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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Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid: The Hidden Reason Behind Sports Day

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid anime, especially Episode 9.

For a mightily questionable premise of “the adventures of a bespectacled Victorian maid-obsessed salarywoman and the busty live-in dragonoid maid that wants to lovey-dovey to quite-erotic things with her”, Kyoto Animation’s anime adaptation of the manga series is surprisingly thoughtful. Now… I wouldn’t call it entirely wholesome.  The adaptation doesn’t completely excise all its questionably horny gags: a dragon woman’s lack of boundary respect for a middle school boy, a middle school girl’s less-than-prurient feelings for dragon girl classmate. Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid (henceforth just Dragon Maid) is nevertheless thoughtful where it talks about family and community. Rather than their dynamic being solely defined by comedy that exploits their bizarre situation, Kobayashi and Tohru’s queer relationship is nurtured numerous moments of appreciation and intimacy. By the end of the first season, a Kobayashi that invited Tohru in during a drunken stupor has become a Kobayashi that she misses her dearly while fully sober: not just because Tohru’s the maid she’s always wanted (she’s not Victorian), but because she feels rent without Tohru in her life.

Much like how Kobayashi, Tohru, and later Kanna eventually live together under the same roof as strangers-turned-family, Japanese society reproduces and reinforces familial and communal values in the people that comprise it. Kobayashi begins the show as nerdy workaholic loner, not necessarily opposed to socializing, but mainly focused on personal interests: day job and maid hobbies (the real Victorian shit). By the end of the show, Kobayashi lives in a family sized apartment with Tohru, spending money and making time for Kanna’s school supplies and functions.

From the family side of things, her atypical depiction in anime and Japanese media in general as a rather unfeminine looking-computer programming-salaryperson slaving-maid otaku raving-ultimately queer woman doesn’t prevent her from forming a happy family complete with a child. Japanese society promotes making families for the sake of raising children for Japan’s future. Dragon Maid deviates but doesn’t fully depart from that goal. If you can be open-minded about her lesbian relationship with a rather motherly Tohru and the non-blooded connection to her still effective daughter Kanna, Kobayashi’s character slots rather snugly in that customary role of father. Kobayashi is the stoic tie-and-slacks breadwinner.

From the community side of things, Kobayashi’s desire to provide for Tohru and Kanna, make them happy, and keep her world welcoming to them puts her into situations that require her to engage with society more broadly than she previously had. Nothing better illustrates this change in Kobayashi more than Sports Day. But… what is Sports Day exactly? What’s so special about it? As a person currently in Japan teaching kids there for a living, I’ve had the opportunity to spectate and even participate in Sports Days. I studied the games and activities whilst cheering for my students. Somewhere, I realized a educative purpose to it all that doesn’t have to do with athletic fitness.

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Angolmois: The History Behind the First Mongol Invasion

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Angolmois anime.

Under the leadership of Genghis Khan, the destiny of the Mongol people was transformed. From the squabbling horse tribes of the steppe, they were now the mounted conquerors of empire. Unified as a people, the Mongols challenged the august authority of the Celestial Empire: China. They took that authority for themselves, tearing the stars from their skies, crushing Chinese resistance in the north and declaring themselves China’s new rulers. The grandson of Genghis Khan and the third leader of the unified Mongol horde, Kublai Khan turned his conqueror’s appetite toward the Land of the Rising Sun and ordered the first of two Mongol invasions of Japan.

It is in this historical backdrop that Angolmois: Record of Mongol Invasion finds its setting and conflict: Tsushima, 1274 – the first frontline of the first invasion of Japan by the Mongols. Kuchii Jinzaburo and a band of exiles – a fellowship of petty scoundrels and disgraced warriors – find themselves ferried out of death row and shipped into a battlefield. There, those among them willing to fight alongside Tsushima’s defenders make their own contributions to this drama of bloodshed and sacrifice that, judging by the history, will amount to little more than a delaying action for the Mongols’ ultimate goal: the Japanese mainland.

But how did it come to this? How do the events from the history inform this animated fiction?

