「さよなら絶望学園」 (Sayonara Zetsubou Gakuen)
“Farewell Despair Academy”
Hope versus despair. Quite literally.
In just one episode, and the final one to boot, Junko manages to completely steal the show. It’s almost a shame they saved her until this moment, because her lunacy is such an appealing thing to watch; she’s constantly switching between an assortment of personalities, from overtly cutesy to hilariously depressed, and in the next moment swinging back to her typical balls-out psycho demeanor, which must have done quite the number on her voice actor Toyoguchi Megumi, kudos to her. And in spite of the personality instability, Junko remains sharply manipulative throughout, and was a real treat to watch in action.
The great mystery of the “most despair-inducing event” is also finally revealed, but the answer is almost as confusing as the questions before. Somehow, in the two years gap of our protagonists’ memories, the world has descended into total anarchy, with monobear-mask wearing rioters prowling the streets, giant monobears destroying cities, and monobears monuments all over. The world as we knew it is destroyed, but Junko doesn’t quite answer how this has occurred, instead comparing the event to a natural disaster, except one that is caused by man. I don’t think a concrete answer was ever the point though; just like the unanswered mystery of how the characters lost their memories, these details aren’t really the focus of the narrative.
Instead, our focus shifted to an arbitrary, incredibly cheesy but oh-so-entertaining battle between hope, represented by Naegi, and despair, Junko herself. How cheesy is that? Let’s see: Junko attempts to coerce the students to kill Naegi in order to remain safely in the school, and by doing so would achieve her goal of making the world despair (huh?) by showing through the live broadcast of the killing game that the students of hope couldn’t win against an agent of despair. (Yes, I known how it sounds at this point. Zetsuboushita!) At which point, in classic Danganronpa style, Naegi has to convince everyone otherwise by shooting them with hope bullets (I don’t even fucking care what I’m seeing anymore) as the rechristened super duper high school Hope. (One word. Legendary.)
It might seem that I’m dissing it now, but on the contrary I found the whole thing hugely entertaining at the time, in a highly ridiculous, parodic sort of way. I never had more fun than when Danganronpa was reveling in its own silliness and sadistic tendencies, and this was perhaps the greatest of those moments. The way Junko went down in a montage of executions was similar; her wanting the punishment so badly almost made it seemed as though she didn’t lose at all.
So what’s really on the other side of the door? Was everything that Junko said really true, or a huge lie told to manipulate the students? We might not have a really have gotten the answer, but I think everyone knows the real answer the show so desperately wanted to leave us with. Bright, unsubtle hope.
And so, the quest for a truly great video game adaptation continues. Yes, I’m making this a thing.
If we’re to believe the players of the game, this show was a travesty. Another stone in the path of our quest for a truly great video-game adaption. The problems are many and deep; highly marginalized characters, poor pacing of storyline, and most damning of all for adaptations, frequent omission and/or complete rewriting of plot details. And some of those flaws in the screenplay are unmistakable even without playing the game.
But as an anime-only viewer, you probably wouldn’t know all that is to be. You wouldn’t know that, say, there was a very lengthy discourse into electronic ID loopholes in the second trial, which was almost entirely omitted. You wouldn’t know the details of clues that led into this line of questioning, the same details that were oftentimes glossed over in investigation sequences. So although the anime still suffers from the same problems, it’s easier to overlook these because, well, your expectations are different. As vague and un-objective as it sounds, this is one of those shows where your enjoyment seems to hinge upon it. The thing to keep in mind is that Danganronpa still has many great points to it; its macabre streak of sadistic black humor, the silly (oftentimes parodic) tone of the show, the visceral thrill of a survivor game, and the highly compelling overarching plot (probably the best thing of the second half) that resulted in a brilliantly loony and entertaining payoff.
With that said, having tried some of the game before, I can see why the rest of problems are there. There’s been a fundamental flaw in the way the anime chose to adapt the game’s storyline into the pop-pop-pop machinegun-speed trials and highly streamlined investigations, two of the show’s definite weak points. A concession can no doubt be made for fitting the entirety of the storyline into 13 episodes, but we can’t discount the detrimental effect of completely taking out any involvement a viewer might have in the focal mystery of each arc. (Also, some of the cases were bleedingly obvious, and was more a case of “how” rather than “who”) The only trial to subvert this was the final one, and that’s also because it had the overarching plot building into it. In all honesty the trials, the narrative linchpin of the show, were a mixed bag. Danganronpa carried itself on its swagger and the allure of its larger plot, and like the last two episodes, it can get really good when it brings in these two aspects in strength. Sometimes though, like the Celes trial, it was something of a chore to sit through episodic cases.
I guess the speculative question here is if the show would’ve done any better with double the episodes, with better paced and more considerations for the crime cases, but we can go on a long discourse about that. Some of the game-players already noted how the storyline really was crafted to take advantage of the gaming medium; a partially-guided, hands-on experience that involves players as a detective. On the other hand I personally feel that there are more problems involved in the directing and general writing of the screenplay, moreso than a greater number of episodes would’ve fixed. And Danganronpa definitely won’t change anyone’s opinion that Lerch is still a second-rate animation studio.
Whether you felt this anime was good or bad, there’s no denying its success as part of a larger franchise; the property’s really taking off now, with multiple games in the pipelines. And going by that ending, a sequel to the anime seems more an eventuality than a possibility. With a localisation of the first game coming soon, there’s an arguably “better” way to get the Danganronpa experience. But hell, I’d still tell you to check out the anime at some point (especially if you can’t get your hands on the translated games) because so few shows have the kind of swagger Danganronpa showed, nor it’s highly entertaining premise and equally intriguing plot. Just don’t hold any expectations and Danganronpa’s gonna be a flawed but decent watch.
ED3: 「再生 -rebuild-」 (Sasai -rebuild-) by 緒方 恵美 (Ogata Megumi)