Warning: Massive spoilers for the anime. I cannot dive into if this show is cyberpunk or not, as someone has asked me, without going into heavy spoilers because a lot of what would or would not make it cyberpunk is only explored around 18-20 episodes into the 24 episodes anime.
OK, here we go, Is Darling in the FranXX cyberpunk? More importantly, perhaps, is Darling in the FranXX even aware of what it is? I just binged it in 3 days and I'm not entirely sure.
A lot isn't explained to the audience. And not in a clever, assuming-your-audience-is-smart-catching-these-plot-drops-kind-of-way; more like huge, giant, unexplained plot twists that leave gouges in the themes it laid down previously. Let's jump in.
SO. 50 million years ago (or thereabouts) an ancient race called the sapio-klaxosaur ruled the world, ostensibly. They were attacked by an alien lifeform that pretty much mansplains to you every time you run into them that embodiment is bad and you should free your mind, actually. They use up their resources combating the alien, evolve into better weapons losing their ability to procreate but creating war machines that require someone with an XX chromosome and an XY chromosome in this process. With this tech, they repel this alien race called the VIRM. Who then, of course, vowed to return and conquer them with a greater force. In response, these sapio-klaxosaur decide to burrow underground. The "weak" of the species becomes magma, a fuel; the "strong" evolve to become better and better weapons over time. Creating the ultimate, super weapon for when they return.
Fast forward and humans have also messed up the earth digging up magma and using it as fuel. Humanity by this time has slowly become a "twisted" version of itself. A scientist named Dr. Franxx invents a "cure" for death, effectively making those who can afford it, immortal. What occurs is a giant stratification of class, which has already worsened well beyond what we would consider today. This cure for death also makes the person infertile (and at one point I think they mention they don't even have reproductive organs after it?).
However, all is not well in post-capitalism. Humans live a monotonous lifestyle inside "plantations" that go around mining magma. Essentially huge mega-cities that drive around fucking up creatures that come from the earth named klaxosaur. Dr. Franxx learns there is a "queen" of them, goes to meets them, out of, I don't know, scientific curiosity, I guess? She rips off his arm and tells him to fuck Right Off. During this encounter, he grabs some of her hair, though. Good one, buddy.
Now, in the present day, in which the story proper takes place, Dr. Franxx has invented giant mecha called FranXX which are piloted by clones of humans who do have reproductive organs because these FranXX are based on the same technology as the sapio-klaxosaur; requiring an XX and XY pair to pilot their machines.
Unbeknownst to these children, "Papa", the leader of humanity who puppets behind the scenes (even controlling Dr. Franxx) has cruelly groomed these kids in a facility called a "garden", where they are given numbers, not names, and never given any love, kind words, attention, physical affection, etc. The kids are literally indoctrinated to be killing machines devoid of emotion and paired with their optimal female/male counterparts in a binary manner. Once they're 16, they leave the garden and live in their own place together in separate dorms.
The main protagonist, Hiro, is a typically anxious, "nice" kid who had a promising future as a "ryder" of a FranXX. Now, though, there is some mystery as to why he is terrible and can't pair with his partner at all, reducing him to a failure who should just leave the facility permanently, 'cause he sucks and can't perform his function so fuck off; which is when the narrative pretty much picks up in the first episode.
Basically, to pilot a Franxx the woman is seated in a crouching position (made to have her in a "Doggy-style" sexual position) and embodying the FranXX machine. So when the mecha gets punched and shot, the woman is taking the abstraction of that damage. The guy sits behind them and the woman has a rig on her back that has these weird steering handles, helping to maneuver the mecha. Neither can do it alone, both have to have a good partner. and clearly, this is all a metaphor for these young kids having sex without knowing what sex, love, or even a kiss is.
We learn that Hiro, while in the gardens and a kid, encounters the now same age-ish clone of the queen of the klaxosaur, 002, who pretty much looks like the devil. She's got two horns, red skin, and bleeds blue blood. When Hiro sees her being brutally tormented when they test her he stages an escape and the couple wanders in the gardens trying to evade capture for a while. During this time in the past, Hiro cares for her as best he can. Her only possession is a hetero-normative fairy tale picture book. She learns a couple words, the final one being "darling", just as they are ripped apart and their memories erased.
002 makes her way to this plantation not being aware Hiro is the kid from the past; rumors proceeding her that when SHE is riding in her mecha, her partners get super messed up physically and emotionally. It's even said they die after ryding her 3 times and she's killed hundreds of dudes ( I am not being hyperbolic). If they're weak, whatever, she says. They deserve to die if that's the case. She just wants to kill some klaxosaur.
