An Ode To The Girls Of Dangan Ronpa

DISCLAIMER: this post will contain spoilers for pretty much the entirety of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc.

I’ve recently been replaying Dangan Ronpa – or, rather, playing it for the first time, since I was one of those pre-localization fans who only ever read the translated Let’s Play on Something Awful. 2013 to 2014 for me a period of time for me in which this series could do absolutely no wrong.

I realize now, of course, that yes, this series can, in fact, do some wrong, and that’s not even a statement about the quality of its later installments. Because honestly, Dangan Ronpa really isn’t all that deep. There are no mind blowing twists at any point, besides perhaps the memory loss bit, but even that’s pretty easy to figure out when it comes up. No reveals are particularly far off from what you might reasonably guess from the setup. While replaying DR, I often found myself wondering, “why did I like this game so much?”

But the answer is very simple: it’s the girls. Really. Dangan Ronpa truly has a very unique and interesting cast of female characters. I’m not trying to attribute Deep Feminist Meaning to a video game or anything, just pointing out the fact that a lot of them have some very cool traits that you don’t always see in media. The boys are generally well-written as well, but don’t break half as many molds.

So here is a collection of my best thoughts on each DR girl (not including Chihiro, that’s discourse for another day) and how they’re written and presented. At heart I’m still a 2013-era fan, so I’ll be using the names and spellings from the LP because there are some parts of us that we can never truly change.

C’mon, let’s read too deeply into a bunch of fictional teenage girls!

SAYAKA MAIZONO

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I remember being genuinely surprised back in the day that she was the first to die. I was so convinced that she would play the role of Main Girl that I honestly didn’t really consider that DR might pull a fast one on me. It really keyed me in to the game’s habit of playing with character tropes, which is something that it definitely does well.

That being said, I love Sayaka because she’s just an expert in social survival. Upon finding herself in a very dangerous situation, she immediately attaches herself to the one guy there that she already knows. She easily makes him into her strongest ally, someone who will always (as she praises him for in the above screencap) do his best for her. So whether it’s the express intention behind all of her dialogue or not, her strengths generally come in manipulating others.  And even her murder attempt hinges on her victim essentially being too stupid and/or horny to fight back – otherwise why pick a professional athlete and not, like, Chihiro?

But Sayaka is very genuine in her own way as well. We can tell that she’s being sincere when she discusses her past as an idol and what drives her to succeed, and that she was honestly touched by the story about Makoto and the crane (probably). And she did try to save him at the last minute with good ol’ 11037. So there’s that!

But the thing I always found most interesting about Sayaka is her little “I’m psychic! Just kidding!”, thing. It’s a very weird thing to say to someone, and always struck me as having kind of a passive-aggressive tone to it. Assuming that she’s not really psychic, her ability to intuit whatever Makoto is currently thinking about her suggests that she has heard it all many times before. And instead of remaining silent, she feels the need to call it out in the form of a joke that isn’t even really a joke, more of an outrageous lie that she wants to see if you’ll believe or not. She must take some issue with whatever he’s thinking, otherwise she wouldn’t point it out so directly, but she never even suggests what that issue might be. Honestly, it’s a simple action that is very indicative of character, which is why I love it so much.

KYOKO KIRIGIRI

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The main thing I love about Kyoko is just how unexpectedly smooth she is. Just look at the above interaction. Like, you look at her and think “oh yeah okay I know this trope, she’s gonna be the really quiet and emotionally distant one”. But she really isn’t? She’s not distant at all, just very guarded. Her refusal to tell Makoto about herself initially comes off as being aloof, but makes a lot of sense once we learn about her amnesia. She’s just trying to cover her bases and trying to be in control of the situation. Can’t remember your talent? Just refuse to tell anybody and make it seem like you’re purposefully being mysterious! Genius.

I also love her weird tendency of just disappearing for extended periods of time and then coming back like “oh yeah I solved the entire mystery while I was away, no big deal”. I mean, it’s obviously just a way of moving along the plot, but instead of that being transparent, her hyper-competency is just really funny instead. She’s so unreasonably good at investigating that she can’t help but sneak into off-limit rooms and steal evidence despite having totally forgotten that she’s even a detective.

Kyoko’s development as a character generally centers around learning to treat other people with more consideration, which is a fairly unique emotional journey for a fictional girl. She’s also got many traditionally masculine traits, like her habit of being kind of domineering and stoic. And she really does treat Makoto quite poorly throughout most of the game. She might use him as her primary investigation partner, but she doesn’t actually trust him enough to let him in on anything until after he nearly gets killed. Before that point, there’s definitely an undercurrent of detachment underneath all of their interactions.

This emotional thread can probably also be applied to her relationship with her father via her refusal to care about him until she has no choice but to confront the blatant evidence that he loved her. And even then she qualifies this realization with the very true fact that it doesn’t change what she went through after being abandoned. I’m generally not a big fan of bad dad narratives, mostly because a lot of them end in melodramatic “actually he was the best father ever and we didn’t even know it!” reveals, as if that erases all of his previous actions. But I like how this one is handled because there isn’t that sappy moment of forgiveness, and although we  do feel a little bad for Jin Kirigiri, his behavior isn’t completely excused.

