Something I think is very important to get right has been got rather wrong, in my estimation.
Disclaimer: I know I’m writing about a sensitive subject here, and while I’ve written this piece in a semiformal style, it still only represents my interpretation.
In the first episode of Darling in the FranXX, one of the adult characters pronounces a rather striking line during the welcoming ceremony that precedes the parasites’ induction into the ranks of… whatever organization it is that they’re becoming a part of:
Turn your life into a blaze of glory and shed every last drop of blood you have.
“Oh,” I thought. “That’s a rather fatalistic pep talk.” As I reflected on it more, I was also struck by the profound and single-minded utility that this idea assigns to Ichigo and the rest of her team—and, I suppose, Hiro and Zero Two, as well. The parasites, it is implied, are not their own masters. Rather, they are cogs in a larger wheel, exploited by faceless, mask-wearing beings for purposes that remain yet hidden to the audience (and perhaps even the parasites themselves). They are expected to die, possibly even within a very short time period, and in so doing they find meaning in life. The absent Hiro’s narration over the ceremony notes that they have been told all their lives that piloting Franxx is their sole purpose in life.
This is not an uncommon set-up in anime, a giant organization that utilizes the powers of adolescents to fuel their wars, their ambitions, or just their scientific curiosity. And so, as the series wears on, one might expect Hiro, Ichigo, and the rest of their team to begin to strike out against the “system” that commodifies them by assigning them only numbers as identifies and cultivating them for the purposes of combat. Perhaps it will be Zero Two, with her flagrant disregard for the rules, who leads the way.
And yet, I wonder if Darling in the FranXX has already kneecapped its own ambitions in this area through the lurid, manipulative way it handles its characters’ sexuality.
I must admit upfront that sexuality it is not an element I often care to see in anime. The way it is often expressed—not just in anime, but in many other works of fiction—very rarely jibes with my personal opinions and beliefs on the topic, although there certainly have been anime that have handled sexuality as a theme, core plot element, or even metaphorical system in a way that I’ve appreciated. Revolutionary Girl Utena comes to mind, as do Star Driver (:thinking emoji:), the Monogatari series at points, and The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. This is an admittedly short list, and while I expect I’ve forgotten some obvious contenders, that ought to speak for itself.
It is one thing to make sexuality a key element in a narrative. It is another to do what Darling in the FranXX began to do in its first episode and went all-in on in its second—treat its characters’ sexuality as a plaything for the narrative and a tease for the audience. One of my core issues (among others) with a lot of anime sexual fanservice is that it deprives the character being objectified of their sexual agency. Darling in the FranXX upsets me because not only does it do this through its camerawork (which focuses pretty much exclusively on the female characters), but also through the actual story.
To address the former first, well… there’s not much to say. If you’ve seen the second episode of DarliFra, you watched the changing scene. You saw the butt shots. Heck, you even saw the sexually aggressive framing of the robots (female-coded robots, I might add)! Heck! It’s par for the course when it comes to anime, but grates against the narrative framing of these characters as individuals who don’t even know what a kiss is, let alone anything beyond that. There’s no argument here—as there is in something like Monogatari—that the characters are deliberately playing up their own sexuality. By the story’s own rules, they (excepting Zero Two) are incapable of such an action.
But again, the kind of both cartoony and more leering sexuality Darling in the FranXX imposes onto its characters isn’t something all that unique. It’s just what—frustratingly—a lot of anime does. What is far more upsetting is that this is a show that through both explicit narrative beats (the kiss being the activating factor for Hiro’s piloting of Strelizia with Zero Two in episode 1) and its dreadfully unsubtle symbolism (not to mention the constant innuendos) clearly wants to be about sexuality, and yet falls into the very same manipulations that we can presume it intends to condemn the in-show organization for: commodifying its characters’ sexuality for its own purposes.
Hiro and Ichigo stand as twin examples of Darling in the FranXX‘s cruelty—is that too strong a word?—on this front. Hiro has failed once in the past for what serves as a pale metaphor for his masculinity (or sexual capacities), and he fails once again in circumstances that are robot-piloting centric on the extremely shallow surface and very nearly explicitly sexual (again, just look at the damn shot framing) in the subtext. His confusion and distress is teased out and slapped onto the screen. And then there’s Ichigo, who is not only subject to a similar failure, but is also sexualized by the camera and forced by the plot into giving Hiro a kiss in which she must take responsibility for initiating. The shots in the immediate aftermath of the failed kiss are deeply distressing, and convey with extreme force the completeness of Ichigo’s (plot-demanded) failure, the sexually-charged nature of the whole encounter adding just another level of intensity.
To conclude, it’s not merely the existence of these factors in Darling in the FranXX that upsets me. It is the fact that, in a show that without doubt must eventually become about its characters discovering their sexuality and taking agency for it, those same characters are afforded so little sympathy or respect. Their emotional suffering, which is so tightly woven into the sexualities they have no control over, is only a reminder that they have been written into a show that (again, presumably) wants to give them sexual agency as a fundamental part of its structure but at the same time has no qualms about objectifying them by shot framing, manipulating them into humiliating circumstances, and pushing the cinematic portrayal of their humiliation to maximum.
In short, it makes me deeply uncomfortable. That final shot of Ichigo’s heaving body, her gasping as if following a sexual encounter, conflates her emotional pain with sex appeal—and it put a knot in my stomach. For me as a viewer, it was horrible. If the adults of Darling in the FranXX have reduced the children they oversee to nothing more than puppets whose sexuality (metaphorically or literally) can be used to fight a war, then the show itself has similarly fetishized the characters’ sexuality for the purpose of entertaining its audience. It puts the audience in the place of the in-universe adults and dangles the sexuality of its characters before our eyes and says, “You like this, right? This is what you want these characters for?”
To which I say, when it comes to something as personal, sensitive, and important as sexuality… Well. I don’t like to use profanity on my blog.