Danganronpa: Guilt, Propaganda, Asociality, and Despair in Anime

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains spoilers for Danganronpa. This essay is a re-write of an earlier article on the same subject.

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In Danganronpa, there is Despair and her Remnants. In addition to the Ultimate Despair Junko Enoshima of Dangaronpa 1, there are also the Remnants of Despair of Danganronpa 2. In the Danganronpa universe, the Remnants of Despair are  Junko’s agents: sewing chaos, mayhem… mass Despair, generally. According to the Danganronpa lore, most killed themselves after learning Junko was defeated. Several managed on to justify living on, causing trouble for our heroes. Some of these Remnants genuinely believe in despair and worship Junko. Others were brainwashed or manipulated into becoming Remnants. The  Ultimate Lucky Student and Hope Fetishist Nagito Komaeda was persuaded by Junko to become a Remnant. Junko convinced that if Hope prevails at humanity’s darkest hour, he’ll experience his best… release yet. All he has to pursue his agenda of hope is… help make things super dark for humanity. Nagito’s weird.

In the Danganronpa 3 anime, Former Hope’s Peak Academy Headmaster Kazuo Tengan masquerades as a Remnant, in hopes of winning an ultimate victory for… well, Hope. He organizes a terrible new killing game, hoping it will make things so bad that it will convince the Ultimate Animator to unleash his talents on the world. You might ask what’s so terrifying about an animator, and the answer to that would be because it’s Danganronpa, at least in part. Ultimate Animator Ryota has not only the capacity to make engaging and compelling anime. His animator skills also give him the ability to outright brainwash and mind control people. In his quest to craft the ultimate anime capable of moving everyone who watches it, Ryota’s talents were manipulated  by Junko to cause the apocalypse through mass hypnosis mind control. Kazuo is now trying to utilize his talents to reverse it… by also using mass hypnosis mind control.

As an arguable, albeit unwilling, Remnant of Despair himself, his skills have the power to change people for the kinder and for the terrible. To be clear, while effective propaganda can influence how people behave in certain situations, Danganronpa 3 is not an accurate example of how propaganda actually works. It oversimplifies the power media consumption have at shaping viewer psychology. Animation is a type of media, and where influencing media consumers are concerned, the power animation has over how people think is conditional. The show unrealistically imagines that it is possible that media creators in its universe, the Ultimate Animator specifically, can brainwash other people through a glass reflection’s glance if they’re “Ultimate” enough. Despite what’s possible in Danganronpa and what’s actually possible in real life, the anime nonetheless got me thinking about real-life parallels. For me, Danganronpa 3 seemed to be subtly drawing a connection between its Ultimate Ryota and Japanese creators such as cartoonists and animators. Willingly and unwillingly, wittingly and unwittingly, these artists channeled their skills into creating propaganda for certain causes, like World War II-era Imperial Japan and the cult of Aum Shinrikyo.

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Ryota Mitarai really likes anime. He also thinks his life kind of sucks. Life disappoints him on the regular, what with him having no friends. Anime perks his mood up regularly, what with its perky stories. Anime’s his regular source of joy, his only source, in fact. He likes watching anime so much so that he eventually decided to try his hand at making some. He discovered he had a talent for it, and so he decided to go hardcore at it. Thereafter, he spent most of his days inside, making anime. Over the course of his self-imposed shut-in life, he discovered his talent held actual, real power — not only over himself, but also others. The anime he created seemed to smooth out every disappointing and depressing wrinkle of his existence. His anime him believe that that he could do the same to every person that watched his work. He resolved to create an anime whose story could touch everyone, an ultimate anime of Hope that would compel his audiences to make the world a better place. But instead of trying to inspire people to make the world better, his creations were more designed to coerce them.

His abilities were not so much calling people to action as they were controlling them to do what he wants. Like weapons of mass destruction (and mass hypnosis might technically be considered in Danganronpa as a class of), those abilities are coercive, dangerous, and dehumanizing. While what Ryota wants may be entirely noble, those same powers, in the wrong hands, can fuel far more ignoble ambitions.

By really bad luck or utterly cruel fate, Junko bumps into Ryota. After needling him into being allowed to watch his masterpiece-in-progress, she gets him to explain how much his opus magnum to-be relies on brainwashing techniques — and not the actual content of his stories. The guy never gets out much after becoming obsessed with anime, and the only thing he ever does is watch and make anime. Anime isn’t especially that renowned for being a mature storytelling medium yet, at least compared to other mediums like literature and even movies. Motivating others into kindness by empathizing with them through fiction would require actually understanding others so he knows what writing is relatable, an understanding he sorely lacks. As someone who wouldn’t know the first thing about people because of his shut-in lifestyle, it makes sense that whatever storytelling chops he did possess would fall far short of carrying his ultimate anime through. As an alternative, he focused on mind control triggers over empathetic storytelling.  If nothing else, Anime is at least digital signals.

