The third episode of DARLING in the FRANXX is, and I’m sure this won’t surprise you at this point, yet another product of past Gainax experiences. Once again we’ll follow the careers of the creators involved to better understand their work here, plus we’ll highlight the behind the scenes production mechanisms that are rarely talked about. Fans of Shelter can’t miss this one!
Key Animation: Megumi Kouno
Shuko Yamashita, Kazuaki Shimada, Keita Nagahara, Saki Takahashi, Itsuki Tsuchigami, Masayuki Nonaka, Masami Mori, Fukuro Shiba, Akira Hamaguchi, Naoya Takahashi, Kazutaka Sugiyama, Isuta Meister, Isao Hayashi, Shuu Sugita, Taishi Kawakami, Akiko Sugizono, Sakiko Uda, Satoshi Yamaguchi, Kazuhiro Miwa, Kyoushirou Ezawa, Noriyuki Imaoka
Animation Production: A-1 Pictures Koenji
Ryan: At the risk of sounding like we’re recycling our intros each week, I believe it’ll come as no surprise to readers that Gainax once again played a fundamental role for the people charged with this week’s outing. Much like Shouko Nakamura last week though, no two people share the same story when it comes to their progression within the industry. The individual routes of our two central figures this time around are interesting in their own right, but it’s how their paths intertwined that feels most important in terms of contextualising their presence both within this episode and the show as a whole. With that said, it’s finally time for us to talk about two people who are poised to become one of the industry’s most striking duos: Toshifumi Akai and Megumi Kouno.
While Gainax is without a doubt where their respective journeys to stardom began, it’s not where their paths substantially crossed. Not only were their arrivals years apart, but Akai saw himself becoming an established figure at A-1 not too long after his work on Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. His debut as character designer on Sora no Woto came during the same season as Kouno’s big break with her work on Hanamaru Kindergarten‘s 4th ending, and all signs pointed at them not becoming too involved with one another even with some brief encounters on both Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt and Fractale. That is, until both wound up as part of the team assembled for Atsushi Nishigori’s take on The [email protected]. Both served as integral parts of this team, which gradually became an anime-making family of sorts, so it only feels right to deem this as the beginning of the road that would lead to them becoming a creative duo. For those in need of a more concrete moment where they worked directly with one another, it’s easy to point to the Akai’s episode 26, but it’s more of a preview of what they’d go on to do than anything else. Their paths would diverge again following this, with Akai going on to serve as character designer for shows such as Kokoro Connect and Magi while Kouno herself used Vividred Operation as a platform to further raise her stock, before coming together once more for both imas‘ sequel movie and the next project in the franchise, Cinderella Girls.
Kevin: I’m contractually obliged to point out that while as a director Akai inherited the same kind of casual grandeur that can be felt in Atsushi Nishigori’s work, no doubt coming from their time at Gainax, his animation sensibilities were shaped elsewhere. When we talk about this stuff it usually involves individuals working with each other and styles being reshaped over time because of that, yet in this case he never worked with the one artist who fundamentally changed him – and not because he didn’t want of course, but rather because he couldn’t. Akai, having gone as far as choosing to be credited under the pseudonym Horiguchi Is God, was a Yukiko Horiguchi devotee like no other. His first gig as character designer confused half the internet by turning a title she had no involvement with into faux K-ON!, and then he fought bravely to be entrusted with her actual concept designs for Kokoro Connect. Now as the fantastic animator he was always bound to be he went on to absorb many of her quirks rather than stay at the mimicry stage, but this was all worth pointing since even as a director, the demeanor of Akai’s characters keeps some of that delightful Horiguchi charm. The cute kids in the intro are as much proof as you need!
Ryan: This is where another figure comes into play: animation producer Yuichi Fukushima. I’ve already went in-depth about him before — in a post where I correctly predicted that we’d be seeing this crew on Darlifra, even! — so let’s take a quick look at the role he and Porter Robinson’s Shelter MV played in bringing these two together, before tying it all back into this episode. Akai himself made it clear that Porter was adamant about having Kouno on the project, so that begged the question: who would on the task of teaming up with her? As animation producer for the MV it was Fukushima’s job to make this call, and his eventual nomination of Akai makes him the person we can thank for creating this opportunity in the first place. His role as animation producer for Darlifra and their appearance to handle this episode together isn’t just a coincidence; their work on Shelter smashed all expectations, so it’s only natural that he’d push for them to team up once again.
