24 episodes later, Trigger and A1’s joint robot saga has finally reached its conclusion. We talk about what we got out of this hotly anticipated collaboration (hint: mostly pain)
I’m not going to say too much here, since I don’t think there’s a lot that I haven’t covered in my ongoing weekly coverage, but now that it’s all wrapped up I think what’s remarkable about FRANXX overall is just how many levels it failed on. At the beginning, even if we were slightly leery about the show’s aggressive fanservice and unoriginal trappings, we could still be hopeful that it would deliver on the smashy robot front, or that it might weave an unexpected character tale. In retrospect, those hopes were not only in vain, they were naive to begin with.
The biggest, most fundamental failing of FRANXX, and the one which all of its other missteps stem from, is the fact that it simply cannot construct characters who are likable, interesting or move beyond surface level. Hiro is almost comically bland, and while this isn’t exactly a new trend in recent anime it’s still an unforgivable sin for someone who’s meant to be a romantic lead. He’s also a prime example of the show’s tendency to think that telling us things about characters is an acceptable replacement for actually showing and explaining those things. We’re meant to believe that Hiro is sensitive and emotional, that he loves everyone because he gave them their names, but these aren’t actually traits he ever demonstrates, just that the show insists he has regardless.
Zero Two is the flipside of this, in that rather than Hiro having no character, she has two completely and diametrically opposite ones. I’m not particularly fond of the ‘sadistic fanservice girl’ archetype but it at least gave her some kind of personality. I don’t really think it’s a coincidence that her transformation into an utterly milquetoast moe waifu figure is directly in line with the show’s most rapid descent in quality, and the degree to which the back half of the story strips her of agency or independence is pretty shocking to be honest.
As for the other Parasites… there’s really not a lot to say, because the story doesn’t attempt to give us meaningful insight into their motivations, personalities or individual arcs. The closest any of them get is probably Mitsuru and Kokoro’s romance-cum-breeding program, but that still rings utterly hollow because there’s simply no chemistry between them, and nor is there any serious attempt to create any. In real life romances exist because you enjoy spending time with someone else and there’s absolutely no indication that these two do. It’s not even really a romance based on mutual tragedy, they just get together because the plot says they have to for things to move forward.
In fact, that’s a recurring issue, not just with the character writing but with the writing as a whole. FRANXX often has problems with just the basic building blocks of dramatic structure. Plot elements randomly appear and are discarded without any seeming rhyme or reason, new characters who we’ve never seen before arrive and disappear absent any foreshadowing or followup. The various plots and plot points jostle together uncomfortably, like they were hastily assembled by someone unfamiliar with how ongoing narrative works. It’s especially notable in the pacing, particularly the large amounts of filler which clog the front half of the show. That’s in contrast to the astonishingly rushed ending, particularly the introduction of VIRM, which really needed to happen four or five episodes before it did for it to have any meaningful impact on the overall direction of the plot. I don’t profess to be a professional writer but the basic competency of the scripting in FRANXX is astoundingly low, and makes even the theoretically high moments far less than what they should be.
With all of that said, none of these things are the reason I’m so disappointed in Darling in the FRANXX. No the reason I’m disappointed in FRANXX is something much simpler and more important – this is a show which pretends it has something important to say, but instead offers nothing of value whatsoever. FRANXX has pretensions that it offers important social commentary, that it has meaningful insight into the human condition, in the way the best sci-fi stories often do, in the way many of the great shows of the genre have. The truth though is that FRANXX lacks the courage of its convictions. It spends a lot of time musing about gender, mortality, love, the human condition, but when push comes to shove it never wants to commit to true emotional honesty. Instead it falls back to safe, conservative positions that at best are ignorant and at worst could easily be seen as actively offensive. It wants all the gravitas, the emotional weight that something like Evangelion earned legitimately, but without having to commit to the uncomfortable truths that show arrived at.
That’s ultimately the thing about FRANXX – in the end it’s a show about nothing. Sure it has shallow surface messages – Love conquers all! You’re stronger as a team! – but it never goes anywhere or does anything to justify even those basic beats. It’s beautiful on the outside, but utterly hollow on the inside. It’d be totally forgettable if it weren’t for the humour I got out of its incompetence and its misguided attempts to be sexy or edgy. As much as I hated the show itself, it was never boring to write about, such was the rate of fresh fuck-ups regularly heaped upon me. That’ll be what I remember it for the most I think. I hope you guys have enjoyed reading these posts as much as I’ve enjoyed carving up this show in them. Thank you everyone who did, and I’ll see you next time out.
