Last week I picked up the currently airing anime Darling in the Franxx, and I am hesitantly enjoying it. As it stands right now I think it has a lot of problems, but those problems could be retroactively remedied if the show goes in the right direction. In particular, the direction of another show by one of the studios involved in DitF: Kill la Kill.
Spoiler warning for Darling in the Franxx and Kill la Kill, the latter especially.
Kill la Kill was Studio Trigger’s first ever series, and starts out as a goofy, over the top action show with a comical amount of fan service. The premise is simple enough: Ryuko Matoi is a transfer student in a school that is ruled by violent club presidents wielding uniforms that grant them superhuman abilities. Ryuko’s goal is to fight each club president and member of the student council in order to get close to the Class President Satsuki Kiryuin, who she believes killed her father. She is armed with a giant scissor blade and a magic uniform of her own: a sentient, talking sailor fuku named Senketsu. Hm, alright perhaps it’s not that simple, but the show sets itself up to be a dumb fun spectacle with plenty of action and room for shameless sexualization of its characters. Ryuko’s battle outfit is hilariously revealing. Her friend Mako frequently finds herself in compromising positions specifically engineered to show some skin. Her teacher frequently removes his shirt to expose his glowing purple nipples. It all seems like typical guilty pleasure anime fare.
Halfway through the show however, Kill la Kill throws you for a loop. It is revealed that the real villain of the show is Satsuki’s mother, Ragyo Kiryuin, who plans to enslave the human race with a race of sentient clothing. It’s about as absurd as it sounds, but it manages to justify the fan service in the context of the show’s universe. Wearing clothes is suddenly an act of submission, and nakedness an act of defiance. The shameless nudity that seemed tacked on for sex appeal becomes a principle theme of the show, and this becomes more and more apparent in later episodes. The organization opposing Ragyo, composed of the heroes, is called “Nudist Beach”. It is explained that Senketsu’s battle form is revealing to give Ryuko more control over him. The student council members that once appeared to be villains become Ryuko’s companions, and don more risqué outfits to highlight the change. With a bit of clever writing Kill la Kill transforms the very idea of fan service into an important story concept, making the show on the whole much more cohesive and entertaining.
This kind of transformation is what I desperately hope to see in Darling in the Franxx. If you aren’t familiar with the anime, Gita Jackson wrote a solid summary of the show’s defining traits here. Basically, the idea is that the characters are trained to fight in robots essentially piloted through sex (or at least sexual positioning and maneuvering), but have no understanding of what actual sex is. They use these robots to defend the giant mobile domes that house humanity from giant monsters. If you were to explain this concept to anyone who doesn’t watch anime, or even many who do, you would receive an extremely judgmental look. It seems like it couldn’t pander to the stereotypical anime fan harder: it combines giant robots with rampant sexualization of its characters. But if you look past the surface level, DitF has the potential to add a lot of depth to its story using its bizarre premise.
To start, it is unclear exactly why the robots (or “Franxx” as they are known in the show) are designed to be piloted with two people, let alone in a sexual position. On top of that, the pilots must have a stable emotional bond to control the Franxx at all, forcing their relationships to be much more intimate than typical partners. You could explain these design choices away with the phrase “it’s an anime,” and chalk up the weirdness to the medium’s tendency for kinkiness. However, you could have done the same to Kill la Kill when it started airing. That show managed to justify its weird choices in its own universe, making the world and characters more believable. There is no reason DitF could not do the same, and it seems like it could be setting up to do so. There are several mysteries ripe for exploration, including how humanity became trapped in the domes, how the Franxx were originally conceived, and just about everything involving the character Zero Two (the pink haired girl you have probably seen around, people seem to like her). Any of these could be linked to the more objectionable aspects of the show, and making such a connection would drastically improve the anime.
Darling in the Franxx has had an alright start in my eyes, but it could do a whole lot better. On the positive side the characters are distinct and interesting, the art style is appealing, and the action is competent. On the negative side, there doesn’t seem to be much of a direction for the story, and the kink factor seems to be there just to draw in more viewers. Both of these issues make the suspension of disbelief more difficult and take me out of the show’s world, but both could be solved before the series is over. All Trigger needs to do is learn from their first ever show, and remember how impactful immersive world building can be.