Darling In The Franxx, one of the breakout animes of this season, makes the sex lives of teenagers a life or death affair.
The new show , which premiered on January 13 and is being simulcast on Crunchyroll, is about teenagers who live in a post apocalyptic world and who pilot giant mechs by getting in a sexual position. Pilots are grouped into pairs of men and women, and must sync together, Pacific Rim style. Women are positioned in the front of the cockpit on all fours, while the men sit behind them and grab onto handlebars attached to the women’s asses. It’s not subtle.
Darling In The Franxx is clearly about sex. Pilots are named for the reproductive organs of flowers—male pilots are stamens, and female pilots are pistils. Although the overarching plot of the show is about protecting what appears to be the last human city from giant monsters called klaxosaurs, the actual drama comes from the interpersonal relationships of the characters. Zorome is a hot head who has to learn to listen to his partner Miku. Goro and Ichigo are partners, but Ichigo clearly longs to be with Hiro. They have to sort out their relationships or die. It’s like a more honest Gossip Girl. Given that the stakes are the continued survival of civilization, dating and having sex actually is the most important thing in the world.
Our protagonist is Hiro, who is unable to pilot the giant mechs called Franxx until he meets a mysterious horned woman called Zero Two. She has the reputation of being a partner-killer. She’s extremely skilled and powerful, but no one can ride with her more than three times without dying. Hiro doesn’t care about that, or even really about piloting a Franxx. He just likes Zero Two, in a fumbling teenage way. It’s a will-they/won’t-they with the fate of humanity in the balance.
The show can be leering, especially toward its female characters. When we first meet Zero Two, for example, she’s bathing nude in a pond, her long hair improbably covering her nipples. This is more uncomfortable because the show is cagey about how old the characters are. They seem old enough to be starting to have sexual feelings, and the show has the trappings of a high school setting, uniforms and all. However, the adults around them refer to them as “children.” To draw another comparison to Gossip Girl, while high school junior Serena Van Der Woodsen seems emotionally mature enough to have sex, high school freshman Jenny Humphrey clearly is not. These characters seem closer to Jenny Humphrey in age and mental development, and the objectification of the characters feels grosser because of that.
But for every moment that the show is provocative, it is equally tender and thoughtful in how it portrays what is necessary for a sexual and romantic connection. In order for the pilots to work their mechs, their thoughts must be in sync. That means male and female pilots must fundamentally respect each other. Partners warn each other not to squabble so they can be effective in battle. When the cold and cruel Mitsuru is dismissive of his partner Ikuno, they lose sync. Ichigo, the team’s leader, desperately wants to be able to connect with Hiro but his connection to her isn’t nearly as strong as it is with Zero Two.
There’s a lot going on in Darling In The Franxx, even only four episodes in, but I’m most intrigued by Zero Two. She has an untamed, Brigitte Bardot-esque sexuality that other characters seek to control in the service of piloting a Franxx. Her relationship with Hiro keeps the robots-powered-by-teenagers-fucking conceit from feeling too gimmicky. Where Hiro hasn’t been effectively able to express his sexuality, Zero Two has too much of it, and both are ostracized by their society. Darling In The Franxx appears to have something to say about teenagers trying to understand their burgeoning sexuality, though it’s not yet clear if the thesis is much deeper than “puberty is difficult.” Still, I’m enjoying watching Hiro and Zero Two learn to open up to each other.