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‘Shirobako’: Meditations on Success and Failure

The First Step Through the Recording Room Door

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In celebration of the recent announcement that the Shirobako movie, imaginatively titled Shirobako Movie, has a Japanese release set for February 29th, 2020, it’s time to reflect on one of the best series of the 2010s:

Spoilers abound

Few anime series reflect the societal tension of achieving success, and therein causes of failure, more acutely than Shirobako. Centered on the working lives of five school friends in the anime industry, the central theme is laid out explicitly within the first five minutes: Aoi Miyamori and her school anime club friends are excited at the prospect of joining the anime industry, their major anime project bringing them creative pride. The montage illustrating their hard work has vibrant tones; then Shirobako jumps forward into the future. Overworked production assistant Aoi grips her steering wheel while delivering more animation cuts that need checking. The background colours are muted. While she momentarily perks up at hearing a promotional radio interview for the anime that she’s working on, this is still not exactly as she imagined.

Success is elusive. The type of success is immaterial, for each person has their own passions and ambitions, and indeed what qualifies as success is also personal. At some point, however, one may catastrophically fail at achieving their desired success, adapting and resurging in response, but sometimes failure is an endpoint. Point blank. Other times, success eludes a person for reasons wholly outside their control. Society, in general, poorly prepares young people for the ramifications of failure, because it is so focussed on escalating ascendency. Within the nurturing structures of home or school a great lie is told, repeatedly, that personal improvement and effort will proportionally result in accomplishment and acknowledgment. Schools, especially, convey this through validating scores and grades, such that individual contentment with one’s own success becomes tied to external approval. Thus transitioning to the chaos of society beyond the protective confines of home or school is very often difficult for people. There is still always another marker or level of achievement attainable, but the path to success and contentment is obfuscated, and if people don’t outright fail, then they may suffer from aspirational deflation. Some people have the misfortune to be apprised of this early, but more often, the realization arrives in burgeoning adulthood.

Exploring the concept of adult success through that juxtaposition — where reality dispels the ideal — with anime as vector, is inspired, not solely meta-textually. As one of Japan’s most distinctive and unique fictional mediums stylistically, anime encapsulates that creative ideal imbued with cultural heritage. In this way, creating anime becomes a creative zenith, bringing the arduous pursuit of realizing professional creative success, in all its fits and bursts and economic considerations, into stark relief. Shirobako approaches this from several angles with Aoi and her friends as conduits. For example, Ema Yasuhira, a key animator, is harrowed that her drawing rate may not be sufficiently quick enough to earn enough money and feed herself. Misa Toudou, a CGI animator, wants more than from her career than modelling car tires and hubcaps — she joined her current company because the CEO was once a famed anime creator, but he felt the need to prioritize financial stability, not just for himself, but for all of his staff. Creative endeavours are a risk and prone to failure, especially as anime operates on thin profit margins.

That would be a simplistic thematic discussion, however, and Shirobako is far more multifaceted. Returning to Aoi, she is elevated for her efforts when the opportunity arises. Mechanically, as the viewpoint character for the audience, Aoi’s promotion through the ranks allows the series to show more fields within the industry, but it also serves as a counterpoint to the trajectories of the other main characters. However, Aoi still struggles, because although she has a dream to create anime, she laments that she doesn’t concretely know what she wants to actually achieve now that she’s there. Her future prospects concern her. Setting aside compounding factors, societal success rarely has room for people without overarching plans—it’s regarded as listlessness. Shirobako has empathy for these people: some people, like Aoi, focussing on the current step in front of them, just stumble onto a new and unexpected avenue towards contentment. Late in the series, fellow people in the company are quizzed on why they wanted to make anime. Some were passionate, while others just fell into it, happenstance, and stuck around because they enjoyed the minutiae of the work they were doing. Shirobako emphasizes that the latter is perfectly okay and a form of success, as well as contentment.

Perhaps that notion about success should be then rewritten: personal contentment is elusive. Especially in a creative field, where satisfaction with one’s creations can be so ephemeral, and art — in its incipient stages at least — is direct self-expression, the other hurdles and barriers formed by a civilisation that impede personal creative contentment cause severe frustration in denying an outlet for successful expression.

