Review: Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak High School

Danganronpa 3 is one of the most peculiar television shows I’ve ever seen. Mind you, the content is not particularly unique. However, the show finds inspiration from a great variety of sources, and presents it in a way that is undeniably different. And this is Japanese anime we’re talking about, a subculture of animation so derivative that it can be adequately defined as fantasy stories that take place in high school featuring cute characters with big eyes.

With that said, Danganronpa 3 is worth examining, if only for its fascinating qualities.

Danganronpa 3 is a TV show that comes after two Danganronpa video games. The 24-episode season is presented as two 12-episode arcs: The Future Arc and the Despair Arc. The two separate arcs were released concurrently in 2016; fans of the series would watch two episodes a week, alternating between each arc. The Future Arc is a sequel to Danganronpa 2, whereas the Despair Arc is a prequel to the first Danganronpa.

In the Future Arc, we are thrown into a violent killing game where the last man standing wins, a common scenario in the Danganronpa franchise. In the Despair Arc, we explore the events that transpired before the first season, and how they led up to a worldwide calamity known as “The Biggest, Most Awful, Most Tragic Event in Human History.”

The following will be an in-depth examination of Danganronpa 3 (abbreviated to DR3 from here on out) as a pastiche of modern film classics, and the way its themes coincide with the zeitgeist of today. Suffice it to say that there will be spoilers; avoid reading ahead if you haven’t watched DR3 and intend to watch it. Well, not that anyone would want to read this if they didn’t know anything about the series to begin with; to understand the events of DR3, viewers must first experience the first two seasons.

But if you’re not planning to watch the series, I suggest you read this article anyways. Because for all of its glaring flaws—and trust me, there are a lot of them—DR3 reveals something interesting about our contemporary values.

The show references plenty of memorable movies, including Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and A Clockwork Orange. But the Danganronpa series draws a lot of inspiration from one particular Japanese movie: Battle Royale. The TV show tries its absolute hardest to emulate the cult classic film, taking the same “high school battle royale” concept with it.

Does that make DR3 a parody or a pastiche? A parody uses imitation to ridicule a genre, whereas a pastiche uses imitation to celebrate a genre. It’s basically the difference between Austin Powers and Kingsman; the former mocks spy movies, while the latter commemorates them.

In that sense, DR3 is a pastiche that pays tribute to the movies it imitates, especially Battle Royale. It even goes so far as to emulate the same tone. The story begins in a peaceful setting which suddenly becomes corrupted with violence.

But in its attempt to celebrate a handful of beloved movies, the show often works against its best interests. In addition to the occasional slapstick comedy and fan service, the narrative often alternates between cartoonish and disturbing. This is very clearly because of the graphic violence, which clashes very heavily with the overall silliness of the anime.

In fact, the violence itself can be quite cartoonish. I just don’t see how a goofy high school girl with an affinity for teddy bears is able to lead a suicide cult that engulfs the world in despair.

Up until now, I’ve only been showing clips from the Despair Arc. If it wasn’t already apparent, I don’t like the Future Arc. The killing game concept has always been a staple of the series, but DR3 overhauls the entire formula. Instead of the old class trial system present in the first two games, DR3 adopts a faster, “Mafia”-style killing game where the goal is to simply find the traitor. However, each character possesses a forbidden action, something to prevent them from using brute force to end the game.

To the Future Arc’s credit, this killing game format is better suited for a TV show. It’s a lot simpler than its previous installments and carries half as much exposition. I wasn’t very fond of the DR1 TV adaptation, which essentially tries to crunch 30 hours of playtime into a 6-hour TV series. Comparatively, DR3 cuts the fat and streamlines the process.

Unfortunately, these rule changes aren’t enough to make the killing game interesting. Let’s start with an irrefutable fact: the forbidden actions are unbelievably stupid. It’s bad enough that these rules don’t follow a cohesive theme, but what’s worse is how absolutely contrived they are. The ugliest character is immediately killed because he’s prohibited from witnessing violence in a killing game that incentivizes violence between its participants. Meanwhile, Kizakura is forbidden from opening his left hand, an action so mundane you wonder why it’s even in the game. Then you realize the writers are just letting him live long enough to sacrifice his own life for Kirigiri.

