One of the oddest aspects of the current anime season is that it sports not one but two Danganronpa anime. But more than that, both are titled Danganronpa 3–meaning that there is a lot that has come before. So for those of you interested in getting into the series and who want to know what all the hype is about, let me explain.
[Note: While this article is as spoiler free as possible, the links and videos in the article do have spoilers.]
Of course, to do that I’m joined as always by my constant companion, the disembodied voice that haunts the corners of my mind. Say “hello,” you imaginary construct you!
So today we’re going to talk about Danganronpa, a series of games riddled with courtroom battles, grisly murders, and an evil black and white teddy bear with the voice of Doraemon.
That’s a lot to take in… Can we back up a bit?
Sure. The overarching tale of Danganronpa is centered around Hope’s Peak Academy, a high school that only the most talented can enter.
Well, to get into the high school you need to be the best at something. So each student in the school has a title, like the “The Ultimate Cook” or “The Ultimate Swimmer.”
So, all these talents are physical?
Oh, not at all. “The Ultimate Clairvoyant” and “The Ultimate Princess” are other characters in the series. Heck, the main character of the first game/anime, Naegi, is “The Ultimate Lucky Student.” He was simply chosen at random out of countless applicants making him, by default, the luckiest among them.
That’s an interesting kind of twisted logic right there.
In all fairness, he does turn out to be more than a little lucky–especially once people start trying to kill him.
I feel like we’ve skipped something important again.
Just a bit. The first iteration of the story, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, follows Naegi on his first day of school at Hope’s Peak Academy. But no sooner does he walk through the front door than he blacks out. When he wakes up, he finds himself and the other members of his class locked in the school with all avenues of escape blocked off.
…And then a half-black, half-white teddy bear tells them that the only way out is to kill another student and get away with the crime.
…Well… um, that’s… that’s a thing.
Yup. So the basic flow of the story revolves around Monokuma (the aforementioned bear) as he gives the trapped students various motives–from blackmail to cash–to make them kill each other. After each murder, the remaining students collect clues, then gather together and have a trial where each of them is both the defendant and jury.
What happens if they find the culprit?
Then they all live trapped in the school for a few more days until the next murder.
And if they pick the wrong person?
Then everyone dies except for the murderer who then gets to go free.
Okay, that’s pretty dark.
Yup. If nothing else, Danganronpa is that.
Okay, before we go any further, I need to stop you for a bit. You keep saying it, but that title just sounds like gibberish to me. Does it mean anything?
It does actually. In Japanese, “Dangan” means “bullet” and “ronpa” means “a winning argument.”
So, “an argument-winning bullet”?
Indeed. In the original game, the evidence you collect becomes ammunition for your arguments–symbolized as bullets. In the trials when someone gives testimony, you use the correct evidence bullet to shoot down the various contradictions.
Like Phoenix Wright but with a gun?
That’s exactly it.
Sounds cool, actually. Do they ever figure out why they’re trapped in the school in the first place?
Well, that’s the game’s overarching mystery–well, that and the identity of the person controlling Monokuma.
Without getting too spoilery, does the mystery pay off?
Absolutely. It is a well-balanced and gradual mystery with a ton of twists and turns. And the individual murder mysteries are pretty great as well. The main villain’s overall goal is likewise captivating: to force people to despair.
What do you mean?
The villain of the story just loves breaking people–taking the best of people, finding their weak points, and making them do things that ruin all their potential.
Oh. I get it. The students, being the best at the things they do, represent hope for the future. The villain seeks to turn that hope into despair.
Exactly, that is the thematic core of the Danganronpa franchise overall: the battle between hope and despair–and the fine line between the two.
Interesting. But I’ve been wondering something for a while now. At the start of our little conversation you said that Monokuma was an “evil black and white teddy bear with the voice of Doraemon.” Was that a joke?
Not at all. One of the coolest aspects of Danganronpa is that the voice cast is full of some of the biggest names in Japanese voice acting. Naegi, for example, is Shinji from Evangelion. Pekoyama, from the second game, is Sailor Moon herself. And Monokuma is the classic pre-2005 Doraemon. And they are only a few of the big names you’ll recognize if you’re an avid anime watcher.