AOI ASAHINA

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Aoi is interesting just by virtue of being a jock who is a girl. Her athleticism is never treated as something weird or funny,  and generally presented straight, without much commentary. Her relationship with Sakura is also very unique because it’s essentially them being gym buddies. I can’t remember the last time I saw two girls in fiction bond over being athletes!

This is all very nice, and those traits make her a lovely character, but it’s exclusively during chapter four where we see what she’s really made of. We witness her loyalty to Sakura and her determination to stay with her no matter what, and this emotional beat continues to build to the point where she attempts to commit a murder-suicide during the class trial.

And then that’s never really addressed again? Once the truth comes out, she’s ready to forgive everyone and work together with them to escape Hope’s Peak. I’ve always found this to be kind of a shame, because Aoi really goes to some dark places in this chapter. A character being so angry at herself and her classmates for not preventing her best friend’s suicide that she fabricates evidence for the trial? And then continually tries to lead everyone to false conclusions under the guise of being blinded by grief? Knowing that the consequence of leading everyone astray would be execution? All because she believes that they deserve to die for what they’ve done? That’s some extremely cool writing, and Aoi’s best moments are undoubtably during her end monologue in chapter four.

But yeah, none of that is ever mentioned again in the series as far as I know, which is pretty disappointing.

CELESTIA LUDENBERG

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Celes is an extremely fun character and that is mostly due to her exaggerated persona and the infamous vampire butler fantasy. Like, Dangan Ronpa may already be slightly removed from reality in order to make teenage murder a little more believable, but it’s not even a decent reason to kill in-universe. The characters think it’s ridiculous too! But that’s seriously why she killed someone! So that she could have enough money to live in a castle with handsome vampire butlers!

The english dub also provides us with her faux-European accent, which in my opinion just puts a bow upon the entire package: this tacky goth lolita with fake drill curls, red contacts, and an obviously fake name who indulges in her own weird fantasy life even as she’s literally being executed? I love it, and I love how perfectly being the queen of lies fits in with her being someone who bluffs for a living.

Also, just as a side note, I want to take this opportunity to say that Celes and Kyoko could’ve had this amazing cat and mouse relationship! They’re both on similar levels of intellect and could have spent a lot of time attempting to outsmart each other. We get a little of this in chapter three’s trial when Kyoko pursues Celes (and Celes even entrusts her with Alter Ego’s key right before she dies!) but we could’ve gotten so much more. Think of the schemes!

SAKURA OOGAMI

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Obviously I can’t even pretend that Sakura’s design is not something relevant to any evaluation of her character. She’s a very large and non-traditionally attractive female character. Women in fiction are generally designed to be as small as possible (except for chest size), and Sakura is a pretty outrageous outlier. A lot of the other characters mock her based on her appearance, or are, perhaps more accurately, completely terrified of it. In fact, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to the cast treating Sakura poorly, and we all know how that ended!

But what we are meant to take away from her as a character is clearly not that she is someone to be hated. We know from the majority of her scenes that she is the most caring person of the entire cast to the point that she essentially sacrifices herself for the group. However intimidating she may have come off in the beginning can be explained by the pressure of being the mastermind’s spy, or maybe even just social anxiety. In any case, she’s certainly not dumb or violent, which would be the two easiest traps to fall into if you’re trying to write a buff female character poorly.

Despite this, I feel like Sakura isn’t all that deep aside from the contrast between her appearance and her personality. She’s a very diligent and loyal person with an unexpectedly strong compassionate side, and that’s basically it. But honestly, it’s really just nice to see a girl be ugly (because regardless of how you feel about her design, she clearly wasn’t made with optimal attractiveness in mind) without jokes constantly being made at her expense. It’s a very low bar, but DR does manage to pass it.

TOUKO FUKAWA & GENOCIDER SYO (OR GENOCIDE JACK IF WE MUST)

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Touko is 100% a better character in every single moment where she isn’t fawning over Byakuya, and I will stand by that statement. In most of her dialogue, she’s honestly a very compelling and intelligent character, and a surprisingly accurate depiction of a bullying victim to boot. But the moment he shows up, she turns right into an extremely one-note character. It’s almost like two different people with different ideas about her personality wrote her free time events and her role in the main story – which is probably what happened.

Hers is actually a fairly realistic premise: a girl who was bullied in school develops such low self esteem that she thinks everyone she meets must hate her. She’s got to push them away or tear herself down before they come after her. And not to overshare, but I can’t say that’s not relatable? In these lines where she discusses her past I honestly do recognize a younger version of myself in her.

