Even in a game where every character is defined by their “Ultimate” talent (Ultimate Baseball Player, Ultimate Biker, Ultimate Novelist) Makoto Naegi, protagonist, can’t escape being a player insert. His is the fate of leading men across a wide swathe of otaku-focused anime and games, especially visual nows. The Ultimate Lucky Student, Makoto describes himself as completely average, bearing no remarkable talents or traits.
And where would a completely unremarkable protagonist be without his idealized love interest? Adhering to another standard, Dangan Ronpa provides its nearly-featureless protagonist a long-lost childhood friend who, since their parting, has exceeded his milquetoast personality and social standing in nearly every way. In Naegi’s case, his beau-to-be is Sayaka Maizono, the Ultimate Pop Sensation.
Also known as: an idol singer, a celebrity profession that caters primarily to ultra-nerds with money to burn. Being the Ultimate idol singer, Sayaka is unthinkably popular and beautiful. Not only that: as Makoto’s long-lost friend, her fame and beauty don’t threaten her familiarity with him, they deepen it. He’s not like those other guys, her fans, he knew her before she was famous. Sayaka encapsulates multiple otaku media fantasies. She is the untouchable beauty and the attainable down-home girl both at once. She is a dreamy beacon of fame who you can discuss childhood memories with. She is everything you ever dreamed of, everything you ever wanted.
She is a murderer.
Or, to be chronological about it: Sayaka Maizono is dead.
The Girl Of Your Dreams
A mysterious headmaster/robotic stuffed bear, Monokuma, has trapped sixteen Ultimate Students in a school, the only escape route being “kill someone and get away with it.” Dangan Ronpa is a visual novel murder mystery, part social sim, part Phoenix Wright. Like 999 or Virtue’s Last Reward, it centers around solving puzzles and gruesome murders, but with cutesy pastel colors and, generally, less gore than a Saw flick. Sayaka Maizono, Ultimate Pop Sensation, childhood friend and crush, is the first victim of the killing game.
But, in a twist revealed during the trial to find her killer, we learn Sayaka instigated the events that lead to her death. She planned to commit murder and pin it on you. Presumably, then, her childhood reminiscences about chasing a crane through the school pond weren’t the start of an unlikely jail cell tryst, they were her method of buttering you up, so you wouldn’t suspect her, so you would be her pawn, so you couldn’t escape. Sayaka wasn’t your fantasy—the girl who knew you intimately because she’s known you forever, the mega-star who would kowtow to your every whim—she was your first opponent.
Yet, she’s the victim too. Whether or not she “started it,” Sayaka is dead. From the first case, Dangan Ronpa and Sayaka have planted a question in your mind: who’s responsible for all this? Sayaka’s killer is punished according to the rules. If the murderer can become the victim, and vice versa, how do we define who’s culpable? Starting Dangan Ronpa blind you might’ve expected Phoenix Wright’s cutesy anime characters and slapstick expressions. Sure, Phoenix Wright revolves around vile deeds, murder, but it’s done with the usual uncomplicated morality and motive: greed, jealousy, rage. It’s fun—it’s often funny, too—but it’s simple.
Just a Pile of Donuts
Dangan Ronpa certainly wants you to think it’s simple. It mugs to the audience every chance it gets. It rolls out murder mystery standards like there’s a fire sale. This game loves tradition. If there’s a cliche it’ll be in there twice, just to make sure you didn’t miss it the first time.
And It sets up its cast exactly to your expectations, sketchy caricatures summed up as “goth,” “moe,” “genki,” “thug.” These are types we know, types we’ve seen dozens of times in games, anime, light novels, in seemingly every Japanese pop culture format that makes it to America. These ideas are so entrenched that, often, fans won’t even be satisfied with just “types,” they want exact replicas of existing characters (give or take a specific hair color). Ultimate Swimming Pro to Ultimate Fanfic Creator to Ultimate Affluent Prodigy, a boy whose supreme skill is “being born rich,” these characters aren’t just playing to type, they are nothing but. Their titles encapsulate not just their personality, skills, interest, they encapsulate their entire lives.
