The allure of a Trigger x A-1 Pictures all-stars co-production has ensured that all eyes remained on DARLING in the FRANXX from the moment its existence was revealed to the world, and yet there’s much more to this project and the people involved than a cursory glance would lead fans to believe. Fortunately it’s our job to explore these production curiosities, and there’s no better time to do so than following the show’s premiere, so let’s get to work in a way that feels appropriate: since two studios are in charge of the production of this series, we’ll also have two writers detailing the secrets of this project!
Key Animation: Satoshi Yamaguchi, Yukiko Aikei, Shiori Tanaka, Takahiro Shikama, Megumi Kouno, Tomoyo Kamoi, Jun Uemura, Kouta Michishita, Taishi Kawakami, Ai Takashi, Mitsuko Baba, Naoto Nakamura, Satoshi Furuhashi, Kenta Yokoya, Akira Hamaguchi, Isao Hayashi, Kazuyuki Asaka, Naoya Takahashi, Kazutaka Sugiyama, Shota Iwasaki, Shiho Takeuchi, Sushio
Animation Production: A-1 Pictures Koenji
Ryan: Allow me to be
franxx frank and say right off the bat that fully understanding how this project came about and the involvement of its impressive lineup of creators will require digesting a sizeable amount of information. The silver lining is that we have the luxury of doing this over time as opposed to all at once, so let’s place our focus on the two most important components for now: the Gainax that once was and director Atsushi Nishigori. There’s no complicated backstory when looking at the link between both on their own, but things start to get more involved the digger we deep, particularly in regards to why it would be much more honest to label this project as A-1 Pictures feat. Trigger over how it’s currently being billed. You might have raised an eyebrow at that statement when major outlets, seasonal charts and a certain subset of fans have done their best to claim otherwise, so let’s do a quick recap of the situation.
The departure of Hiroyuki Imaishi and Masahiko Otsuka to found Trigger is a well-documented event that’s often pointed at to explain the decline of legendary studio Gainax. And there’s truth to be found in that common rhetoric, since losing them alongside figures such as Yoh Yoshinari and Sushio, as well as a plethora of newcomers, would maim any studio. The thing is, that’s not everything, and I’m not just talking about Khara’s creation by Hideaki Anno’s crew. Concurrently with the creation of Trigger, and thus after having been a key player on the likes of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, Nishigori found himself leaving the studio as well. His goal here was to pursue a true passion project in the form of The [email protected], a decision spurned on through an introduction he received thanks to the previously mentioned Otsuka. And as it tends to happen, he wasn’t alone either; his departure caused a lesser known exodus of the studio’s top staff, particularly the likes of Toshifumi Akai, Megumi Kouno and Satoshi Yamaguchi when speaking of names tied directly to Darlifra, which was just as crucial in the damage it dealt to Gainax as the birth of Trigger was. There’s many others who followed Nishigori’s steps and that we’ll gladly address when they start contributing to this project… perhaps sooner than you think!
Where did Nishigori and his entourage depart to, then? A-1, of course, becoming such a close-knit group with the new acquaintances made in the process that they would eventually be dubbed as the imas crew – an outrageous congregation of some of the industry’s most striking talent, with a clear Gainax flavor. I could go on forever about these individuals if given the opportunity, but that would turn what should be the beginning of Darlifra‘s weekly coverage into something else entirely. What’s important to note from all this is that while Darlifra‘s first episode is indeed reminiscent of many works as it’s been noted, fans are heavily misattributing it in their attempt to sum up a complex set of influences. Not to imply that Trigger isn’t a factor here, of course, but keep in mind that the key staff and this episode’s crew is comprised mostly of the group who splintered off towards A-1.
Kevin: Picking up from there, I’d like to talk about the episode itself and how those studio dynamics notoriously shaped it. The element that personally stood out the most from this premiere, even more so than the consistently excellent animation, was its solemn direction. Mora than anything else, I was impressed by its sense of bigness. Where does that come from? Following Ryan’s previous train of thought and at risk of oversimplifying the situation a little bit, we can say that Khara took Gainax’s soul while Trigger took its flesh – and if you’re thinking that would mean there’s nothing left, welcome to the studio’s entire modern output, delightful Wish Upon the Pleiades aside. On more concrete terms, Khara ended up loaded with iconic directors more than anything else, particularly those who defined the studio from the 80s to early 00s, with an obvious bias towards Evangelion’s crew. Trigger’s leading voices on the other hand are mostly animators, especially those who handled late Gainax projects such as Gurren Lagann.
