Danganronpa has a cult following among English speaking fans. The series is centered on students being trapped in a specific location and being forced to murder one another in order to escape. After a murder is committed, the remaining students must conduct a trial in order to find the culprit. If they fail to do so, they will all die instead. Prior to the release of the Danganronpa 3 anime this past summer, there were three different games as well as a novel. There is a large overarching story and the games and novel take place at different points in the story’s timeline. Danganronpa 3 was touted as the end of the current arc in the franchise and unfortunately for many fans, it failed to live up to the expectations.
Danganronpa 3 was split into two separate arcs: the Despair Arc and the Future Arc. The Despair Arc took place in the past, revolving around the lives of the cast of Danganronpa 2. The Future Arc takes places in the overarching story’s present. The Future Arc takes places immediately after the events of Danganronpa 2. Makoto Naegi, unbeknownst to the rest of the Future Foundation, attempted to restore the Remnants of Despair from the second game to their former selves. Danganronpa 3 starts with the trial of Naegi for acting against the wishes of the Future Foundation. As the members of the foundation are discussing the consequences of his actions, one of them is killed. The rest are drugged and forced to wear bracelets with one rule attached to each bracelet. If any person breaks the rule stated on the bracelet, he or she will die. The goal for everyone is to escape the facility and survive. Unlike the first two games, there are no trials. Instead, Danganronpa 3 feels like a race against the clock. The beginning premise for the Future Arc is also the beginning of the problem with the arc as a whole. It felt like the creators were forcing a killing game into a story that not only used it previously, but didn’t need it in order to properly wrap up all of the remaining loose ends. It was an arbitrary way to create tension. Similarly to the games, the arc was focused too much on discovering who the leader was. To be fair, that idea can work in theory so long as the payoff is worth it. The problem with working towards a particular payoff is that if it doesn’t pan out, there can be serious questions regarding the decision to pursue that direction. In the case of both arcs, the payoff was not worth it, so it was a questionable decision at best. The Future Arc would have been better suited with a more normal approach where the characters can face the challenges being currently presented without the killing game occurring in the background. Killing games usually work because the audience is anxious to know who will die next, but when the series introduces so many new characters in the concluding arc, it proves difficult to care about most of them, especially when special attention is given to some of them as the story progresses towards discovering the mastermind.
The Despair Arc fortunately does not have the killing game backdrop, and as a result, it is the better of the two arcs. However, that is not saying much. One of the biggest remaining mysteries leading up to the anime’s release was the fate of the cast of Danganronpa 2 and how exactly they became Remnants of Despair, considering how likeable they were portrayed. The Despair Arc does in fact answer that, but it again centers on the payoff question. At many different points, the Despair Arc felt that it didn’t have enough substance to justify its inclusion. We are introduced rather early on to their homeroom teacher, who plays a pivotal role in the story, but are given very few new characters outside of that. That may seem like a wise decision considering the Future Arc is bogged down by the new characters, but it proved difficult for the cast we were already familiar with to provide entertainment for more than ten episodes. In all honesty, the first few episodes of the Despair Arc failed to provide any worthwhile storylines and as plot threads from the Future Arc began to emerge in the latter end of the Despair Arc, it was too little too late. I stopped caring by that point. I almost never argue in favor of shortening a story, especially in a case where I am so excited by the source material, but I firmly believe Danganronpa 3 would have been suited with a shorter, more focused story that was all about answering the remaining questions so many fans were having. Instead, we received two different arcs with lackluster payoffs that ultimately reflected poorly on the characters and events leading up to them.
With so much discussion around payoffs, it is important that we in fact talk about said payoffs. The main question in the Future Arc revolved around the mastermind. Who orchestrated this killing game? How does the villain from Ultra Despair Girls fit into the story? A lot of people were speculating about Junko Enoshima during the arc’s release. Is she still alive? Is she still the mastermind? The answer to those questions was no. In fact, the leader of the Future Foundation, Kazuo Tengan, orchestrated the events of the Future Arc in order to use Mitarai’s ability to defeat despair. The biggest issue with this reveal is that the plan itself is lackluster as are the motivations. He hoped to drive Mitarai to the point that he would use his own video to brainwash the people of the world into hope. It is a plan largely contingent on the actions of another individual and does not warrant the amount of effort put into making the plan happen in the first place. Furthermore, Tengan’s reveal as the villain felt entirely empty. He was a character that was largely relegated to the sidelines for the majority of the franchise, only to become important again near the end. The Future Arc suffered because it was difficult to replace the success of Junko Enoshima, especially after she was arguably killed off far too early. As stated previously, the payoff problem extended to the Despair Arc as well.
What caused the cast of Danganronpa 2 to become Remnants of Despair? That was the question the arc set forth to tackle. It was evident as soon as Junko Enoshima was re-introduced in this flashback arc. To be fair, there were several different moments in the arc that were worthwhile. However, the issue in the back of the mind was always how exactly it will lead to the other pieces of the puzzle. The answer was something that was possible to predict from the beginning. Danganronpa 2 let the audience know that Chiaki Nanami was dead prior to the rest of the cast being placed in apparatuses that allowed for the digital world to be created. The payoff involved Junko Enoshima using the cast’s love for her against them. She is brutally murdered by Junko and being forced to witness this event, the cast is driven into despair. The payoff felt empty because the brainwashing happens in an instant. They witness a death and almost immediately begin to commit acts of terrorism. It is a fast transition and it felt poorly planned. The reveal happens so late in the arc and there was not enough time to accurately portray a slow descent into madness. Perhaps the transition would not be slow for some of the cast, but it certainly would not be as fast as the arc depicts. I never felt satisfied after the conclusion of either of the arcs and even the final arc that was shown as an ultimate conclusion, felt forced and too happy considering the overall tone of the franchise.
Danganronpa 3 had a lot of potential. Being such a cult hit in both Japan and the States made the franchise as a whole an exciting phenomenon to be a part of game to game. After spending so much time with the story, fans wanted to see a worthwhile conclusion. A strong end was important for the legacy of the series. Instead, Danganronpa 3 tried to force far too many new characters and plot threads, leading up to lackluster endings. I felt very disappointed in the anime, and I think it deserved a more fitting end to its themes and tone. I am still cautiously optimistic about the new game, which will feature a new cast and storyline. Only time will tell if it builds to the same unsatisfying result.