Of Course, they get partnered together. He sees her naked, swimming around. Gets all shy and shit. She's sexually assertive, knows her stuff, and is obviously far more experienced than Hiro who like, can't get it up for anyone; UNTIL NOW! They partner up. Save the day, and launch the whole anime. Later it's revealed that he can ryde her because as a kid, he ingested some of her blood and internalized some of her klaxosaur Good Stuff. The more he rydes her, the less human he becomes, though. Changing into a klaxosaur like her. Don't judge a book by it's cover though she's only a monster 'cause she's memory wiped and wants to kill klaxosaur even though she is one. I guess because she was taught that after she was brain wiped but uh, that's never actually articulated.
So from the get-go, there's some neat stuff that looks like it's going to subvert typical anime mecha stuff, possibly. It is completely male-gaze centric the entire first 6-or-so episodes... but has this weird metaphor where they are pretty much having sex, and sex education should be a thing. The guys learn that women have feelings and them being ogled while piloting hurts them, so they stop. And... like kinda nicely, the show stops doing it as well aside for like 4-ish shots of them piloting, all of which aren't creepy long like in the first bit. They really want you to understand that these partners are having sex, ya'll. And they do it by respecting and supporting each other.
There's an episode dedicated to not being jealous when your friend likes someone else; getting rid of some toxicity, mostly from the male side but also Hiro's best friend having a thing for him (of course). There's an episode where the pilots are asked if they want to change partners, encouraged to come forward if so; some do, including the only queer character who wants to try ryding with a woman... which doesn't work out for her. She gets pissed, they change up partners, and it's just kind of brushed under the rug for a while until she comes out later to another girl annnnd then that's about it. She saves everyone's life, discovering a vaccine (I guess?) for the rapid aging process these clone kids undergo in the later episodes. But it very much feels like a gimme that's a throw in at the end as they wrap up the last bit of the final episode. Disappointing to say the least.
So too goes the metaphor for sex. Are they trying to communicate anything with it? Not anything interesting. You gotta have a healthy, non-toxic relationship with your significant other to pilot--cool! That's like the first 6 episodes, now what? When one of the girls discovers an old book in some ruins about making babies and wants to try it because she feels it's her purpose, even telling a boy that she likes that he's her special person and actually, later having sex; well... they're sent to get re-indoctrinated. The memories are removed and they reinforce the whole no-emotions-are-better-angle. Again.
Throughout this first half there are some genuine moments between the kids, actually neat subject matter trying to be explored, and then... it loses sight of anything it was trying to say. Completely.
The plot is basically like, "cool you learned you should be good partners and healthy relationships lead to good outcomes, right?", and then just goes bonkers.
For one, a group called the 9's show up who pilot with one another interchangeably, a guy is in the position we've always seen the woman in, and another guy piloting (judging from voices and physical appearance only, so I could totally be wrong); then switches around as you see them in various battles. Cool cool, are they trying to say that more than just het folks piloting? Nope, they're all clones of 002, so they're not human, thaaaat's why they can do that.
So... maybe it's saying something about being a strong woman? Kinda. They're always taking the brunt of the damage and 002 in the start is super awesome. She does what she wants, even getting Hiro to admit that he was just scared of her; generally telling him to fuck off unless he stopped being toxic. She knows what she wants, she's badass, even contributing to an impact vs intent episode. But as soon as they truly "bond" as partners she takes a 180, changing her personality entirely. She becomes incredibly submissive and basically says like, all she needed was a really good "ryde" and now she's more "likable"; didn't like that at all.
As often as it can it seems to flip-flop on stuff. At first, the queen is the ultimate bad guy and infiltrates the plantation, piloting the same mecha 002 and Hiro do for most of the anime. She messes up 002 and takes control of Hiro inside, saying she can pilot that shit HERSELF. Is she like a queer villain or anything? Nah.
She's the last surviving sapio-klaxosaur, feeding into the only true ongoing narrative: you need a purpose and you need to share your life with someone else or YA WEAK. With only heteronormative examples of this, like a wedding with the couple who has the baby... which then gets excised from their memory. Anyways, as soon as the queen gets in she fires on these fuckin' aliens, the VIRM, suddenly attacking the world! Also, within this Illuminati, all of which are "Papa" (I guess), orchestrating the future of humanity; two are also actually VIRM. Ostensibly informing us that this is why humanity was so obsessed with the way forward being lifeless, immortal people, and the true end goal is to be like VIRM, ideally; without bodies and just beings of pure consciousness.
