Before the first episode ended, the killing game began anew. Should we have anticipated anything less? No, it's the Danganronpa series, after all.
Spoilers for the Danganronpa series to follow
The stylish, ultra-violent visual novel game series Danganronpa, is currently airing an anime, Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak High School, which picks up where the second game ended. The third chapter is also the final of Hope's Peak Academy's story. Danganronpa 1 and 2 followed a group of students known as the Ultimates -- each possessing specific abilities, such as the Ultimate Detective or Ultimate Gamer, for example -- as they were forced to kill each other without being caught in order to escape captivity.
Danganronpa 3 has been running two arcs. The first is The Future Arc which follows the first game's protagonist, Makoto Naegi. Makoto is put on trial by his organisation The Future Foundation for trying to rehabilitate Danganronpa 2's class, The Ultimate Despairs -- the group responsible for destroying much of the world under the direction of Danganronpa 1's Ultimate Despair, Junko Enoshima.
The second, The Despair Arc, follows the cast of Danganronpa 2 as normal students before and on their way to becoming The Ultimate Despairs. This Arc also unveils Hajime Hinata's transformation into The Ultimate Hope.
With three games under its belt (Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is a spinoff which occurs between the first and second game), there is a lot of ground to cover and characters to remember. But cleverly, Danganronpa 3 barrels through re-introductions of characters, and the Future Arc starts with a bang -- or rather, with one of the new Future Foundation cast members impaled on a chandelier.
The Future Arc got to work quickly in turning things into the violent mess that is a staple of the games. The cast has to figure out who the attacker is, and while we're given clues on who it could be, Danganronpa 3 muddies perceived knowledge by adding too many variables.
If it's not awful enough that there's a person (or persons?!) responsible for the murders, the characters also have to navigate their situation by being ever mindful of the anime's introduction of their new handicaps -- forbidden action rules specialised to each person. If broken, the end result means death to that character. Some of the rules are inane, others are out of the control of the bearer such as the one where the participant could not be witness to violence. Needless to say, he didn't last long in the new killing game.
The Despair Arc has been more easy-going and that's exactly why it's so damned disturbing. Even the opening credits are a sweet, colourful array of smiles and happiness backed by an equally airy song. This arc may feel slow, ridiculous, and childish for its overt sexual innuendos but that's likely just the calm before the storm as the carefree classmates are all puppets. It's right there in the credits as a reminder of what Danganronpa 2 revealed -- that the cast of Danganronpa 2 will soon become a terror threat bent on destroying the entire world. That's terrifying as it is tragic.
This arc's slow burn has not been without some interesting backgrounds for some of its characters, such as the Ultimate Imposter and the questions that come with the Ultimate Animator's appearance. And there's Junko's introduction which was an unsettling kind of funny for her quirks and unpredictable behaviour. Since her arrival, along with Hajime's transformation into The Ultimate Hope, Izuru, the arc has picked up its pace to lay the groundwork for The Ultimate Despairs.
If there's one thing Danganronpa 3 continues to prove, it's that the Danganronpa series' writing is masterful in its manipulation. It's mentally taxing thanks to its handling of clever plot twist details, and it's emotionally draining for how it manages to evoke sympathy for murderers.
Both of the arcs stay true to these intentionally opposing themes the Danganronpa series is known for. They do so in the interesting way in which the anime handles this -- by focusing on two tonally different series to fill in the gaps and backgrounds on new characters in the Future Arc. It doesn't mean that the Future Arc is all killing with no substance. It takes snippets of grim flashbacks to aid what the more comical side of the Despair Arc.
The other thing that Danganronpa 3 smartly pays attention to is its characters, in the same unpredictable and twisted ways Danganronpa has always done.
Despicable characters have longevity in the Danganronpa series. It wasn't true of Danganronpa 2's Ultimate Chef -- the lecherous man with a rushed story that did nothing to redeem him. But this was true of Danganronpa 2's Hiyoko, the Ultimate Dancer, who loved bullying the Ultimate Nurse. Hiyoko was vile but was often shown as hiding behind her distasteful behaviour because she had problems of her own.
In Danganronpa 2, the only person who was nice to Hiyoko was killed relatively early on, leading Hiyoko to become remorseful. As nicer as she tried to be, she still failed at being likable. When her death came, it by the same person she bullied -- as Hiyoko happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and not the intended target. She wasn't killed out of vengeance either. She was merely a presence who had to be dealt with for getting in the way of the planned murder. That's the kind of treatment Danganronpa dishes out.
Killing nicer characters early on -- who (sometimes) may not get fully fleshed out characterizations, and are relegated as one dimensional beings -- is an amazing trick Danganropa frequently performs. Sometimes they're shown to be the sweetest as with Danganronpa 3's characterization of the Ultimate Maid, Yukizome, in episode one of the Future Arc. Sometimes they're shown to be sweet with hidden agendas as with Danganronpa 1's Sayaka.
Danganronpa can spend so little time with a character and still make their deaths hit hard. Sometimes they're given more backstories as the series goes on by way of flashback reveals -- which is part of the Despair Arc's purpose for Yukizome's background. Of course, it hurts a hell of a lot more when really developed characters -- the longer they stay in the killing game -- become victims or are punished as murderers.
I'm waiting to see what happens to Danganronpa 3's Former Ultimate Candymaker, Ruruka -- selfish, childish, and holding the stupidest grudge of her own making.
She may go the way of Hiyoko -- cast aside as nothing in the grand scheme of things (which would be fitting for her, given her current standing in the anime). But I wouldn't be surprised if Danganronpa 3 gives her a meaningful death (if she does die) that would make viewers feel sorry for her.
Danganronpa is generally good at humanising its characters to a degree. In the games this is done through spending free time with them. Those interactions allow players to learn more about the characters' personal situations outside of the constraints of the main story. It's a part of what gives each character a saving grace -- turning potential victims and murderers into people to actually care about. And it's what makes their shocking deaths, and concern for their safety all the more stressful.
The one thing to remember about Danganronpa, however, is that nothing should ever be taken at face value. It's way too early for Danganronpa 3 to reveal its hand. The series usually leaves that surprise for the end as the games have traditionally done.
I'm interested to see if there will be a twist in the Despair Arc. The smaller reveals have filled in the gaps, and as a prequel, we shouldn't expect anything too much from the core cast. But again, that's one of the beauties of Danganronpa -- its ability to blindside its audience. As of the latest episode, I think The Ultimate Animator might be that surprise.
Everything else that's great about the Danganronpa series is not lost on Danganronpa 3. It has the over-the-top violence that's sickeningly satisfying. It continues the investigation portion of Danganronpa games through the long haul investigation which Kirigiri, The Ultimate Detective, is carrying out. The slow, methodical pace is nerve-wracking. It's a smart way the anime maintains the whodunit aspect of the series.
And then there's the sadness that will come when the Ultimate Despairs are created. The dreadful anticipation of what's to come has already begun as the pieces are falling into place.
How the story of Hope's Peak Academy ends remains to be seen. I'm hoping for an excellent resolution to a complicated series. That alone is enough for me to want to see the end through. It may disappoint. It may not. But thus far, Danganronpa 3's Future and Despair Arcs have been expertly juggling the ongoing battle between despair and hope.