“Danganronpa” is a video game series (four games so far – V3 is the latest). The plot can perhaps best be summed up as “”And Then There Were None” by Agatha Christie meets “Battle Royale.”” A group of Japanese high school kids find themselves trapped in an [insert appropriately sealed off location here], only to find themselves unwilling participants in a murder game run by an evil robot bear, Monokuma. They are forced to murder each other, then participate in trials to find the culprit of each murder. If they do, the culprit gets executed and it’s on to the next round, until the final survivor is left and goes free. If they don’t, everyone dies but the culprit.
The kids are supposed to each have special talents which the English version refers to as “Ultimate talents”. Actually, most of them aren’t what I’d call “the ultimate” at what they do, but apparently the literal translation from Japanese would make each of them the “Super High School Level Pianist/Detective/Windowcleaner”, which does sound fairly silly in English. In any case, this is mostly for flavour – part of the ridiculously complicated backstory used to justify why the hell any of this insanity is going on, and which the kids have to piece together as they go as part of working out the identity and motives of “the mastermind” behind Monokuma, the bear. Dystopian societies, apocalyptic scenarios and desperate attempts to make reality TV more interesting have all featured in this.
So what has any of this got to do with religion? Well, directly, not a lot; at least not with Christianity or any of the other Abrahamic religions. Japan, where the games are made, is primarily Shinto and/or Buddhist in its religious traditions, with Christians being a tiny minority, and there’s a fairly well-established tradition of Japanese media using Christian symbolism essentially because it’s thought of as cool, mysterious and exotic, without much deeper meaning or even understanding of Christianity.
I don’t have a problem with this, largely because Western media has been doing exactly the same for decades with Asian religious traditions. After all, the “Star Wars” movies rely on the existence of a religion that’s pretty much “Taoism in Space” and a military/religious order who are pretty much “Buddhist monks who are really into martial arts in Space.” And that’s just one example.
The point is that it happens, and I don’t think there’s any particular evidence that Kazutaka Kodaka, the creator of all the “Danganronpa” games, is much different. The only unambiguous reference to Christianity in “Danganronpa V3” is in the Gothic cathedral-style design of the fourth floor of the Ultimate Academy, and that is fairly obviously done for purely aesthetic reasons. Gothic cathedrals = creepy, in old horror movies at any rate, and there is a supernatural theme to that whole chapter. Indeed, one of the characters, whilst exploring the floor says something to the effect that cathedrals have a font shaped like an angel at one entrance and one shaped like a devil at the other. They don’t; at least, I’m sure some probably do, but the dialogue makes it sound like it’s some kind of requirement. It isn’t, but it fits the spooky theme.
Having said that, there is one character in “Danganronpa V3” who makes little sense except in terms of a comment on religion:-
Angie Yonaga is the one non-Japanese student, being from a small Pacific island, and in theory she’s the Ultimate Artist. In reality, practically every line of her dialogue mentions her devotion to Atua, the deity of that island. It’s a weird-sounding religion with some questionable bits involving presenting your blood to Atua as a sacrifice and what I think is some sort of sex magic (“sweaty sacrifice”(!)).
Angie’s proposed solution to the dilemma of being stuck in a killing game, before she herself inevitably bites the dust, is that everyone should stay where they are, abandon all ideas of escape and form a cult to worship Atua, under her leadership. Atua will, of course, protect them all. The game is reasonably clear that this is not ever going to work – the killing game won’t be stopped that easily. A number of characters cast doubt on whether her devotion to Atua is genuine or selfish manipulation and everyone who go along with her is either presented by the game as highly gullible in nature or as having hidden motives, good or bad.
On the surface, this character does come across as Kodaka taking a few pot-shots at religious belief. Of course, the blow is somewhat softened by the fact that it’s never clear if Angie is your eccentrically devout auntie spun out of control or a flat-out con artist of the Elmer Gantry kind. It’s also not at all clear that she’s primarily meant to poke fun at Western religion, even the more cultish kind, at all. There are a lot of Japanese new religions, often based on Shinto, Buddhism or New Age ideas, that have sprung up since the late 19th century, and a lot of mainstream Japanese people think of some of them in much the same way as mainstream Westerners think of Scientology, the Unification Church or the Hare Krishnas.