So I gather that Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc began as a game; is there also an anime series?
Yup. Back in 2013, Trigger Happy Havoc was adapted into the anime Danganronpa: The Animation.
And while it’s not terrible, it’s inferior to the game in pretty much every way. Its main problem is its pace. There are six chapters in the original. Each one has three parts: normal life between the murders, investigation of a murder, and the trial. The anime itself is only thirteen episodes.
Meaning all three parts to a chapter have to be covered in just two episodes.
This, unfortunately, robs the anime of its mysteries. You are told the solution almost immediately and so have no time to solve each mystery yourself. It’s more like reading a summary than experiencing the full tale yourself.
Hmmm. I see. So it’s better than nothing.
Absolutely. It does a fine job at showing the overall story, and it has the same great voice cast as the game.
So shall we move on to Danganronpa 2?
Sure. Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair is a direct sequel to the first and follows a different class of Hope’s Peak Academy students who are transported from their classroom to a tropical paradise by their new teacher: a magical bunny rabbit.
…You’re not going to give me any context here, are you?
Nope. Nor are the students given any. Instead they are just told by the magical rabbit, Usami, that they are on the island to strengthen their friendships with each other. And for a little while it’s just that, but then–
Let me guess. An evil black and white teddy bear appears?
You got it in one. Monokuma hijacks Usami’s magical wand and starts the killing game once more with this new group of students.
So basically the same setup as the first game?
At least at first glance. What’s actually happening, why, and who’s behind it all are quite different–as are the various smaller murder mysteries.
So, how does it compare to the first?
Rather well, actually. The characters once again stand out with their eccentric personalities and talents. It’s certainly as good as the first and does a ton of heavy lifting in addressing the state of the world at large.
So, now we’re moving on to Danganronpa 3?
Not quite yet. We’ve got two other Danganronpa items to cover first. Let’s start with the novel duology, Danganronpa/Zero.
A prequel I’m assuming?
Yes, though it ties directly into both Danganronpa 1 and 2 and does a lot to link the two together.
All right, lay it out for me.
Danganronpa/Zero is the story of Ryoko, “The Ultimate Analyst.” Suffering from a mental condition that causes severe memory loss, she finds herself caught up in the events directly leading up to the first game.
What do you mean by “severe memory loss?” Amnesia?
Actually, she suffers from various degrees of short-term and long-term memory loss. More than anything, she’s like the main character of Momento–likely to forget everything that’s happening around her at any given moment. She writes in a notebook at nearly all times to keep her up to date on her own recent history. Really, when it comes down to it, the only thing Ryoko is able to remember without any help is her obsessive love for her childhood friend and doctor: Ultimate Neurologist, Yasuke.
Ryoko’s the protagonist?
And the viewpoint character, which makes for a very cool–if purposely confusing–mystery story.
So, when should these novels be read?
After playing both Danganronpa 1 and 2 if you want to avoid spoilers–but absolutely after the first game. Much of the novel involves Ryoko’s interactions with the main villain of the first game and using her analytical talent against said villain. In fact, you could say the novels are more about the villain than Ryoko as it shows off the villain’s character depth and thought process far more than in the original game.
Interesting. So what comes after that?
That would be the PlayStation Vita game Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls. Set between Danganronpa 1 and 2, Ultra Despair Girls takes place in a city where brainwashed children and Monokuma robots hunt adults–killing them whenever any are found. Cut off from the outside world, this crisis has brought the town to the edge of atrocity as the remaining adults–tired of running and hiding–plan a murderous attack against the children.
Wow. That’s pretty fucked up.
Yes, yes it is. The main character this time around is Naegi’s sister, Komaru. Together with one of the survivors of the first game, she attempts to escape the doomed city. She also has a megaphone capable of destroying or otherwise affecting the Monokuma robots.
Well, that’s handy.
The real stand-out characters of the game are the villains: a group of talented elementary school children who, victims of various kinds of abuse at the hands of adults, have decided to make a paradise for children.
Ah… And a paradise for children would lack adults.
They even treat it as an RPG-style game. They’re not even killing people: just “demons.” Finding out about each child’s past and how the villain of Danganronpa 1 was able to twist them into killers is both captivating and chilling.