But there’s a trick here. The game presents you with a slew of cardboard cutouts and then goes about injecting them with subtle characterization whenever you’re not looking. It torques the formula. Sayaka wasn’t angling to be your girlfriend, she was getting you comfortable, stringing you along so you’d be too stupefied to realize she’d pinned a murder on you. Sayaka wasn’t a type, but she was going hard at pretending to being one.
One of the game’s watershed moments, when the cast realizes they can definitively fight back against Monokuma, comes after the seemingly idiotic and imperceptive Aoi Asahina secretly alters the scene of her best friend’s suicide to make it seem like a murder. The death of her friend having obliterated her faith in humanity, Asahina has lost all hope—if Sakura couldn’t make it, how could she? So she’s decided to doom everyone rather that wait another second. If she can hide the truth from them, they’ll convict the wrong person and a wrong answer means everyone dies. She’s found her way out: death.
Asahina initially read as a happy-go-lucky doofus, one who makes kitten faces, who ponders her fear in bed with the covers conspicuously rumpled to show off her underwear. She’s foolish, she’s comic relief. During the trial, what seems like the petulant exhortations of an idiot gone down the wrong investigative track is actually Asahina’s noisy, roaring subtlety. She’s playing directly into her role as a buffoon in an attempt to push the group towards an incorrect verdict. When she’s finally cornered and admits she’s decided it’s better to condemn everyone—Suicide by Monokuma—than live another second, she reveals herself as distraught, but also driven. She is hopeless, but furious. This is a very different Asahina than we met, or thought we met, at the beginning of the game, the donut-craving lunkhead who fit anime’s “genki girl” archetype basically to a tee, the one we had pinned.
Who Am I?
Not all twists receive the same craft. After the death of Chihiro, a meek, short-haired girl, the Ultimate Programmer, it’s revealed she was actually a boy. From this point on the game refers to Chihiro with male pronouns, so I will too. Bullied, told he was weak, Chihiro’s solution was not to reject the classification of what is masculine, but to present as feminine. He is a literal incarnation of Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion in The Second Sex: “one is not born a woman, rather, one becomes one.”
The game defining Chihiro this way may be troubling, but it’s not necessarily couched in a callous or ignorant misogyny or transphobia. In the Feminism is for Everybody chapter “Feminist Masculinity,” bell hooks illustrates the ways patriarchy harms men by ”imposing on them a sexist masculine identity,” forcing them to adhere to specific ideals and punishing or ostracizing them when they do not. This form of institutionalized sexism is less visibly harmful because the traits it requires of men are those patriarchal society views as important, valuable, and inextricably male (and therefore, good): self-sufficiency, physical strength, steadfastness (being unemotional). This is Chihiro: the one who couldn’t cope, who couldn’t measure up to society’s declaration of what he should be. Before his death, Chihiro commits to working out, with the stated desire of becoming a stronger person. In Chihiro’s rubric there is a direct connection between muscle and maleness, which suggests he believes getting stronger will allow him to “reclaim” his masculinity.
Viewed in this light, Chihiro may be taken as reflective of a restrictive society that damages even those who are nominally part of a privileged group. Though this is a Japanese game, and the ways Japanese culture demands conformity are different from the ways United States culture does, this is a bespoke message for the type of male gamer likely to play this, many of whom weren’t sufficiently into physical activities, girls, sports, or other expected interests. That Chihiro’s talent is Ultimate Programmer can hardly be a coincidence.
However, this is from the perspective of a non-native speaker. It’s important to keep in mind that this is a Japanese game, not an American one. Gender is a difficult topic to discuss without proper social context and it’s likely the English localization changed the spin of Chihiro’s character, even if only slightly, possibly not even intentionally. It’s certainly accurate to say, as with a great deal of American popular media, much of the Japanese media we consume in the US—anime, manga, video games—are by and large unkind to characters who fit outside of traditional gender and sexual norms. Gay, transgendered, and non-heteronormative characters are often objects of fetish or punching bags for slapstick jokes. Even characters who are presented as powerful or brave, like One Piece’s Bon Clay, are laden with stereotypical baggage. English sources for Japanese queer and gender theory are few, but it’s probably accurate to say that Japan, like the US, is only slowly changing from a culture of enforced silence regarding LGBT rights and acceptance.
