Produced by the combined efforts of Studio A-1 and Trigger, 2018 mecha anime Darling in the Franxx has gained an infamous reputation thanks to its strange, unique selling point: robots controlled by couples moving in "grinding" positions. Look beyond the scandalous apparatus, however, and you'll discover that Darling in the Franxx is a gorgeous, dystopian tale that explores the depth of relationships and love told through the lens of repressed teenagers piloting giant robots to fight robo-dinos.
In the world of Darling in The Franxx, the discovery of a miraculous new "Magma Energy" prompted humanity to dig deep into the Earth's core, unwittingly awakening the Klaxosaurs. A bizarre, techno-organic race of kaiju, the Klaxosaurs (or "noisy lizards") go full Godzilla on mankind, forcing the post-apocalyptic remnants of humanity to live on in mobile fortress cities known as Plantations. Overseeing all of what remains of mankind is APE, an Illuminati-style council helmed by the self-proclaimed god-emperor, Papa.
Society in the Plantations exists in two parts: The adults of this world stay underground in the Plantations, living out existences of infinite tedium thanks to immortality granted by the Magma Energy. Separated from the adults are "Children," teenagers raised to serve solely as Parasites, child soldiers whose sole purpose is to give their lives in service of Papa and humanity by piloting giant robots known as Franxx.
Children are given no names, only numeric designations reflecting their overall aptitude as pilots, with the lower the number the better. Take Code:002 or "Zero Two," a pink-haired girl with devil horns and Klaxosaur blood running through her veins. Zero Two is the blue-bloodthirsty ace pilot to the top-tier Franxx Strelizia. Also known as "The Partner-Killer," Zero Two's unique biology typically results in her co-pilot dying after three missions.
Enter our heroic protagonist Code:016, or "Hiro," a former Parasite wunderkind about to be washed out of the experimental Squad 13 for his lackluster performance. While waiting to be shipped out of civilization, Hiro crosses paths with Zero Two -- a "meet-cute" in the middle of a colossal Klaxosaur attack. With her co-pilot already dead, Zero Two recruits Hiro to serve as her new partner -- her "Darling"-- sealing their contract using the heretofore unknown technique known as "kissing."
What sets Darling In The Franxx apart from other mecha anime is the unique manner in which the Franxx are piloted. Much like the Jaegers from Pacific Rim, a Franxx is controlled by a pair of pilots, typically a male and female. Additionally, Parasite pairings are determined based on the compatibility between pilots, with each pilot needing to trust one another fully to synchronize with the Franxx successfully.
Unlike Pacific Rim, the female pilot -- or "Pistil" -- connects to the mecha directly by assuming a prone position, as if she were riding a motorcycle. The male pilot -- or "Stamen" -- controls the mech's movements via two control handles connected to the Pistil's hips. Picture two dogs piloting a mecha and you'll get the idea. If the two pilots successfully synchronize, then the Franxx will awaken, typically taking on the physical characteristics of the Pistil.
As if naming the Franxx's parts after a flower's reproductive organs didn't make it obvious, piloting a Franxx is akin to hooking up. For example, when Squad 13 powers up their Franxx for the first time, Zorome brags that he "finished the quickest." Likewise, when Hiro fails to pilot a Franxx with his childhood friend Ichigo, she suggests kissing in order to get the mecha up. After the kiss fails to get Hiro in the mood, Ichigo cries in unrequited frustration.
See, despite the suggestive nature of piloting a Franxx, the teenage pilots have no idea what they are doing is even remotely sexual. Children in this world are deemed "Parasites" because they are not produced via normal reproduction. Ironically, the Magma Energy-fueled procedure that granted humanity immortality also rendered them infertile. Since Franxx can only be operated by fertile pilots, genetically engineering fresh batches of child soldiers became a necessity, making hooking up in the traditional sense obsolete.
As a matter of fact, what makes Squad 13 an "experimental" squad is that they have been individually assigned a gender. Their non-combat uniforms are reflective of their unique biology, with the boys wearing upside-down Y emblems and the girls wearing X emblems. Alternatively, the ace pilots of Squad 9 are completely androgynous, granting them pairings that would be considered "untraditional" in a typical Parasite Squad.
Considering the significance placed on the trust between two Parasite partners in life-or-death battles with EDM dinosaurs, the bulk of Darling in the Franxx hinges on relationships and the inevitable drama accompanying them. Zero Two's partner-killing proclivities, for instance, serve as a metaphor for toxic relationships. Through no fault of her own, Zero Two can't keep a partner for a significant amount of time as she "drains" them of their life. Hiro knows full-well that being with Zero Two will only hurt him, yet being with her literally gives him a purpose in life.
On the sidelines is Ichigo, who can't stand seeing her childhood crush, Hiro, partner up with someone whose toxicity is actually killing him. This leaves Ichigo's partner Goro feeling unappreciated, seeing himself as Ichigo's second choice despite his loyalty and devotion to her. Oh, but we can't forget Ikuno, who doesn't know how to handle her attraction to Ichigo in a society where "Pistil-Pistil pairings" and "gay" don't exist.
Basically, Darling in the Franxx is Neon Genesis Evangelion, but if you swapped out all of the religious iconography and crippling depression with magical robot-girl transformation sequences.
Incidentally, a common dismissal of Darling in The Franxx is regarding it as a Neon Genesis Evangelion knockoff, which is kind of like calling Guardians of The Galaxy a Star Wars knockoff. The comparison to Evangelion isn't unsound, though, as the series' influence on Darling in the Franxx is apparent both in plot development and visual style, from the oddly biological nature of the mecha to APE serving as an ersatz SEELE.
Likewise, the Franxx's Genista's animalistic Stampede Mode is a dead ringer for an Eva's Berserk mode. At one point, the animation even takes an intentional dip in quality for dramatic effect, mirroring the last two episodes of Evangelion.
These similarities do not make Darling in the Franxx an inferior abstraction. On the contrary, Darling in the Franxx is practically Neon Genesis Evangelion from a different perspective. Darling in the Franxx essentially asks: What if you had an anime covering most of Evangelion's primary themes -- love, teen angst, gigantic robots and the foundations of life itself -- but centered it all on the connection that unites people, as opposed to the fear that separates them? Darling in the Franxx is definitely similar to Neon Genesis Evangelion, yet still feels like the exact opposite of the quintessential giant robot series.
Ultimately, if you strip away the giant robots, DARLING in the FRANXX is a gorgeous anime whose focus on relationships is bound to resonate within the meat-mecha that is your body. While it may draw similarities to other mecha anime, Darling in the Franxx stands on the shoulders of techno-organic giants to bring you to a deeply fleshed out world where the only thing more powerful than robo-dinosaurs is -- what else? -- teen drama.