Gattai Girls 9: Darling in the Franxx and Zero Two

Introduction: “Gattai Girls” is a series of posts dedicated to looking at giant robot anime featuring prominent female characters due to their relative rarity within that genre.

Here, “prominent” is primarily defined by two traits. First, the female character has to be either a main character (as opposed to a sidekick or support character), or she has to be in a role which distinguishes her. Second, the female character has to actually pilot a giant robot, preferrably the main giant robot of the series she’s in.

For example, Aim for the Top! would qualify because of Noriko (main character, pilots the most important mecha of her show), while Vision of Escaflowne would not, because Hitomi does not engage in any combat despite being a main character, nor would Full Metal Panic! because the most prominent robot pilot, Melissa Mao, is not prominent enough.

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Darling in the Franxx is a mysteriously divisive anime, ripe for viewers of all stripes to interpret according to their personal values. Given a series whose messages appear to change depending on who you ask, it’s perhaps not so surprising that the main heroine of Darling in the Franxx, Zero Two, is just as much a whirlwind of contradictions.

Darling in the Franxx is a high-key sexually charged anime. If the doggy-style male-female combination cockpits weren’t enough, the series actively draws attention to the fact that the anime’s teen heroes live in a bizarre dystopia where their sexual energies are channeled into piloting giant mecha called Franxx. Covering subjects like love, sex, and marriage through both overt and relatively subtle metaphors, the anime is loved and hated in seemingly equal amounts on ways that contradict one another.

In Darling in the Franxx, Zero Two is the pilot of the robot Strelitzia. Far and away the most powerful weapon in humanity’s fight against the monstrous Klaxosaurs, Strelitzia would be their most reliable advantage if it didn’t come at a price: Any man who pilots with Zero Two inevitably ends up critically injured or dead. The protagonist, Hiro, ends up being the only guy who can survive Zero Two, and their combination becomes the key to turning the tide of battle. However, their connection ends up going back much further than either realize.

Is Zero Two an inspiring firebrand who lives by her own rules, or is she a fetishized sex object whose mere presence fulfills men’s fantasies? Is she an ideal girlfriend or a femme fatale? The answer is “yes.” She’s all these things and more, despite Zero Two being a difficult character to project one’s assumptions onto. She doesn’t have the appearance of an emotionless doll like an Ayanami Rei (Evangelion) or the “dishonest,” tsundere-esque feelings of a Souryuu/Shikinami Asuka Langley (Evangelion). She’s not an Asuna (Sword Art Online) either, who’s kindness and strength make her practically “good wife, wise mother” personified.

Zero Two is rebellious towards rules and authority, loyal to those she loves, and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve her goals. She can’t be pegged down or held back, and the only times she’s willing to show weakness are around people whom she truly trusts. She’s more than willing to take matters into her own hands, and has even rescued Hiro from being taken over by the enemy. Zero Two herself has never been damseled herself, and the only time Hiro had to reach out to bring her back was more in the metaphorical sense—diving deep into her mind and their shared past to keep Zero Two from going berserk.

Strelitzia itself is a fascinating piece of the puzzle that is Zero Two. The main mecha of Darling in the Franxx are feminine-looking, which goes against the tradition of primarily masculine designs. Those with a more feminine appearance tend to have attacks that draw attention to their “womanly” aesthetic as well, like how Aphrodite A in Mazinger Z shoots “Breast Missiles.” The Franxx are, aside from cute faces and a general feminine silhouette, not as overtly sexual on the outside. That being said, the workings of the cockpit mentioned above make it impossible to ignore sexual connotations, especially because the female pilots “become” their Franxx. Like the others, Zero Two’s facial expressions become Strelitzia’s, and when she talks to Hiro in fights, her display shows that robotic appearance instead of her own. Eventually, this integration of girl and machine gets taken further, driving home the theme of love in a way that both reinforces and defies the conventional cockpit setup.

Zero Two is strong and weak, cruel and compassionate, loving and spiteful. She’s a complete character in a certain sense, and a caricature in another. She is as much of what you want of her as you want, which means that on some level, she reflects the desires and/or anxieties of the viewer and their relationship with the world.

