CONTENT WARNING for discussions of sexual assault and violence. SPOILERS for the Danganronpa video games and TV anime.
Throughout visual culture all over the world, sex and violence against women are constantly intermingled. Not just in terms of rape and sexual assault, but as two components of media that privilege hypermasculinity. Such stories, even the ones with a veneer of radicalism such as Persona 5, assume a straight cis male audience so frequently that practically every time a female character is in the shot, regardless of context, she is a sexual object.
The Danganronpa games, while hyper-violent stories about teens being forced to murder each other, sidesteps the issue by compartmentalizing their portrayals of sex and violence, only intermingling them as a sign of deviance, which give its themes greater weight. The anime-only sequel Danganronpa 3, on the other hand, makes frequent use of fanservice during brutally violent scenes, undermining its thematic elements and creating a snuff film atmosphere the games never had.
In Danganronpa, a group of exceptionally talented teenagers, expecting to start their first day at the elite Hope’s Peak High School, find themselves inexplicably trapped in the school. Monokuma, a malicious teddy bear, tells them that in order to leave, they must murder one of their classmates and evade conviction at the class trial. If their surviving classmates catch them, a grisly execution awaits. Its sequel, Super Danganronpa 2, has a similar premise but is set in a tropical island resort.
Like Battle Royale and The Hunger Games before it, Danganronpa wields its violent premise as social criticism. Although it does occasionally feel excessive, the game directs players toward feeling upset and angry at the institutions forcing the characters to hurt each other, not to take pleasure in the violence they face. Adding sexualization to these scenes would distract and dilute the impact by inviting viewers to take pleasure in them, rather than the sense of horror the scenes are meant to instill.
Not that the Danganronpa games are totally devoid of sexuality. Fanservice isn’t unusual during the “Daily Life” segments (when the characters aren’t actively investigating a murder), particularly in the second game.
There are occasional scenes meant to show off the female characters’ bodies, and both the games have characters who make unwanted sexual remarks about the others. These things are all par-for-the-course in otaku-oriented media, the kinds of things most fans have learned to dismiss with a sigh and an eye roll.
It helps, though, that Danganronpa takes a more measured, realistic view of sexuality than most games of its ilk. Both male and female characters are allowed to express attraction to each other without being punished; the games even imply some of them have sexual relationships.
The most positive portrayal of sexuality in the games comes from Sonia Nevermind, the Ultimate Princess from the nation of Novoselic. Sonia is the only character in the trilogy who has explicitly had sex in canon—when Gundam Tanaka mentions using a virgin’s blood for a ritual, she just sadly replies that she wouldn’t be eligible.
Sonia is a truly rare character in otaku media: a female character who expresses sexual agency without being sexualized or treated as a reward for a male character. Soda idealizes her and pursues her relentlessly without ever really getting to know her, and his advances are continuously foiled either through happenstance (such as her showing up in a wetsuit when he was hoping to see her in a bikini) or her deflecting. Though she’s never unkind to him, she usually rebuffs him indirectly, with all the diplomacy one would expect from the Ultimate Princess.
Instead of him wearing her down or her coming to see his true merits, she dates Gundam Tanaka, who masks his social awkwardness with a serious case of chuunibyou but shares her interests in the occult and animal welfare. Although the finer details of how they got together aren’t portrayed, their chemistry and compatibility are plain to see in the moments they share on-screen. Furthermore, Sonia survives to the end of the game without ever being criticized or punished for being sexually active.
There are a few moments where sexuality and violence combine in the Danganronpa games, but those serve their own purpose. Serial killer Genocide Jack specifically targets men she’s attracted to; Ultimate Despair Junko Enoshima and her minion Mikan Tsumiki both get aroused at their own executions.
In Danganronpa, the conflation of sex and violence is a sign of deviance; a signal that a person is unstable and dangerous. Despair and sadomasochism go hand-in-hand, and are meant to inspire shock and disgust in the viewer, not arousal.
Danganronpa 3 takes all that and throws it right out the window.
The anime Danganronpa 3 is divided into two series, the prequel Despair Arc, focusing on the cast of Danganronpa 2 in the lead up to the world being consumed by despair; and the sequel Future Arc, which covers the first games’ characters in the aftermath of the second game. Of the two, Future Arc has little in the way of sexual content and tends to frame the female characters’ bodies neutrally.
Despair Arc, on the other hand, constantly frames their bodies sexually, even in totally inappropriate contexts, and uses sexual violence as a way of introducing tension. The first signs that something seemed different came relatively early on: the girls’ bust sizes had noticeably increased.
The next sign came in Episode 2, when Hiyoko spikes the beef stew Teruteru made for the class with an aphrodisiac. What was a comedic scene turns dark when Teruteru, angry at Hiyoko for mocking his arousal, threatens to rape her as a form of release.
While Teruteru was often creepy and made unwanted sexual comments and advances in the games, he never crossed the line into assault. The anime’s shift takes him from an annoying and unwelcome presence to potentially violent and threatening; from merely unlikable to outright frightening.
The first few episodes are lighthearted slice-of-life comedy, so some fanservice here and there is in step with the tone of the games and never terribly out of place. But things change rapidly when Junko Enoshima, the human embodiment of despair, arrives.
Once she initiates her plan to turn the world to despair, the series turns dark and violent. Cheerful comedy shifts to graphic psychological horror as Junko forces the Student Council to conduct a bloody battle royale to set off a chain reaction that will demoralize the entire world.
During the fight, the male and female students’ bodies are framed noticeably differently. While boys are positioned and shot to emphasize the horror and violence of their deaths, the girls are shot in ways that emphasize their bodies. The camera focuses on their thigh-high-clad legs and up their skirts as they lie in a spreading pool of their own blood, or positions their breasts and legs in the foreground and their screaming, terrified faces in the background.
The framing accomplishes two things: first, it prioritizes objectifying their bodies over communicating the horror of their situation; second, it eroticizes the violence and invites the viewers to take sexual pleasure in watching children violently murder each other. The scene is quite lengthy, over five minutes, and every single female victim is sexualized in some way.
This makes it feel more like a torture porn film along the lines of the Hostel series than an allegory about the dangers of meritocracy. Even at the show’s emotional climax, when Junko traps the class representative Chiaki Nanami in a trap-infested labyrinth, Chiaki tends to fall in ways that put her legs on display.
Easily the most discomfiting scene of the anime comes when Junko and her sister, Mukuro, kidnap the class’s teacher Chisa Yukizome. They try to use the video of the student council murdering each other to force her into despair. When Chisa doesn’t fall as easily as they expected, Mukuro jabs two needles into her brain and lobotomizes her as the video plays, forcing her to succumb.
The camera moves from her face to her legs to her breasts, with each shot lasting several seconds. Moving from Chisa’s face to Mukuro’s needles and on to the screen would have been a far more effective way to storyboard the scene.
It would have been shocking and upsetting regardless—there’s a visceral horror concept of an impromptu lobotomy robbing a woman of her hope and agency. The sexualized framing makes it uncomfortable in an entirely different way, as a woman is reduced to her sexual parts in an entirely unsexual situation. It reminds the audience that for many, even at a moment of horror and vulnerability like this, a woman’s primary function is to provide sexual pleasure.
The Danganronpa games offer a sense of catharsis to its audience of millennials battling against despair in a world where they feel helpless and disregarded. By keeping sexual fanservice and violence largely separate, it created a welcoming space for fans of all genders. Instead of maintaining that boundary, Danganronpa 3: Despair Arc combines them together, creating an alienating experience for many who once treasured the franchise.