As a corollary, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his 1841 essay, Self Reliance, describing the social imposition on valuing personal testimony and discernment,  “I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.” Nearly two hundred years on, the aggregated names, societies, and dead institutions often remain a bulwark against new people entering the circuit of success, where one achievement begets another through increasing recognition. Not that those already on the circuit are generally undeserving of their success, far from it; and they too are liable to face a precipitous drop from precarious fame, as Shirobako’s main director character, Seiichi Kinoshita, found out when the follow-up project to his award-winning debut was a disaster. However, frequently the hardest element in achieving success is initially getting the proverbial foot in the door, because there’s an accreted doorstopper of “badges” jamming it shut. Shirobako knows this, and the tribulations of Shizuka Sakaki, an aspiring anime voice actress, consequently make for the most affecting storyline and a pertinent rumination on failure.

Shizuka’s failures in entering the voice-acting industry threaten to cause her recession into obscurity. Humanity is mostly anonymous, but those with the desire to rise above the crowds and perform with a platform frequently fear such a thing. Pointedly, Shizuka joins a group of voice actors providing background cheers as sports fans, but her zeal has her shunted away from the microphone, because she is too loud.

A particularly wounding vignette related to Shizuka’s struggles bluntly satirizes an anime production committee meeting. After a successful audition, Shizuka is on the shortlist for a major character in a new series. She is, in fact, the anime director’s first choice. Here Emerson’s “badges and names” rear their heads, with the representatives for the brands co-funding the anime reverting to their bureaucratic interests, solely focussing on the marketability or promotional qualities of their companies’ favoured actresses. It’s a familiar experience for anyone who has ever entered a meeting knowing, that for whatever reason, those judging have pre-emptively made their decision based on preconceptions and extraneous circumstances.

Shirobako further thematically underscores Shizuka’s trials through Waiting for Godot. Shizuka’s former acting coach invites her along to see the rehearsals of an all-female production that she is directing. The play’s first act revolves around two companions, Estragon and Vladimir, as they wait beside a tree for the arrival of the unknown Godot that evening. Eventually Pozzo and Lucky — a loquacious, abusive master and denigrated slave — pass by, interrupting their humorous and poignant squabbling. At the end of the act, a messenger boy tells the pair that Godot is unable to come today, but that he will be there tomorrow (it is implied that the men have been waiting regularly for a long time). The far more serious second act sees Estragon and Vladimir still underneath the tree, patiently waiting for Godot, until a blind Pozzo and mute Lucky appear. Evidently a significant amount of time has passed, and yet Estragon and Vladimir are expecting (hoping!) that Godot will arrive. This is the most facile reading of Waiting for Godot, but it draws a direct parallel with Shizuka’s plight. Her career is stagnant; the daily chore of failing auditions is a repetitive stasis. In the same way Estragon and Vladimir expect Godot to eventually arrive as promised, Shizuka is waiting for the tacit societal promise of getting an acting job as a result of her hard work to be fulfilled. Godot never arrives in the play, and Shizuka’s dreams are perilously close to failing by virtue of never being given the chance to realize them. The demoralizing truth is that not everyone is rewarded with vindication for their talents.

This can curdle into bitterness, if not resentment. Shirobako’s most extreme example is the ornery production assistant Daisuke Hiroaka, who is disenfranchised with animators taking his role and the anime production process as a whole for granted. Shizuka is not so jaded, but one evening a dejected Shizuka envies a younger, successful actress complaining about her work schedule on television. Most heart-wrenchingly, Shizuka discovers all of her friends are working together in the anime adaptation of a popular manga series that she auditioned for, lamenting that “[She] would have loved to have worked with all of [them] just want[s] to work with you all”. Seeing friends succeed while one is continuously failing can strain even the most affectionate friendships.

Here is where Shirobako’s prevailing positivity exists. Shizuka magnanimously does not resent her friends, despite frustrations, and they, in turn, all admire her qualities and have faith in her abilities. Likewise, throughout the series, multiple anime production crew-members commiserate setbacks and issues together over drinks. As much as creating anime is a collaborative effort where people solve problems together, friendships and support structures help bear the load of failure. There is also a more positive and possibly misconstrued interpretation of Waiting for Godot (having not read or watched it properly since 2009). Estragon and Vladimir remain undaunted about waiting, and are content to bickering with each other for as much time passes. They are together under that tree; the final line is “Yes, let’s go”, but neither leaves. Similarly, none of the girls are ready to give up on either their careers, or each other.

