Spoilers for the first episode of Darling in the Franxx below.
The first episode of Darling in the Franxx, a collaboration project between the studios Trigger and A-1 Pictures, aired this Saturday. It displays great mecha animation, as is to be expected of the anime’s staff, which consists largely of ex-Gainax employees. And along with its mecha piloting twist, it weaves a mysterious narrative. But while I am thrilled to see what the anime has in store for us, one thing has me worried: the anime’s male protagonist, Hiro, strikes me as awfully ‘A-1’.
Hiro screams self-insert to me. A self-insert character in this sense is designed to be generic, so they’re as relatable and accessible as possible. The self-insert character is intrinsically plain in appearance, while lacking in personality. The idea behind them is that the viewer can easily put themselves in their shoes, which is somewhat analogous to the visual novel protagonist (the player). In anime, these characters are often employed in either visual novel adaptations (e.g. Fate/Stay Night) or the isekai/harem genre. The latter are narratives in which many viewers want to be the protagonist, which is why the trope is so commonly used in them, they effectively please its audience.
The targeting of these audiences comes at a cost however. Because these protagonists are essentially puppets, without much depth, it becomes difficult to compose a realistic scenario around them. After all, how could a character without any remarkable traits end up in any interesting situation whatsoever? The trope is thus shunned by the anime fan that leans towards the elitist side of the spectrum. While the self-insert character is vital for visual novels, in anime they are treated with great disdain.
This character type is applied each anime season, but if I’d have to name one studio that utilises the trope noticeably often, it’d have to be A-1 Pictures. One of the most popular anime of all time produced by A-1, Sword Art Online, is infamous for its protagonist’s personality, or lack of one. We saw this again in one of their latest works, Eromanga Sensei, too. And though I am hopeful my assumption is wrong, Hiro seems to be another paragon of this self-dubbed ‘A-1 protagonist’.
Hiro is strong, some would argue overpowered, just like SAO’s black swordsman Kirito. Where Kirito was able to establish himself at the top, among Aincrad’s finest players, without the help of a guild or any real life combat experience, Hiro and 002 managed to end the life of a klaxosaur capable of destroying the entire facility and slaughtering anyone inside, in a matter of seconds. This has been stated by shounen enthusiasts across the globe many times, but watching a protagonist defeat an enemy through raw strength is nowhere near as enjoyable as watching one defeat an enemy through other means, while overcoming their weaknesses. The klaxosaurs will likely grow stronger, and larger in numbers, but this first battle was inarguably unimpressive. I doubt the anime will continue its One Punch Man demeanour, but I hope the battles become more compelling, and that we get to see some of Hiro’s vulnerabilities, without him always coming out on top.
To add to the list, Hiro has insofar been rather bland, similarly to Kousaka Kyousuke, who carries a fittingly unmemorable name. Kyousuke is the protagonist of the incestuous OreImo, so of course he had to be a self-insert character. Aside from being obtuse, he doesn’t possess any distinctive features and is in truth nothing more than a plot device that allows the viewer to watch his little sister, hence the translated title: My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute. And although Hiro still has a lot of room for growth, as of right now I struggle to posit even ten explicit things about him barring appearance. The first episode left us in the dark regarding him. Pilots usually introduce elements such as backstory or motivations, but as far as we know Hiro is entirely superficial. And this shouldn’t be because of a dogma against individualization that the Parasites have to abide by, since one of the pistils (female parasites – I like this flower jargon) is clearly derived from the bookworm archetype. It speaks for itself why a good protagonist requires depth, and I hope future episodes will rectify this.
To top it off, Hiro is a girl magnet, reminiscent of ‘Mr. Ethical-kun’ or Tomoya from Saekano. Aki Tomoya is your everyday otaku, two girls are head over heels for him, another is too dense to sense his sketchy intent, and his raunchy cousin moved in recently as well. It’s as bad as it sounds, and the anime acting self-aware of its dubious plot does not remedy it. Hiro’s situation is of smaller proportion, but he has his fair share of loving maidens (don’t quote me on them being maidens given the nature of this anime). Ichigo shows clear concern for him with her text messages, and she even goes as far as to call him a ‘baka’, which, as any avid anime fan knows, equates to her meaning business. The alluring 002 on the other hand, wants a more professional relationship. She approaches Hiro because of his potential and his taste. But while her klaxosaur blood explains her attraction, she also expressed that Hiro wasn’t scared of her horns, even though I highly doubt that he was the first to resist cowering in fear before them. And poor Naomi, who Hiro has trained with his entire life, making her the most eligible of romantic candidates, abruptly perished at the end of the first episode (I think). Ichigo’s character has yet to be fleshed out, and 002’s affection already makes relative sense, but the presence of harem quirks is evident nevertheless. It’s also a shame that Naomi, who could have told us much about Hiro, was left untapped.
It’s possible that I am too critical of Hiro, and that I’m seeing a pattern he is not a part of. Fortunately he still has a lot of episodes to redeem himself. Perhaps the battle choreography will be brilliant in the next episode, perhaps Hiro will undergo a metamorphosis of character development over the course of the show, and perhaps ‘evident harem quirks’ will reveal itself to be a positive remark. I know I’m excited for the next episode, and I can’t say that I hope my vitriol will turn out to be justified. No matter what happens, I’m sure we’re still in for some fun, and I believe in the me that believes in Trigger, even if most of the anime’s staff belongs to A-1.
Edit: I wrote this reflective post in retrospect.