As ultimately expected, Junko sinks her claws into Ryota for her own ends. She takes what was inherently exploitative and potentially dangerous about the creation process of his ultimate anime of Hope, and re-channels these skills into creating media that causes Despair. Ryota initially believes they’re on the same side, with Junko encouraging him to further develops his mind controlling skills as he works on their product. Junko later reveals dramatically what she’s actually been having Ryota work on when the project seems to have hit the point of no return, a means to incite mass murder and hysteria.  Junko then forces Ryota to complete their work, on pain of revealing his complicity to the world of creating this most awful and terrible thing, in full knowledge that his actions may well bring about the apocalypse (which they eventually do). With everything terrible done, Junko delivers the coup-de-désespoir to Ryota: he’s absolutely 100% unambiguously complicit in her crime, or rather their crime. He may as well be a Remnant. Post-apocalypse, he still adamantly insists to the survivors who find out about him that he was forced into doing it, he had no choice.

Ryota shares similar circumstances to some Japanese cartoonists and animators during WWII. Now, there were some who were ideologically and whole-heartedly chauvinistic from the start of their careers. However, many of them weren’t. Like Ryota, some even championed causes that chauvinistic nationalists opposed. The years roughly grouped under the reign of Emperor Taisho, the early 1910s to the late 1920s, were known as the years of Taisho Democracy. They were liberal times, where Japanese society was open to social expression, democratic experimentation, and left-of-center activism, more so than ever. Many artists, cartoonists, and animators counted themselves as leftist social critics — commenting on, critiquing, sometimes excoriating leading public figures even as they entertained their audiences with their work.

That brief era of Taisho Democracy came to an end as the Japanese Imperial regime geared all aspects of society to support its war efforts in the Pacific theater. To ensure everyone was giving their all to supporting the war (and not trying to sabotage it, intentionally or otherwise), leading Imperial Japanese government, military, and public figures  “enrolled” the country’s artists, cartoonists, and animators into national patriotic unions. They “enlisted” the services of these unions for making propaganda. Media as propaganda best works when the people who that media is targeted to are both already receptive to those messages and are being exposed to complementary influences — the constant exhortations, rituals, and information reaffirming the Emperor’s godliness, the government’s justness, and Japan’s greatness. The lively social criticism of Taisho yesteryear was asphyxiated until finally, it ceased to squirm, ready to be completely Showa compliant. Some creators fled the country rather than work under these conditions. Others who refused to work but didn’t manage to flee were incarcerated until death or war’s end. Still others were initially imprisoned and then released under the condition they channel their craft toward what the government demanded them. And finally, there were those that needed little coercion to motivate them to extol Japan’s war efforts as righteous.

The motivations of those artists, cartoonists, and animators who ultimately offered 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. Finally, there were those that were afraid of what would happen to them and their loved ones if they resisted. At war’s end, the Nuremberg Trials established an international legal precedent: that an admission of fearfulness on by those complicit in crimes against humanity during the war would not excuse them from receiving their justly knot-notched dues. “I had no choice” would not save them. 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 own devastated homeland.

And after wallowing in the despair brought about in part by his creative inputs, like many of these criminal and complicit artists, cartoonists, and animators post-WWII, Ryota vowed to redirect his craft to reverse the damage and atone for his crimes. Whether or not they produced propaganda for the war effort or not, many artists, cartoonists, and animators since have dedicated their future work toward promoting pacifism in place of militarism. Unlike them though,  Ryota traumatically comes to a bad end conclusion with Danganronpa 3’s final killing game, the conclusion the killing mastermind Tengan been counting on him falling into. In order to reverse the Despair he’s complicit in causing with his technology, and to make up for all his denial and inaction, he decides to use that that same technology eliminate Despair once and for all. People can’t cause Despair to each other if they don’t have the agency to cause, after all. With this act, Ryota the effective criminal Remnant can achieve a total victory for Hope, or so he comes to believe.

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Both Ryota’s complicity in using brainwashing to propagate Despair and Ryota’s desperation to use brainwashing to propagate Hope are but additional complexities added by the creator of Danganronpa to his franchise’s initial moral binary of Hope vs Despair. In some ways, Hope and Despair is like oil and water — mutually exclusive, seemingly, but found together quite often in soup broth and salad dressing as part of flavor complements. Hope can lead to Despair, and terrible Despair at that, the whole “the road to hell” dynamic. Among other tools, the Imperial regime used art, cartoons, and anime to paint the Hope Japan that would prevail over her enemies in the Pacific War by whatever means, up until that same Japan was firebombed and nuked into ruin and Imperial regime submitted and was dismantled, whereupon a deep and scarring Despair took hold over the country’s survivors. For a more modern as well as concrete example of Hope bringing Despair though, there’s Aum Shinrikyo.

