There’s something of an ongoing debate going about whether stories are better when they are plot driven or character driven, or whether some sort of balance is needed in between the two. For me, it always comes down to what type of story it is as to what I prefer the focus to be.
For example, I loved Fruits Basket even though the anime has almost no plot. Tohru is living rough when she’s taken in by the Sohma’s and then she meets various Sohma’s and helps them out with various things but there’s no real driving plot. There’s the ongoing issue of the curse and some of the inner workings of the family that link things together as well as the characters themselves, but realistically it is the characters and their interactions that drive the audience’s engagement with the story. The plot itself isn’t really doing that.
However, there are some anime that take the same approach as Fruits Basket and bore me silly. I end up wondering why the plot can’t get moving along. This is usually when I haven’t made any kind of a connection with the characters and so their interactions offer little of interest for me. Other people will find the cast perfectly charming and the story will work for them, but it ends up being very much about whether the characters work for them or not.
And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that my overall preference would be for stories that had a clear and driving plot. A definite goal that is being headed for and an end point that can either be achieved or failed. I’ll put up with some fairly ordinary characterisation as long as I can see where the average characters are trying to get to and I’m interested in that journey.
But what do we do with stories that can’t seem to decide what they are?
And by that, I don’t mean character driven stories that actually have a plot (such as Baccano) or plot driven stories that put some time into their characters (Psycho Pass), but rather stories where the character development seems to be actively competing with and at times undermining plot development.
Our current case study: Darling in the Franxx.
The first episode of Darling in the Franxx set up a real standard dystopian future with generic teens becoming mecha pilots and having to protect their city from some inhuman enemy. Certainly Zero Two as a character left an impression even back at episode 1, but the episode itself was very much setting up a plot driven story. At its core we had Hiro, the one who was being left behind having failed to become a pilot and having had to fight to overcome this, finally getting a chance to pilot with Zero Two, the rumoured pilot killer.
As expected, the next couple of episodes focused on this partnership that allowed Hiro to overcome this weakness and gave some backstory on the main character. There were some diversions as other characters had a little bit of development to flesh out the world. And then they face a minor crisis, the third time piloting which was meant to be the end of the road.
All of this was pretty standard fare for the genre and while some of it was clearly exaggerated to a level that almost became self-parody, it was setting up what should have been a really interesting story.
From episode 7 on, however, the story has kind of flopped about and if the last two episodes are anything to go by, we’ve become strictly a character drama set to a back-drop of the dystopian world.
Episode 7 of course being the infamous beach episode. While it did some world building and had some character moments, we all know why the super controlling adults let the kids spend a day unsupervised on a beach. The production team wanted an excuse to put the cast in swimsuits. It broke the logic of the world and just because they give us an explainer about one of the scientists being eccentric and trying different things doesn’t mean we need to swallow it.
We had progressive episodes after that which moved us through the support cast and gave them all more depth and interest. It was lovely and all but it started to feel like a totally different show. Then we had the blow up with Ichigo and Zero Two in episode 14 where fans went crazy and I honestly had to stop and wonder why they cared so much. Sure there had always been the whole love triangle going on but to me it had always been background to a story that kept getting buried and delayed. The only reason I cared about it at all was because the character relationships directly effected their ability to pilot.
Then episode 15 hit us with a massive amount of plot points, utterly and completely buried under a thinly disguised teen melodrama.
Which made me think that maybe the entire time I had it wrong. Maybe Darling in the Franxx never intended to be plot driven. Maybe the robots and dystopian setting were all just background to a teen version of Days of Our Lives and it just took me 15 episodes to notice.
My problem with that theory is that the first episode doesn’t support it. Actually, the first three episodes don’t support that idea. The characterisation is very much background as the plot is being firmly established. It is just after the ground work was laid down, the story abandoned it in favour of character development.
And that’s where we get this character vs plot problem.
This story isn’t delivering a satisfying plot because for chunks of it at a time the plot has been forgotten and when we finally had some plot development it was rushed through and not given the time and attention needed to have an impact.
And the character drama, while it is definitely a drama, comes in after the fact and just kind of starts taking all the attention but at the same time what it is offering isn’t really that unique. It’s just another teen romance gone wrong and if that was what the show was going to be about, I probably wouldn’t have signed up to watch it.
What really gets me here, is that we’ve seen character driven mecha anime done right. Neon Genesis Evangelion all but wrote the book on teen drama and mecha pilots. And it was extraordinary.
The key difference?
Even in episode 1 of Evangelion, when they were definitely setting up the setting and the plot, the audience became aware of Shinji as a character and his short comings and the issues he would overcome. He wasn’t generic pilot protagonist who we might get to know later, as Hiro definitely was early on in the Franxx (though I guess people who like Hiro’s character will probably disagree with me on that). It kind of links to what I said at the start of this post. I enjoy character driven stories when I connect with the character and Evangelion did it right.
Darling in the Franxx made me think I was getting a plot driven story and has since delivered more or less anything but, and the overall impression I’m left with is that it is just a bit of a mess that hasn’t quite figured out what it wanted to be. That isn’t to say that a lot of what has happened hasn’t been interesting. There are definitely things to think about and moments that have been pretty spectacular. But to look at the anime as a whole, my main impression would be that it is messy and a little bit problematic.
What do you think?
Thanks for reading.
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