In that optimistic vein, Shizuka leaves Waiting For Godot invigorated and determined to continue trying. People acquiring resilience against rejection and overriding failure, and detaching their self-worth from external success, is a difficult process. But it enables reconciling with reality and appreciating the more minor achievements in life. Soon afterward, Shizuka gets the opportunity to play a prefecture mascot. Her friends worry that she sees this as a tangent to her career objectives, but Shizuka appreciates it as lateral progression, and more importantly, a worthwhile experience in its own right.

Towards the end of Waiting For Godot, Vladimir demands that the messenger boy recognizes him when he surely returns tomorrow with the eternally disappointing news that Godot won’t be coming. Vladimir wants acknowledgment on a personal, human level. It is an external validation of ourselves and our place in society. As such, Shizuka also wants to be accepted on her own merits: Aoi, due to friendship and appreciation of her talent, is on the verge of recommending Shizuka to director Seiichi Kinoshita and producer “Nabe P” when they visit the bar Shizuka works at, but she stops her. Fundamentally, humans want to be accepted and heard as part of respect and dignity for their individuality.

That same granular humanity is really Shirobako’s silver lining in the grind of overwhelming failure: for all the nebulousness of the person that is Godot or the nebulousness of the anime industry, Shirobako humanizes the process by showing everyone’s interior and working lives. Subsequently, it illustrates that all it takes is one person acknowledging your efforts to opening the door to success. Aoi messes up interviews at multiple anime production studios until her enthusiasm for the children’s anime Andes Chucky amuses the heads of Musashino Animation, as they worked on it, and they give her a chance. College student Midori Imai helps research some technical information on Aoi’s behalf, and the director and screenwriter are impressed and contract her as an employee. A revered background artist originally got his break because one of the production assistant staff members — who eventually became head of Mushashino Animation — saw his skill and asked him to paint snowy weather for Andes Chucky.

So it is the most cathartic moment in the series when Shizuka steps through the recording studio door to record a significant minor character, the younger sister of the character she had originally auditioned for. Seiichi Kinoshita had remembered her and thus gave her the role. That karmic justice and emotional fulfillment and resolution are partly why we consume narrative fiction. The empathy we have for characters — both in their joys and suffering — allows us to reflect on our own experiences, but with the refinement of narrative that abstracts things from the mundane human experience and brings them into focus. Pathos is heightened. It’s also a more palatable way of processing our own feelings, because there is the reassurance, especially in optimistic series like Shirobako, that failure does not have the same finality as in life. Shizuka’s struggles ultimately leading to success is uplifting and also a wonderful way of reminding us that one shut recording room door is not the same as every door being closed to us. Our own narratives continue beyond failure and setbacks. 

Grand scale success is elusive and too dependent on other factors to be a pure reflection of one’s capabilities; but if one is actively determined and finessed, eventually somebody else will appreciate it. It could just be one’s friends or family, but it could a person who grants further opportunities. Shirobako, therefore, asks us to find the process of trying to succeed, stumbles and all, worthwhile in and of itself. Shirobako then asks us to continue doing so, and always hold out hope that we will find that one person who reaches out and unlocks that blocked recording room door, letting us, like Shizuka, perform.

Declan Biswas-Hughes

Declan Biswas-Hughes has led a very nomadic life, which influenced his decision to study European and International Law. He unwinds from writing essays on the minutiae of legalese by writing things like essays on the minutiae of anime, because he really knows how to party. You can find him on Twitter (@fringence), popping up on AniTAY, and occasionally out clubbing when he’s not trying to finish a novel.

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The Historical Comedic Mechanics that Make ‘KonoSuba’ a Great Fantasy Comedy

A deep dive into Japanese and Western comedic heritage and humor.

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The Konosuba: Legend of Crimson movie made its North American premiere on November 12th. To celebrate, we’re taking a look at why Konosuba is such a great comedy series on a character-writing level in the context of Japanese and Western comedic history.