Having Chihiro escape into femininity because it’s “okay” for women to be weak is, naturally, discomforting. There’s an inherently misogynistic statement at the root of it: it is “easier” to exist in the world as a woman, if your life as a man is hard, you can gauge “woman” as an escape route. “Woman” becomes an option to dodge criticism, peer-pressure, abuse, which hardly maps with any real-world perception.
It’s difficult to gauge whether the game is playing this straight or as commentary. We have the example of Sakura, a complex and thoughtful character, whose non-traditional gender representation makes it difficult to definitively label Dangan Ronpa’s drawing of Chihiro as misogynistic or phobic. The Ultimate Martial Artist, Sakura basically doesn’t even scan as female at first glance, not how most anime has trained us to code gender. A mountain of muscle, tanned skin, and scars, she’s a far cry from Street Fighter’s Sakura Kasugano, with whom Dangan Ronpa’s Sakura shares not only her name, but her fashion sense. Sakura is one of the most sensical, straight-forward characters in a game filled with apoplectic weirdos. She is one of the bravest, literally blowing the doors off an out-of-bounds area, violating the rules and sacrificing herself to provide vital information to the surviving students. Sakura is butch and the physically-strongest member of the cast, but, despite her brusque nature and appearance, the game does not use these traditionally masculine traits to deny her gender. Some of the cast certainly does, but generally these attacks come from characters who are foolish or malevolent. Sakura is not a type, she is Sakura, she is her own thing.
Compared to Sakura, you never really know where the game stands with Chihiro. Is it ignorant, or is it acting like this because it knows you expect it to act like this? Given that Dangan Ronpa actively works against stereotypes even as it embraces them, this sort of cognitive dissonance is expected. It inspires some small faith that the story is reaching for a compassionate portrayal of Chihiro’s plight. This game is not blind to gender—it has Sakura and it knows how to use her—but it’s fair to say that gaming in general has a troubled history with sexuality and gender politics, so it may be safer to err on the side of caution and not over praise these possible hints of positive queerness when a given characterization doesn’t immediately appear actively hateful.
Still, Chihiro is probably one of the most complicated presentations in the game. By comparison: Hifumi’s portrayal as both a consummately sleazy otaku and also a sensitive person with actual feelings is not completely without nuance, but neither is it particularly deep. Examining Chihiro gives much to chew on, even if the final reading isn’t entirely satisfying.
Visual novels are so mired in tradition that a gentle push against entrenched norms registers as a major revolution. That there is an food for thought, any meat on Dangan Ronpa’s bones at all, skyrockets it past almost every other example of its genre, who by and large seem less concerned with detailed characterization and more with blurting out philosophical factoids and dropping the next big mystery twist on an unsuspecting audience.
In fairness, those are pitfalls Dangan Ronpa will gleefully dive into at a moment’s notice. This isn’t a rejection of visual novels, it’s an examination of their methods. Dangan Ronpa is effective not because it denies its genre, but because it uses it to the fullest extent, creating something subtly revelatory, but not earth shattering. The story presents all the character archetypes we expect and twists them subtly, but never breaks them: the shy girl is still shy, the goofball is still a goofball.
Dangan Ronpa serves all masters, giving you room to experience it as a fun, scary, wacky murder mystery, or as a reflection on various tropes and character types, or as both at the same time. This may weaken its overall impact—sometimes it can be hard to tell if the writers are winking at the camera or playing into the same old tired ideas—but a hardcore rejection of what came before wouldn’t have the same effect. This is not a rejection of the stereotypical, it’s an examination of its potential—these types are only bad only if you let them be. Not the deepest game, nor the most sensitive one, at times, it is no less interesting for being flawed. So often presenting as exactly what you know, Dangan Ronpa is never entirely what you expect.