The Forlorn World of Sekai–kei
In the post-apocalyptic world of DARLING in the FRANXX, humans have come to live in giant mobile fortresses called plantation that protects them from giant monsters called klaxosaurs (kyoryū, a pun on the Japanese word for dinosaur, but with the kanji for “shout” or “cry”), while the world outside of the plantations have largely turned into deserts. FRANXX are weapons built to fight the klaxosaurs and, as mentioned before, their use to protect humanity is entrusted to moody teenagers.
Such scenario may not feel unfamiliar, especially in times after the breakout hit of Evangelion in 1995. Critics have noted the recurrence of similar type of apocalyptic motif among otaku-oriented media, particularly after Evangelion came out, that has been known as “post-Evangelion syndrome” or sekai–kei, roughly meaning “’world’ type” (Tanaka, 2013). Works that have been considered representative of sekai–kei include the anime Voices of a Distant Star/Hoshi no Koe (2002) from Makoto Shinkai, the manga Saishuu Heiki Kanojo/Saikano: The Last Love Song on This Little Planet (2000-2001) from Shin Takahashi, and the light novel Iriya no Sora, UFO no Natsu (2001-2003) from Mizuhito Akiyama.
It’s difficult to find clear and fixed definition of sekai-kei among various critics that discuss it, and examples do not always meet all the criteria they set (Howard, 2014). Here, however, I would follow Motoko Tanaka’s (2013) summary where description of sekai–kei fiction rests upon a tripartite division of different spheres of life. First, there is the “foreground,” which is the sphere of close personal relationships that can be immediately felt, while the sphere of the world or the universe that is far from everyday experience is the “background.” Between the foreground and the background is the sphere of the “middle ground,” the collective space, such as that of society or community, which mediates the other two spheres through shared values and norms that create a sense of shared meanings of reality.
In sekai–kei fiction, though, the sphere of close relationships, particularly focusing on love between adolescent characters, is directly connected to the crisis at the level of the world, while the social structures that should have mediated the two are largely absent or even non-existent in the story. Christopher Howard (2014) argued though, that society does not really disappear in sekai-kei works, but still still can be felt in tension with the close relationship. The emergence of sekai–kei imagination has been commented to be related to Japan’s crisis and stagnation following the collapse of bubble economy in early 90s. Widening inequality and difficulties in getting stable employments required to be a proper member of the society has weakened the reliability of social institutions as sources of meaningful interactions (Tanaka, 2013).
With that in mind, I think we can put the situation in Darlifra in this lineage of sekai-kei imagination. Not only that the conflicts of the FRANXX pilots’ personal relationships are linked to battles against the threats of the klaxosaurs to humanity’s existence, the middle ground is largely “absent” from the lives of the pilots. In the earlier episodes, the kids are occcasionally shown a view of the splendid-looking city inside the plantation, and comment in wonder of it. But the adults living in the city are not visible, as if there is no society living in it, making the city looks forlorn and lifeless despite its splendour. In the one time in episode 10 when the audience are taken to see some of the city’s inhabitants when one of the kids, Zorome meets them, we are only shown that they do not live in the “normal” way people in our own world live. The physical environments in the anime in general are shown to be so desolately sterile, as if to reflect the impersonal character of social interactions around the main characters. Only the interactions among the teenaged main characters that feel animated by warmth that gives it a semblance of meaningful relationships.
As with Howard’s argument mentioned before, the middle ground is not actually entirely absent in Darlifra, but when it is present, it is in tension with the foreground. The adults who interact directly with the teenage pilots to instruct them on their missions for example, do not help to mediate the world with the personal lives of the pilots. They often decline to answer the kids’ questions and requests for explanation. This also ties to another characteristic of sekai–kei fiction, the opaqueness of the crisis faced by the world (Tanaka, 2013; Howard 2014). It’s not surprising if, for instance, the origin and nature of the klaxosaurs were not exposed clearly for a long time. And when they do get revealed in episodes 19 and 20, it is abruptly followed by the revelation of a hidden threat that is so sudden it makes the main characters confused about what it was that they were supposed to fight against. It is a trait of sekai–kei narrative to make the characters to feel uncertainty about what is right or wrong in their fight, as it is related to the failure of the society’s function to impart norms to refer shared meanings to.
Another sekai–kei element that is relevant with Darlifra is that the heroines are fighting girls who also play mother-like role to the usually male main characters, loving and protecting them unconditionally (Tanaka, 2014; Howard 2014), which sort of provides a “comfort zone” for the male characters from facing the opaque world on their own. Unlike in typical sekai-kei work where the boy doesn’t fight or avoid fighting, though, in Darlifra the boys do take part in fighting too. However, going back to Lamarre’s observation of the maternal bond increasingly implied by the shōjo-ification of mecha interface, it is important to note that the mecha in Darlifra do not only look like girls, but between the male and female pair of pilots, it is the female pilot who is directly connected to the mecha. The facial expressions of the FRANXX follow the expressions of the female pilots, damages to the FRANXX are felt as pain to the female pilots, and it is actually possible for the female pilots to operate the FRANXX on their own though only in a berserk state that endanger them. As could be expected of sekai–kei heroines, they are strong, but cares so much for the male characters. more similar to Evangelion, the boy may take part in the fighting, but the girls are all around tougher.