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Darling in the Franxx: Thoughts on a Divisive Anime

WARNING: Spoilers for Darling in the Franxx, Gurren-Lagann, Evangelion, and Daitarn 3 (yes, you read that right)

When I first wrote about Darling in the Franxx and its sexual dystopia, the series had just presented some major revelations, among them how Hiro and Zero Two first met, and the true identity of the Klaxosaurs. Seven concluding episodes later, it turns out those “bombshells” were only the tip of the iceberg.

But this show has been full of surprises, and fan reactions to all of these twists and turns has been just as fascinating to follow as the show itself. Darling in the Franxx is, in a word, divisive—perhaps more than any other anime I’ve seen in a long time. I believe the reason for this boils down to one thing: the show attracted a wider range of fan types than most anything else, and the conflicting takes are a product of these differences. My own take is tha the series only got better as it went along, but I’m well aware that many do not share my view to the extent that it seems as if we were all watching different anime. When I give my opinion and analysis of Darling in the Franxx, it’s with this caveat in mind.

Eye of the Beholder

Let’s get into some of the major reveals in the last quarter of the series.

  • Magma energy is revealed to be the energy source that has allowed humanity to achieve immortality.
  • The Klaxosaurs don’t consider humans their true enemy, because the actual problem is a non-corporeal alien race of conquerors called the VIRM, who all but destroyed Klaxosaur civilization both directly and indirectly thousands of years ago.
  • “Papa” is actually one of the VIRM. They infiltrated the human race and purposely pointed them towards magma energy as a way to weaken the Klaxosaurs. This is because the planet’s magma is actually made up of Klaxosaurs who purposely sacrificed themselves to become an energy source for the monster-form Klaxosaurs to fight off the VIRM.
  • The VIRM basically takes the minds of all of the adults because their goal is to integrate all species in the universe within themselves. This leaves only the non-adults (namely the Franxx pilots!) left to fight. The remaining humans join forces with the Klaxosaurs and go into space to fight the VIRM.
  • Ultimately, through the power of love and friendship, Hiro and Zero Two manage to truly become one (more on that later) and defeat the VIRM. Humanity has to rebuild without the use of magma energy, fully aware of the price they paid for draining the planet of such an important resource, and out of respect for the Klaxosaurs.

That’s quite a lot for a series where the initial main debate was “which girl is better, Zero Two or Ichigo?”, and for every fan who fell in love with the show from episode 1 only to be disappointed by where it went by episode 24, there seems to be another fan who thinks the opposite. Moreover, unlike series such as Dragon Ball Z, where the things that fans love about it are the very same things the haters scoff at, no one can actually seem to agree what Darling in the Franxx is about or what it’s saying, let alone which parts are good or bad.

The anime appears to have drawn in a larger variety of anime fans to it than is typical, combining a multitude of genre signals (mecha, science fiction, romance, love triangle) with provocative, often sexual imagery. As a result, the disparate values (both in terms of personal values and ideas as to what makes a show good) of the viewers meant that people came to the show with wildly different expectations from one another. In this environment, I’m not certain I can change anyone’s minds, but I can at least put my thoughts out there.

Defying and Affirming Conventional Humanity Through Romance

Take the subject of my previous post: whether or not the anime reinforced heteronormative values, extending to the rule of man and woman as father and mother. While Darling in the Franxx indeed ends with multiple characters having children in heterosexual relationships, it’s still notable that the main couple of the story cannot have children together. The ultimate expression of their union and happiness instead involves Zero Two becoming a literal giant robot version of herself, in a cross between a wedding dress and Mechagodzilla, while Hiro pilots her from within, carrying connotations of both penis and womb but also referencing the series’s own world. Hiro, in a way, acts like the magma energy that powers the Klaxosaurs, moving away from “conventional humanity” in order to be with the one he loves.

