In The Future (tm) humanity lives in immense mobile cities called Plantations, driven by 'Magma Energy' drawn from the earth itself. Unfortunately, said energy attracts bizarre monsters called Klaxosaurs. These vary from small and lethal to mid-size and lethal to gargantuan and, er, lethal. To fend the beasts off, each Plantation keeps a squad of mecha piloted by pairs of adolescents, the most stable and reliable fighting force one could ever hope for.
So far, so anime, so done before. DARLING in the FRANXX belongs to the very big club of "Teens in Mecha vs Monsters", so why doesn’t the review just end here, right? Well, there’s a trick; FRANXX has taken that familiar toy box and thrown in romance, mad science, dirty secrets and a hand grenade.
The pilots we follow - referred to as Parasites - are raised for the sole purpose of using mecha called ‘Franxx’ to kill Klaxosaurs, to the exclusion of almost all other life experience. They only have names by dint of naming themselves, otherwise they’re referred to by code numbers. They live in isolation, meeting only their direct handlers and other Parasites; their existence revolves around being useful pilots for the safety and glory of their Plantation.
DARLING in the FRANXX opens on Parasite Code 016 - Hiro - failing to make a Franxx move and having a crisis of confidence. Tensions among the teens run high as Hiro and his partner Naomi struggle with his failure, and the possibility of him leaving the tight-knit group looms. Into this mess crashes Code 002, a wild older girl with little red horns, a sweet tooth and an alarming tendency to lick people before judging them. Imperious and mercurial, she decides she quite likes Hiro and claims him as her Darling, upending the Parasites' relatively ordered lives.
So far, still so anime, I know, but FRANXX hides its claws until you come a bit closer. Zero Two is thought to be part Klaxosaur herself, and is notorious for killing her partners; nobody has ridden with her without injury, and nobody has lived through three rides. While Hiro is staring down that barrel, the kids speak of becoming adults as if it's something no Parasite has managed. The city they’re protecting feels like it might be an elaborate stage decoration instead of an active metropolis, and the cast’s interactions are a constant struggle with unlearned etiquette and unfamiliar emotions.
Piloting the Franxx seems to be driven as much by social engineering as it is genetic; very early on we’re shown that the Parasites we’re following are themselves an experiment amid experiments, with other squads being much more uniform and subdued. There is something grim going on here, and the show does an excellent job of making you wonder about that, and care about the Parasites as they’re moved and manipulated.
Hiro is framed as our protagonist, but Zero Two steals the show quite effortlessly. Watching her put the wind up the rest of the cast is quite enjoyable, and they too get chances to shine and show more depth than the usual ‘this one is tall and pushes his glasses up’ characterisation. The cast do fall into the usual tropes; we have a fiery redhead, our usual determined blank-slate hero and so on, but they're expressed interestingly and the setting is just different enough to keep it fresh.
Overall the animation is fluid and energetic, with equal attention given to tender character moments and furious fight scenes. Same Face Syndrome isn't an issue here either; the characters are detailed and varied, with more than hair colour setting them apart. The mecha and monster designs are fresh and fun, staying away from well worn standards. The Franxx are closer to art dolls than any Gundam, and the Klaxosaurs range from insectoids and jellyfish through to a giant cube with bull horns.
FRANXX does a lot of things well, but it does have a fanservice problem; it’s not a deal breaker, but it’s daft.
The piloting of a Franxx is done in boy/girl pairs - Stamens and Pistils - in a slightly less subtle metaphor for sex than popping champagne corks and trains going into tunnels. The Pistil is the interface for a Franxx, lending it a voice, a face, effectively becoming the mech. This is an interesting idea, but then we cut to the cockpit where the Pistil is bent over a couch with a TV on the back of her head and a set of joysticks attached to her buttocks, while the Stamen takes a seat directly behind her and controls the action. This is deeply silly, and is part of every pivotal action scene.
Where other shows may only allude to the parallels, FRANXX elbows you with lines such as "I can feel myself going deeper inside you!" as a pairing flies high, and equates a disconnect with impotence, with one Pistil yelling “why can't you get it up?!” as her mecha faceplants. [Ed: This was personally the reason why I had to stop watching. I couldn't stop dying during these scenes...]
There are far more egregious examples out there, but they're largely in shows where fanservice was the aim of the production, or used as background noise. Kill la Kill towers over FRANXX in a microbikini and laughs, but anarchy was that show’s pursuit, and fanservice was just another firework in the factory it torched to make a point. It didn’t challenge the overall tone like this.
FRANXX has a lot going for it, but undermines itself with this shtick. Certainly in the early going, what would otherwise be emotionally charged scenes can fall apart as soon as your brain supplies ‘heheh, ass-handles’, and then the moment is gone. It lessens as the stakes rise and the show gets more intense, but FRANXX could have done without having rather silly fanservice in the centre of pivotal fight scenes.
All that said, if you can set aside the ridiculous when FRANXX is trying to be sincere, this is an excellent show and well worth a watch.