Saturday, 5 October 2013

ダンガンロンパ / Danganronpa / Bullet Rebuttal / Danganronpa: The Animation

I really thought I’d made my mind up about Danganronpa halfway through. I had even started mentally preparing what I’d write in this opening paragraph. Not my sort of thing, I’d say – silly designs and torture porn in an anime adaptation of a game that is little more than a melting pot of previously-used ideas. I’d put it with Angel Beats and Higurashi in the pile of ‘cutesy yet violent and largely brainless anime-of-the-week flash-in-the-pans that don’t last long’.

Yet, dammit, just towards the end, once it dropped the formula that had defined it for the first handful of episodes, it finally began to grow on me.

It’s definitely true that Danganronpa isn’t the most original of shows. Basically, it takes the old Battle Royale fixation with kids being forced to murder one another (see also: The Hunger Games), plus the grinning cutesy-yet-creepy mascot that presides over the dwindling cast of Bokurano, then overlays the ridiculous character designs of something very silly like Macademi Wasshoi and packages it into a game that is pretty obviously supposed to be the PSP’s answer to Phoenix Wright.

Thus, we have fifteen highly exaggerated high school kids waking up inside the very prestigious Hope’s Peak Academy. One is a muscle-bound schoolgirl so manly she puts anything in Stephen Chow’s CJ7 to shame; another is a blatant little trap with genius computer skills. One has a yankii pompadour that almost rivals anything in Shaman King, and another has a second personality – a ridiculous serial killer with a long waggling tongue and obsession with scissors. It’s incredibly dumb, but has its charm. In this company, pretty-faced, rather weedy everyman Naegi believes his only ‘super-high-school level’ skill is luck, but he soon turns out to be the detective of the piece – and the bringer of ‘hope’ to counter ‘despair’.

Why despair? Well, strange little psychotic mascot Monokuma – a cuddly bear with a normal, white-coloured side, and an evil, grinning black-coloured side – explains why. They are trapped in the school, and to get out, a student has to murder another student and not be found guilty of the killing by the rest. Despite all the kids declaring none of them will try anything funny, by the morning one of their number has been stabbed, and it’s up to Naegi to sort out the truth from the lies.

These first few episodes were a struggle, I found. The distorted characters did nothing for me, especially knowing they’d likely be dead soon enough. The fact that not only was there a blood-soaked scene, but the punishment for one found guilty was an over-the-top execution sequence conducted by Monobear in odd cutout-style animation ended up being the lamest kind of torture porn that I found very tiresome – and really found myself shaking my head over when one episode had to resort to the execution of a laptop to squeeze the stylised sequence in, as if that were a great emotional moment. Monokuma’s antics were entertaining but I’d seen it all before, and the formula really did nothing for me. Plus the more interesting characters seemed to get killed off far too soon, leaving an increasingly boring crowd.

Fortunately, things do change for the final act – there are considerably more survivors than might have been expected given the set-up, and the increasingly absurd wider reasons for the scenario are slowly revealed. With characters no longer dropping like flies two or three at a time, a bit more development could take place, and the deepening mystery of Kirigiri and the principal adds some grey tones to an otherwise very ordinary mystery. Naegi was a bit flimsy, but his design did appeal to me and I wanted to see him come through it all.

But I must admit it’s possible I would have let Danganronpa fall by the wayside if not for visiting Japan this summer. Apart from Attack on Titan and Free!, and excepting the omnipresent One Piece, Danganronpa was the most heavily-promoted show of the season. Monokuma and the sequel’s pink bunny-based counterpart Usami were everywhere, from UFO machines to T-shirts, and both the Good Smile Café and Namja Town had themed themselves after the show. With the series so popular and a few friends heavily into the series, I kept up with it, and while I put off episode 13 for a little while, it has still only been days since it became available, rather than weeks.

For all its flaws and its undeniable lack of originality, Danganronpa was light, frothy and stupid enough to be an enjoyable watch for 13 episodes. I can’t say I wanted to like it, but unlike Angel Beats or Higurashi, in the end I did enjoy myself. 

The studio animating Danganronpa was Lerche, which while listed as a subsidiary of Hibari would appear to be their major outlet now, and the name will also be attached to upcoming probable-hit Unbreakable Machine-Doll

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