I bring this up because this A-1 clique lands somewhere in the middle of the two, with Nishigori’s team in particular sporting cuts that feel straight out of the late 00s Gainax anime where they polished their skills, and yet their vision often has that quiet grandeur that Imaishi’s crew currently at Trigger lacks. This isn’t to say that the likes of Gurren Lagann and KILL la KILL don’t feel big too – if anything, they’re almost unparalleled when it comes to sheer physical scale – but I really appreciate the elegance of what Darling in the Franxx brings to the table, with iconic shots that feel effortless. It’s evocative of a beloved era that’s by all means over now, and I feel like clearing up doubts about where this vague nostalgic feeling comes from is important; the point isn’t to “prove wrong” all the fans who have been crediting Trigger entirely for this, nor it is about drilling production trivia into everyone’s brains – though I have to admit that listing exactly which A-1 building the production takes place in is a neat detail. No, what we’re doing here is the same as ever: contextualizing the production for the sake of the work itself. With a bit of luck, we’ll all have gained a better grasp on Nishigori’s vision by the end of this show.
Ryan: Now that we’re on the episode itself already, let me tackle one of the clear highlights – the animation. This team is no stranger to character acting and expression as a key element, an approach they’re clearly keeping on Darlifra, to the point of having brought over important figures to enhance it further. You’d be right if you assumed Masayoshi Tanaka‘s presence as character designer and chief animation supervisor partly comes down to the value his name holds nowadays, but thankfully there’s more to it than that. Besides being a personal friend of Nishigori, you have to look no further than the thoughtful acting he imbued into Anthem of the Heart and even his limited yet noteworthy contributions to Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name to see how much he can flesh out characters through animation alone. His thorough corrections are present all through this episode, elevating the high standard of the star-studded key animation team’s efforts to even greater heights, though it would be wise not to expect this as the standard going forward. Time is key when it comes to this level of supervision, and Darlifra most definitely doesn’t have that now that it’s airing sooner than it was originally scheduled to be, so expect him to take a step back and focus his efforts on the show’s most important moments instead. Don’t take that as a sign of impending doom either, though, as the more than capable team that’s been assembled will ensure that the quality remains above that of most TV productions even when things do inevitably start to get tight.
Kevin: I’ll spare you a long love letter to Tanaka’s work because I already put one together in video form, but I couldn’t bring myself to gloss over his omnipresence in this episode. His thoroughness when correcting, making him redraw not just every closeup but even nuanced pieces of animation, is as unsurprising as it is incredible. His work on theatrical projects as of late seems to have leveled up his skills and destroyed any sense of restrain, which is a delightful development as long as the production and his own body somehow hold up. If you weren’t acquainted with his approach but happened to watch Darlifra’s pre-broadcast special, you might have noticed that his idea of correction essentially means redraw the whole shot, and that he does it for way too many cuts. Sequences where you can’t see someone’s factions are unmistakably his simply because of the contour of the face, while other noteworthy moments might have no trace whatsoever of the original animation before his input. Despite many idiosyncratic artists having contributed to the episode, the drawings are (mostly) very uniform, which makes identifying personal quirks a bit of a nightmare. I would point to the gorgeous drawings by Taishi “taisos” Kawakami during the ceremony as one of the few scenes somehow recognizable in still form, but otherwise you’ll have to be acquainted with the ways things move to tell apart animators. Don’t feel bad for the sakuga nerds struggling to guess though, if anything you should direct your pity towards the animators whose work was replaced by Tanaka’s beautiful forms. Or perhaps you shouldn’t bother, since they all love him to begin with.
Ryan: Despite being overshadowed to a degree though, it would feel wrong not to highlight the work of animators beyond Tanaka himself. And there’s plenty of greatness to choose, if you ask me! The intro is about as strong a start as the show could have hoped for, putting on a lovely display of expressive character work — just in case you weren’t convinced about the focus they’re dedicating to this! Satoshi Yamaguchi has been pinned as the main suspect responsible for this entire sequence, both through speculation of other animators and the key animation credits seemingly being in order of participation, but it’s also one where Masayoshi Tanaka’s corrections are more than apparent. Pleasant to behold regardless, though! Speaking of Tanaka’s corrections again, they even make work as quirky as Megumi Kouno’s, which is often easy to pick out from the rest, difficult to spot. There’s been all sorts of guesses as to which part she handled, but I have my bets on it being the lakeside scene, home to arguably the most impressive progression of standout sequences in the episode, as Hiro spots Zero Two swimming then dashes into the lake in a misguided attempt to save her. The timing, drawings, shape & shading of the water FX are the biggest technical tells, but most of all, Kouno just likes drawing naked girls. Okay, maybe not quite as important, but still true!
