Danganronpa: War Guilt, Anti-sociality, Asociality, and the Animator’s Despair

Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes.

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To temporarily relegate the Danganronpa franchise’s rather passionate, colorful, and often on-the-nose discourse on hope and despair to the background, here’s a character in the Danganronpa 3 anime who caught my attention. With his status as the “Ultimate” Animator, Ryota Mitorai possessed not only the capacity to make media generally,  anime specifically, that people could enjoy. He also possessed the ability to create propaganda could brainwash the masses. Willingly, in the name of hope, and unwittingly, in the name of despair,  he appropriated his skills and had his skills appropriated to compel people to act.

To qualify, Danganronpa 3 rather oversimplifies the power media has at shaping viewer psychology. Animation is a type of media, and where influencing other people’s behaviors are concerned, the power animation has over our thought processes are limited and conditional. The show automatically assumes that it’s possible that media creators generally, and animators specifically, can brainwash other people at a  smartphone and TV monitor glance if they’re “Ultimate” enough. The brainwashing mechanisms themselves weren’t enough to get me to muse. What did get me to ponder were the references and parallels Danganronpa 3 seemed to be subtly drawing between Ryota and Japanese artists, cartoonists, and yes… animators from that channeled their skills, willingly and unwillingly, wittingly and unwittingly, to create propaganda for their causes.

As I recount Ryota part in the story as  the propagandist for both despair and hope, I’ll make some self-interjections in strategic locations to draw connections between two parallels in animated media to have made their notorious mark in Japanese history: war-time Imperial Japan and guilt, and asociality, anti-sociality and the Aum Shinrikyo cult.

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Ryota Mitarai likes anime. He likes watching anime. Whereas the other facets of his life have disappointed and depressed him on a semi-regular basis, watching anime was the one aspect of it all that gave him consistent pleasure and comfort. He liked watching anime so much that he decided that he wanted to make anime himself. He subsequently became an animator. Over the course of his self-imposed shut-in life honing his craft, he discovered he had an unparalleled talent in conceptualizing, directing, storyboarding, scripting, and yes… animating amazing anime. He derived such pleasure and comfort in anime that he decided that he wanted to share his amazing anime with other people. He resolved to make an anime like no other, an ultimate anime of hope that would “compel” others to make the world a better place to live in. Problematically though, his anime of ultimate hope utilized brainwashing techniques.

Quite understandably, it’s more-than-arguable that that compulsion wouldn’t be altogether voluntary.

Problem-personified, Junko Enoshima runs into Ryota by chance (or fate, if you want to be twisted), and after needling him into having her watch his masterpiece-in-progress and having him explain how much his opus magnum relied on brainwashing techniques, Junko manipulates him into using his animator animation talents to create problematically-despairing brainwashing programming. She then happily appropriated to press people into her service, compel people to mutilate and murder themselves, or otherwise send people in spiraling despair. Ryota, initially fooled into her service for noble intentions, becomes eventually stumbles upon a video presentation of her terrible designs.  Despair-personified, Junko Enoshima intimidates Ryota into finishing what he now fully realizes is a propaganda project, insisting to others horrified by his work that he had no choice. And then, once finished, Junko delivers the coup-de-désespoir to Ryota. He’s complicit in her terribleness. He’s effectively become a remnant of despair.

The history buff that I am, I couldn’t help but recount the activities of many artists, cartoonists, and animators leading up to and throughout World War II. Now, some were ideologically and whole-heartedly chauvinistic from the start of their careers. However, many of them weren’t. The years roughly grouped under the reign of Emperor Taishō, the early 1910s to the late 1920s, were also known as the years of Taishō Democracy. Japanese society was more open up to that point than at anytime in its past to social expression, democratic experimentation, and left-of-center activism. Many artists, cartoonists, and animators counted themselves as leftist social critics, commenting on, critiquing, sometimes excoriating leading public figures even as they regaled their audiences with their stylistic creations.

The relatively brief era of Taishō Democracy came to an end as Japan prepared for the Second World War. In their efforts to ensure that the Japanese economy was geared full-heartedly toward war production, to convince Japanese subjects into imagining themselves as “one hundred million hearts beating as one” so full-throttled war production was possible, the leading government, military, and public figures of the time “enrolled” the country’s artists, cartoonists, and animators into national patriotic unions and “enlisted” these unions’ services for the purpose of propaganda production. The lively social criticism of yesteryear was asphyxiated until it ceased to squirm. Some of these creative producers fled the country. Others were jailed until death or the war’s end. Still others, initially imprisoned, were released under the condition they channel their craft for the nation. And finally, there were others who needed little coercion to motivate them to extol and exhort Japan and dehumanize and demonize the West.

The motivations of the artists, cartoonists, and animators who lent their skills to the propaganda offices varied. Some thought that the West had oppressed Japan for far too long. Others saw Japan as an Asian liberator against Western imperialism. Still others were convinced that it was Japan’s right to dominate and subjugate as its own bona fide imperialist power. And finally, there were others that were afraid of what would happen to them and their loved ones if they resisted. At the war’s close, the Nuremberg Trials established the international legal precedent that an admission of fearfulness on the part of those complicit in war crimes would not excuse them from receiving their justly knot-notched dues. While the Nuremberg Trials were set up to officially and specifically prosecute the atrocities of leading German Nazis, the complicit artists, cartoonists, and animators who created propaganda for Imperial Japan faced their own punishment in the form of guilt at contributing to the despair of their homeland.