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A Reflection on Weird Things Eaten in Golden Kamuy and Real Life

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Golden Kamuy anime.

My undisputed favorite comfort meal to eat is Dinuguan. I remember falling in love with it back when I was little. It’s a Filipino delicacy, a savory stew made of garlic, vinegar, peppers, spices, pork bits, and… pig’s blood. I wasn’t aware that it was made with pig’s blood until my parents told me when I was much older. My reaction?  The news of it unfazed me. All that mattered was that it tasted good. I realize that that kind of reaction isn’t the norm for my friends and acquaintances. Many of them aren’t Asian or or particularly adventurous with what they eat. I’ve seen several of them balk at me while while I’m selling Dinuguan to them. Pig’s blood isn’t something that’s normally stocked in Western retail markets. It’s more commonly encountered in Asian grocery stores. Pig’s blood turns black when you cook it, and it coagulates into jelly when you leave it be. You typically find the stuff sold in portioned up cubes, in plastic tubs or shrink-wrapped packs . It’s kind of an inside joke among Filipinos to tease and trick the unbeknownst into trying it by calling it “chocolate soup.” Filipinos do have a recipe for something soupy with chocolate, but Dinuguan is most assuredly not soup with chocolate. It’s, again, pork stew made with pig’s blood.

Why does Filipino cooking incorporate pig’s blood in the first place? I don’t think that I’m knowledgeable enough to answer this question for certain, so a better follow-up inquiry might be: What makes the cuisines of some cultures more likely to use more parts of the pig than other cultures? My impression of American cooking is that it tends to dismiss pig’s blood as waste to be discarded. In contrast, my impression of Filipino cooking is that pig’s blood is valuable enough to be turned into a meal. That goes for the other peripheral parts of the pig like the ears, the neckbone, and the head. Filipinos subscribe to a “nose to tail” philosophy when it comes to turning livestock into a meal, and it seems like the Ainu have a similar “all parts of the animal” mindset when turning their game into something edible. To me, the reason for these similarities in cooking philosophy is connected to shared experiences of food scarcity.

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Devilman: Adaptations Now, Then, and When

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. As a disclaimer, the article also contains some graphic nudity.

So there’s these curious differences between multiple versions of a story that can tell you a few things about the era about when they were first told. These differences can manifest in even the most throw-away of details. As a related example,  A Certain Magical Index and A Certain Scientific Railgun are not only shows that share the same fictional universe. The events that take place in these shows also run concurrently with each other timeline-wise. The perspectives of their respective protagonists, Touma Kamijo and Mikoto Misaka, converge together toward the same events before diverging to cover different ones. Between these two shows though, there’s a continuity error. It’s an little error that doesn’t meaningfully alter their narrative contents in any drastic way, plot-wise.

In the second season of A Certain Magical Index, Touma uses a flip phone, depicted in the image above. He uses a smartphone after the events of the image below (aka after the SisterS arc). In the second season A Certain Scientific Railgun, he uses a smart phone (aka during the SisterS arc).

Using some logical deduction and quick historical digging, this little detail of different phones can reveal to knowledgable and attentive audiences a rough date of when these shows first aired.  Flip phones were developed before smart phones. They were popular where I lived before smart phones overtook them in sales and ownership numbers. I also used to have a flip phone before I switched to using a smart phone. The second season of Index (2010-2011) is older than the second season of Railgun (2013). Railgun likely featured Touma using a smart phone over a flip phone because smart phones were more commonly used in Japan by that point. Flip phones were still widely used in Japan over the smart phone when Index first illustrated Touma using a flip phone.

If these anime adaptations of Index and Railgun could communicate that much information about when they were animated based on that little error, what could the less throw-away aspects of different story adaptations of an iconic Devilman scene and set of characters tell us about different moments in time?

I’ll be discussing the original Devilman (1972-1973) manga , the Devilman G (2012-2014) manga, and the Devilman Crybaby (2018) anime.

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Little Witch Academia: Making Magic Transnational

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. This post mainly references Little Witch Academia: “A New Beginning” and general elements and specific moments in the narratives of the Harry Potter franchise. 