Huh, so this isn’t a murder mystery game like Danganronpa 1 and 2?
Nope. It’s actually a third-person shooter–though one more focused on puzzles and story than mowing down countless waves of enemies. While a very different type of game than the previous two, it is very much “Danganronpa.” Heck, I’d go so far as to call it the darkest iteration of the entire franchise–well, darkest so far, anyway.
Which brings us to Danganronpa 3?
Yep. Danganronpa 3 is an odd beast. It’s the first original anime of the franchise–i.e., one that’s not an adaptation of a game. But more than that, it’s actually two interconnected anime: Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak High School (Future Arc) and Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak High School (Despair Arc).
That sounds complicated.
Yes and no. Let’s look at them separately to start with. Future Arc follows several of the survivors of the first Danganronpa and deals with the fallout from the second. Because of their actions in the second game, our heroes are brought before their superiors, facing possible execution. But before any decision can be made, their meeting place is attacked and a new killing game begins.
Is there a black and white teddy bear?
You’re getting really good at this.
That’s some bad luck they’ve got there.
It really is. This time the rules are a bit different though. Each of the characters has a bracelet around his or her wrist. With each bracelet comes a banned action–like running or turning left. Doing this action results in an injection from the bracelet and immediate death.
But more than that, at set time intervals, the bracelet injects everyone with a sleeping drug–except for a traitor who can then move about and kill one of the sleeping characters. Eventually, they all wake up to find a new lifeless body, and the process repeats itself.
Oh! I get it. The only way to stop the while-you-were-sleeping killer is to kill him or her in one of the times when everyone is awake. And one way of killing is by forcing another person to do his or her banned action–if you can discover it, anyway.
Exactly. But what happens if you kill the wrong person? Or worse yet, what happens if you kill the wrong person and the murderer chooses to stop anyway so as to appear loyal in the future?
That’s one despair-inducing dilemma.
Yep. And platitudes about hope and trusting in your companions can only go so far. Do nothing and the villain wins. Kill everyone and the villain wins. Kill only some and the villain could potentially still win.
Well, what about the other Danganronpa 3 anime, Despair Arc?
Despair Arc takes place before even the events of Danganronpa/Zero and follows the cast of Danganronpa 2 in their normal lives before that game. While much of what happens in this anime is referenced in Danganronpa 2 and Danganronpa/Zero, seeing what happens as the normal school-life world goes steadily darker makes the whole anime feel like somewhat of a guilty fetish.
So if you’ve done Dangaronpa 2 and/or Danganronpa/Zero, you can skip Despair Arc?
Oh, not at all! While you know the general gist of what is coming, you don’t have any idea how exactly it will all happen. That said, there are more than a few twists–showing what you thought you knew isn’t the same as reality. But more important than all that is how it connects with Future Arc.
That’s right. You said they were interconnected.
Indeed. In Future Arc, only four of the main characters are ones we’ve met before. All the rest are brand new–and some don’t exactly stay around for long. Several of these characters appear in Despair Arc–revealing their backstories and explaining both their motivations and actions in Future Arc.
Oh, so if anything, you need to watch both Despair Arc and Future Arc.
If anything, you need to do a lot more than that. So far Danganronpa 3 has contained major elements from Danganronpa 1, 2 and Despair Girls. Playing all three of those (or, in the case of Danganronpa 1, watching the anime) is the bar of entry needed to understand and enjoy Danganronpa 3. Only Danganronpa/Zero is optional–at least so far, anyway.
Is it worth all that time and effort to watch this anime?
Just to watch this anime? No. However, each game is a great story in its own right–equal to or better than the current anime. You should play them because of that, not because Danganronpa 3 is currently airing (though using it as an excuse to get started on the series isn’t a bad idea). Besides, if you like the original, you’ll like Danganronpa 3.
Well, if I were real and not a figment of your deranged imagination, I’d certainly start the series.
I’m not sure that’s a victory, but I’ll take it.
Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak High School (Future Arc) and Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak High School (Despair Arc) can be seen for free and with English subtitles in the US on Funimation.