It should have been the best day of his life.
Naegi had just won the lottery to attend the prestigious Hope’s Peak Academy, a place where the most elite of students attend to hone their unique talents. Each year, it admits only the best students of the nation, those with such a strong talent that they are called “Supers.” Naegi, by winning the lottery, has shown a talent of “Super High-School Level Luck.” Grateful and not a little bit worried, Naegi arrives on campus for the first day of the school year.
The moment he steps inside the gate things start to go wrong.
He falls unconscious, and wakes up a prisoner deep inside the school. All of the exits are locked, and all of the windows to the outside world covered by massive iron plates. Along with him are fourteen other students, each bewildered and each as much a prisoner. Their confusion is interrupted by their captor: a small black and white teddy bear named Monokuma, who orders them to assemble at the gym. There, he makes his twisted game known.
They are now his prisoners for the rest of their natural lives. The only way to see the outside world again is by murdering another classmate and getting away with it. Not just hiding the crime, no. That would be too easy. After each murder, a trial is held to determine the murderer. If the incorrect suspect is chosen, the true killer will be freed-but at the cost of everyone else’s lives. The rest only can survive if they find out the murderer’s true identity. A deadly game has started, and the first night sees the first murder. Can Naegi survive? Will the students trapped in the Despair High School ever see the light of the sun again?
Dangan Ronpa: The Animation is a 13-episode anime based on a visual novel of the same name. Visual novels are video games similar to choose your own adventure books, in that you have to navigate from a list of choices in order to progress in the game, with the wrong choices leading to a “bad end” or game over. The game has been released in the west as “Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc” for the Playstation Vita.
The anime is interesting. It’s one of the few that captures the visual novel aesthetic well, without sacrificing a unified story nor picking only a single story-route and ignoring the rest. The series soon spirals into wild murder-mysteries and Naegi’s attempt to discover the secret of the school they are trapped in. The only hope for them is to beat Monokuma at his own twisted game. But every single student has a hidden past that comes to light as they kill and try to escape being killed, and the suspense never lets up.
That’s not to say that it’s perfect though. You have to suspend your disbelief and accept the anime’s logic to enjoy it. The solutions to many of the cases tend to come out of left field, involving hidden revelations that aren’t always easy to guess at or anticipate. The anime is also heavily stylized in its character designs, to the point of self-parody. Some of the characters also tend to grate on you, with one specific person coming to mind. Probably the worst thing is the odd “long tongues mean madness” tic the anime uses. It’s like certain characters have a windsock inside of their mouths instead of a tongue
This isn’t a quiet, cerebral locked-room mystery, but more of a garish, kitsch nightmare. Even the deaths reflect this, as blood is rendered in bright neon green due to the original game’s effort to avoid a mature content rating. However, if you accept the faults and stay open to the story it’s telling you, you’ll find it yourself getting sucked into the plot as it deepens with each new episode.
It also has an unusually Christian-friendly interpretation to it.
I can’t go too in-depth due to spoilers, but in one sense all of us are prisoners in Hope’s Peak High. We wake up in a world where it seems despair is ruling over us, and any sign of the outside world-the heavenly one-is hidden just like the windows were. We spend our lives in a closed, bounded world, and we have an enemy who seeks to plunge us into sin and madness by turning us against each other and hiding the truth from us. The bleak world of Dangan Ronpa is in a way a mirror of the fallen world we live in, where God seems distant and we must have faith and hope in escaping it.
As the series progresses, that faith and hope become more and more important. Revelations come that throw doubt on what they knew and believed about themselves and the world they are escaping to. Nothing is certain, not even the rules of the game Monokuma plays by. Nothing is left except hope or despair in the promise of a life better than they live now, and in a brighter world outside of the prison they are in.
The world we live in is a locked room mystery, and we do have an adversary that contends with us. By reminding us of the necessity of hope and the brokenness of our world, Dangan Ronpa: The Animation reminds us these same aspects in Christianity.
And I really hate that bear. Really, really hate him.
Dangan Ronpa: The Animation can be found streaming at Hulu or Funimation. It would be roughly PG-13 for mature situations and grotesque, but not explicit violence. Plenty of blood, but the day-glo green color of it reduces the impact and makes it feel more unreal than graphic. From what I understand, the game and the anime diverge in terms of specific plot, so watching one shouldn’t ruin experiencing the other. Avoid spoilers on the net though!