Kevin: As much of a link he has with this group of creators though, it’s not as if Fukushima’s lists of acquaintances is limited to it. Look no further than Slow Start this season, as another wonderfully crafted project this season commanded by him. The two series are by all means sibling projects – sharing production assistants, freely interchanging animators, and even approaching the credits in the same way – but the core teams are as different as you’d expect from two shows with opposed moods. The job of an animation producer is to be able to provide projects with a lineup of talented creators that suit the needs of the material, so it’s remarkable that he’s doing such a good job on two concurrent anime. Fukushima is very good at his job, and A-1 knows that, hence why they keep sending new projects this way in an attempt to make up for the studio’s very questionable project management.
Ryan: Let’s leave all these purely behind the scene matters to focus on the work all these people did, though. One that is very much reminiscent of Shelter, as you might expect. There’s no need to return to the short itself as I already talked about it, but it’s well worth keeping it in mind when dealing with an episode that feels like a full-length spiritual sequel to it. Not so much from a narrative perspective, but the tone and content of the episode were a perfect fit with the personal approach Akai took with it, to the point where certain parts feel like they came straight from Shelter. Environments happen to play a vital part during both, too; whereas in Shelter they were implemented as a way to highlight the underlying solitude of a character, here they give us a peek at the the cast’s sense of self-worth, or lack thereof. Hiro and his desperation to prove himself capable of riding a FRANXX seems like the most obvious outlet for this, but there’s something to be said about its prominence during a sequence where Zero Two discusses the idea of no one remembering their names after their death and offering Hiro the option to flee with her. Her existence is certainly meaningful to the rest of the Parasites, with Hiro in particular of the belief that she amounts to much more than he himself, but Akai seemed to have a clear goal of putting her own feelings on her position in the open. Understandably some might not be willing to dig that deep, but that just makes it even easier to appreciate how much his sense of framing and staging catches the eye even if you’re looking for anything in particular. His portrayal of compact spaces later on in the episode when the FRANNX are involved is a nice little extra on top of all this, and something he without a doubt mastered during Shelter.
Kevin: Not to disparage Akai’s flair as director, which I also believe is wonderful and more easily readable than the previous two episodes, but the aspect I appreciated the most was something more fundamental: personality. Atsushi Nishigori is, simply put, a megaphone kind of director – give him a compelling core, and he’ll increase its impact tenfold. When starting from zero though, he struggles some more. This wasn’t as much of an issue for Shouko Nakamura, but it’s undeniable that she sometimes sacrifices character work in favor of conceptual strengths, because becoming acquainted with Ikuhara has its pros and its cons. Now that doesn’t mean she can’t pull off wonderfully intimate works, which is my way to remind everyone to watch Doukyuusei again, but I wouldn’t fault anyone for feeling her episode of Darlifra was a bit impersonal despite the subject matter. Akai’s arrival has changed that trend, since all the flashy tricks in his repertoire are exclusively used to boost the episode’s character work. This is a project I’ve found very interesting to think about as the convergence of many artistic sensibilities I appreciate, but until this episode, it wasn’t necessarily a show I was invested in. Akai’s attempt to give more personality to the cast, and thus to the show itself, might be the point where it becomes more than a Gainax case study for me. Though don’t get me wrong, I already found that interesting to dig into!
