Technological Mediation and the Return of the Middle Ground
So far we have identified elements in DARLING in the FRANXX that can put it in the sekai–kei lineage. This may not come off as a surprise considering the director Atsushi Nishigori comes from GAINAX that made the key title in sekai-kei history, Evangelion. Studio TRIGGER that collaborate on the creation of this anime is also founded by ex-GAINAX staff, and in a TRIGGER AMA about the show on reddit, the staff affirm that the anime follows on GAINAX’s trend of mecha series. But what can we make of it? How does the show itself think about the sekai–kei worldview?
First, let’s take a look at the role of the mecha and how it thinks of the role of technology. As mentioned in the beginning, some mecha fans found it hard to acknowledge Darlifra as a mecha anime because of the strong role of emotional conflicts in the characters’ personal relationships. Also, the bishoujo-like mecha design arguably does not give the mecha action sequences the same sense of massive scale and impact like mecha action in other anime such as Knight’s & Magic, making them look more akin to the action scenes of armored bishoujo characters (think of Symphogear or Lyrical Nanoha). But that doesn’t mean the mecha is unimportant in Darlifra. We just need to think differently about the role of the mecha in this anime, not just in the image of cool fighting machines.
The key position of the FRANXX in this anime is as a form of technological mediation where crises of various kinds converge. The FRANXX mediate the relationship between the pilots, bringing them to know each other to begin with, and the tensions that emerge from that mediated relationship bring them into conflicts (crisis of personal relationships). The FRANXX also mediate their relationships with the threat to the fate of human world (world crisis), bypassing and thus, minimizing the mediating role of society (social crisis), which ironically, is engineered by the adult society itself. And the absence of that mediation further leads to confusion and uncertainties on the pilots’ understanding of what is right or wrong (moral crisis), and even on the pilots’ understanding of the relationship between men and women (gender crisis, biological crisis). The world imagined by Darlifra thinks about how the role of technological mediation has made it the convergent point of those crises.
Interestingly, the FRANXX are absent in episodes 16 to 18, giving the pilots a brief moment when they can experience a life without fighting in the FRANXX. At a glance, the episodes appear to present an alternative condition where the pilots can experience a life without the mediation of technology that the aforementioned crises have converged in. They are even shown to prepare handmade dinner from materials they harvest themselves when the supply of pre-prepared food is cut off, as if to reinforce the “go back to nature” feel.
However, later on it is revealed to the pilots that the adults, who have left behind sexual reproduction themselves, engineered the pilot kids to retain their reproductive organs because they enable the kids to pilot the FRANXX. Thus, not piloting the FRANXX does not mean the kids are returned to a “natural” condition where technological mediation is absent, because it turns out the FRANXX technology has always conditioned their existence from their birth. This situation reminds of the scenario in Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water/Fushigi no Umi no Nadia (1990), another anime from studio GAINAX, that disrupts the idea of a “natural” state without technological condition, by revealing that the human race was produced by Atlantean engineering, who in this anime are alien colonists from Nebula M78 that manipulated life on Earth to become their servants (Lamarre, 2009). Just like the existence of humanity in Nadia has always been technologically conditioned from the start, for the pilot kids of Darlifra, technological mediation has always been present with them to begin with; “nature” is just another thing that can be engineered.
But just because the kids have always been technologically conditioned, it doesn’t mean Darlifra presents a strictly deterministic view of technology where the kids can only follow their pre-determined purpose as tools of the adults to fight the klaxosaurs. Another important development in the story is when the pilot kids on their own attempt to “reproduce” long gone social practices against the expectations of the adults of their current time. For example, they attempt to recreate marriage (ceremony) with what little knowledge they can procure from the books the adults had let them to read, even if their comprehension of the meanings of such practices is limited without proper explanation and example from the adults. And since the early episodes, we have also learned that the kids, led by the main character Hiro, had created their own names from the code numbers assigned to them by the adults (using Japanese goroawase readings of the numbers), appropriating the adults’ means to dehumanize the kids as their tools into personal identities that can become a part of the kids’ own meaningful personal relationships.
Hence, having established a sekai-kei condition where the middle ground is absent, Darlifra then have a new middle ground emerging through the characters’ actions in the foreground. This suggests that the anime’s answer to the sekai–kei condition is that even if dysfunctional, the middle ground could not and never really completely disappear. It is not really possible to completely break away from the mediation of the middle ground, there is only shifting from one form of collective space to another.
In this case, Darlifra imagines a rather optimistic view from the sekai-kei condition, one in which a new middle ground can be reconstructed from the foreground. This is different from the scenario of Voices of a Distant Star or Iriya no Sora where the boy protagonist and the heroine remain separated to affirm the order of the existing middle ground, or from the ending of Saikano where it is suggested that the boy and the heroine are finally united only in death (Howard, 2014). Also, the reconstruction of the middle ground in Darlifra does not involve breaking away completely from the former middle ground, as the legacy of the former middle ground has always been a part of the kids since their creation anyway, but rather it is done by repurposing the legacy of the former middle ground on the kids’ own terms. Even characters such as Dr. Franxx, Hachi and Nana, who initially represented the interests and control of the old adult society, eventually aid the kids to enable them creating their new middle ground. This suggests that the shows take on the reconstruction of the collective space requires both the young and the adult to relearn anew the meaning of “adulthood.”
Such optimistic view can be seen as a more reformist take compared to the radical change that Howard (2014) expects to bring about a meaningful political change. But I still think the way DARLING in the FRANXX imagines the place of technology and the relation between collective and personal spaces to be an interesting approach in making sense of those issues to discuss about.
- Galbraith, Patrick W. (2014), “Introduction: Falling in Love with Japanese Characters,” in The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime, and Gaming (Tuttle Publishing), pp. 4-23.
- Howard, Christopher (2014), “The Ethics of Sekai-kei: Reading Hiroki Azuma with Slavoj Žižek,” in Science Fiction Film and Television, Vol. 7, No. 3, pp. 365-386.
- Lamarre, Thomas (2009), The Anime Machine (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
- Tanaka, Motoko (2013), “Apocalyptic Imagination: Sekaikei Fiction in Contemporary Japan,” on E-International Relations.
- Tanaka, Motoko (2014), “Trends of Fiction in 2000s Japanese Pop Culture,” on Electronic Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 14, Issue 2.
By Halimun Muhammad | The author has been an enthusiastic consumer of anime and manga for 11 years while reading whatever that discuss interesting things about them