Ever had one of those days? You know the one, when nothing goes your way, when the seconds slowly tic toc away all of your energy and you just wish for that timely pal night to roll around. Everyone has had at least one twenty four hour block like that. But then there are those other days, the ones that bleed into each other and cause your bad day to become a bad week, then a bad month, then further and further up the temporal scale until the bitter end. Be they forces external or in, the ends most assuredly outweigh the means. But don’t get to glib on me friendos, because as cliche as despair is within the collective psyche of the world, so too is hope, the older brother of negativity who turns up to whip people back into a forward stride. Sure he might not be on time and sure he could use a little work in the tact department, the fact remains that hope still turns up eventually. Of course fiction tends to make this whole experience a bit more fantastic and uplifting, so let’s doff our cynicism caps and embrace our disbelief in all its suspended glory.
Hope’s Peak Academy; the most illustrious school in a reasonable segment of society. Only the creme de la creme grace its halls and call it home for their later academic life, a life destined to lead to great things. The only thing that could tarnish this fine establishment would be if, oh I don’t know, a horrible event unfolded wherein fifteen students were trapped within its walls and forced to play a diabolical game of murder and mystery with the ever present knowledge that their only salvation lied in slaughtering one of their fellow classmates…which would totally, never, ever happen…except for the fact that it did. So goodbye probability and normalcy ’cause we’re about to enter a world where savagery and cunning are on the menu and somebody is hungry like the proverbial wolf and that person is a bear, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Monokuma is his name and enrolling unaware students within this academy of despair is his game/job/hobby. Taking the form of the formerly mentioned bear, this bizarre animatronic from hell is mastermind and mascot all rolled into one, revealing immediately that, despite focusing on such dark subject matter, this series is far from serious. Thus we fall somewhere in the void between and come out staring back at a truly dark comedy, with an unhealthy dash of anime insanity to really give it that lasting punch.
Following around audience substitute Naegi, aka the most relatable character in a school of top tier everythings, Danganronpa treats us to a good ol’ fashioned series of whodunnits, albeit on some kind of twisted steroids. The series can generally be broken up into cases, rounding out about two episodes apiece, giving our characters enough time to discover victims and bring their killers to justice. As is to be expected with this format, the overall vibe is one of uncertainty and doubt, as both character and audience alike wonder, well, whodunnit? As to create an air of inclusivity, the clues discovered by the colourful cast are highlighted pretty heavily, signalling their obvious importance within the case at hand. Though completely understandable in both the context of the series and the style in which it presents itself, this broadcasting is most clearly a hold over from the series videogame origins. This is also true of the Class Trials, which retain the accusatory ammunition that pierces the flawed dialogues which print across the screen (the franchises namesake, taken from the Japanese words bullet (dangan) and refutation (ronpa)). Thus, this series stylistically holds up to its source material and, in addition, provides us with a neat visual style to follow. This style however truly comes out to play when the executions begin. Shifting from its more traditional animation to a thick lined and heavily shaded presentation which appears far more 2D than the former. Yet again, this holdover from the original game helps the series maintain a strong connection to its basis and proliferate its unique vibe. But fret not those squeamish at heart, Danganronpa provides its own brand of censorship, as blood is rendered in the most charming shade of neon pink. I mean, it’s still all there and the series does nothing about the various implements of murder often left residing within the formerly living, but the blood thing is something.
Getting back to the format at hand, the notion of uncertainty is greatly aided by the fact that no character is safe. Okay, so those with some insight into how these things play out may be able to sniff out those who last longer than others, but overall anyone could be next on the possibly literal chopping block. Therefore, it is with a sense of caution that one must discern their favourite characters, as they could quite possibly be stolen away by forces most foul at any moment. That being said, Danganronpa’s origins are to its detriment this time around. Having been condensed into a thirteen episode series from a game with a roughly thirty hour playtime, a fair amount of character development goes by the wayside. Sure we learn about the classmates throughout the series, but it is all fairly surface level stuff. Naegi is the normal dude, Togami is the pompous ass, Kirigiri is the aloof sleuth and so an and so forth. It makes for an interesting cast, I’ll give it that, but it is not one that one becomes inherently connected with. Rather, it becomes easy to witness these events as the example of hope and despair they intend to be, enacted by tropes and figureheads who represent a cross section of a far larger population.
Ultimately, amidst the hope and despair that oh so heavily seeps out of every pore of this series, the name of the game is insanity. After all, we’re talking about high school students stabbing and bashing and striking and ending each other in all sorts of messed up ways. A natural pivot from the old candlestick in the kitchen routine to be sure, but one that suffuses familiarity with the borderline ridiculous. Though, if you weren’t expecting that from the psychotic bear plushie or the rocket based execution which opens episode uno, I really don’t think you were paying any kind of attention. So leap into this series with grains of salt at the ready because it’s just more fun that way and reality can take a hike if it wants to ruin anyone’s fun. As far as the previously mentioned negatives of this series go, it didn’t really bother me too much, what with the salt and all. In the end, Danganronpa is a weird and wild ride that is as horrifying as it is charming. Yes, a whole bunch of teenagers die and yes a whole bunch of teenagers kill but, as a certain audience avatar states, we must not let hope falter. Yes it’s well trodden ground and oh so cliche, but isn’t that why we watch these kinds of things? To remember these things? So embrace the moral of this series and relish the story that it’s wrapped in, you know you want to. Oh, also try to guess who the murderers are before the series tells you, I mean, you won’t win a prize or anything, but you can let your glowing sense of accomplishment keep you warm at night, I know I do.
Madman to the left of me, stuffed bear to my right, here I am, stuck in a high school of doom