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Darling In The Franxx (2018)

Sometime in the far-flung future, humanity is engaged in a battle for survival with strangle beasts named Klaxosuars. Our only hope are humanoid weapons named Franxx, piloted by teenagers specially raised for the task. One such pilot, named Hiro soon discovers that his fate seems to be linked to a mysterious pink-haired girl know as Zero Two. Why does he feel drawn to her and why is he the only one able to pilot with her?

Darling In The Franxx is a 24 episode series originally aired in Japan from April 2018 and streamed at the time on Crunchyroll and Funimation Now. It was produced by Trigger and A1 Pictures, with Cloverworks and Trigger responsible for animation production.

Back in 1995 when Hideaki Anno's magnum opus Neon Genesis Evangelion aired it was pitched as the "mecha (giant robot) anime to end all mecha anime". Of course, it proved to be nothing of the sort and inspired scores of imitators,  attempting to recreate its brand of thoughtful sci-fi with varying degrees of success. In the early 21st-century mecha anime are a much rarer beast, so to get a new anime that wears its Eva influence quite so boldly on its sleeve feels positively novel.

Darling In The Franxx has definite similarities with that classic anime in its concept- but then Anno was himself paying homage to other creators who had come before him. Still, it's made pretty clear that these similarities are not coincidences by the fact that it has shots that are direct references to the '95 series. This even comes down to sequences of important conversations in lifts and video display units that read 'Audio Only'. It's a bold gambit drawing comparisons from such a generally well-regarded franchise. But does Darling In The Franxx deserve to be in such esteemed company?

Ultimately, it's not really in the same league. But that doesn't make it a total failure. Purely as a mecha action anime, it entertains with some exciting and well done giant robots vs monster battles. The mechs are some of the most visually distinctive seen in a while. Piloted usually in male-female teams, the Franxx for the most part look more feminine in appearance than most giant robots and have faces which convey emotions of their pilot.

On top of this is a teen drama, with the pilots living together in school-like units. The pilots are the only children (charmingly referred to as 'Parasites') in an otherwise all adult society. They're raised to become warriors to defend the adults who have clearly neglected to teach them about the birds and the bees. However, following the arrival of Zero Two, the boys and girls of unit 13 begin to experience new feelings and drama ensues. Much of the series is given over to this side of the story and the inter-personal relationships between the parasites. The relationship between Zero Two and Hiro is a central theme for the series which ultimately becomes connected to the fate of the world. It's a shame then that the characters are so thinly characterised that it's hard to care much about their stories.

The show's greatest strength is actually in its sci-fi world-building. Throughout the first half of the series, it gradually drip-feeds us intriguing aspects of the world it takes place in. How does this society function? Why are children born only as pilots? Who are The Klaxxasaurs and where did they come from? Even as the relationship drama begins to wear thin the mysteries at the centre of the plot are compelling enough to keep you watching.

In the second half, it begins to offer answers- and unfolds a surprising futuristic tale. One episode finally turns back the clock to explain how we got here, and it puts what we've seen in a whole new context. Many other series would have given us this information right at the beginning- but somehow it would have been much less interesting that way.

That's not the only way the structure is unusual either. The original story seems to come to its natural end, with a spectacular climax in episode 21, meaning the series the enters what is in effect a three-episode epilogue. The plot of these episodes almost feels like it is intended as a sequel or a spin-off movie, so it's a pretty strange way to end the series.

Animation wise, the series is solid but nothing spectacular. It has to be said that it's something of a disappointment in that terms considering the involvement of Trigger and A-1, both known for their -high-quality animation. Unfortunately, Cloverworks visuals are much flatter and less dynamic than the series demands.

More successful is the soundtrack, which has a nice line in suitably militaristic sounding tracks for the battles that add excitement to the action setpieces.

The idea that each mech needs two pilots is not a unique one (Pacific Rim being just one example). The twist here is that (in most cases at least) the pairs are male-female, allowing for some not exactly subtle symbolism about relationships. For the most part, the show goes out of its way to show that the female characters are on an equal footing to their male counterparts. But it undermines this by making the female half of the piloting team adopt a vulnerable position on their hands and knees with their behind in the air. The steering equipment used by the male half literally comes out of their co-pilot's bum. It's a quite literal objectification of its female characters and will make for uncomfortable viewing for many. And its a shame, as the series is pretty restrained otherwise in terms of this kind of fan service.

Ultimately, Darling In The Franxx is a series which frustrates and entertains in almost equal measures. It does itself no favours in inviting comparisons with a vastly superior show but it still provides plenty of the kind of dazzling, baffling entertainment than only anime can provide.

 FORMAT: DVD, Blu-Ray, [Part One out now, Part Two July 22] Streaming  FROM: MANGA ENTERTAINMENT/ FUNIMATION RATING:TV-14 [US]15/[UK] RUNNING TIME: 24 Episodes

IN A NUTSHELL: It's no classic but go in with an open mind and Darling In The Franxx is one hell of a trip.

*Review copies provided by Manga Entertainment*