout the first episode, Darling in the Franxx demonstrates where its strengths lie and the weaknesses that would ultimately lead to its rapid downward spiral in quality.
Darling’s opening scenes contrast Trigger’s distinct style. Compared to the bombastic beginning of Kill La Kill that featured Imaishi’s admirable disdain for keeping his characters on-model in favor of the mood of the scene, Darling is much more rigid and sterile with its presentation. Most of the early scenes in the episode are static dialogue exchanges. However, some shots do manage to achieve visual impact. Zero Two leaping out of the water clutching a fish in her jaws was a wonderful cut. When the action finally breaks loose, the scale of destruction and weight behind the clashing mechs and monsters is rendered well. The tracking shot of Hiro running along the curved walls of the domed city that pans over to Zero Two’s lion mech emerging from the thick smoke and dust, bounding into battle, effectively ramped up the pace of the episode. The climactic battle of the episode between Zero Two’s mech, Strelizia, and the attacking Klaxosaur featured some impressive animation and dynamic cinematography. While it takes longer to get in gear, Darling in the Franxx showed that it could at least deliver solid mecha action featuring Trigger’s appealing mech designs.
On the writing front, Darling fairs significantly worse. The staff at Trigger, particularly Imaishi, made arguably their biggest impact on the industry with Gurren Lagann. Together, Imaishi and Kazuki Nakashima crafted a strong thematic through-line of recurring spiral motifs. Gurren Lagann was rarely subtle but it was consistently satisfying to see the series build on the concepts of a spiraling narrative structure, spirals as metaphors and spirals as cool mecha weapons. The same goes for Kill La Kill and clothing or Space Patrol Luluco and youthful infatuation. I can only speculate, but it seems Trigger created a setting and outline for a series that treated sexual reproduction with a similar recurring thematic structure and handed it to A1, trusting that they could build a compelling series from that foundation. In a Reddit AMA, Hiromi Wakabayashi, representing studio Trigger, confirmed that they were primarily involved in the series’ preproduction. Whether A1 is to blame or not, Darling’s biggest problem seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of how to build from this foundation.
In the first episode alone, Darling references the Jian bird (a symbol of marriage), sex positions with the Franxx’s piloting apparatus, plant sex with the names of pilots and copilots (stamens and pistols), XX and XY chromosomes with the pilots’ uniforms and ceremonial cloaks and just regular anime sexual tension with Hiro grabbing Zero Two’s underwear for no reason (other than that this is anime and we need a panty joke). With all these visual clues, it isn’t necessary to layer expository dialogue explaining the significance of a bird that can’t fly on its own or the power of a synchronized male and female pilot when it should be obvious. Or if it isn’t meant to be obvious, save some of these ideas for future episodes to expand on these themes. I get the feeling Trigger hoped the series would expand on the framework they provided, unfortunately the above examples cover nearly all the symbolism the show has to offer with the theme of sexual reproduction for its entire 24 episode run.
Darling in the Franxx’s characters are its weakest point. Our protagonist, Hiro, is the worst of the bunch. He is essentially a blank slate. The kind of dark haired, reserved yet courageous self-insert that lead A1 to both fame and infamy within the fandom. Hiro’s arc consists of him searching for his soul mate, hoping to one day find the girl that will free him from his cage and allow him to pilot at his full potential. This arc is completed in the first episode. The show, having completely run out of ideas on how to build from this simple arc, will repeat this same sequence of events for every important beat of the plot. Zero Two is at least more appealing as the female lead as an outgoing, oddball that gets a kick out of simply messing with the austere world the characters live in. She feels like a Trigger character trapped in an A1 show. Unfortunately, she suffers from the same problem as Hiro. She has one arc. She struggles alone at great risk and harm to herself, Hiro comes to her aid and the two affirm their love before unlocking their hidden power. This happens in episode one when Hiro pilots for the first time. It happens in episode 4. It happens in episode 6 when Hiro survives the foreboding third sortie. It happens in episode 15 when Hiro resolves his misunderstanding with Zero two and saves her from her berserk state. It happens in episode 21 when Zero Two reunites with Hiro to save the day again. It even happens in the last episode. A problem presents itself. All hope is lost. Zero Two and Hiro get in the robot. They reaffirm their love, and the day is saved. The series has no plans for how to develop these characters beyond repeating this one arc.
Hiro is such a flawless and uninteresting character the show needs to jump through bizarre hoops to write conflicts for him. In one instance a character confronts Hiro for his utter disregard for his own safety and the others’ feelings for him. It would make sense to have the talented loner pilot be held accountable for how his actions impact his friends and comrades. However, the scene falls flat because Hiro hasn’t failed once to solve any problem upon entering the robot with Zero Two. Stopping him from going out on another battle seems pointless when the audience has no reason to believe his plot armor will ever fail him. One could argue Hiro’s lack of resolve and general passive attitude is a character flaw, but it functions as more of a frustrating blank check to write the characters into pointless misunderstandings or draw out inevitable romantic climaxes.
I won’t waste time analyzing any of the other cast. The rest of the kid pilots are indistinguishable from their respective tropes. If you know class president, wallflower, edgelord, yuri bait, monkey boy, fat guy, idol, or generic male best friend then you understand each of the supporting cast members down to their very core.
To make matters worse the plot connects every single important character beat to the characters having all grown up from the same orphanage. (Think Final Fantasy 8, only worse) Zero Two and Hiro are compatible pilots because they met at said orphanage. Hiro is friends with all the supporting cast because he gave them all their names there. It’s where Ichigo fell in love with him. It’s where Hiro, Goro, and Ichigo became best friends. It’s where Mitsuru developed his complex around Hiro before Kokoro turns him straight. Why does the token lesbian love Ichigo? Because she renamed her after Hiro named her. Every character-driven plot element is crippled by this lazy set up. The characters don’t develop, they just remember something from the orphanage to excuse whatever emotion they’re feeling or whatever the plot demands of them next. Leaving audiences to try getting invested in the boring romance between Zorome and Miku and the uncomfortable teen pregnancy plotline, as they are the only subplots that develop in the present. Grim prospects to say the least.
Darling in the Franxx doesn’t appeal with its characters. At best its plot garners investment from shear mystery and intrigue, but only disappoints at every turn. The show runs out of strong, unique visuals by episode 6. It otherwise peaks at episode 15 and it knows it. Starting with the appropriately titled episode 16, “Days of Our Lives”, Darling shifts gears from mecha action to character drama for four episodes. A move it handles about as well as one might expect at this point. Finally, the third act infamously jumped the shark and only proceeded to spiral further into stupidity. Even the hopes of a “so bad its good appeal” were finally dashed when the series ends on an utterly pathetic limp conclusion. What little appealing ideas it had at its inception, Darling in the Franxx wasted in favor of aping from Gainax favorites like Evangelion, Gurren Lagann, and Gunbuster. Watching this homonculous of stolen Gainax concepts, off-putting social commentary (MAKE MORE BABIES!) and boiler-plate writing limp to the finish line was a grueling experience I would recommend to no one. Darling in the Franxx is not worth your time. The only hope that this wasn’t a complete waste of effort is that perhaps the show’s popularity will give Trigger the revenue boost to fund more worthwhile projects in the future.