Anime is a wondrous and varied medium, but the plague of generic European fantasy world “isekai” every season would make an onlooker think otherwise. Isekai stories revolve around characters entering another world from their own. Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Fionavar Tapestry could all be considered isekai. The glut of anime isekai in recent years—where protagonists invariably travel from the modern day to some Tolkienesque or Dungeons and Dragons-inspired fantasy world—has spawned its own permanent subgenre of self-aware parody and satires, of which Konosuba: God’s Blessing on This World is a part. Yet Konosuba is notable because it is also an exceptional anime comedy.

Dying from the stress of trying to save a schoolgirl he mistakenly thought needed rescuing, teenage hermit Kazuma Satou arrives in purgatory having done nothing with his life. The goddess Aqua gives him the choice to start life over in another world as long as he defeats the great evil sweeping the land. She offers him a gift to help him of which Kazuma chooses to take Aqua along.

Unfortunately for Kazuma, Aqua is both spoilt and a moron. He spends most of his time rescuing her from the mouths of giant, man-eating toads and other mishaps. His other companions aren’t useful either: the sorceress Megumin has specialized only in explosion magic, while Darkness is a highly skilled swordswoman but prefers to be hit by the enemy out of masochistic tendencies. They are a truly terrible company of heroes, and hilarious to watch.

To explain why Konosuba is brilliant beyond its amusing premise, passionate performances, or clever dialogue, however, we must ironically get serious about the mechanics of comedy.

Konosuba Aqua and frog

Comedic Conflicts

Comedy is extremely subjective. The cultural nuances, sensibilities, and idiomatic expressions mean that not all comedy is universal—“American joke” is a derisive term amongst Japanese people for a failed and incomprehensible joke, for example—but certainly some elements do translate enough to make some general commentary on it.

Comedy is born of conflict, flaws, and suffering. Prominent Western comedies such as Blackadder, Frasier, and Parks and Recreation all share a few things in common. Firstly, the opposing personalities produce a strong and constant source of fundamental interpersonal conflict between them that can be mined continuously. This is absolutely the case for Konosuba; Aqua’s gullible and stupid nature contrasts Kazuma’s tactical deviousness, and their dynamic produces scenes such as him using her as bait to lure in crocodiles while she wails. It is a rich well of comedy.

Secondly, a character’s personality flaws are what bring about their downfall in a scenario. All four of the main characters manage, in their own ways, to make any given problem worse, and they invariably descend into further debt.

Finally, the overall situation they are in is an obstacle to the fulfillment of their desires. Kazuma desires peace and to laze about at home, but he keeps being sent on kingdom-saving missions. Within those missions, his personality directs his actions and were Kazuma able to lounge about uninterrupted forever, there would be no series.

These three elements roughly make up the basis of all so-called “character-based humor”. The versatility that it provides can be traced back through Eurocentric Western comedy for centuries if not millennia. Plautus’ comedies performed between 205 and 184 B.C. frequently revolved around class obligations. All of Shakespeare’s and Molière’s comedies endure because they concern both character dilemmas forced upon them by society and pettier conflicts with and manipulations of one another (allowing for salient observations of humanity). Even early silent slapstick films of the 1920s and 30s physically built up characters and their dynamics in order to motivate the pratfalls and slip-ups.

Konosuba Kazuma is shocked.

Japanese comedy independently arrived at these principles of character-based humor as well, but has tended towards reducing these concepts down to smaller scales and acting within distinct roles in live performance. In this way, the flawed characters are more boxed in by the parameters set by their role. This is where anime comedies like Konosuba differ in their sensibilities, owing to the long history of Japanese comedy being performed in this way.

Manzai” might be the most enduring; it originated in the Kansai region during the Heian period (794 – 1185). The style features a double act with one person in the “boke” idiot role, while the intelligent “tsukkomi” comments and challenges them as a comedic “straight man”. Think Abbott and Costello. With the advent of television, the broader array of “owarai” (meaning “laugh”) comedy has given rise to “reaction” comedy, where, as the name suggests, the physical and verbal reaction to a situation is the focus and joke, frequently conveyed through exaggerated facial expressions and noises.