Interestingly, one of the other characters in the game, Maki, turns out to be an assassin who is supposed to have been recruited by way of her orphanage being taken over by a religious cult that, apparently, likes to assassinate its enemies. No more details of the cult are given, but the theme of “killer cult members” ties in neatly with at least one notorious incident in recent Japanese history. If Kodaka has a bit of a bee in his bonnet about religious belief, then, it’s probably a bit more specific to his native country that it might look on the surface.
Angie also ties in with a very important theme in the game: the limitations of faith or belief in a general sense, as represented in particular by this guy:-
Kaito Momota (“Luminary of the Stars!”) is the Ultimate Astronaut, and his main role in the game is to act as an ally and confidence-booster to the protagonist, Shuichi, and to bring his love-interest Maki out of her shell. He does this primarily by encouraging them to believe – in themselves and their abilities, in himself, in the ability of the kids to find a solution to their situation.
As many, many people before me have pointed out, he is a fairly obvious reference to or parody of the character Kamina from the anime “Tengen Toppa Gurren Laggan.” He plays a similar confidence-boosting role that Kamina does to the protagonist there, who is initially a sidekick of Kamina, as Kaito insists Shuichi is throughout “Danganronpa”. He also dies heroically (well, as heroically as anyone does in this game), as Kamina does in his show. Unfortunately for Kaito, he isn’t living in a universe where being sufficiently heroic can warp reality itself, so no post-death return for him.
Most importantly, though, Kaito is big on belief. And because “Danganronpa” is much more cynical than “Gurren Laggan”, he’s often shown as being mistaken in where he places belief. He refuses to believe that characters have committed murder because he believes they just aren’t the type to, when, of course, under the pressures of the situation they are in and subject to rampant manipulation by the bad guys, anyone would become capable of murder. He believes that the characters can escape from captivity when it becomes increasingly clear that there really is no way they are going to be allowed such an easy way out.
Kaito really believes in the power of friendship, that people working together hard enough can achieve anything (and, indeed, that he personally can do this). And if there’s one thing “Danganronpa” likes to nuke from orbit, it’s the power of friendship and believing in the goodness of people. Until the end anyway, when the survivors survive because of…the power of friendship and believing in the goodness of people. However, you could at least say that by that point they’ve been through enough together for it to be logical that they should trust each other.
Kaito is prepared to trust people he doesn’t really know well in circumstances where powerful forces are actively trying to turn everyone against each other. Actually, so is Angie. Her plan really depends as much in faith in other people behaving well, even as members of some kind of religious cult, as faith in Atua. Really, “Danganronpa” is probably as uncomfortable for a (simplistic) humanist as it is for a (naïve) religious believer.
Perhaps more so. After all, whilst Christianity is full of stories of miracles, it doesn’t as such depend on the idea that “Believe in God and bad things will never happen to you,” which Angie’s religion does seem to. It’s more like “Believe in God, and even if the bad things happen, it doesn’t ultimately matter.” Being a believer shouldn’t mean you check in your common-sense at the door and stop thinking logically about anything, because God will save you from your own bad decisions. The survivors in “Danganronpa” survive largely because they make rational decisions even under extreme emotional pressure (well, mostly).
I’ll end with my favourite joke on this theme – a small town in the US has been overwhelmed by flood waters. There’s one guy who didn’t get out in time, and he’s stuck in his house. He prays to God – “Lord, help me out of this, please!”
“Sure thing,” says God.
The local sheriff drives by in his car, through the flood water, on a last minute sweep. He invites the guy to get in. “That’s OK,” he tells the sheriff, “God has told me he’ll save me from this!”
A few hours later, the flood’s risen, and the man’s on the upper floor of his house. An inflatable dinghy with rescue workers scoots along the street, but he decides not to shout for help. “After all, God told me he’d save me from this.”
A few hours later still, the flood is still rising and now the man’s sitting on his roof. A rescue helicopter buzzes overhead and they call down to him to ask if he wants to be winched off. “Oh, no,” he replies, “I have God’s word that I’ll be saved.”
He’s still on the roof, and the water’s still rising. “Hey, God,” he calls out. “When are you going to save me from this.”
“I sent you a police car, a boat and then a helicopter,” replies God. “Honestly, what do you expect? Miracles?”