If I had to characterize a particular bent in Japanese pop culture that’s changed since the American anime boom, I would say that there have been two big shifts I’ve seen in material imported to the States, the moe boom, and the emergence of works with one specific goal, the eradication of apathy and the promotion of engagement in ones’ life. Maybe it’s no surprise that this attitude emerged from Japan’s “Lost Decade” after their own housing bubble burst in the early 90’s (Mamoru Oshii’s excellent original Patlabor Movie is literally about this issue as it was happening) sparking a dramatic economic depression and leaving its smaller youth population in a sense of political freefall (giving way to declining population numbers and shut-ins who refuse to engage with the world). And it was reflected in anime, games, and other media, where the thrust of the stories were no longer about the same traditional Hero’s Journey of the fight against evil, but the smaller journey of engaging with and finding meaning in one’s own life (consider that so much of Neon Genesis Evangelion is about just getting protagonist Shinji to get into the Eva’s cockpit, and Princess Jellyfish is about using one’s private passions as an entry into engaging with the world).
America seems to be caught now in a similar crisis of apathy, with low voter turnout, and social media engagement turned dark with nihilistic trolling; where it’s not even about proving a point or having an ideology, it’s about a sense of uselessness or despair that voices don’t matter at all, so why not go all-in on destroying the fake discourse that there is? It’s the perfect time for a series like Danganronpa.
In the first game, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (a visual novel/adventure game, initially available on PSP in Japan, now available on the PSVita, PS4, and Steam in North America) you play as a Makoto Naegi, a boy sent to a Hopes Peak Academy High School, a school only for the most exceptional people, who is revealed to be included because he is the most exceptionally average student in all of Japan. Once there, he is locked into the school, and forced to play a game of survival with the other students. While the events of the game are happening “The Biggest, Most Awful, Most Tragic Event in Human History” occurs outside, the result of a great calamity that brings a breakdown in all world order, not out of some evil design, but apathy and despair. The rhetoric of the series is one of finding a means to go on, to find meaning, and to live in a world suffused with difficulty and what appears to be powerlessness.
Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls (with the same availability as the game above) is an odd entry into the series. Wanting a break from creating adventure/visual novel titles, the team at Spike Chunsoft chose to make a third person shooter game. Since the team that makes Danganronpa pretty much makes games like Danganronpa, they had a task ahead of them (I learned in an unpublished interview with series writer Kazutaka Kodaka before the game had it’s original US release) since only the game’s sound designer had worked on an action game before.
The plot of Ultra Despair Girls follows a familiar trajectory: the hero, Komaru Naegi (sister of original Danganronpa protagonist Makoto Naegi) has been kept in an Oldboy-style in an apartment for a year, she is released when the door is destroyed by one of an army of robotic monokumas (the black and white bear robot that antagonizes the protagonists, and is the series mascot). Upon escaping she has a brief encounter with the first game’s rich heir Byakuya Togami, who hands her what looks like a bullhorn, but is actually a hacking gun that shoots “truth bullets” that disable the monokuma enemies, before running into the demure fantastist Toko Fukawa, still obsessed with Byakuya (from the original game) and still able to turn into serial killer Genocide Jack, who becomes your companion and functional “limit break” raining down scissor-slashing destruction upon your enemies when things get too hairy. Along the way, Komaru and Toko discover that a group of children calling themselves Warriors of Hope have taken over the city, murdering adults with their monokuma army, to create a paradise for children, free of all adults.
It is perhaps a weird thing that Scenarist Kodaka and Spike Chunsoft made a 3rd person action game with what feels like a visual novel plot (in the interview Mr. Kodaka related that the reason Toko/Genocide Jack is in the game is to provide a way for their core audience, who don’t play action games, to easily win and move on to the next story section). It’s still very much Danganronpa, even if the game mechanics are largely stripped away. The character dynamics are fewer, and the third person perspective creates a greater sense of distance, but the general feel remains the same: an absurd anime ride whose purpose is to revitalize the concept of engagement.
It’s certainly not a particularly good third person shooter in the mechanical sense, but that’s not what the makers or their fans are interested in anyways. It’s simply a convenient method to move from one section of the story to another, broken up by fun little action-oriented puzzles; and that’s really probably the point for both Mr. Kodaka and his team; a breather between Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, and the upcoming Danganronpa 3: Killing Harmony.
Like a lot of material Nippon Ichi Software has brought to North America, it’s resoundingly niche. Chances are you probably aren’t going to play Ultra Despair Girls unless you have some passing familiarity with the series (or the two anime based on it—both the first and the second (confusingly titled, Danganronpa 3) are available to stream on a paid Funimation subscription). For those that are invested, though, Ultra Despair Girls is a practical must: another episode of the goofy deadly visual novel. Another chance to enter the world of giant despair inducing mechanical teddy bears. Perhaps more importantly, for Japan and now for America, another chance to confront the idea of despair and apathy head on.
If the question for me, in my non-review capacity as a fan of anime, adventure games, and visual novels, is if you should buy Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls, the answer is no. If you like those things you should buy every Danganronpa game, and enjoy how thoroughly the games mess with your expectations. Ultra Despair Girls may not be the best of the games mechanically, but it’s no less enjoyable for trying something different, and letting you breeze through it’s simple gameplay mechanics. And this one, at last, lets you take aim directly at those infuriating monokumas!
All of which makes the prospect of the third entry of the series, Killing Harmony, due in September of this year on PSVita and PS4, that much more exciting.