My first exposure to Danganronpa occurred a few years back when I happened upon its fluorescent pop art aesthetics. It had the kind of urban Persona 4 feel that made the latter appealing to look at during my gameplay sessions. The thick line art and overcompensated character designs did much to hook me, especially the official artwork of one of its protagonists. The sight of an overtly muscular woman is unusual, so I was intrigued to check out the series at some point in my life. Now that FUNimation has released Danganronpa on Blu-ray and DVD, I’ve finally experienced the madness behind the split-colored teddy bear that graces its promotional materials.
Makoto Naegi is an all-too-average student, so his acceptance into the prestigious Hope’s Peak Academy puzzles him. Only the best of the best are accepted into its sacred halls: students who are tagged with “super” skills of any variety whether it be swimming, detective, biking, hacking, or being a nerd. As long as you are the top of what you do, you’re in. Naegi however finds himself at the end of a long, deadly rope when he and fourteen other students are trapped inside. Their host is their deranged principal, the demonic stuffed bear, Monokuma. They must follow a series of rules to commit the perfect murder against each other in order to “graduate” and leave the school unscathed. Failure to do so means death, or being permanently locked within its coveted walls. Naegi and his friends must figure out the mystery behind the school and the mastermind behind Monokuma.
Danganronpa is based on a series of visual novels adventure games for the Playstation Portable/Vita. The interactive medium is very apparent within the show. The setup follows a simple pattern: one schoolmate bites it, forcing the rest to dig for clues to use during their finger-pointing shenanigan via trials. They must determine the correct killer or perish if they chose wrong. Repeat ad nauseam.
At its best, Danganronpa competently marches to the beat of its own drum. It’s intense, hammy, and content to have fun with its macabre setting. High stakes means the trials are a hoot to watch, possessing just the right amount of intensity to knock the socks off your feet. Not knowing who the next causality could be gave me incentive to anticipate the next course of action.The animation gorgeously utilizes bright, neon colors, but the best occurs during the execution sequences. Most of the death scenes are suitably flashy and appropriate to its grungy appearance, adding another point to its gallows humor. I’m glad I approached it from a visual standpoint because it’s the biggest highlight of Danganronpa. The rest of the show is unexceptionally vanilla.
While the stakes are high, its biggest factor – the characters – are piddling cardboard cutouts. Roughly half the cast are bound to their stereotyped roles and never grow from them. This is especially disconcerting because the show is juggling fifteen characters (sixteen if you count Monokuma) within a thirteen episode structure. With deaths being an inherently frequent occurrence, that doesn’t afford a lot of space to develop these people. Those who survive the game longer start to gain something resembling a compelling backstory, or get to interact with others in ways that can be construed as heartwarming. Aoi Asahina’s friendship with Sakura Oogami is especially poignant because they’re such opposites that a stunning reveal between the two is all the better for it. Meanwhile Naegi bonds with the mysterious Kyoto Kirigiri, but due to her quiet nature, it provides an excellent subplot on whether she’s trustworthy or not.
The rest of the cast does not fare as well; they blandly react to the plot and little more. Even worse is that the limited time frame means we see painfully little of their “super” skills, with only a handful ever showing off their chops. I can’t remember an ounce where Super-Psychic Boy ever deduced anything from his crystal ball, though I imagine if he’s was good as he claimed, they’d be out of this mess already. Monokuma’s boisterous attitude was about as entertaining as a kick in the teeth. He screamed “gimmick!” throughout the whole show, like some twisted, goofy Jigsaw. At least things pick up in the second half when the students dig deeper and find the root of the school’s dark secrets, even if it isn’t anything shocking.
All of this wraps up with an incomprehensible ending. At best, it nicely establishes Naegi’s character arc, but its “Hope vs. Despair” message would have worked better if the last minute reveal of why they’re here and the reasons for Monokuma’s actions weren’t so asinine and detached.
Danganronpa is currently out as a combined Blu-ray/DVD set or a limited edition set. Extras include textless openers and closes, the official US trailer, and commentary for the first episode by some of the English dubbed cast. The latter doesn’t provide any thrilling information, but the crew seem to have had a blast during recording sessions.
Danganronpa is an anime that fans of the game might get a better kick out of than newbies like me. If anyone is curious, a weekend rental might suffice. It could have benefited from a few more episodes just to get a better grip on its cast, but with the overall story stretched thin as is, I suppose it’d just be pointless. I’ve never played the games, but I’m beginning to suspect they’d be more fulfilling and meaty than this. Steam is planning to release the first game next month, so I suppose it’s there if I ever develop an interest in visual novels. Danganronpa is not a terrible series, but it is brainless media; a harmless show for a bored day.
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