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Dangan Ronpa: Adaptations, Despair, and Hope December 2, 2015

Posted by navycherub in Anime, Danganronpa, Essay, Video Games.
Tags: , , ,
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Note: This post is filled with immediate reactions, speculation, and all other kinds of general brain dumping. It doesn’t contain (big) spoilers, though, because I am more kind than the anime staff it seems. It isn’t even really about Dangan Ronpa as much as it is about video game/visual novel adaptations in general (with Dangan Ronpa as a case study), but eh. Read at your own risk.
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A new anime has been announced for the Dangan Ronpa franchise, but it isn’t the adaptation of Goodbye Despair as many of us wished it would be. No, instead, it claims to be, no kidding, the “conclusion of the “Hope’s Peak Academy” series“.

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This is a huge departure in a few ways, and it is fairly easy to illustrate that by simply looking at the previous games and anime that have told their stories.

It is easy to assume you have, but if you haven’t played or at least heard of how Dangan Ronpa usually works, it goes a bit like this. You play as the main character trapped in a school (or a beach resort) and as time goes by, your classmates inevitably kill each other. From there you spend a whole lot of time examining everything you can – the crime scene itself, the surrounding area, and so on. You also, of course, spend time talking to your classmates who still happen to be alive in order to try and get whatever evidence or information otherwise that you can from them. The game doesn’t rush you; you can spend as much time as you like looking at everything you want to and talking to all the characters, but when you have eventually found all of the evidence the game has left around for you, it tells you that it is time for the trial proper.

In anime form, this aspect has potential. After all, popular anime like Detective Conan and The File of Young Kindaichi pull it off all the time. However, but it requires a good effort, mostly of retooling the fetch quest entirely so that the focus is somewhere other than the simple act of retrieving the evidence. It is pretty engaging when you have to do all the leg work yourself – checking all the nooks and crannies, noticing small details, and saying the right things to the right characters is fun when you are doing it, but it is absolutely no fun to watch someone else do it for you.

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The first game’s adaptation didn’t do this at all, and it was a disaster. At best, there was some sleuthing, some small discussions, and a majority of the evidence used in the game was found by Naegi and crew. At the worst, though, the investigation lasted a couple of minutes tops, showing a montage of clue-finding before we jumped right into the trial. It isn’t that I don’t understand why this was the case. The trials are, in terms of plot progression and characterization, significantly more important than the investigation, and sometimes much longer, too.

The most important consequence this has for telling an interesting story is that the anime has no time to stretch its limbs like the game does. Because they have to fit in as much of the evidence as they can, the banter with the characters that does such a good job of humanizing them and making them more interesting is lost almost completely. Also lost is the bits of humor that make up such a large part of Dangan Ronpa‘s personality as a franchise – even when you know for a fact some part of the room won’t have any clues, you find yourself wanting to “investigate” it anyway, since there is a high chance the game has some snarky little joke or fun tidbit to throw your way if you bother. To put it simply, there is no time to stop and smell the flowers when you go from a game with as much time as you want to put into it to an anime with one cour and a story to tell.

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In the trial, you and the other character stand around in a circle and yell at each other. In between bouts of name-calling and conjecture there are a variety of minigames that allow you to use the evidence you gathered to proceed toward the truth. These minigames take all sorts of forms. Most of the time you are shooting “bullets” of “evidence” at weak points in arguments (in the second game, you can also choose to use evidence to support strong points). The other games are a little more interpretive – remembering words by putting floating letters together, shooting down particularly bad arguments in a rhythm game, and even snowboarding past pitfalls while answering logic questions. Eventually you have reasoned through every possible idea and you are rewarded with a conclusion to the case.

Once again, the anime loses pretty much all of the immersive aspects that make the process of “solving” the mystery fun or interesting in its own right. While it borrowed aesthetic choices from the game, such as the evidence bullets and the explanation with a comic, it naturally lost the feeling of achieving something by being transferred to a passive medium. It is flat-out unrealistic to fault an anime for not being able to give you that experience. All hope isn’t lost, though.