The ultimate Hope of Aum Shinrikyo’s many followers is one that I doubt most people would take issue with in the abstract, even if they think it’s a bit naive: a utopia, a world free from conflict. However, the means that Aum Shinrikyo used to live up to this Hope demanded a lot of violence, that violence culminating into 13 people killed and many others maimed in the 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks. 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 outside academic circles. Cult in at least the malicious sense is characterized by a fanatical single-mindedness toward something, like an idol or a goal.

The cult members of Aum Shinrikyo followed its idol, Shoko Asahara, and subordinated their thoughts to his. They did so under the promise that he would bring about this utopia mentioned earlier.  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 it leaving a scar in Japan’s larger cultural psyche. 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 many cult members before and especially after the 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks being characterized as various forms of asocial and anti-social, and anime otaku being largely seen as anti-social or asocial due to their shut-in NEET association and the Miyazaki Tsutomu serial murders of the late 1980s, anime and other aspects of the otaku subculture were ultimately connected in the public discourse with anti-social and asocial tendencies. The fact that some Aum Shinrikyo cult members were cartoonists or animators didn’t help the reputation of anime fans. Some viciously resented other people and society because of bad experiences with both, and joined Aum Shinrikyo because the cult acknowledged and encouraged that anti-social resentment. Others simple felt isolated by a society and people at large that didn’t fully understand and accept them, and joined Aum Shinrikyo because it offered a place they felt comfortable belonging to.

Despair’s Remnants are effectively a cult (or the inner circle of a cult). With some idiosyncrasies between members like Nagito, they hold a fanatical single-minded devotion to Junko and Despair. The majority of the Remnants are anti-social, or hostile to others and society at large. They rather cheerfully like bringing harming and suffering to people and they did actively help bring about the apocalypse. Ryota is more asocial though, distant from others and society at large. His kind of asociality is a combination of indifference and fear, an extreme prioritization of his singular passion at the expense of his social-confidence. Like those asocial folks picked up by Shoko Asahara and Aum Shinrikyo, that seclusion from robust, healthy, or just any social support network made Ryota all that more easy a mark for Junko to manipulate into contributing to her cult of Despair.

Ryota hoped to use his animation talents to make the world at least a little better. Instead, his talents were appropriated by Junko to make the world so much worse. As aforementioned, the killing game leads him to that conclusion that Tengan hopes he would come to: defeating the Despair that leads to killing games by removing the potential for Despair to even be a thought. By projecting control over everyone’s minds — overriding their free will, the basis of their humanity — Hope will triumph. Irony and hypocrisy notwithstanding, there will be utopia.

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To all our major characters besides the Ultimate Animator, this ultimate solution is a dystopic non-option. Makoto Naegi, Hajime Hinata, and Kyosuke Munakata end up enduring similar, if not worse, trauma at Junko’s hands. But even through that Despair, they endured. Because the loves they felt and the friendships they made were only possible with them, they fought back for humanity’s right for their own minds

Ultimately, without free minds…

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…there would be no happy memories.

Memories of light and warmth, of bonds with people that are real and mutual, of people who care because they care too, and not just you. It’s easier for Ryota to make this choice for others that aren’t him because he can’t empathize. He has trouble empathizing. He shut himself away for so long to make anime and made had use for empathy in his approach to making the ultimate anime.

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Ryota’s ultimate anime of Hope may have centered around brainwashing, but he’s not a sociopath like Junko. He has some empathy, because he wouldn’t have wanted to make the world a genuinely better place otherwise. He craved companionship deep down, despite his lack of social-confidence. But empathy grows and matures through trial and error with others. Because he was so self-absorbed in his vocation as to shun company, the empathy he did have was small and stunted. And because Hajime offer him a place among them despite everything that’s happened. He could finally understood how Hajime and the others would hurt with his decision because he could empathize with them now.  He finally understood how he’d hurt if he was in their shoes. He was one of them now, and hurting them hurts him.

By coersion or choice, with regret or lack of, from WWII, Aum Shinrikyo, and finally… Danganronpa, animators had a real and influencial history of making animated propaganda. While there’s ample reason to doubt how effective this propaganda is in a vaccum, this dubious aspect of anime history does cast a pall over what we might be inclined or really want to believe is a medium that brings only joy. Through Ryota, Danganronpa illustrates and reflects on this troubling dynamic, perhaps asking its audience to reflect and evaluate their own relationship with anime. It’s all well and good to enjoy watching anime and even desiring creating some, but not expense of making connections with the human beings around us. Otherwise, we might be prone to becoming asocial, never growing our empathy.

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

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