DARLING in the FRANXX is the first of three new 2018 works co-produced by Studio Trigger, and the only mecha show this season. The first episode does a fair bit of world-building, both embracing explanation of the dystopian society in the Plantation and showing us, through the characters’ relationships, a system by which teenagers are paired off to pilot giant robots and expected to eagerly give their lives for the safety of civilization. Pretty much your standard genre fare, but DARLING stands out in the pedigree of its studios and potential to do something greater than what you’d expect.
The episode is heavy-handed with the theme of dependence, relating the story of the jian, a bird that requires a mate to assist in flight and survival. The opening scene of 002, our pink-haired protagonist with horns, shows her in awe of the beauty of nature, but when we see her eventual partner, Hiro (code 016), the story is one of dread and worthlessness. This sets up the character dynamic between these characters, as Hiro cannot keep up with his pilot-peers and drops out, ready to exile himself from Plantation to die alone. This plays off 002’s more feral nature–one that is unable to give up in the face of insurmountable odds and succeed in her mission.
DARLING oozes with inspiration from Gainax mecha shows. We see Evangelion in the “plugsuits” and architecture design of Plantation, Diebuster in the costume design and mecha design (Shigeto Koyama also worked mechanical design on Diebuster as well as the other easy comparison: Star Driver), and, if you squint, a little of Gurren Lagann in the later action sequences. If this show looked familiar to you, there’s a reason.
There’s a fair bit of humor here as well. DARLING already sets up a sexual dynamic, with the pilots being paired off in male-female pairs, and it leads to some pretty typical gags for a show about teenagers. 002’s Nessie impersonation in the middle of the episode goes pretty much exactly where you think it would, although the presentation isn’t quite as lewd as a lesser anime would have provided. If anything, we are given some early insight into her background, drawing comparisons of Evangelion‘s Mari.
The final act is really what we’ve all been waiting for: the Trigger animation. While much of the beginning of the episode leans more toward the A-1 Pictures side of the production, the fight showcases Trigger’s ability to present a dynamic action sequence, a badass mecha-kaiju fight, and stakes that make your heart jump into your throat.
Strelizia transforms from a leonine configuration similar to something from Voltron or Zoids to a feminine figure that could easily be a successor to the Tauburn. It easily vanquishes the klaxosaur foe (I mean, this is the first episode after all), but we are treated to all the sakuga we’ve come to know and love with this studio. The overwrought transformation scene (with a little bit of robot fanservice, because this is Trigger, after all), the impacts animated so well you feel it in your bones, and the explosive finale were all things I fully expected to see from this show.
Overall, DARLING in the FRANXX doesn’t really surprise, nor does it disappoint. It’s not as wild and frenetic as Kill la Kill or Space Patrol Luluco. A-1 certainly provides a foil to Trigger, allowing an engaging story without just an extended robot battle for 20 minutes. On the other hand, this can also put a damper on DARLING really going the same places that earlier Trigger and Gainax works went. It’s still too early to tell, of course, but Kiznaiver disappointed me despite the hype, so I’ll continue to take it slow and enjoy the full season, focusing on the dynamic between the producing studios as well as the dynamic of our main characters.
DARLING in the FRANXX is streaming on Crunchyroll on Saturdays.