You may have played the game, but how does Danganronpa's frenetic courtroom action hold up in anime form?
This is a video review! The video is below, and is transcribed fully underneath for your reading pleasure!
If you have perchance already seen my review of the Danganronpa game (and remember it, considering how long ago it came out), feel free to skip this section entirely because it will of course be more or less exactly the same.
On that note, Hope’s Peak Academy is an elite high school that accepts only the best of the best, each and every student an “Ultimate”: the Ultimate Programmer, the Ultimate Swimmer, the Ultimate Martial Artist, the Ultimate Bike Gang Leader... You get the idea. Our main character is Makoto Naegi, a young man who got into Hope Peak’s by sheer luck through lottery, hence being referred to as the Ultimate Lucky Student. Kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy in that regard, but in any case, Makoto walks up on his first day, eager to attend such a prestigious establishment, when boom. Everything goes black.
Once Makoto comes back to consciousness, he finds himself inside the school, in a classroom, but as he explores the rest of the building, things are not as he expected. The windows are bolted, doors locked, ominous cameras and even machine-guns installed into the ceiling. It isn’t long until Makoto meets up with fourteen other Hope’s Peak students, all of whom were also attacked and trapped in much the same way.
Without much time to ponder their predicament, the group is approached by Monokuma, a black and white talking teddy bear, who quickly informs them that, while all their needs will be provided for here in the school, no one will be allowed to leave, with one exception: if any student can kill another, without getting caught, that student and that student alone will be set free. This announcement is naturally met with a range of emotions, some scoffing at the silliness of the situation while others already begin to suspect and distrust their friends. Although each student is adamant that, regardless of the circumstances, no one will be killing anyone, as the days go on with no sign of rescue, it isn’t long before a corpse turns up, and then another, and another, and another.
Half as Long as It Needs to Be
Yes, it’s one of those. We’re starting with The Bad, but... the Danganronpaanime doesn’t have a lot of intricate, complex problems. It really doesn’t. Rather, it is consistently plagued by a single very simple one: it’s just too short. It is a single cour, 13 episode series, and that just isn’t enough episodes to properly tell its story, so in the name of at least maintaining basic coherency, it has to blitz through, well, everything. Character introductions are afforded only a few seconds, important setting details (such as what Hope’s Peak Academy actually is) get little or no mention, the murder investigations are completed shafted to devote more time to the class trials (which are still themselves rushed), and even Monokuma’s initial speech to the students is chopped down to only a couple lines.
And this is not superfluous information they skip over either, no, it’s in fact extremely relevant exposition. For instance, they somehow fail to communicate that any would-be killer has to murder someone without getting caught, which is kind of the huge caveat to the whole thing in the first place (this is actually not the case in the dub, so good job there). Ironically, when this is eventually brought up, it is on a “last time on…” recap, despite literally never being mentioned in the show itself.
Lerche (the production studio, whom you may know for Assassination Classroom) gave it their best shot, they really did (they even frequently cut the opening and ending to squeeze in as much content as possible), but there’s just not enough time. When you’re trying to cram 30 hours into 6, something has to give, and it does.
Actually Too Faithful
That said, this does strike me as a product that the crew were passionate for despite the crappy hand they were dealt. I don’t think they intentionally came into this hoping to f**k it all up; they were just put into an impossible situation with no way out. And the reason I say this is that, for all its problems, you can’t fault this anime for being faithful. It reuses and repurposes almost literally as much as it can from the original game: shots, poses, songs, even title screens; it’s all faithfully recreated, which shows a degree of devotion to the fans and respect for the material.
However, this is quite the double-edged sword, as in attempting to mimic the game, Danganronpa: The Animation actually becomes even less effective and immersive as a show. The inclusion of game assets and the video-game style is simply jarring from the perspective of a normal viewer. If they had gone about things differently, then perhaps this may not have been the case, but the product we have now is essentially a normal anime 95% of the time, with obtrusive video game pop-ups every time a major event happens, usually being Makoto breaking down his opponents’ arguments.
Imagine you’re talking to someone, debating let’s say, and you’re getting into a good back and forth, but it’s grounded, it’s reality after all, it’s justtalk with no frills, but then, as your opponent delivers their final point, and you have the perfect piece of evidence to reject it, huge ugly words appear out of nowhere, repeating what they have just said, and a mental bullet flies inexplicably out of your head to shoot this text down... then the debate resumes as normal afterward.