On a less dramatic scale, Ikuno (the only lesbian in the series) ultimately does not have children, but instead devotes her life to science and medicine. Without having any offspring of her own, she makes for herself a position that can help ensure humanity’s future. Hiro, Zero Two, and Ikuno all found ways to help humanity without having to be directly involved in pregnancy. And while not entirely clear, it might just be the case that Ikuno found someone who reciprocated her feelings as well. So I can’t see Darling in the Franxx as being all gung-ho about baby-making at the expense of other people’s life choices, though those more sensitive to the topic might see the degree to which the core cast decides to have children to be the stronger message.

Through the Lens of a Long-Time Mecha Fan

Another criticism of this series is that it’s shallow, schlock entertainment more interested in M. Night Shyamalan-esque swerves than any actual substance. What exactly this has meant in the context of Darling in the Franxx has changed over the course of the series, but one of the big sticking points is the VIRM reveal. Online discussion revolved around whether this was an unnecessary twist that betrayed the feel and purpose of the series, or if the show had cleverly set it up all along, and that it made perfect sense for Darling in the Franxx. I personally lean towards the latter, but I think this comes partly from being a long-time fan of the mecha.

Long before Gurren-Lagann took “go big or go home” to the most lovingly ridiculous degrees, sudden shifts to space or to larger-scale stakes were part and parcel of an anime genre founded in kids’ entertainment. The series Daitarn 3 (1978) literally goes immediately from Earth to space for the first time (barring flashbacks) in the final episode. In time, more creative and ambitious shows tried to incorporate that dramatic build-up more effectively, and I see the heavy emphasis on personal relationships and sexual tension of early Darling in the Franxx as an effective low-key cornerstone that sets up the eventual ramp-up in the long-term. Even the rapid pace of the last few episodes bothered me little for similar reasons, but fans who did not come into anime on shows that preferred such abrupt shifts could very well see it as clunky, headless-chicken writing. I understand, yet I still feel the progression to be appropriate and maybe even nostalgic.

Final Thoughts on the VIRM, and the Ending

It’s not uncommon to see Darling in the Franxx compared to either Evangelion or Gurren-Lagann for aesthetic and thematic reasons, but there’s another factor all three shows share: the idea that they in some way or form betrayed their audiences. Evangelion is probably the most famous example of an unexpected ending, with its compete stylistic departure and its abstract, introspection-heavy final episodes. Famously, the staff of Evangelion actually received death threats for it. Gurren-Lagann pulled the brakes on its do-anything, push-the-envelope mentality for its conclusion, which stung fans who watched it precisely to revel in that feeling of “doing the impossible.” Darling in the Franxx is capable of “betraying” large swathes of its diverse viewership, but I do not think the series actually crumbles when looked at with greater scrutiny.

While the opinion that the VIRM twist comes “out of nowhere” isn’t shared by all—some even accurately predicted the show’s move into space—I think an essential difference between detractors and supporters of the final episodes is that the finale comes with a tonal shift from being an anime that was focused heavily, at least on the surface, on the personal, intimate, and erotic. If that’s what you came to the show for, then it might feel like the two pieces don’t connect.

As mentioned previously, however, I don’t mind this change one bit. The reason? Because Darling in the Franxx has emphasized that something is terribly wrong with its world all along, and not just in terms of the Klaxosaur attacks. Whether it’s meeting other Franxx pilots and realizing how emotionally stunted they are, to the adult/child divide, to the sheer sterility of their cities, something has felt amiss from the start. Perhaps the VIRM being “the real enemy” can feel contrived, but taking a wide view of the series means seeing the depiction of a false Utopia that humankind bought into and that the children had to eventually make up for. Not enough people questioned the gradual consolidation of power around Papa and his organization, APE, or the exact nature of magma energy. Theirs was a society of ignorance, and it led to children like Hiro being punished for trying to fight that ignorance.

Even though Hiro and Zero Two manage to deal a crippling blow to the VIRM, the real challenge is trying to survive as a species without any magic bullets like magma energy. The libidinous energy that was once literally redirected into warfare goes to expressing love, whether that’s through making children, helping children, or just creating happiness. While personal perspective plays a significant role in how one interprets the series’s message, is it strange to see the main cast, poised to change the world since the first episode, end up doing so?

Darling in the Franxx and Choice in a Sexual Dystopia

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.

More Questions

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.