#1 Top-grade mecha action
Tarnished by desertification and infested with giant monsters, it’s fair to say that things aren’t looking too hot for humanity. What remains of our people live in massive, mobile cities; closed-off to the outside and strictly regulated by the almighty Papa. And to defend these last few holdouts, there are the Franxx.
Designed to be operated by male & female pairs, these massive robots are powerful, durable, yet also surprisingly agile. They can stand up against monsters many times their size or fend off entire hordes of them. And that’s exactly what you get throughout DARLING in the FRANXX.
Much of the anime revolves around the battles and hardships of Squad 13. Little more than teenagers, they are the sole protectors of their city and everybody inside of it. No pressure at all. The battles between them and the Klaxosaur monsters look simply stunning; certainly above par for your typical action anime. The choreography is solid and the animation fantastic, though it does have its dips in quality outside of the big action scenes.
Comparing DARLING in the FRANXX to other series feels almost unfair. It’s an original anime co-produced by 3 of the most prominent studios in the industry today. The list of animators that worked on it is staggering, with Hiroyuki Imaishi (Tengen Toppa, Promare, Panty & Stocking) acting as overall supervisor for the action scenes. That kinda puts it on a different tier compared to other 2018 anime like Killing Bites or season 3 of Overlord.
#2 Coming of age
At the start of the series, Squad 13 isn’t faring too well. Its members are all very different from each other and struggle to get along. Zorome and Miku constantly desync during combat because of their childish bickering, Mitsuru has turned cold and distant from his friends, and their leader Ichigo struggles to keep everyone together.
Worse yet, the team is struck with an unexpected setback. Hiro was the heart of Squad 13 during their training, but in spite of his high aptitude scores, he can’t get any Franxx to start up. He simply can’t sync up with anyone, which leads to his partner being removed from the team and has him thinking of giving up as well. Just as everyone is starting to get fed up with him, a chance meeting changes Hiro and Squad 13’s course entirely. Hiro teams up with Zero Two; a Franxx pilot infamous for getting her partners killed. Instantly he goes from total uselessness to becoming the team’s ace, sparking envy in some and concern in others.
DARLING in the FRANXX spends a lot of time on the development of these characters and the relationships between them. They grow (mentally and physically) as the plot unfolds while their bonds strengthen and change. It’s a gradual process that feels natural, which makes it satisfying to constantly look back on how far these kids have come. Getting to see them become more and more like a team is almost as satisfying as the battles they then partake in.
Each member of the team has its own unique arc to go through, which spans all the way to the end of the series. I seriously have to restrain myself from ranting about what makes each one of them so interesting. Characters that seemed basic at first go through so much change, and I ended up feeling invested in all of them.
#3 Building intrigue
From the moment it started out, it was evident that something was amiss in this world. Not just the disastrous climate or the rampaging monsters, but societally.
Squad 13 and other Franxx units like them live in complete isolation. They are not permitted in the actual city, instead residing in a locale separate from it. Unseen caretakers arrange their daily needs, so the only adults they interact with are their superior officers Nana and Hachi. People that can’t exactly fill parental roles for teenagers in the midst of their emotional development.
The kids are constantly assured of their importance and get to partake in fancy ceremonies, but much of it feels fabricated. Meanwhile, they are taught to unquestionably follow the directives of Papa, who occasionally rewards loyalty with gifts and words of encouragement. He is presented as benevolent dictator, guiding all of humanity towards a unified, prosperous future. So long as they don’t ask too many questions.
DARLING in the FRANXX is great a building on this intrigue. Developments are frequent enough to keep the story feeling active and feed you new info to ponder on, without any dead giveaways. Some mysteries I was mistaken about all the way up until their eventual reveal.
That these mysteries affect the likeable cast of characters also helps to get you invested in them. There is this one fantastic episode where the kids get to venture into the city and as a “reward”. It focuses on Zorome, who is fiercely loyal to Papa and firmly believes in the cause. He’s so excited about it, only to find the reward—a speech and compliments from some random adult—underwhelming. When he asks to shake the man’s hand, the jovial atmosphere vanishes and Zorome is coldly ignored.
When he then sneaks off to explore the city on his own, Zorome experiences firsthand how differently the adults live compared to the Squad. He gets to ask questions and voices his doubt, but walks away understanding even less than before. It does wonders for his characterization and left me wondering just who these adults really are and what the kids mean to them. This episode is definitely not the only one that left me so intrigued.
#4 Non-standard Romances
Romance is a big part of DARLING in the FRANXX, which is awkward given that none of the kids understand it. They haven’t had any kind of sexual education or any emotional guidance whatsoever. They don’t know what “love” means. This makes their attempts at figuring out their feelings for each other sincere, but very difficult.
Several relationships bloom over the course of the story, though I of course won’t spoil which characters end up together. There are many touching moments along the way, there is drama in spades, and some great payoffs to round off character arcs. The cast’s lack of emotional development causes these romances to move in unexpected directions. “Things” happen that are unlike any other romantic anime I have ever seen, which was certainly fascinating.
#5 Striking visual design
DARLING in the FRANXX isn’t just animated well, it also has a visual style that makes it stand out from other science fiction series. Most of this comes down to the absolutely stellar design work of—well—everything; from the cityscapes to the award-winning mecha designs.
There are a lot of striking design choices that work off each other nicely. The rustic, rural home of Squad 13 contrasts nicely against the hyper-futuristic city they are meant to protect. An urban sprawl trapped in perpetual darkness, broken only by the bright yellow lights emitted from inside its otherwise-colorless buildings.
The anime’s iconic monsters—the Klaxosaurs—are also worthy of praise. They are pitch black, seemingly mechanical, with strange blue features that somewhat resemble faces. It gives them an otherworldly feel and it’s cool to see how many different designs they could make within this style. To contrast, the Franxx mechs look very human. They are large and mechanical, but their form is unmistakably person-shaped. They even have eyes and match the expressions of their pilots through an electronic display, which sounds silly but is cool to see in action. It lets the show capture the drama and emotions of the characters, without having to constantly cut to a cockpit view.
More like this…
Neon Genesis Evangelion: Teenagers forced to pilot mechs for ambiguous purposes.
Simoun: Machines of war powered by the feelings between their pilots.
Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann: Over-the-top mecha action show.