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What is potentially left is the often humorous, character-defining banter and discussions. These seem like they could stick around – after all, even in the game, the player doesn’t actually participate. They act more like cutscenes between the minigames, letting the characters express themselves and the story breathe before it is the player’s turn to “talk” again. The anime even largely cuts this stuff out, though, once again in the interest of time – there are so many important plot beats to get to that there is no time to do that and also show you how incompetent Hagakure is every couple minutes.

The final aspect of these games is one that isn’t brought up much when talking about gameplay in Dangan Ronpa but I’m sure any fan would tell you is indispensable to their enjoyment of the franchise – free time events. During days without investigations or trials, you are given full reign (barring plot-related restrictions) to spend your time with any of the characters, allowing you to learn more about them, and even give them gifts to gain their favor so that they will be more open with you. It isn’t in the time where emotions are running high and a culprit must be found where the characters transcend the stereotypes they initially appear as, but instead here. This has no real equivalent in the anime, at all, to the point I doubt you’d even guess it is there in the first place.

What all of this amounts to is really just a simple fact of storytelling: without any reason to be invested what is happening around the plot, or how it matters to the characters (who matter to you because the story has sold them to you as people), there is no reason to care about the nuts and bolts of the plot in the first place. Without the atmosphere, the characters, and the humor that define Dangan Ronpa, and without any gameplay elements to at least give yourself the illusion of being the sleuth yourself, the very concept of Dangan Ronpa falls apart. Instead of caring about the outcomes of the arcs, the inherent silliness of the entire concept is all that is left to think about.

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This is where some positivity comes into play, and I try to turn all of the problems with the first attempt at a Dangan Ronpa anime around. You see, this one has a key difference that they can capitalize on – it isn’t an adaptation.

By shedding its chains of video game origins – where time is seen as unlimited, the plot wants to involve the player actively, and so on – this “final” part of the Hope’s Peak Academy story can stick its landing gracefully. There is no map already made for this anime to follow, and so with full control of the events, the narrative of The End of Hope’s Peak Academy can take advantage of its new linear format to tell its story properly. Any sense of things being rushed will no longer have an excuse, and characterization can be allowed to take its rightful place alongside the ever-important plot.

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It may seem like there are fewer opportunities here, but this is a case where less is more. As the saying goes, restrictions do in fact breed creativity. The structure of Dangan Ronpa we are used to can (and probably should, for the sake of the medium it is not being told in) be completely thrown out of the window. The traditional series of investigation arcs can be readily replaced with one story; the need to kill characters is no longer an excuse to deny them important moments of characterization. The Dangan Ronpa games have a few scenes where the player sees more than the actual main character, but the move from generally first person storytelling to third person means mysteries (or whatever form the new show takes) can drop hints and information for the audience without being forced to give everything up to the cast. Heck, the very nature of it being an anime instead of essentially a visual novel means that there is a whole new dimension – the visuals, no longer restricted to CGs and sprites – is ripe for potential in aiding the storytelling.

This isn’t to say that adaptations can’t do all of this – they can, and sometimes they do, but the desire to be “faithful” and the need to tell the entirety of the original story in often gets in the way of that potential. In other words, Dangan Ronpa can use this second chance to show why it is so beloved, but to do that, they need to recognize how much new freedom they truly have with this opportunity. Hopefully it works out, because I am  sufficiently hyped.

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Comments»

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[…] you have no way whatsoever of playing this game – er, no, even then, I’d skip this. I pretty much expect these video game adaptations to be tame and unimpressive anyway, but Ace Attorney plays it so safe […]

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[…] go at the Hope’s Peak Academy story, apparently, and I couldn’t be happier. I wrote back when this was first announced about how wary yet optimistic I was about the final story being told […]


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