Danganronpa has to be one of the most twisted anime I have ever seen. And that’s counting Attack on Titan, which has giants eating people alive. (I am never watching Berserk, Parasyte, or Blood-C. Never!)
The worst part is, I knew, going in, it was going to be twisted. I was kind of expecting to come out of it a bit like that old guy at the beginning of Emperor’s New Groove. The one who gets thrown out a window for throwing off the groove, and then, after Pachi helps him, is seem trembling as he shambles away. (“The groooove… the groooove…”)
So why did I watch it?
…well, my morbid curiosity did lure me into watching Death Note, and I was feeling so macabre after that, I figured, “What the heck, why not?”
Now I know “why the heck not.”
I will mention here, that while I expected it to be twisted and bloody, I was apparently mistaken about how it was twisted. As in, the exact nature of what twisted it all up. I knew there were some brutal deaths in Danganronpa, but, oh, it does not stop there!
I emphasize again, as I am going to talk about the end a lot: Spoiler Alert!
The premise, as it’s set in the first episode, is that fifteen students are trapped in what appears to be a very high end high school, lorded over by an animatronic teddy bear, who tells them that they either have to spend the rest of their lives in the school or “graduate” by murdering one or two of their classmates without getting caught for it. If the murderer is caught, they are “punished” with a cruel and unusual death sentence. If the wrong person is convicted by their group trial, then everyone except the murderer faces that punishment, and the murderer goes free.
Naturally, at first, no one wants to go along with this, and they are determined to escape by some other means, or wait until the police come and rescue them. However, not only do they become convinced that the police aren’t coming, but the stuffed bear, “Monokuma,” keeps providing “motivations,” to nudge the students towards murdering each other.
Pause for a moment: we have children murdering each other at the insistence of a madman. We are already in “twisted” territory.
And we haven’t even gotten to the real premise of the story, the truth behind how things seem to be.
The truth is: these students actually all know each other. Or at least they did once, but those memories have been stolen from them. For a year or more, they attended school together, a grand collection of “best friends.” Then disaster hit the world, and the principal decided to turn the school into a shelter to protect what few surviving students, who all agreed to this plan, were left. And these students, really sixteen in total, weathered a veritable apocalypse together, for another year. Over two years of friendship was stolen away, and now these friends are murdering each other, because they don’t know each other anymore.
Why is all this happening?
Well, two of the students were freaking insane, is what it amounts to. They delighted in despair, and wanted to make everyone within their sphere of influence suffer from it. So these two students, twin sisters, murdered their principal and took over the school. They erased everyone’s memories and crafted an obscene “survival game,” with one of them playing the puppeteer and the other acting as her sister’s decoy among the other students, just to watch their friends murder, die, and break in despair, losing all form of hope.
Of course, the decoy didn’t realize her twin sister intended to murder her early on, thus establishing the puppeteer’s anonymity behind the stuffed bear.
Are you seeing what I mean by “twisted?”
The levels of despair this insane girl aspires to bring her classmates to is mind-boggling. Her first “incentive” is to show them footage of their loved ones, contrasted with something horrific to insinuate that their fates are in her hands. The only way to discover the fates of their loved ones is to “graduate” atop the corpses of the other students, their friends. Another incentive is ten billion yen. But in both cases, the incentive is hollow, because the world outside the school ended a long time ago. Money is worthless, and their loved ones are likely all dead. So if one manages to graduate by murdering all of their best friends, all they’d find at the end is… nothing. Only despair.
Blow after blow is dealt to these children, to their hearts and souls. Before they find out the world has ended, they learn their activities are being broadcast across the country, but then, as the world has ended, that audience might be smaller than estimated. They lose friend after friend after friend. Out of sixteen students, only six survive to the end.
And yet, directly contrasted with all of this morbidity, there is a distinctly silly and childlike element to it, a disconnect which is reminiscent of the villain’s insanity. When the cruel death penalties are enacted, the animation suddenly shifts into a three-dimensional format, void of voices, wacky and cartoon-ish, vastly unrealistic. It’s all a big joke, after all, in the villain’s eyes.
Also, for all the corpses that show up, we only see the actual moment of death for one of them, and this one is not in the other style, but the usual animation. Which, interesting, colors all the blood purple or magenta or something along those lines, instead of read. I’m still wondering if I got a bad, and badly-censored, copy of the show, but within the context of Danganronpa… well, it’s not that big a deal.
On a final note, regarding the strange, unexpected, twisted nature of the show, I refer to the group trials. The main protagonist, Makoto Naegi, has both a small and a pivotal role in these. When he detects a flawed argument, he shoots it down and corrects it. Like, they literally animate a cartoon bullet shooting between him and whomever he is correcting, shattering something “wrong.” Exactly why they do that, I don’t know. I found it off-putting. Particularly in the midst of the relatively intriguing trials.
All of that put together is what makes Danganronpa so twisted.
That said, I do appreciate the final message behind it.
Naegi is an optimist. He trusts and has faith in his classmates, even when he’s been proven wrong about some of them. He is, in short, a vessel of hope. In the final, climactic moments of the last class trial, when all secrets are revealed and the despair intended for them is laid bare, Naegi is the one to oppose the villain. He is able to say precisely what each of his fellow survivors needs to hear, to inspire the resolve of their hope.
I appreciate that, I do… but I would appreciate it a little more if there were some solid reasoning behind it, something to combine both logic and emotion into a single force. I would also have preferred to see Naegi endure some actual doubts about his conviction, but he never does. He doesn’t grow from this experience. In fact, none of the survivors grow. Growth is what real hope is all about, and it is profoundly lacking in Danganronpa.
I do appreciate the theme of hope overcoming despair no matter what, just as I appreciate the intrigue of the trials and murder mysteries, and the peaceful moments which lie in the lulls between murders. I can see the people behind this anime actually did try to make something good, and I applaud their efforts.
But Danganronpa just didn’t do much for me, personally.
Rating: 5 stars out of 10. A neutral-on-the-side-of-negative rating.
One the bright side, it’s only twelve episodes.