Amidst shipping wars and attention given to its fanservice, hearing about the anime Darling in the Franxx secondhand gives the impression that it’s light on substance at best and alarmingly conservative in its sexual values at worst. Yet the more I watch it, the more I’m convinced that these descriptions do not accurately convey what the show has to offer. Instead, what I see is an anime that explores political discourse on what it means to be in a relationship, focusing on questions of equality, agency, and defiance.
WARNING: Spoilers for Darling in the Franx
Darling in the Franxx takes place in a science fictional world where kids are artificially created and trained to use giant robots called “Franxx” in order to fight massive monsters known as Klaxosaurs. They live in a world that separates adults from children, has those same adults revered like virtual gods, and directs sexual energy towards combat. Those teens are put into not-so-subtle male-female pairings called “stamens and pistils,” who then enter a cockpit that has them basically pantomiming doggy-style sex without even knowing what it means to kiss. While these arrangements can seem like an excuse for some highly suggestive imagery, it’s implied throughout the series (if not stated outright) that this is an intentionally exploitative design within the context of their world.
The fact that their society is partly based on adults exploiting children, stunting and controlling their hormones, and making it seem like a favor is already a kind of political message. However, plenty of anime both deep and shallow have done the same. “Kids vs. adults” is a classic trope, and even the biggest names in mecha (e.g. Evangelion and Gundam) feature them to some extent.
This might appear to be an admonishment of “frivolous” romance. However, it’s quite the opposite. I find that the romances are of central importance to the complexity of Darling in the Franxx. The relationships, how they’re presented and what they represent, are a direct window into the shows’ political themes and messages. Those themes and messages, in turn, are actually supportive of more liberal views on gender and sexuality than assumed at first glance.
Futoshi and Kokoro: Relationship Betrayal or Relationship Freedom?
One of the more controversial episodes sees the character Futoshi pledge his devotion to Kokoro. After weakly promising to go along with Futoshi’s pledge to be his “partner [i.e. co-pilot] forever,” Kokoro later decides to try and switch partners to Mitsuru when the option becomes available—an implicit rejection of Futoshi. This was the cause of a great deal of consternation, with speculation that the show was trying to cheaply indulge in the NTR [cuckolding] fetish found in Japanese otaku culture.
However, what I think frames the importance of Kokoro’s actions is the fact that the stamen-pistil pairings are assigned. Yes, Futoshi was absolutely infatuated and Kokoro agreed to his pledge, but it was also established that Kokoro’s natural tendency is to oblige others and not speak her mind. This is what attracts her to the surly Mitsuru in the first place. He’s got a huge chip on his shoulder and isn’t afraid to let it be known—something Kokoro finds incredibly difficult. Rather than this being some “betrayal” of Futoshi, I find it better viewed as Kokoro finally taking initiative in her life and finding someone in Mitsuru who complements her flaws and benefits from her strengths. Kokoro breaks down the walls Mitsuru has established to hide his vulnerability, while Mitsuru’s attitude inspires Kokoro to prioritize her own feelings.
Certain elements of the series, such as the male-dominant sexual imagery of the cockpits, and the fact that other Franxx pilots outside of the core group tend to be emotionless, imply a world that thrives on power imbalances and sex without joy. While this could be considered the message of the show, romantic developments based on the need to find a true equal says otherwise.
Hiro and Zero Two: Equal Partners Against the World
Nowhere is the emphasis on equality more evident than in the main love triangle between protagonist Hiro, his childhood friend Ichigo, and the part-Klaxosaur pilot Zero Two. At first, it comes across as harem-esque wish fulfillment starring a guy who seems like he stepped out of every generic light novel ever. There’s a vague sense that the girls are in love with him because he’s ambiguously “nice,” in the most boring way possible. So why is Hiro so much more attracted to Zero Two?
It can seem like mere exoticism, or the series deciding that one girl has to win, but there are moments throughout the series that suggest a vital difference between how the two girls relate to Hiro. Ichigo worships Hiro, and places him on a pedestal. Zero Two, however, inspires Hiro to push forward and to try and overcome his limits. When we find out their lost history in Episode 14—that the two actually met when they were children and had their memories altered by the adults as a result—it’s not just about Zero Two being “another childhood friend.” Instead, Hiro’s attempt to rescue her and escape together is the ultimate act of a child who constantly questions the status quo of a rigid society. Similarly, Hiro is the catalyst that allows Zero Two to experience the outside world, and to see herself as more than a monster. There is a sense of equality and a constant desire to push one another forward that is present when Hiro and Zero Two are together—one that doesn’t exist with Hiro and Ichigo.