Wow, what a bloody coincidence. How could I have guessed?

This is discounting the fact that some of the subplots are actively trolling the audience. The ketchup-stained toy knife on Asahina and Kirigiri’s faux death are clear examples of this. They bait longtime fans with the possibility of killing a popular DR1 character, before reverting back to the status quo as they scream, “Gotcha!” Essentially, the show is just wasting our time; when the Future Arc has nothing of substance to show, they feign an important plot twist to temporarily increase viewer interest, before undoing it shortly after.

The worst instance of this happens in episode seven, where Komaru and Toko chase after Monaca, the girl secretly impersonating Gekkogahara using a robot. But by the end of the episode, we discover that Monaca was not the mastermind behind the killing game. So are you telling me that this episode had absolutely nothing to do with the story? That Gekkogahara as a character is just one, big elaborate joke?

What a big, fat waste of time!

It’s clear that the Future Arc is solely meant for DR1 fans, just as the Despair Arc is meant for DR2 fans. But if DR1 is a pastiche of Battle Royale, DR3’s Future Arc is a clone of a clone, a rip-off that barely resembles the cleverness of the first season. And with its tonal inconsistencies, the Despair Arc doesn’t fare much better.

Yet somehow, the whole thing manages to strike a chord with me.

DR3 likes to throw around the words “Hope” and “Despair” a lot. At some point, the words lose all meaning, as though hope and despair were things that we possess rather than emotions that we feel. Characters aren’t hopeful or hopeless; like a talent, you either have hope or you don’t. The biggest issue with the anime is its inability to convince viewers of what hope and despair truly mean.

Of course, this all changes when Chiaki dies.

But Chiaki doesn’t just die. Desperately clinging to her life as she struggles to get up, her death is painful to watch. The scene sadistically lingers on this moment, as Chiaki laments on how she’s not prepared to die and lose her friends. This is made worse by the fact that she and Hajime loved one another, but were unable to develop their relationship once Hajime relinquished his free will in exchange for talent.

It’s just so heartrendingly tragic, it hurts. There’s no other way to describe it; this must be despair.

And in a way, it all starts to come full circle. What does Chiaki believe in? How does it contrast with Junko’s goals? And finally, what does this all mean? It’s clear that Chiaki believes in making the world a better place because she loves her friends. But why does Junko want to bring about the end of the world?

If DR3 is a pastiche, then the biggest inspiration for Junko is The Dark Knight and Fight Club. Like a cross between the Joker and Tyler Durden, Junko is a violent anarchist who wants to plunge the world into chaos. Followed by a cult of worshipers, her sadism is matched only by her boundless charisma. As a person, she just wants to watch the world burn.

I think DR3 is about the importance of compassion. These days, as our modern lives have gotten easier, we’ve lost sight of what it means to believe in something. Nihilism has been in vogue since the turn of the millennium, and it has captured the spirit of our time. Nihilism is also infectious; spreading like a disease, it hypnotizes those without the will to resist it.

But as Junko demonstrates, self-destruction doesn’t demand anything from us. Anybody can be a nihilist, even your average schmuck. And in the end, that’s the point DR3 is trying to make: life can be cruel, but we must press on and do our best, regardless of who we are. Even when our love is doomed and our fate is sealed, we can’t lose faith in our pursuit for a brighter future.

We must fight for hope in the face of despair.

As I’ve said before, Danganronpa 3 treads a lot of familiar territory and relies on a lot of tired anime tropes. But in the process of imitating a bunch of classic movies, they’ve managed to transcend their weaknesses and produce something profound. In an era when apathy is popular, the show reminds us why it’s necessary to care about the society we live in. It doesn’t matter who we are, what abilities we have or what mistakes we’ve made. It’s up to us to make the world a better place.

Knowing this, what future can be more hopeful than that?

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Either the most honest movie critic in the universe, or the least intelligent philosopher.

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Posted in Film and TV Reviews

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