This is not to say that Konosuba, or any comedic anime, is a direct synthesis of traditional Japanese comedic art-forms, but that heritage has clearly filtered through to the sensibilities of anime comedies. The most common joke across anime is a sharp cutaway to the straight man protagonist’s exasperation and bewilderment at the bizarre actions of his compatriots. This copies manzai and “reaction” comedy. Konosuba is rife with these types of jokes and the limited and deformed animation by Studio Deen accentuates their impact. Konosuba’s real cleverness, however, is the way it uses role-based humor as part of its comedic repertoire and avoids the pitfalls often associated with it.

Comedy Roles in Anime

As said earlier, Japanese comedy heavily favors role-based characters as the source of character humor for many centuries. This is frequently evident in anime comedies and sometimes this works to hilarious results. D-Frag, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, Nichijou, and Tanaka-kun is Always Listless have characters with very defined roles they occupy in jokes on the basis of their personalities (that long list is there as suggestions for viewing). What they can, therefore, do comedically is limited by the role they play, becoming a subset of specialized characters with flaws.

Where this practically differs from simply being a character with comedic flaws is the limits the role sets with the type of joke being able to be told with that character. While a purely “flaw-based” character means that the output and outcome of a conflict will be foreseeable for a particular character as a result of their flaws in a certain scenario, role-based humor additionally limits the possible input and stimulus for the joke in the first place. Practically, characters evolving from role-based humor will only be used for certain kinds of jokes and will only ever take certain kinds of actions. Their responses are not tailored to the situation. The situation has to be more tailored to them.

Nozakii-kun Seo inflicts pain on everyone around her.

In something like the anime series Grand Blue Dreaming and Kaguya-sama: Love is War, or say, the sitcom Friends, the audience knows how the characters will respond to and behave in a situation, but you could give them a simple dilemma and each would be able to carry on on the basis of their flaws and be funny.

A more role-based character would need a particular problem and sparring partner to find that same comedic value. For example, Seo from Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun will always be completely oblivious and unintentionally confrontational in response to a situation, so she is only ever used for those sorts of jokes, like angering somebody with something she says, or placed in a situation to be boisterous with her opposite, the jittery Wakamatsu. There is absolutely crossover between these two forms of character creation, and a well-written “role-based” character is nearly indistinguishable from a “flaws-based character”, but they are still slightly different in execution.

Where a lot of anime comedy falls flat then, at least to foreign audiences, is that the characters are identified less by their personalities, but rather exclusively by the role they play. At its worst, they become one-note and one-joke characters, repeated over and over to diminishing returns, as there is a lack of tension because the scenarios always have the exact same result. Certainly, all characters in all comedy, or even all fiction, have roles in the stories and conflicts, but there is a difference between characters having personality traits and being defined by their archetypal role. When there is a problem with a role-based character, and the series hinges on them and role-based humor, there is little way of alleviating the problem without changing the character entirely.

Konosuba avoids this issue with character roles because all the characters’ personalities contrast the expected demeanors of the fantasy class roles they occupy. Aqua is an all-powerful god and yet she is a needy moron. Megumin is an “Arch Wizard” mage and should reasonably be proficient across various types of magic, but instead she is so hyper-specialized that she’s rendered nearly useless after a single, uncontrolled spell. Darkness is outwardly a refined and noble crusader as one would expect from a powerful knight, but her penchant for flagellation and depraved fantasies always threatens to expose itself.

Konosuba Aqua questions Kazuma's plans.

The juxtaposition of character role and flawed personality helps set the absurdist tone and is the foundation for reaction comedy when paired with the cynical and conniving comedic straight man in Kazuma. However, that gap between the ideal and reality also leads to personal amelioration for the characters. Darkness feels obligated to uphold her family’s honor and embracing her fetishes becomes a mode for self-acceptance. Megumin’s delight in explosions makes her a social pariah, and so it is a touching moment when Kazuma recognizes it as important self-expression, endearing him to her. In this way, Konosuba neatly eschews the problem of equating comedic role to personality, and that helps set it apart from many other anime comedies. It is a genuine character-based fantasy comedy.

On top of this, Konosuba can lampoon the trend of incorporating game elements into fantasy anime series, such as defined fighting class roles and skill trees, because it already is utilizing those same roles for its comedy. Thus it is able to hang its parodying of isekai and game tropes off this firm central character basis. The parody is not the source of the jokes, merely an added quality as a result of the sincere treatment of its characters, moving it from hollow parody to genuine satire.