Surprisingly, Hiro himself becomes an increasingly fascinating character as the series continues, being revealed as not really the goody two-shoes his initial impression conveys. That childhood flashback to meeting Zero Two highlights the fact that he was actually a problem child for a society that encourages kids to stay ignorant and obedient. A young Hiro refuses to take “you’re not supposed to know” as an answer, and is punished for it by having his memories erased and being forced into a more complacent personality. When he meets Zero Two again for the first time years later (in Episode 1), that puts him on the path towards his naturally inquisitive self that dares to challenge society’s assumptions.
Gender Conformity or Gender Rebellion?
Accepting that the romances are more than skin-deep, the question then becomes: what exactly is the message conveyed through these relationships? A recent episode has garnered some backlash because it’s being seen as reinforcing gender conformity and a heteronormative worldview. However, based on other information about the world in Darling in the Franxx, I feel that it’s not so simple.
In Episode 17, Papa’s personal elite squadron, the Nines, move in with the main characters. Once there, they discover that Kokoro has discovered information on pregnancy and childbirth, which is forbidden in their world. The leader of the Nines, named Nine Alpha, talks about how traditional pregnancy and childbirth are unnecessary because humans have evolved past it, and that to go back to the old ways would be to restore rigid gender roles and identities.
An antagonistic character is making that point, which potentially makes it look like it’s being presented as the “wrong choice.” But if anything, Darling in the Franxx features a world where all sexuality regardless of gender, sex, or sexual orientation is taboo, so it’s not simply a matter of “proper gender roles” being enforced in the narrative.
Consider the fact that only one of the characters, Kokoro, is expressing any desire for a traditional pregnancy. Consider also that the characters literally have no idea how they came into the world, believing that the “Big Brother”-esque Papa “made them” in some mysterious fashion. It’s one thing if they knew how they were birthed, but they’re not even allowed to know in the first place. Moreover, a previous episode features one of the other pilots, Zorome, meeting an adult who is heavily implied to be his biological mother—which means the talk about having evolved past the need for traditional childbirth might very well be a lie. To me, it looks like the issue isn’t that Papa is cruel for preventing humans from being able to have sex and reproduce and fulfill established gender roles, but that he’s suppressed all education about the topic.
Adults have their organs removed and their puberty somehow controlled or skipped over. Franxx pilots are allowed to keep their reproductive organs solely because they’re the key to piloting their robots, and they die early as a result. Sex and sexual desire are made a tool of the government regardless of the people and who they’re attracted to.
Franxx piloting becomes the closest thing people have to being able to engage in physical relationships, and even that is not so cut and dry. One of the other pilots, Ikuno, is clearly a lesbian or at the very least bisexual, but the world doesn’t even acknowledge her state as a possibility. When she suggests an attempt at a pistil-pistil combination for piloting, it doesn’t work—as if the state-ordained sex substitute known as the Franxx cannot allow it. Even then, she comes to Kokoro’s aid, slapping Nine Alpha for verbally attacking Kokoro’s newfound values. Prior to this, Ikuno can be seen bristling at the idea that gender distinctions could become more dominant if society reverted back to ancient times, but she still comes to Kokoro’s defense. I believe this is derived from the commonality between Kokoro’s wish for heterosexual procreation and Ikuno’s own emotional defiance of heteronormativity, which is that both wish to be free of a world that denies their feelings.
Even the main couple itself, Hiro and Zero Two, is a subtle rebellion against rigid gender roles. If the ability to have children is what defines women according to the story, then that would invalidate Zero Two, who mentions in Episode 17 that it is physically impossible for her. Yet her romance is the paramount love story of Darling in the Franxx. While she expresses envy at the fact that the humans can potentially have children, it’s more to do with them having a choice in the first place.
One curiosity the series has yet to address is why the Nines seem to be capable of piloting in formations counter to the stamen-pistil pairing. Nine Alpha, for example, reads as male, but takes the bent-over position in the cockpit normally reserved for girls. Are the Nines, in part or in whole, actually outside of the male-female dichotomy in terms of sex and/or gender? Are their Franxx units somehow different from the rest? These unanswered questions further deepen the story and its potential avenues.
Conclusion: Emotional Depth and Political Rebellion
Darling in the Franxx starts off with many signs that it’s a shallow endeavor centered around boring wish fulfillment, shock value, and an excuse for sex and violence. But the show carries a lot of themes I would dare say are important to where we currently are in society. Its characters are extremely emotional teenagers, the classic archetype of anime, but their actions within the context of their world and the restrictions that world places on their bodies and minds gives renewed importance to everything they do. The romance of Darling in the Franxx is both a window into the politics of society and the importance of equality in emotional and loving relationships that transcend the strict hierarchies and roles given to them by a world of adults that seeks to mercilessly exploit its children. Rather than fighting for sexual conformity, the characters in Darling in the Franxx fight for sexual freedom and the freedom to choose their bodies’ futures, whether they know it or not.
Given that the series is yet to conclude, there’s a definite chance my interpretation is off the mark. If that time comes, I will be happy to reassess my analysis, and to see what I got right and what I got wrong.