Danganronpa is a media franchise consisting of video games and animated television series. The stories of each iteration follows sixteen high school students with ultimate talents that are held against their will and forced to kill one another in order to escape.
Recently, a new game show popped up online and incited some discussion within the political scene on social media. This game show’s premise brings on contestants who participate in activities in order to win the grand prize of: student debt forgiveness. This beautifully American concept was just the kick I needed to work on an idea I’ve been sitting on for a year. I argue that Danganronpa is an allegory for academic and professional competition.
After finishing Danganronpa V3 last year, a seed was planted in my mind that there was something more to Danganronpa than it let on. Not a meaning I think the creators intended for, but a meaning given to us by the intrinsically reflective nature of art. So, don’t get your panties in a loop thinking I’m proposing some ludicrous Game Theory conspiracy. This is just my interpretation.
The keystone of this idea is Danganronpa V3. In the final game of this series, it is revealed that “Danganronpa” is a brand within the game that has been producing a television show of the same name. This television show accepts fame-hungry high school students around the world into a game show that pits them against each other. The recurring theme of Hope v.s. Despair was always presented as “Hope will inevitably prevail over Despair.” in the first two games, and boiling it down to this definitely makes it sound two-dimensional.
In Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, the personification of despair, Junko Enoshima, was defeated by essentially bulldozing through her Ultimate Despair with the player’s Ultimate Hope. The remaining students are given a choice to all vote for Hope to be set free to the danger outside, or vote for Despair to execute Makoto and remain safe inside the school.
In Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, another set of students faced off with a different version of Junko Enoshima and also muscle through her Despair with Hope. In spite of realizing that they they have been instruments of Despair all this time and could be killed off if brought back to the real world, the remaining students’ Hope of being revived prevails. In this game, the theme is expanded from its predcessor’s Hope v.s. Despair to Past v.s. Present.
This dichotomy of Hope and Despair is brought back up in the final game Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, but in a different sense. The value viewers of Danganronpa extract from their beloved show is seeing their heroes perpetually overcoming Despair. Therefore, Hope (what is desired) necessitates Despair (what is not desired); this is the dilemma the students of DRV3 face. In the end, they decide that Hope doesn’t have to be predicated on Despair. They abstain from the vote between Hope and Despair, effectively abstaining from the system.
With all of this in mind, it’s Thinking Time.
Let’s take Danganronpa 1 first. The goal for the students is to graduate. In order for the students to graduate (escape) they must overcome one another (kill another and get away with it). In the extreme sense, students in real life participate in a survival of the fittest. Students are in an environment where they must become the best candidate within a competitive academic setting in order to secure a position in the following competitive professional setting. What happens to those who don’t make the cut? They’re cast away. In a show like Danganronpa, it doesn’t matter what happens to the losers — only the winners. In the context of our real world, we read stories in the news like “Young girl raises thousands for college through lemonade stand” or “New game show offers prize of student debt forgiveness”. The Despair-inducing crisis of students in debt and the extremely competitive job market is ripe for Hope-inspiring stories.
With Danganronpa 2, we’re looking at the Past and the Present. Many students suffer through the consequences of economic, social, and racial inequality, stymieing their educational and professional development. This is the frosting on the cake of those aforementioned stories of Hope: “Economically disadvantaged person of color working multiple jobs to support family and save for college! Wowzers!” By overcoming all of these obstacles and ascending to the upper echelons of society, it further reinforces the narrative of the American Dream. (Use of this term is only to critically analyze the ideology of upward social mobility, and not to imply a focus on American society. Further, my intention is not to disqualify the hard work of students that “make it”; the point here is to highlight how ridiculously difficult it can be for some to truly “make it”.)