Ryan: If I had to direct complaints somewhere, it’d be towards the fact that Kouno’s supervision can’t be felt through the episode as much as I’d personally and foolishly hoped. It’s hardly a secret that she’s as thorough as they get when allowed to handle these duties on her own, but that’s not something regular projects can afford with their tight schedules, let alone one suffering from the A-1Plex scheduling curse. The avan is one part outside of her own work in the episode where you can see substantial traces of her hand, particularly when it comes to the cushions Hiro sits on and how they adhere to his movements on multiple layers. Speaking of her own work, though: wow! This has to be one of my favourite sequences of hers in a while, and not just because of her gorgeous hair animation! I really love the way Zero Two jumps over the guardrail and how Kouno portrays her movement, momentum, and even the hangtime before she lands. Clearly it’s time for her to work on a parkour anime, so I invite any bored producer to greenlight one immediately. The drawings themselves are peak Kouno all throughout this part as well, especially during shots like this. The incredible amount of detail itself may not be present, but Hiro’s jaw line and the shading just below his ears are her way of announcing her presence even if she can’t go all out. And just as a bonus bit of info, there’s no separate credit for mechanical supervision as Kouno handled all of that herself as well, because she’s one of those awful people who are just exceptional at essentially anything they do.
Kevin: My Kouno-loving colleague will never be pleased by any amount of her work, but I did notice something that slightly disappointed a specific kind of fans. This episode had been hyped as a potential animation landmark because of its spectacular lineup, which had leaked as usual, but in the end we got a fairly tame outing when it comes to the movement. I’m more than pleased with the result, since the episode was full of cute expressive drawings either way, but it’s easy to see why the people who went into the episode with grand misguided expectations were relatively disappointed. It’s not that rare to see a misleading list of key animators, and this is hardly a negative case since their work was still exceedingly pleasant.
Ryan: Leaving whatever expectations people had before watching the episode aside, it’s true that tons of immensely talented animators contributed to it. So as much as I love the key duo, it’d be criminal to attribute the quality of the episode just to them both. Members of the infamous youngster crew such as Masami ‘soty‘ Mori, Itsuki ‘miso‘ Tsuchigami, Noriyuki Imaoka and even Kazuaki Shimada coming to the aid of the imas crew after working together at a number of points during Cinderella Girls‘ run, not to mention some other surprises, made this a bonafide star studded lineup. We’ve made a pretty big deal about the focus on character expression within Darlifra so far, something this younger generation have become known for, and what they bring to the table this time around is perfectly attuned to the tone Akai set. Mitsuru takes the spotlight through moments such as his theatrical movements and posing that work well within the context of his character and personality, as well as his almost deranged expressions when piloting Strelizia. The grand prize when it comes to him has to go to Noriyuki’s final scene, where his drained expression and lifeless body sprawled out over the cockpit makes it painfully obvious just how grave the effects of riding with Zero Two really are. As for personal favourites, Zero Two and Hiro dancing past security courtesy of soty and the return of FRANXX acting when they’re fleeing the Klaxosaurs (Delphinium even makes a face!) continue to showcase just how wide the show’s vocabulary can be when it comes to this area.
And of course, the previously mentioned Fukushima had an impact as well. Regular animators from his other winter series Slow Start showed up here to make it as special of an episode as it was possible; the likes of Shuko Yamashita, a youngster with ties to the previously mentioned crew, and Keita Nagahara, an ex-KyoAni whose past makes him more than compatible with the type of character work Darlifra is aiming for. He even ensured that the master of bouncy characters himself Masayuki Nonaka turned up, whose trademark use of momentum can be seen even through Hiro’s shadow as he approaches Zero Two. It’s easy to overlook the role people like Fukushima can play when it comes to a production, but make no mistake that he’s as reliable as they come when it comes to gathering talent to work on the shows he’s charged with.
Kevin: Not much of a closure needed this time as far as I’m concerned. Delightful animation, if not as spectacular as some had hoped, and direction put at the service of more tangible character goals. With a few episodes more like this I can see myself falling for DARLING in the FRANXX as a show, and not just as a nostalgic Gainax-flavored experience. We’ll see!
Ryan: After ending the last two posts talking about the show’s failure to capture me, this is the first episode that did so almost right off the bat. I don’t expect to be wow’d again like this for the next episode, but knowing that my favourite director will be contributing soon and Fukushima’s confirmation that Akai and Kouno will be returning is more than good enough reason to be hopeful. I’m personally looking forward to celebrating the first non-coward who will let Ichigo smile.