Reviewby Theron Martin,
DARLING in the FRANXX
BD+DVD - Part Two
Hiro's attempts to call 02 out of her rampage have sparked a connection that unleashes lost memories of their defining initial encounter from childhood. The others, misunderstanding the connection between the two, attempt to keep 02 away from Hiro, despite the wishes of both parties. They don't have long to dwell on the problem as the biggest mission yet looms – the seizure of the Grand Crevasse – and the Klaxosaur's princess must also be dealt with. But nothing is as it seems, and the truth behind their conflict and the true enemy rock everyone to their core. No less impactful is Kokoro's stunning declaration that she wants to make a baby to leave her mark on the world, with forces moving to thwart her efforts. As the battles against the enemy and the love between Hiro and 02 move to outer space, those still on Earth fight their own battles to craft a new future.
The second half of DARLING in the FRANXX is commonly regarded as a mess, and not without some justification. After all, it throws out many themes that do not always intersect smoothly, leaving most of its ideas open to greatly differing viewer interpretations. Its plot also takes some dramatic direction shifts. However, after watching the entire second half in one sitting for this review, it didn't strike me as messy as it did before.
While some events in the second half may seem to come out of left field, all of them are at least somewhat connected to things that happened in the first half. The groundwork for Kokoro's interest in making a baby is certainly laid out by the discovery of the book in the first half, and this interest in starting a family also suits her character best. Who she approaches as the potential father could have been developed better, but this also makes at least some sense given his status within the group dynamic. Later revelations about the true nature of the Klaxosaurs don't get more than the faintest of hints until the history of how this post-apocalyptic setting evolved is revealed (which comes a mere episode before the big revelation), but even so, there's always been a sense that something is fundamentally wrong about the FRANXX system. Between that and precedents set by other anime titles, it probably would have been more surprising if there wasn't a twist on the identity of the real enemy.
The literary devices in play are also firmly established. The metaphor of the Jiang birds, which first appeared in episode 1, is carried to its logical conclusion, and the depressing fairy tale about the Beast Princess, which is described in detail over the course of the second half, serves as the guiding model for the entirety of Hiro and 02's story, even down to the symbolism of the final page. The series also more distinctly pays tribute to Gurren Lagann throughout this second half, offers more direct callbacks to Neon Genesis Evangelion, and even has a few references to Gunbuster. The series puts enough of its own spin on things to avoid being a pure copycat of its predecessors, but the influences are present nonetheless.
Some of the themes underlying the series are more obvious than others. Arguably the clearest one is an environmentalist undercurrent evidenced by the description of how the world came to be this way and how things play out in the series' late stages. There is also a clear pattern of “children vs. adults,” with adults being portrayed as corrupted and exploitative of children. A stern point is made about how the passive lives led by the adults in the domes can't really be called living, with a rejection of human emotions being portrayed as effectively a rejection of humanity. What the series aims to say about sexuality is trickier to evaluate, in part because reactions to this content tend to be much more personal. The implication that Ikuno might be a lesbian in the first half is more firmly established in one crucial scene between her and Ichigo, and the 9's are more heavily implied to be gender-fluid, with their leader 9'α specifically espousing a rejection of traditional gender roles. Throw in the male/female dynamic being necessary for piloting the Franxx and the revelation that becoming immortal costs humanity its reproductive capabilities, and this can all easily be interpreted as a promotion of traditional gender roles, but the series largely skirts such complicated ambitions in favor of remaining open to interpretation. Ichigo does accept Ikuno without accepting her romantic interest, in an attempt to reinforce a subtle but equally potent theme of accepting others' differences—that even if your individuality is starkly at odds with the dynamics that drive a group, you can still find a place within it.
This feeds into what I see as the uniting theme of the series: a rejection of group mindsets. In other words, DARLING in the FRANXX mostly reflects the common anime theme of rebelling against Japanese cultural norms. Thinking for one's self and bucking the system can incur a harsh cost, but it also shows those who attempt to suppress such deviancy as regressive. That an experiment allowing Squad 13 to be individuals ultimately proves to be the ticket to the future has provocative implications, as does the fact that the rigid system collapses and those trapped in conformity mostly die off along the way. It's no coincidence that the true villains are also a homogeneous group mind. The series shows that achieving a world where independence is valued is a messy process, but also the key to avoiding a dead-end fate.
Ultimately, the greater focus remains on the central romance. While all of this other stuff is going on, the heart of the story still lies with the relationship between Hiro and 02. The flashback about how their paths intersected once before shows how their previous encounter defined each of them in entirely different ways, as well as making more sense out of the connection that they have shown so far, and the power of their two hearts finally aligning is palpable. The series also shows that their love is by no means always healthy; in some early episodes of this half, it borders on pathological obsessiveness, to the point that 02 is unstable without Hiro, whose ongoing competition with Mitsuru to be the blandest member of the cast does not help their dynamic. Because of that, the love story does not achieve the epic impact that the story aims for, though the way that later episodes show their love as the key to the future of humanity that will transcend time and space still conveys enough sentiment to work.
The biggest problem with the second half was less in the details for me and more with the overall structure. The series builds satisfactorily toward a major climax in episode 21, but then spends most of the remaining three episodes concentrating on events on the ground, with the continuing battle in space only being a limited complement. This would have been fine if those last three episodes were structured more as a third act, with the spacefaring part being the climax (like in Gurren Lagann), but DARLING in the FRANXX mostly just creates a lull that reduces the impact of the finale. Granted, what is happening on the ground is ultimately more important to the future beyond this story, but the transition could have been handled more smoothly.
Technical merits are generally in line with the first half of the series, although a couple of new closing themes are added. Even the more spectacular new versions of the Franxx that come up late in the series are still in line with the earlier stylistic trends of this series. The design for the younger and more bestial 02 will doubtless earn its own fans for how it successfully makes her equal parts cute and monstrous, and the “ten years later” designs for many key cast members offer a nice series-ending treat. The only significant flaw is that the characters are shown as not having aged at all in scenes that take place two years later, which seems improbable since they are all teenagers. Graphic content is more intense this time around, including some scenes that are effectively torture sequences, though fan service elements are more minimized.
As with the first half, this set comes in a Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital combo pack in a slipcover. On-disc extras include English episode commentaries for episodes 15 and 23, web previews, clean opener, and a clean version of episode 16's special closer. It also includes a pair of 24-minute long “Playback Specials,” which are a mix of animation clips, staff interviews, and seiyuu interviews, with the first one featuring pairs of actors sitting in a giant bird cage. The English dub also continues to stand out as one of Funimation's better recent efforts, with new highlights being Justin Briner's performance as 9'α and Leah Clark's handling of some emotional scenes as Ikuno.
DARLING in the FRANXX's popularity ultimately seems to have won out over its divisive reception. 02 is still a popular anime cosplay option, and series merchandise still does well in both Japan and the West. Its combination of sweeping love story, cool mecha action, homages to its bombastic heritage, and potent themes have resonated with audiences in ways that few anime are able to achieve. It may be less than graceful in how it builds its themes and definitely has some structural issues, but on the whole it works for what it's trying to accomplish.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Never a dull moment, solid musical score and English dub
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