Finally, Danganronpa V3 discusses Fact v.s. Fiction. Accepting Fact in DRV3 means accepting the pursuit of Hope’s presupposition of the necessity of Despair. Fiction in DRV3 is difficult to define. Fact is “real”, “true”, or “material”, whereas Fiction is the opposite right? In selecting a victor through Danganronpa (and, analogously, the job market), the losers are inherently lost to obscurity. They won’t go on to becoming great people, enabled by the administration of an academic degree. They disappear from the public’s consciousness, ceasing to be “real” or “material”. However, as Shuichi argues in DRV3, those lost in Danganronpa were real people that had personalities, aspirations, skills, and relationships, and the loss of those real people inflict real pain onto those around them. Through the sensationalization of surviving academic and professional competition, the struggles of those who don’t succeed are ignored.
In the end, Shuichi and his allies abstain from participating in the vicious cycle driven by Hope and Despair. In reality, this vicious cycle is the classic mindset of “Limitation breeds innovation.” Competition inspires contenders to creatively make themselves stand out, producing some new object or idea. Therefore, a lack of competition would result in a lazy, unmotivated society that takes social and economic security for granted. This is the Hope predicated upon Despair that Danganronpa depicts. Through their choice, the students decide that Hope does not have to entail Despair, which, in turn means, academic and professional success does not have to entail the gargantuan obstacles and fierce competitiveness between students.
To contextualize this entire concept Danganronpa conveys in a social moment of human history, let’s look at economic and political movements of today.
In the United States, support for tuition-free college has risen sharply in recent years. The social-democratic and democratic-socialist proponents of this policy argue that it levels the playing field and will pave the way for more social and economic equality, particularly benefiting the low and middle class, the working class, women, and people of color. Additionally, it is argued that access to tuition-free higher education will undercut political disenfranchisement, thus shifting power from the few to the many. The capitalistic opponents of this policy argue that it floods less qualified candidates into higher education and the job market, ultimately achieving the opposite of the policy’s intended effects. (There are rebuttals to this that offer economic solutions, but a discussion on that would be tangential.)
A new, young, largely lower-class, and diverse generation fed up with the socio-economic status quo characterizes the current political atmosphere. (Ultimate) Students can be masters of their crafts (anthropology, culinary arts, cosplay, etc.) but be denied a chance at seeing their skills bring something new to fruition if their fields aren’t profitable or practically incorporated into the established workplace. A reactionary movement composed of young people willing to experiment with new social and economic structures is reflected through Shuichi’s creation of a third option which has a mostly unknown future.
Do I think Danganronpa is propaganda for tuition-free college? Not at all. Like I said in my preface, I believe that works of art are intrinsically reflective, and, by depicting any kind of world, thoughts and feelings from reality can be both intentionally and unintentionally injected into the work. Considering the extreme academic and professional competition of the Japan (a historically capitalist country), I believe it’s very likely a longing for a new system would be expressed through a game like Danganronpa.
Since I finished Danganronpa V3 almost an entire year ago, I’ve been sitting on this idea and been dying to execute it, especially because of how much I disliked my post about DRV3 specifically. I honestly consider it to be my worst post on the blog. Adding to that, the politics portion of my blog has been dead for over a year, mostly due to disillusionment with the political state of the United States. And the political posts I do have posted aren’t even particularly good! So, with the disappointment with my initial DRV3 review, my existing political posts, and the state of the political half of the blog, I decided to synthesize my desire to better analyze meaning (as mentioned in my Persona 5 analysis) and my desire to talk about politics to some capacity. I wanted to do it in a way that didn’t get in the way of enjoyment of my anime analyses and was written more levelheadedly. Hopefully this didn’t trigger anyone; I aimed to write this as a critical reading of the Danganronpa series with some political contextualization I’ve picked up from my political science course this last quarter, and not as political commentary injected into a Game Theory-level conspiracy theory. Feedback is very much appreciated! As I said, this has been a passion project for me and I’ve been dying to revive the politics I aimed to discuss on this blog, so I’d like to know how I can politically express myself without censor while also creating anime analyses people can enjoy nonetheless.