But then there’s her obsession with Byakuya, which kind of absorbs her entire personality. Post chapter two, practically everything that comes out of her mouth is somehow about him. And honestly, this might just be me, but I find it hard to believe that a girl who was bullied specifically by boys would later get off on being abused by one. If I were writing her, I’d probably put her at the exact opposite end of the spectrum, in which she actually enjoys being the bully. But hey, everyone has their own unique reactions to their life experiences, even if they are a video game character.

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There isn’t much to say about Syo besides the fact that it’s hilarious that it’s the serial killer of all people who doesn’t kill anybody in a game about murder, but I’d feel remiss if I didn’t mention her.

I suppose Syo is the reason why Touko wasn’t written as a bully, seeing as she fills that quota via habitually murdering attractive men – the ultimate form of bullying – but I do kind of wish we got to learn a little more about her. I know that she’s essentially a joke character, but it would be nice to get some more human reactions out of her at times, or maybe delve deeper into her thought processes. She takes nothing seriously and has no deep reasons for committing murder, only that it’s just what she does. I’m a big advocate of playing around with the ‘evil split personality’ trope, but I suppose there just wasn’t much room in the story to make Syo a full character.

MUKURO IKUSABA

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Full disclosure: Mukuro has been my favorite Dangan Ronpa character for several years now, so this is going to be a very positive block of text. A lot of her status as my fave has to do with how Ryohgo Narita does her justice in Dangan Ronpa: If, but we’re only looking at the text of this one game for now so I’ll try to stick to what we’re first given.

I was always interested in Mukuro because of how much we learn about her while she’s disguised as her sister. She might never break character, but it’s easy to put together the  posthumous puzzle pieces if you try. In her free time events she’s got a lot of subtle dialogue about living on the streets, her frustration with having come running to Hope’s Peak/Junko, and some evidence that she was kind of into Makoto (which I won’t elaborate upon here but is confirmed in DR: If). She comes off as a pretty quiet and scary person in all the flashback photos, but the much more likely conclusion here is that she just had difficulty expressing herself when not being forced to impersonate Junko. She’s very bright and talkative in all of her dialogue, after all.

But even if you don’t mine her dialogue for all of its deeper meaning, she’s still just a unique character. A teenage girl who ran away in middle school to become a mercenary and has been undefeated in combat ever since? How cool is that? We’re initially introduced to her among a lot of spooky mystery, but the more we learn about Mukuro the more evidence we are given to contradict her image of a dangerous killer. By the time that the real Junko shows up to insult Mukuro at any chance she gets, it’s very clear that she wasn’t close to ever being in charge at all.

Mukuro is an accumulation of several very interesting titles: a trained mercenary, her beloved sister’s pawn, co-leader of a despair cult, and quite possibly the character with the highest body count (though she might have some competition in Syo or Junko). And despite her early death, she does get quite a bit of screentime in the series’ later installments. These appearances manage to explore her character even more, for which I am thankful at all times.

JUNKO ENOSHIMA

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Junko to me is really kind of an enigma. It’s almost like the writers couldn’t figure out what they wanted their mastermind’s personality to be, so instead she just switches at their leisure. If we interpret her multiple personas as a deliberate creative decision, however, it does emphasize her ability to be whatever people need (or don’t need) her to be. And manipulating others is a bit imperative to starting a cult, you know.

Her claim that she has never felt anything but despair in her life almost kind of leads us to a narrative about, like, evil depression. A process of being so upset that she began to revel in her own negative emotions, devoting her life to making everyone just as miserable as she is.

However, that’s probably giving the writers a little too much credit. In the most basic reading of the text, Junko loves despair just for the sake of it, not any deep reason. She literally says this! And that really doesn’t flow with any logical progression of human emotions. I kind of suspect that the writers were banking on the great absurdity of having a villain embody an emotion to overshadow the fact that it doesn’t make much sense. And this both did and didn’t succeed, depending on how much stock you put into Junko’s capacity to really have a despair fetish.

But at the end of the day it’s very fun to have a female villain who is crude and powerful and whose motivations are her own, not something stemming out of victimhood. And it’s also a very cool idea to have someone sincerely following the moral code of spreading despair around the world. There’s probably something to be said about her being a gyaru that resonates with her destructive, rebellious personality, but I am not nearly as well-read on that as I could be, so these articles on gyaru history can give you the general gist.

And those are all my thoughts on the female cast of Dangan Ronpa! But I do feel a need to qualify my praise with the reality that the entire cast of DR is just not nearly as deep as 2013-era me would like to believe. A lot of them are more interesting in theory than they are in canon. Most characters in fiction are! But the greater a character’s potential, the better they are to take apart and salvage for good parts when working on your own future projects. Dangan Ronpa was definitely not the greatest game of all time, but in some ways that’s really what gives it charm and longevity. And if all girls in fiction were written like they are in DR, we could have some really great stuff out there.

In conclusion: Mukuro Ikusaba has been my precious daughter now for four years and counting and this will never stop. I apparently love when girls commit murder.

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