Darling in the FRANXX. Where do we even begin? It’s initially interesting but ultimately compromised premise? Its questionable personal politics? Its bland cast of characters? Its laughable dialogue? Its slavish but also poorly executed devotion to Evangelion’s unfortunate legacy? It’s absolute inability to craft a compelling or even consistent narrative over the course of its 24 episode run? Should I lament Shigeto Koyama’s excellent visual design aesthetic being wasted on such an anime? Or its visual direction and animation that at times, seemed to be far better than it ever deserved? Like the Parasites left behind on a barren Earth to put the pieces back together, let’s try to make sense of FRANXX one last time.
Firstly as I always try to do with really bad anime, let’s try to talk about the positives, what few there are. Utilizing Shigeto Koyama’s always excellent designs, FRANXX had the privilege of coming out the gate with a potentially interesting art direction. The FRANXX units displayed Koyama’s fashionable eye for design and stylish flair. Their counterparts, the Klaxxosaurs were maybe the only interesting riff on the Evangelion legacy that FRANXX could bring to the table, presenting a visually interesting response to the Angel designs. There was a fun element to them that spoke to the originally alien pragmatism of the early Klaxxosaur designs.
And if nothing else, FRANXX was a well-directed show from a visual standpoint. Barring the bizarre collapse in production values in its final stretch, FRANXX was a showcase of Atsushi Nishigori’s strengths as an animation director. Leveraging his years of experience on visually iconic works like FLCL, the Rebuild of Evangelion movies, and Gurren Lagann, Nishigori displayed his usual visual competence here with FRANXX. Unfortunately, like an army captain who isn’t ready for the rigors of generalship, Nishigori showed that perhaps he wasn’t ready to handle directing his own anime. In the end, the greatest tragedy of FRANXX’s few visually outstanding moments is that none of it can possibly have any impact when dragged down by its writing.
The first and foremost of FRANXX’s problems ultimately lied in its writing. From its basic premise to its overarching narrative to its character arcs, FRANXX just fails in basically every conceivable way. FRANXX’s supporting cast are a revolving set of talking heads that don’t amount to anything. Sure I could talk about Futoshi adding literally nothing to the story, Kokoro and Mitsuru’s hilariously stupid relationship, Zorome having a tiny hint of interesting character development early on only for it to mean absolutely nothing in the end, or literally everything about Ikuno, but why even bother? At that point I’d be writing more words about those characters than their own writer likely did.
So much of the story supposedly hinges on Hiro and Zero-Two’s relationship, but there’s basically nothing to work with there. Hiro is the milquetoast mecha protagonist we’ve been suffering for decades who’s so bland that I can’t even hate him that much because there’s so little character to hate. Zero-Two initially offered at least a glimpse of a character but eventually she became so inconsistently written that it’s impossible to empathize with. If Asuka and Rei from the original Evangelion inadvertently ruined how female anime characters would be written ever since, Zero-Two represented the logical conclusion of writing a character whose sole existence is to be your waifu. She’s less a character and more a collection of traits designed to titillate as many demographics as possible. She was a sensual vamp one episode, demure and “proper” woman the next. She somehow managed to go from rational to incoherently furious in the span of minutes. She had a big “moment” and suddenly she’s friends with the crew with basically zero explanation. Zero-Two felt like a character who was supposed to go through major character development but instead the writers picked point A and Z and didn’t bother with any of the letters in between.
In fact, that can describe the majority of FRANXX’s problems. It thinks it had all the bullet points for how to write a compelling story, but didn’t care one lick for the journey or the execution. It’s a show that believes if you hit every checkbox on the list, you’ve written a good story. This became increasingly obvious as the show revealed more of its backstory and progressed into its endgame. I wish I could go into detail here, but to describe every single time FRANXX managed to pull back the curtain only to reveal how truly stupid it was would make this post go on even longer. To echo my thoughts from the podcast, FRANXX was basically the anti-Kill la Kill. To elaborate, Kill la Kill was a masterclass in escalation. Every week, the show would somehow manage to up the ante. Every week, things got crazier and even better. Every week I watched and I thought to myself that there was no way it could possibly top itself, and yet it did every week until its climactic finale. FRANXX was the opposite. Every week, I would watch this godawful show with even lower expectations than the prior week, and I would think to myself, “come on, there’s no way FRANXX could possibly get worse than it already has right?” And every week it would. Like a limbo player with his life on the line, FRANXX would somehow pass under the increasingly lowering bar I set for it every week.
In many ways, FRANXX is simply emblematic of Evangelion’s dark legacy in the mecha genre. Likely a fine work in and of itself, the way it irreversibly crippled the mecha genre as the industry flooded the genre with shallow imitations in its wake can never be overstated. And so, FRANXX represents the logical conclusion of it. From its shallow sexual metaphors that ultimately don’t say anything to every hackneyed attempt to be relevant or controversial, FRANXX is a show that’s 20 years too late to the party to be capable of saying anything interesting. Other much better works have successfully had a dialogue with Evangelion that both sympathized with and actively denied its messages in engaging ways. (Might I recommend Dai-Guard?) FRANXX doesn’t offer anything new to the dialogue except maybe that the mecha anime genre should really stop trying to copy Evangelion.