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There were a number of things that I grew up on that I still look at fondly today whenever I’m feeling particularly nostalgic. The fact that I didn’t need to work, the first anime that I didn’t know was anime that really gripped me, and the Harry Potter franchise. I always thought that it was neat that the books became lengthier, featured more complex plots, and progressed into something that took increasingly higher language chops to read through with each installment. As Harry grew up, so did his readers. Say what you will about the literary quality of these children to young adult novels (the epilogue admittedly reads like cheesy fanfiction), I remember reading and re-reading each volume, voraciously, from front to back. The paperbacks of the volumes I owned began falling apart, and some of them did (like that monster of the fifth book). I got into heated debates with myself and other fans about a number of franchise-related controversies, like how the books were better than the movies and about which character should be romantically paired with who. I laughed, cried, got embarrassed and smiled widely. The world and its characters brought me a sense of immersive pleasure that couldn’t compare to anything else at the time.

It was a magical experience for me, and judging by the multimedia commercial empire this Wizarding World spawned, it was a magical experience for tens and, I daresay, hundreds of millions of people too. But then you experience life a little more and notice some things that you didn’t before, little idiosyncrasies that stem from the British author who wrote these things in. People engage with media in different ways, after all. These idiosyncrasies were even more apparent to me when comparing the Harry Potter franchise to a Harry Potter-inspired series like Little Witch Academia. It didn’t take away from what joy I felt when I first read the novels or watched the films. Nor did it reframe the stories that I cherished as a child and adolescent as this grossly insidious thing in lurking in the bowels that I now needed to purge from my system lest I be and remain an awful person deep down. And bear in mind, Little Witch Academia is just full of love for all things Harry Potter, and it illustrates that love through its numerous callbacks to its world and characters.

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While the Harry Potter franchise has been a wild international success, at the very end of the day, Harry Potter is a groundedly British product whose limited depictions of non-British cultures is marked by some exotic stereotypes. By contrast, Little Witch Academia is more reflective of the transnational nature of both the Potter and anime fandoms. The identity of its content is neither solely British or Japanese, nor does it treat the audience’s initial impressions of its non-British and non-Japanese elements as anything particularly special. That’s more uncommon in my line of entertainment experiences than I’d prefer.

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Thunderbolt Fantasy: A Mockery of Mastery

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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There are tales in every culture where strive to cultivate an art or trade to the point of perfection. While it might simply be due  to a personal lack of worldliness, I feel like that the Japanese have a particular fixation for crafting inspirational narratives around self-serious journeys to artistic and trade-based mastery. The  lines between profession and purpose in these stories blur in many cases, and become indistinguishable in others. Jirou Dreams of Sushi is a documentary of a master sushi chef’s work ethic. Various sports stories in anime and manga, whether they be about baseball or cooking, star their main protagonists honing their craft to performative excellence, if not total perfection. The Japanese government literally designates the masters of certain culturally significant vocations as “Living National Treasures.”

Gen Urobuchi has a few things he says about this obsession over mastery, several words to those self-serious egotists who strut around like the world and its people should slit their stomachs to purify the ground they stand on. He does it through the context of one of Japan’s flashiest cultural artifacts: swordsmanship. He mocks it. He basically mocks the idea of people placing so much of their substance, so much of their self-worth in achieving it and maintaining it, and he imparts this mockery to audiences through a show so visually and audibly campy that it can be easy to miss: Thunderbolt Fantasy.

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Noragami: A Prayer for Forgotten Gods

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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The intimacy present through farming professions and small communities, the close proximity of it all, characterized many a Japanese village. At the geographical heart of these villages lay the shrine. Manned by a regionally itinerant or locally designated cleric, these sacred spaces lay at the communal, spiritual, and cultural heart of village life. Priests were more directly accessible to the locals for consultation and guidance. Festivals of catharsis, reflection, jubilation, and gratitude were practiced on religious grounds. As people had ample and easy opportunities to engage regularly with their faith on a variety of facets and devotions.