So then the queen, touched (emotionally) by 002 coming back into this situation to save Hiro, lends them their power one last time, making a now even huger mecha out of the original mecha they once piloted! They zoom off into space to try and kill the VIRM, leaving Hiro and 002 behind for pretty unclear reasons. He eventually figures out that 002, now in a coma, has her mind off in that giant mecha and is not physically present on earth at all. Except when the giant mecha gets hurt she gets hurt too. OK. The whole, don't need a body anymore I'm an alien thing going on again. So Hiro decides to go save her, the whole squad goes too, no way, except for two of them! Why? The brainwashed people who had sex are having a baby (foreshadowed for a few episodes now to be fair, since she keeps throwing up). She can't pilot a mech in that state so has to decide on her piloting or having a baby, which nobody knows anything about anymore, presumably. She picks being a mom.
Anyways, back in space ya'll, Hiro hooks back up with 002, convincing her to let him in when she is saying you should just go be human and be freeee. And he's like nooo, you're my person and that's how we can defeat someone. Also, she can't use the huge power strike from the horn of the mecha like the queen did by herself, she needs Hiro...even though she's a clone of that queen...but OK! Finally, they transform into a giant mecha maiden, which I kind of liked. Maybe it was saying you need both masculine and feminine qualities to take on this entity that believes embodiment is a weakness?
I don't know because they are suddenly not compatible anymore, an internal battle Hiro is losing. Even if they believe they are the right couple, apparently they're not that actually compatible via this giant klaxosaur-mecha thing. How do they get over this hurdle? The people back on earth pray real hard, shouting about their bonds around the now statue of 002; they hear their friends, he wakes up and they sacrifice their lives to fuck up the enemy. Who, by the way, is not fully destroyed. They're like, "we will meet again at the end of the evolutionary patttth". At least the dude sticks to his guns, eh?
To end it all, their spirits (?) shoot back to earth into a tree that was created by 002's body which was left behind and became stone until it broke apart revealing a sapling. 80 years later a nice tree is there and two kids who look like 002 and Hiro meet and they're like yoooo, the story is starting again ya'll!!!
What. The. Fuck.
It would have also been a lot stronger of a message if they had ended it with the only queer character having a relationship. At all. Instead, she's all alone and saves all the people making babies. Score!
It's frustrating because some of it is pretty neat. It does manage to hit home some good messages early on and does some commentary on similar things to Evangelion, but with an openly sex-positive metaphor, or at least, it could have been? Everything it tried to say was muddied by the end except for: embodiment good. We need each other to survive, including our feelings. Technology bad, immortality took away our drive and our emotions. And finally, we need each other to get through.
A thing I did like is that all of humanity is representative of the super-rich only. At least this weird ass fiction isn't trying to Representative of everyone, it's saying post-capitalistic rich folks decided to become immortal, exploited everyone else and letting the rest die; all so they could live a long, meaningless existence.
So but like. Wouldn't that mean all the klaxosaur they killed are also people, and the queen isn't the last one?
It definitely also erases all queer representation aside from a bland gesture at some vague crap with one character.
Oh, and that kids need to be educated about sex and people fear the stagnation of the human race as people stop having sex as much. The way forward may be technology, which will doom us; fear it!
Sooo... it's pretty much stuck in the 90's, right? Technophobia to the max.
Is it cyberpunk? Indentured clones, a new manufactured class and experiment, pilot giant mecha (their only hope for survival: technology) ordered to be crafted by the super rich, omnipresent entity that represents fatherhood ("Papa"), ordered to preserve the status quo; only to discover that their true purpose is to fulfill their goal and then die. It's got the high-tech, low-life. A reliance and commentary on technology being central to the fiction, an evil Dr. Franxx, who is the only one to embrace cybernetics instead of becoming immortal, coincidentally. And has a whole episode dedicated to an info-dump literally describing the giant stratification of class that takes place.
Throughout, the kids wear different clothing, are treated differently from other squads, and continually looked down upon because they have feelings. They reject societal norms throughout and end up ultimately rejecting "Papa" entirely only to have a really shitty future and earth to look forward to by doing so. So yeah, it's cyberpunk; but only emphatically so in later episodes, I'd say. Otherwise it's a mecha show with a cybernetic dude who's a trash human embodying a fear of technology.
Is it good? The first half was great, seemingly going to go neat places... And then fulfilled none of the interesting things it could have. It's a freaking' crying shame, is what it is. I think it was trying to be clever, attempting to do the fanservice bullshit and then subverting it with those episodes on being a good partner, protecting others' emotional well-being (including your friends and your partners), and then stopping the fanservice when the girls are expressing their distaste for ogling. And maybe it thinks it had good commentary on sex-positivity... but I didn't think they explored it well enough to make that claim, personally.
Try harder, Darling~