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And after wallowing in the despair brought about in part by his creative inputs, like many of these complicit artists, cartoonists, and animators post-WWII, Ryota vowed to redirect his craft to atoning for his crimes. Whether or not they produced propaganda for the war effort or not, many artists, cartoonists, and animators post-WWII dedicated their future work toward propagating the values of pacifism in place of militarism. Returning back to how Ryota knows how to brainwash people, the conclusion that Ryota traumatically comes to in order to atone for his part in developing the technology that fueled Junko’s despairful machinations…  is to use that same technology that he developed to brainwash people to realize his own hope-driven desperation towards permanently eliminating despair.

To now bring the hope and despair discourse to the fore, both Ryota’s complicity in using brainwashing to propagate despair and Ryota’s desperation to use brainwashing to propagate hope is are sections to a larger conversation about hope and despair by the Danganronpa franchise. As oil-and-water as these concepts tend to be seen mixed together, they share a relationship that isn’t mutually exclusive. What goal one hopes for is arbitrary, and the methods one allows oneself to utilize to achieve one’s hopes can be flexible. The ends hoped for could justify some despair-inducing means, and the hopes of one person may be or lead to the despair of another. And of course, the greater one’s hopes for a goal, the deeper one’s despair when those hopes are betrayed. Hope and despair can also act like oil-and-fire.

The hopes of Aum Shinrikyo were the realization of a utopia, a world free of conflict. The means that Aum Shinrikyo used to live up to these hopes included, but were not limited to, the 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks. The despair that was generated came about from the maimed and murdered victims of Aum Shinrikyo. Aum Shinrikyo has been described by news media pundits and religious studies scholars as a type of cult. The definition surrounding the word “cult” is a matter of debate both within and without the ivory towers of higher learning, but one thread of denotation that appears in the majority of definitions of cult-like behavior that I’m familiar with is a fanatical single-mindedness toward the realization of a goal. The cult members of Aum Shinrikyo followed its head, Shoko Asahara, and subordinated their subjectivities to his. They did so under the promise that he would bring about a utopia centered around him and what he stands for. The cult-like members of despair zealously followed its leader, Junko Enoshima, and subordinated their subjectivities to hers. They did so under the promise that she would bring about a utopia centered around her and what she stands for.

All of the above information being said about cults, it might seem like a stretch on my part to connect Aum Shinrikyo with Danganronpa’s Ryota. Since the 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas Attack, anime franchises have repeatedly invoked the trope of evil cults in their narratives. Part of the anime industry’s obsession with cults has to do with a the popular psyche in Japan being scarred culturally by the aforementioned attacks. But part of it also stems from the role that animators played in producing for Aum Shinrikyo. Counted within the ranks of cult members within Aum Shinrikyo were artists, cartoonists, and animators charged with using their skills to create art, manga, and anime featuring messages tailored toward the recruitment of more cult members. With the cult members being characterized as asocial and anti-social by the news (these two qualities often being conflated but not altogether mutually exclusive), and anime otaku already seen as anti-social due to an overgeneralized NEET association, a transgressively perverse sexuality, and the Miyazaki Tsutomu serial murders of the late 1980s, anime and other aspects of the otaku subculture with being connected by the public at large with anti-social tendencies of destruction and asocial tendencies of escapism.

The full context behind Ryota’s hope to eliminate despair is informed by two things: 1) his prior association with a destructive cult, and the guilt he feels having been involved in it, and 2) his own asocial habits.

Ryota hoped to use his animation talents to make the world a little better. Instead, the brainwashing portions of his animation talents were appropriated by Junko, the head of a despair cult and despair-personified, to make the world so much worse. In the throes of despair, he eventually came to the conclusion that permanently eliminating despair would require overriding human nature. A world free of conflict, a utopia, became his hope. Free will both is unique to humanity and is responsible for allowing people to experience despair in the first place. The brainwashing portions of his talents, the ones associated with the cult of his universe and cults of ours, would be very apt at compelling people to stop acting human.

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The reason why Ryota is able to convince himself to strip people of their humanity, is due to the fact that he’s lived isolated for the longest time while plying his animator vocation. Makoto Naegi, Hajime Hinata, and Kyosuke Munakata end up enduring similar, if not worse, amounts of trauma at the machinations of Junko. What allows them all to avoid falling to despair wholly were the tight bonds they forged and shared with their loved ones over formative periods.

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What leads them to find Ryota’s guilt-ridden desperation to override free will ridiculous, and what prompts them to work toward stopping him, is the feeling that these integral to the linking these tight bonds with their loved ones is choice. Being human and having free will can be suffering, but can also be joy.

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Ryota’s kept himself secluded from others, so he has trouble understanding this point. His struggle to empathize with others informs why Ryota’s description of the elements that made up his anime of hope were dominated by discussions of brainwashing instead of relating. Only when Hajime and Class 77-B explicitly welcome him into their fold, connecting with him on that positive level that only humanity with its free will could pull off, does he finally relent.

As a viewer knowledgeable about Japanese history and culture, the decisions and circumstances of Danganronpa 3’s Ryota are, in fact, commentaries on the themes of guilt and asociality and anti-sociality. This commentaries drew from the country’s memories of wartime Japan and the Aum Shinrikyo cult, and they also provide both hopeful and healthy response to people like Ryota who are despairingly afflicted by both qualities. That response is relying on most immediate and basic of social structures. It’s relying on the faith placed on him by his loved ones.

Management: For more from yours truly on Aum Shinrikyo, evil cults, and their anime connections, click the link here.

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