Devotion to Shinto since then, and even general interest, has seen better days. Many Japanese drained from the countryside and flooded into the cities. Having lived all their lives within concrete jungles, generations became removed from the pastured plains their ancestors once tended and tilled. Unsurprisingly, men and women within these more recent generations have become more distant from the religious  traditions their ancestors fervently practiced.

Because of its distinctly Japanese origin and focus, inextricably tied to Shinto is the accumulated knowledge, or culture, of Japan of centuries-to-millennia past. The majority of Japanese now live busy lives in crowded metropolises, with less time, less space, and less priority to approach the priests or celebrate the festivals. When the shrines are occasionally visited (on holidays, exam days, and extraordinary circumstances) the rituals performed are far from demanding. A coin is thrown, a charm is purchased, and a short prayer is muttered in the hope that requests will be somehow fulfilled, as though wishes are like cheap transactions at a convenience store. Many Japanese today partake in Shinto activity with only the vaguest notions of this religious tradition’s richness. When the older generations of the countryside step aside and the newer ones of the cities take the reins, Shinto will seem vaguer still.

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And so, invoking the sort of forces I covered in this post that turned KanColle fans into history buffs, the setting and characters of Noragami are rich in the stuff of tangential learning. In its own way, the show is an updated, contemporary, “hipper” anime attempt for the youth that will inherit the country to preserve their cultural heritage.

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Sunday Without God: Empathy for the Undead

Management: While my opinion of the show is 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. While this piece will reference other parts of the show, this essay will primarily break down the events of Episodes 1-3, which cover the Valley of Death Arc, Episode 3-6, which cover the Ortus Arc, and Episode 9, “Where Gravekeepers Are Born.”

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I wrote a piece some time ago about Kino’s Journey and the importance of approaching the different countries in the show visited by Kino and, by proxy, the audience through the anthropological lens of cultural relativism. What may be seen within a culture, different from our own, as an illogical lifestyle and a barbaric morality to the foreign observer looking from without may be a completely reasonable lifestyle and acceptable morality to the native participant engaging from within. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t ultimately disagree and reject lifestyles and moralities different from our own. However, trying to make sense of a culture or a person without temporarily suspending our own ethnocentric impulses and prejudices kills attempts at creating empathy and shuts down productive discussion. You’re not going to understand the worldview of someone if the only conversation you can have with that someone is “Whose worldview is better than the other’s?”

In the spirit of cultural relativism, Sunday Without God presents two remarkable back-to-back arcs that approach the universe’s cultural understanding of death and the undead in opposite ways. The latter arc is a thematic reaction to the first arc. Encompassing Episodes 1-3 is the first arc of the show, Valley of Death. Encompassing Episodes 4-6 is the second arc, Ortus. Within these arcs is the main character and observer constant, Ai Astin, whose views about death and the undead evolve over the course of the places she visits and the people she meets.

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Sasami-san@Ganbaranai: Religion, Tradition, and the New Age

Management: While my opinion of the show is 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. This piece has undergone a major re-write.

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On the surface, Sasami-san@Ganbaranai is a strange concoction of battle spectacles, religion, and eccentric and risqué behavior brewed out of a Haruhi-inspired cauldron. The premise is a riff off of a Haruhi-inspired archetype, a girl who subconsciously alters the world using god powers she can’t consciously control. Inspiration is not imitation, however. While I’m not going to deny the influence The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya has had on Sasami-san’s narrative, I’m confident in expressing this: Sasami-san’s is more ambitious than Haruhi’s, if not quite as smoothly well-written. It’s willing to talk about controversial issues in contemporary Japanese society that the Haruhi series is not really equipped to discussing. The show combines its fight scenes with its universe’s mythos, not unlike Monogatari, to craft a social commentary on Japanese religion and spirituality, as well as culture and lifestyles, in the New Age.

Unlike Monogatari though, Sasami-san’s universe is built primarily from extant Shinto kami mythology. However, all that needs to be known (if not fully appreciated) about this mythology to understand the show’s social commentary can be found within its narrative.

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