BY JOHN CARTER JR
(This review is based on the English dub of the anime and contains spoilers!)
Based on the 2010 Spike visual Novel Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, Danganronpa the Animation is a horrifying classroom anime classic with many twists and turns that often presents the ideological dichotomy between hope and despair throughout the entire series. Danganronpa uses a Big Brother or Survivor storytelling scheme and what Kazutaka Kodaka (the original game designer) calls “Psychopop” aesthetics.
The students of Hope’s Peak Academy are being held captive within the school’s walls by the Principal (the monocolored teddy bear) Monokuma and an unknown mastermind. Their only option for escape is the deliberate killing of another student and getting away with it. However, if they are caught, unlike the evicted house guests of the Big Brother house, there won’t be Julie Chen Munves waiting for them on the other side of the door (only despair).
The adaptation centers around the main protagonist Makoto Naegi during his time at the infamous Hope’s Peak Academy along with his fellow Ultimate classmates. Ultimate is the epithet dubbed upon the very talented student body of Hope’s Peak, with these talents being a requirement for admission at the prestigious school. Among them are the Ultimate Programmer, Ultimate Writing Prodigy, and even the Ultimate Clairvoyant – to name a few. Makoto Naegi, unlike his classmates, acquired his admission to the school through a nationwide drawing, which to Hope’s Peak determined him to be the Ultimate Lucky Student.
One by one, another Ultimate student perishes each episode with their demise being the result of the actions of a fellow student or as their punishment for being caught murdering. How the killer or “blackened” is determined is through a set of Clue-like investigations and classroom trials in which the students are allowed time to figure out whodunnit. This comes with the caveat that if the majority of the classroom chooses incorrectly, they all will be executed.
This set of circumstances in a similar sequence is found throughout the show’s run (murder, investigation, trial, execution). The show keeps this formula fresh from episode to episode with its investment in character backgrounds and motivations, the investigations and trials of surprising character deaths, and the overarching narrative of who is pulling the strings.
Danganronpa is a horrific thrills and chills fest with characters you cheer for like your favorite drag race contestants but with higher stakes and no shady confessionals. It features a cast of characters whose individual talents make for interesting solutions for problems that arise throughout their time confined in Hopes Peak. Kyoko Kirigiri, Toko Fukawa, Byakuya Togami, and Chihiro Fujisaki are standouts among the cast of varying personalities. While the show conveys the ideological theme that “hope will always prevail over despair,” if a different vantage point is taken, the interpretation of this presentation of ideas can be seen as something else. The show isn’t about hope always winning over despair, but rather why we hope at all.
What are hope and despair in the context of this show? Hope is our dreams. In the hands of the determined, it is our will. In the hands of the oppressed and cornered, it is our despair. Despair is having hopes and dreams but simultaneously having absolutely no means of achieving them or being blind to those means. Whether this is the hope to be rich, to be accepted for who you are, to find your lost history, or to live – despair finds its way to obscure your path.
We see this uninhibited despair in the eyes of some of the students or victims at the moments of their seemingly unavoidable deaths. Hope is an affront or challenge to despair, hope is a fighting chance, and hope is seeing through the veil of despair obscuring paths leading to what you hope for. The downfall of characters in the series is either due to succumbing to tricks of despair or daring to hope. Leon Kuwata, Mondo Owada, Celestia Ludenberg are examples of those fooled by their despair. Whereas Chihiro Fujisaki and Sakura Ogami simply dared to hope and had their lights snuffed out by circumstances caused by their captor.
Sakura’s demise in particular stands out because it represents another component of the hope/despair equation – acceptance. Sakura experiences both a kind of despair and hope at the same time. While Sakura is blind by the despair that there is no way out to her survival, she finds hope in the idea that her “sacrifice” will bring her remaining classmates together to defeat the mastermind. Accepting despair as inevitable and its results unavoidable is how it claimed Sakura, but it is acceptance of those results that gave her some kind of hope, some action to take in defiance against despair.
Was her action the right choice, was it truly the only way out of this with all of her friends alive? The answer is no. In this case acceptance of the circumstances dealt to her was never the right choice. Because in the end her despair still claimed her and it nearly cost everyone their lives.
Danganronpa takes the why do we hope question down to each of these individuals. While each of them has aspirations that, before this killing game, they are capable of achieving. Each of them shares the same base hope; they all share the will to live. That will is put to the test with challenge after challenge to that of despair, and in the end, there truly weren’t any winners. The game had no true good ending, only hope for those who survived. In each student battles of hope and despair were waged and many of those who survived had succumbed to despair at one point or another. Students died and survived, being both a tragedy and miracle, and it isn’t over for them even after they beat the mastermind.
However what the show does teach those who did survive is that, in overcoming their despair, their hope is more resilient. They are less easily fooled by the ploys made to block their path to their goal. While they will have ghosts that haunt them and the trauma from what they have witnessed, they will be able to trust in their hope and in those with whom they have allowed themselves to become close to – their friends.
In the end, it is their collective friendship, teamwork, and ultimately hope that allows them to overcome the despair of potential death. It is the bond strengthened by their shared experiences that have made them more determined to achieve their hopes and dreams, knowing that there will be despair in their way.
Danganronpa the animation is not only about the battle between Hope and Despair, but why we hope. It is about what people will do when confronted with seemingly insurmountable odds – whether or not they give in or attempt to overcome. It is about our dreams and the things that stand between them and us. It is about how we are not alone in our struggle and that to overcome we must come together and befriend one another. Hope gains nothing without the will and the willing.
I give Danganronpa the Animation a 9/10 Monokumas for its outstanding story and twists, its deeper conversation on overcoming, and its wonderful psychopop aesthetics!