There’s honestly a truckload of impressive scenes worth talking about, including Akira Hamaguchi‘s running scene that’s ever so reminiscent of the work himself and Tanaka graced Anthem of the Heart‘s intro with, and as much as I’d like to highlight them all, this post is already too long as it is. I will take a quick moment to highlight the work of Kazutaka “Totos“ Sugiyama however, as it came as quite the nice surprise. Sugiyama is one of the newest additions to the imas crew; previously an illustrator in the game industry, he made his way onto the team during The [email protected] Cinderella Girls in 2015 and has been a part of it ever since, following them to projects like Occultic;Nine — where his rapid progression to assistant animation director earned him the praise of people like Yukei ‘UK’ Yamada — and the Million Live 4th anniversary PV. This is one moment that people suspected to be Kouno’s work due to the expressions, hair, subtle background animation and, of course, the emphatic kiss, which says a lot about the quality of his output here. Tanaka’s corrections obviously play a part once more, and this is one such occasion where Nishigori did some corrections uncredited, but Totos still laid the groundwork for what is one of the most memorable moments in the episode, so I’m definitely looking forward to what he has to contribute after this. Moreso when he’s currently getting a power boost from marathoning Aikatsu!, the greatest cartoon in existence.
Kevin: Our resident idolmaster fanboy is so enthusiastic about this fancy new series by his favorite crew that there’s nothing left for me to point out animation-wise that I haven’t already said before. Maybe these posts will be as unevenly split as the production of the show.
Ryan: After all that praise though, I think it’s only fair to highlight how the package as a whole more or less delivered within the comparatively low expectations I had pre-broadcast to when the project was first announced. The tactful character animation feels at odds with the clumsy narrative, and the incorporation of tropes that belong in the stone age such as the perverted old man who feels up the girls almost had me rolling my eyes out of my skull. Even the episode’s action sequence feels like it contrasted with everything we’d been presented up to that point, possibly because Imaishi wouldn’t understand the concept of subtlety if it smacked him in the face, which is honestly a shame when Sushio himself was backed up by people like Isao Hayashi and Kenta Yokoya to deliver what is by all means an impressive technical effort. That being said, Nishigori remains a director I’ve resonated with on a personal level for a long time now. Not just through our shared passions, but because he’s painfully aware of his own shortcomings. He’s criticised himself and his habit of bruteforcing things in comparison to the delicate artistry of his greatest ally Noriko Takao, yet there’s a certain honesty to his work and staging that he just can’t conceal even if he wanted to. Darlifra is unmistakably his show in that regard, one that’s supported by a web of people who are much more fitting to describe as his close friends than a simple team of talented individuals. Has it left me captivated by this stage? Not at all. But this is a ride I’m determined to stick with, if only because the journey feels more important than the destination itself.
Kevin: If we’re talking about the lesser elements, I have to point out that I found the action the most disappointing part. I feel like I need a disclaimer, however: for now the series isn’t exactly a compelling narrative, and despite featuring so many interesting inspirations, I still don’t sense much of an identity of its own. But perhaps because I sort of expected that early on, I’m not really worried yet. Nishigori might be as much of a simpleton as he says he is, but I wouldn’t put it past him to subvert the expectations he’s created with the show’s heteronormative system and clumsy sexual metaphors – and even if he doesn’t, I can see him making a fun enough show with the cards he’s shown already. What does worry me however is the clash between Imaishi’s action storyboards and their actual execution; his sequences are tailor-made for the kind the Kanada-style animation and wild posing his pals and him use, which is a heavy departure from the show as a whole and yet isn’t exploited as it should be, leading to a pretty tame first fight. Imaishi will be handling this aspect all series long, so here’s hoping that this doesn’t become a recurring issue. Perhaps when we reach an episode actually produced by Trigger, which I’m not allowed to tell you will happen with #4, we’ll have a more satisfactory result. Let’s see how things turn out, action-wise and in general!