That’s more or less the experience of watching this anime. I know what they were going for, because in the game you shoot down your opponent’s’ words with bullets of evidence, but the thing they’re missing is that this happened not once or twice, but all the time, and in an actual game. At this stage, you’re no longer a game, you’re an anime, you need to grow and adapt. Parroting what worked in one medium is zero guarantee of success in another, and this serves as one of the best examples of that I’ve seen.
It’s going to make me sound like a grump, but I do have to sound off a little on the dub, too. The dub is not bad taken on its own, but it’s more than a little disappointing for fans of the game, because (with the sole exception of Makoto, or the accursed Bryce Papenbrook) every character was recast, including Monokuma. I’m sure Funimation would’ve gotten everyone back if they were able, as they have tried to in the currently airing broadcast dubs of Danganronpa 3, but it’s hard to hear a different voice for characters that you have become so attached to. A minor nitpick, I know, but something that I can’t deny irked me.
Though, I do have a secondary tidbit on the voices that is actually a complaint with the Japanese (yep, no one’s safe today). I can’t say I particularly liked Monokuma’s Japanese voice, compared to the English equivalent, in either the game or this anime’s dub. In both English versions, Monokuma sounds something like a manic, high-pitched young man, intended to approximate a child but with enough emotional variety in the delivery to come across as sinister, playful, etc. whenever necessary. In Japanese on the other hand, he sounds like an actual child. The delivery just comes across as too laidback or even disinterested for me to take him as seriously as I should. I prefer that hint of clarity in the voice that really hammers home how intentionally and meticulously menacing this whole setup is, and it’s something I feel is actually lost without the English performance. So, should you watch the dub or the sub? Neither, play the game.
It’s Still Danganronpa
Well, like I said, Lerche does try their best despite the circumstances, and as a result, even if it is rather rushed, this anime does hit most ofDanganronpa’s major story beats, so the basic plot is relatively intact and you can follow along without too many questions. Granted, it’s more akin to reading a Wikipedia summary than experiencing the game itself, but I mean, it’s better than nothing, and does retain the trappings of an inherently entertaining story: unpredictable twists and turns, conspiracy, mystery, big reveals and yes, lots of death. Even if that stuff isn’t as impactful when you don’t know the characters as well and the plot details are shoveled down your throat as quick as can be, if you’re in it for just simple entertainment value, there is still some to be had. This is far from an incomprehensible version of the Danganronpa story, simply a lacking one.
As such, any praise I had for the plot in my review of the game itself is still relatively applicable here, just to a lesser or much lesser degree depending on what exactly we’re talking about. I still enjoyed the wacky cast, the whodunit trials, the over-the-top revelations, but just not nearly as much.
It’s a little funny, actually. Danganronpa as a whole was barely a blip on my radar until a friend told me “Hey, play this game!”, and I miraculously owned a Vita, so I played that game, and really liked it. Then, as you know I played the sequel and also really liked it (though the spinoff was a mixed bag, but whatever). So it is disappointing for me to have a Danganronpaexperience that is not even close to reaching that same bar, even if I expected as much coming into it. I wanted to hope that popular opinion was wrong, that I would still find a lot to like here, but sadly I did not.
So, after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S… I know the brevity of the The Good section would led you to believe than perhaps an F is in order, but simply by virtue of being Danganronpa (which is essentially what that section boiled down to), I can’t say I entirely un-enjoyed watching this series. Moreso, it’s just as if there was always a feeling that it could’ve been so much better, which it could’ve with twice as many episodes. So while I cannot in good conscience recommend this series, I can feel confident awarding it, not an F, but a D.
Personally, I always hate it when fans familiar with source material come down harshly on an adaptation just for being not as good, and I do worry that I slipped a little too far into that mindset here, that perhaps my knowledge and experience with the game somewhat clouded my appreciation of the anime, but here’s the deal. In today’s modern media landscape, Danganronpa: The Animation is not only a subpar adaptation, but also an actively pointless one, because you’ll need to play the games anyway to make sense of Danganronpa 3, since there is no Danganronpa 2 adaptation. So if you’re going to play one, the way I see it you might as well go and play both.