Reviewby Theron Martin,
BD+DVD - Complete Series
Makoto Naegi is nothing special as a student, so when he wins a lottery admission into Hope's Peak Academy he approaches it with some trepidation. That's because Hope's Peak is a school for those who are ultimate (i.e., “Super High-Level”) in a given field, whether it be athletics, singing, fashion, or even hall monitoring. He passes out shortly after entering the school grounds and awakens in a classroom whose windows have been barricaded with metal plates. Soon 14 other students from various walks of life gather to be informed by the evil-looking black-and-white bear Monokuma that they are all trapped in the school and the only way out is to murder a fellow classmate and get away with it, which typically involves convincing everyone in a trial that someone else was the culprit. Name the culprit correctly and that person gets executed in creative and gruesome fashion. Name the culprit erroneously and everyone else but the true killer gets executed while the killer goes free. If nobody gets killed then they're all stuck there forever. Not everyone is strong of heart, and so the murders and trials soon start happening. How many will die before the survivors can get to the bottom of the sick and twisted game of Monokuma (or whoever else might be pulling his strings)?
Danganropa is a Japanese video game franchise available primarily on PlayStation Vita, iOS, and Android platforms which has already seen American releases of some of its titles. This 2013 anime series is a more or less straight adaptation of the first game, Danganropa: Trigger Happy Havoc. That does mean that the series is rarely able to fully escape the feel of watching a game in action, but it never bogs the series down too much. Also the story, as a replication of the original, stands well enough on its own; no prior familiarity with the franchise is necessary to fully understand and appreciate it.
The construction of the story casts it as a cross between a mystery story and one of those death games where random people (in this case teenagers) are thrown together and are forced to work both together and against each other in order to survive. While it may seem to be a nod to The Hunger Games series in some regards, it actually more resembles a cross between the Japanese live-action movie Battle Royale and the Canadian movie Cube. (The latter is not surprising, since it is listed as one of the original game producer's inspirations.) Some flavor of the classic board game Clue also filters in, a fact which is not lost on the English dub writers.
Like the original game, the series is split into two distinct components: a School Life part, where the characters explore the setting, interact with each other, and sleuth, and a Class Trial part, where the students must cogitate about evidence gathered, debate, and come to a conclusion about who the most recent killer is. The latter was the real meat of the original game, and that stays true here; in fact, the Class Trial sequences sometimes take up a whole episode. They are lively back-and-forth affairs where Makoto (the audience POV character) attempts to shoot down misleading arguments and contradictions while leading the group in ferreting out the real truth; an original game mechanism for literally shooting down arguments with bullets is retained, in a form, for the animation. The trials often (but not always) end in a confession once the perpetrator is pinned into a corner and resolve with an elaborate execution scene. The School Life part is comparatively pedestrian and often condensed, with little time allowed for viewers or characters to mull over revelations and seemingly-random clues that get picked up. It also glosses over mundane details in its effort to move the story along quickly.
Unfortunately the characterizations are a fair amount of those “minor details.” All of the characters except Makoto are supposed to be elites at one discipline or another, but for many of the characters that aspect never comes into play. Most characterizations are one-note affairs meant to make them easily-identifiable, but that also makes many of them over-the-top and some of them really annoying, especially Toko, who gets even more annoying after she is revealed to have a rather dramatically different split personality. Trying to pick out who's going to live or die based on the level of development isn't a reliable test, either, as the final survivors include both some of the most-developed (relatively speaking) and least-developed characters. And there is, of course, Monokuma, but he is at least supposed to be obnoxiously sadistic.
For most of its run the series is an exercise in pure sensationalism; any claim to greater goals quickly gets washed out by the spectacle if it ever existed at all. In the late stages events suggest that being a spectacle is the entire point of the exercise. That is far easier to swallow than intimations that the scenario may, at its core, be a classic struggle between the forces of Hope and Despair. If that is really what it is then it take a clumsy, ham-handed approach to it. The series also makes some curious literary references, especially to the much-belabored children's book Little Black Sambo; for those not familiar with the story, the matter concerning butter in one scene is a take-off on what happens in that book. (The story has long been popular in Japan and never had the racist connotations there that it developed in the U.S. and many other countries, hence why it probably passed muster for use here.)
The visual style of the series is very striking, though whether or not it could actually be called appealing is another story. It follows the original game's lead by making any spilled blood a fluorescent pink color, and that is not the only aspect of the color scheme which can be garish. Character designs, which are close replications of the original game, are taken to extremes, with impossibly long, waggling tongues being used to mark psychotic characters, one girl being a muscle-bound brute who looks like a guy in a girl's school outfit, extreme hairdos, and so forth. Despite a couple of the characters being built for sex appeal, the fan service in the series is actually very minimal; only in a handful of the places does the camera even seem to linger on a girl's chest. The animation, courtesy of studio Lerche, likes to zoom around in 3D CGI settings and uses other tricks which would later also be seen in the studio's Assassination Classroom. Unique to this series, though, is how it handles the execution scenes. These could probably best be described as 2D characters transposed into a 3D setting done in limited coloring, which definitely makes for an odd visual impression. Overall, the animation is actually pretty good; it does use some shortcuts but is less obvious about them. However, the look of the series will definitely not have universal appeal.
Although the musical score does not do anything spectacular, neither is it dull. Its eclectic style is probably most effective with its eerie numbers, but it also has rock and heavier tones for when things get serious and more playful jazzy beats when things aren't. Regular opener “Never Say Never” is a rap-flavored number done entirely in English, while the main closer "Zetsubōsei: Hero Chiryōyaku" comes in two minor but significant variations; an alternate closer is also used for the final episode, while an alternate opener is used in one other episode.
The English dub for the animation uses an almost entirely different cast than that used in the game. When it comes to voicing Monokuma, there was one obvious, natural choice and ADR director Christopher Bevins went for it: Greg Ayres, who gets the character exactly right. Bryce Papenbrook, who is the one carry-over from the video game, is also a natural choice for Makoto, as is Caitlin Glass for Kyoko. Other casting choices are anywhere from decent to great fits, too. The English script takes a lot of liberties in coloring up the metaphors and pop culture references (especially for Monokuma) but never fails to get its points and meaning across.
Funimation's release of the title comes in its standard format: a single case containing both Blu-Ray and DVD disks, with the case coming in a slipcover. (A Limited Edition version with an artbox is also available.) On-disk Extras include U.S. trailers for the series, clean versions of the standard openers and closers, and an English audio commentary featuring Bevins and three of the cast members. The included episode 13 is also the elongated Director's Cut version.
Ultimately, the animated side of the franchise works much better on a micro level than on a macro level. Its piecemeal explanation of the backstory does not come together well, and character motivations (and especially their pushes to get involved in murders) are sometimes very shaky. Its individual scenes still quite adequately entertain, though, which can make this a fun ride for those who appreciate deadly sport.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B-
Music : B
+ Some dramatic twists which are not always predictable, bold visual aesthetic.
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