And then as if poorly emulating Evangelion wasn’t enough, FRANXX’s endgame somehow became a bizarro Gainax greatest hits collection. FRANXX transcends bad Evangelion and became bad Gurren Lagann. Then eventually it became bad Gunbuster and bad Diebuster. It managed to shamelessly copy all of Gainax’s greatest achievements, but in a way that completely missed why those works were iconic and era-defining. It’s proof of the age-old Glorio Blog rhetoric that ideas in and of themselves aren’t particularly valuable, it’s the execution that truly matters.
Bizarrely enough, FRANXX might actually become the greatest argument in favor of Gainax and Trigger’s irreplaceable talent and importance in the industry. There are Gainax/Trigger detractors out there, fools that they are, that make the disingenuous argument that none of their works are particularly good, instead relying on the same tired checklist of tropes. That every one of their works will have the good guy team up with the villain of the first half of the story. That the hero will come to rely on a long-buried or forgotten super macguffin that will come to their aid in their darkest hour. That the hero will get a new ultimate form in the finale, usually accompanied by a costume change and the show’s first OP playing. That somehow, regardless of subject matter, the hero will confront their arch-nemesis in space. And yet, FRANXX leans on almost all of those tropes to disastrous effect. Reflecting on FRANXX’s failure to use those narrative devices has me appreciate the prior Trigger works even more. After all, if Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill, and even Little Witch Academia could all use those tropes to fantastic results, it’s clearly not the ideas themselves that are at fault here.
So while it’s hard to say that any single one thing could be FRANXX’s problem when it has so many, its poor attempt at emulating greater works is the one that sticks out to me the most. It’s a work of fiction so obsessed with trying to be the next Evangelion, the next big anime that’s going to say something “important,” that it loses sight of how a work becomes iconic in the first place. You don’t get there with flashy visuals, sexy girls, and a montage of tropes. You get there by being sincere about your flashy visuals, sexy girls, and well-worn tropes. By truly believing in the work you’re creating. By understanding that the hero shouldn’t fight the final villain in space because that’s what you’re supposed to do, but because it’s cool as hell.
And so, Darling in the FRANXX has the honor of going down in history as one of the worst mecha anime I have ever watched. It has rightfully earned its place at the table with the likes of Gundam SEED and Aldnoah.Zero. The kind of mecha anime that is so bad that it once again sends the increasingly embittered mecha fandom into the downward spiral of wondering if this is it for us. The kind of anime that is so bad that it ignites that latent fear that lies in the heart of each and every one of us. The fear that not only might it be extremely awful, but even worse than that, influential. Evangelion inadvertently dug the grave for the mecha genre. Then Gundam SEED purchased the coffin. Might FRANXX be the nails?
More seriously, if it’s a nail in the coffin of anything, perhaps it’s the idea that mecha anime still needs to feel indebted to Evangelion. That in 2018, there is still anything interesting left to be said on the topic. In a perfect world, Darling in the FRANXX would so thoroughly poison the well for Evangelion knockoffs that we may finally begin to escape its looming and seemingly eternal shadow. I don’t realistically have those hopes but it’s a nice thought and nice thoughts are basically all we mecha fans have left.
The others have covered things rather comprehensively, but it bears repeating that Darling in the FRANXX was a complete mess from start to finish. Not in every single way, of course. The common asterisk on our criticism has been that it still looks very good, is technically well produced, has a solid OP, et cetera… but that none of that really matters when the plot, characters, themes – the things our hearts, not our eyes, care about – are all big wet farts.
Your show can have the coolest climax, the biggest explosions, the most romantic kiss, but it doesn’t matter if we don’t care. FRANXX sabotaged itself from Day One, because the answer to “Why should we care about this?” always seemed to be “Because you’re supposed to”. What about Hiro makes him the hero, other than that he’s named Hiro and is in position to be the hero? I’ll grant that such things are entirely subjective, but to me it feels amateurish, boring, cheap, disappointing. We’ve learned to expect more from the people producing this.
Perhaps what I’m really saying is that FRANXX lacks a sense of novelty. There’s nothing going on here that’s new enough to excite us, but it’s simultaneously not treading old ground well enough to be enjoyable. The purported gimmick of the Piloting-System-That’s-Like-Sex-Everyone-Did-You-Get-It is laughably outdated in 2018 on all accounts. The only thing that couldn’t be predicted on the plot front was just how deep the show would dig itself. It’s ticking the boxes of a cool show without realizing why it should be ticking those specific boxes in that specific order, which is arguably the most essential element of them all.
So, at the end of the day, after a half-year of walking through fire, Darling in the FRANXX’s legacy is that it’s just another bad show that we’d all be better off forgetting. Anything beyond that would be more than it deserves.