Twenty Perfect Minutes is an irregular column series where I take a look at single specific anime that shaped my experience with the medium, were important to me in some other way, or that I just really, really like.
“It has to be you.”
Whatever happened to Darling in The FranXX? Rarely are anime-originals as popular as it was, but in 2020, just two years after it aired, there is a vague sense of embarrassment associated with the series. I won’t pretend to hate DarliFra, myself: I enjoyed watching it at the time even if, with hindsight, I greatly overestimated its cleverness. It is though hard to argue that it’s particularly well-put-together. If you want an anime that’s easy to rag on, DarliFra lines up neatly, it’s almost a microcosm of everything wrong with the TV anime mainstream. Shaky writing that leans on cliche and borrows from better shows, loads of unnecessary cheesecake-style fanservice-centric pandering, and most infamously, a thematic “Get Yourself A Wife, Otaku-san” core so comically conservative, out-of-step with wider cultural trends, and patriarchal that it inspired an endless outpouring of memes and general ribbing even at the time, and even from people who enjoyed it. It’s often pegged as the single most divisive entry in Studio TRIGGER‘s filmography, a descriptor that only isn’t true by the arguable technicality of it being made by a purpose-built split committee called Code 000 (which effectively consisted of TRIGGER staff plus staff from a just-pre-CloverWorks A-1 Pictures, but DarliFra’s odd production history is too long of a tangent to go on here).
Yet, all of this said and meant, DarliFra is certainly a watchable show on a moment-to-moment level, and there are a few times when it almost actually realizes the vision it’s striving toward. I would argue however, that in terms of genuinely reaching that vision? That happened just once, almost exactly halfway through its run. Thus, on this Twenty Perfect Minutes column, we cover the one and only truly great episode of one of the most contentious hit anime of the 10’s.
This episode, centering around the grand mid-show plot point of storming the Gran Crevasse, is a winning one for two big reasons. One: it’s impeccably-directed. Much of the episode is action setpiece after action setpiece, and those were always DarliFra’s strongest moments. That said, the kinetic action is intercut with various other things. Most prominently, Hiro, our protagonist, who is emotionally reeling from the absence of Zero Two. There’s a neat little trick deployed here (and sparsely in other places in the series) where instead of having Hiro voice his feelings, either aloud or in voiceover, they’re actually written on-screen. These more tense, dramatic shots are arguably just as important as the fights. Throughout, this episode is the rare moment where DarliFra’s running subplot about the romance triangle between Hiro, Zero Two, and Ichigo actually seems to tick the way the series wants it to, and the direction does a lot to sell that.
The second reason: This is an (again, rare) episode where DarliFra knows to get out of its own way. The reductive, laughably conservative gender politics of the rest of the series are thankfully absent for the majority of “Jian”, and it’s the rare episode where the heavily genderqueer-coded Nines get almost as much shine as Squad 13.
Almost everyone gets at least a little bit of the limelight, in fact. Even the redshirt Squad 26, who reappear here for just the second time in the series only to have a wonderfully wrenching moment where they’re promptly forced to sacrifice themselves after watching a klaxosaur crush their home. Another thing this episode does right is really hammering home the flat-out cruelty of APE as an organization.
Zero Two is used to great effect here as well. Effectively “feral” from the events of the prior arc at the episode’s start, she gets the “inner thoughts written on-screen” treatment, too, arguably to even better effect. Aside from the fact that we get to see the Strelizia in its alt-mode here (which is always nice), the girl herself is drawn, in interior shots from the first half of the episode, in a way that really emphasizes her bloodlust. This is Zero Two off the deep end, at her worst, and at her most convinced that she’s irredeemable, inhuman, and fundamentally unlovable.
Then, halfway through the episode, Hiro hijacks a training pod and rushes out onto the battlefield to reunite with his beloved. Against orders and against all common sense. The scene that follows, in which Hiro and Ichigo co-pilot the Delphinium while the latter must directly reckon with the fact that Hiro loves Zero Two and not her, is both sincerely affecting and the closest that a shot framed inside one the mech’s cockpits comes to not looking fundamentally ridiculous.
There’s tons of great touches in the couple minutes that follow, aside from just the animation itself (which is gorgeous). Ichigo’s fury at Zero Two’s actions translating to a mech-on-mech dope slap is one, the Delphinium turning out to have “hair” under its helmet is another.
But more importantly, it lets Ichigo, one of the many characters the series at large is guilty of under-writing, express herself in an immediate, visceral way, even as she inarguably “loses” the love triangle. She’d never be this much of a firecracker again.
Of course, fundamentally, this is Hiro and Zero’s story. The two’s reunion here stands out against the rest of the episode. I’m of the opinion that Hiro and Zero Two’s chemistry is among the better things in the show, but this scene is one of the very few where it’s tied together in a way that’s truly emotionally resonant instead of merely cute. The imagery is mixed-up and messy, but the feeling remains. Through cutaways to elsewhere and flashbacks to the characters’ own convoluted intertwined history, through the offputting and arresting images of a young Zero Two being experimented on, and eating the fairy tale storybook DarliFra often attempted to use as thematic thread, it somehow all works. It’s immediate. It hits you in the heart.
The episode caps with the Strelizia transforming back into its humanoid form (in a visual homage to the henshin sequence from Kill la Kill, no less) with a new all-red look and a powerup, and ripping the remaining klaxosaur horde to shreds nearly single-handedly. All the while, Hiro and Zero Two shout out their love for each other at the top of their lungs, behind them blasts the show’s opening theme “Kiss of Death”. Gently teasing them for not cutting the comms are their squadmates. Watching from afar, scheming, is APE. It is the only moment in the entire series where the show’s attempted core thesis of first love as a delirious, rapturous high, depicted by the wonderfully camp visual metaphor of a mecha tearing through an army of monsters, completely makes sense. This is Darling in The FranXX‘s peak. If we are to remember art as it is at its best, this is how we should remember DarliFra.
Execution aside; this is all still pretty, to put it politely, “traditional”, as far as resolutions to a love triangle (and just general “romance problems” plots) go, a larger writing issue that would just a few episodes after this rapidly erode the show’s potential. But, this episode, watched in isolation, is almost good enough to make those criticisms seem irrelevant. It’s not an exaggeration to say that whatever flaws the rest of the series may have, this episode can go toe-to-toe with anime that live and breathe this kind of stuff. Symphogear, its own spiritual predecessors Kill La Kill, Gurren Lagann and Diebuster, you name it.
One of the reasons I love anime is that it has a nearly-infinite capacity, despite the medium’s limitations, to surprise and inspire wonder. Sometimes, that wonder and surprise just happen to occur only in fleeting bursts. Thus it is with Darling in The FranXX.
All views expressed on Magic Planet Anime are solely my own opinions and conclusions and should not be taken to reflect the opinions of any other persons, groups, or organizations.