Konosuba is a superlative comedy because it is a complementary blend of Japanese character-based humour and fantasy isekai, and is able to use video game structure towards fulfilling comedic intent. It can both adhere to and mock modern fantasy isekai adeptly because its comedic foundations are built on character conflicts.

Character conflicts are everything in comedy, and the extra layer of restrictions via character roles that have evolved in the course of Japanese comedic history can make the styles confusing or simply not funny to foreigners. Konosuba is exceptional and acclaimed as a comedy because it manages to integrate both character roles and character-based humor in a tautly written and witty package. The fact that it is a fantasy isekai is ultimately incidental to it being a great comedy, but Konosuba is a beacon for what more comedy and fantasy anime could aspire to.

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Anime Ichiban 21: Explosions are so Kakkoii!

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konosuba movie

The Konosuba movie delivers on almost all fronts while this anime season delivers more shows of varying quality.

TIMESTAMPS

0:00 – Introductions
10:03 – Konosuba movie impressions and revenue news
22:23 – DEEMO movie announcement
26:29 – A cruise for anime fans
30:22 – Clip Paint Studio manga software donated to Texan schools
34:05 – The decline of Japanese arcades
38:53 – Yuki Kaji monetizes his voice even more
42:17 – This week in stage play adaptations
49:47 – Tokyo anime studio exhibition
51:08 – SHITSUMON! The yabai, the ma ma, and the kakkoii of this season
1:20:38 – Closing remarks

TRACKS

Intro – “Papapa” by Shuka Saito (ORESUKI opening theme)
Outro –  “Chisana Boukensha” by Sora Amamiya, Rie Takahashi, and Ai Kayano (Konosuba first season ending theme)

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Anime’s Survival Genre: Creating a Killing Game

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anime the killing game

Anime’s survival genre, which has lent itself to a spectrum of popular, critically acclaimed shows over the years, has a sub-genre that is more diverse and nuanced than it seems to the casual glance. The infamous “killing game” sub-genre has spawned many easily recognizable, seeming cult-classics. 

While the killing game genre is massive, and maybe even a bit oversaturated to date, the three anime adaptations covered in this article serve as proof that a seemingly rigid basis for a plot can take many concrete and thematic twists and turns.

There are many listicles online that can serve as great jumping-off points to find different entries to your liking—here, however, you’ll read a more in-depth analysis of three shows, each with their own cult following and notoriety.

These shows are: When the Seagulls Cry (Umineko no naku koro ni), Danganronpa: The Animation, and Future Diary (Mirai Nikki).

For these shows, this article will ask the same three questions:

  1. What is the basic premise of the killing game?
  2. What is the defining philosophy of the protagonist?
  3. How are the character deaths handled during the game?

In the interest of not spoiling the ending for these shows, this article will focus mostly on how each killing game is first introduced.

Answering these questions, with a laser focus on just three examples, will show just how nuanced the construction of a killing game anime can be. 

When the Seagulls Cry (Umineko no naku koro ni)

When the Seagulls Cry (Umineko no naku koro ni)

Question 1: What is the basic premise of the killing game?

This anime serves as an adaptation for the Umineko: When They Cry visual novel series. Protagonist Battler Ushiromiya travels to his family’s estate on a private island, reuniting with his extended family after an absence of six years. As Battler reconnects with his cousins, his aunts and uncles discuss the finances (the potential inheritance) to be left behind by Battler’s grandfather, Kinzo Ushiromiya. Battler, his family members, and several of the estate’s staff, get stranded on the isolated island by a typhoon, and a chain of brutal murders begins, in accordance with a strange riddle, supposedly hinting at a way to find Kinzo’s secret stash of gold, and the headship of the family, simultaneously avoiding a gruesome death at the hands of Beatrice, the mysterious “golden witch.”

Thus, this particular killing game has dual incentives for survival and material wealth.

The killings follow a pre-determined schedule of sorts, the twelve “twilights,” described in the main riddle, which predict both the number of people who will die, and how.

However, they are intentionally cryptic, and do not specify who will die. This adds to an overall sense of the killing game being both a dreaded inevitability and an impossible mystery, leaving everyone subjected to it utterly defenseless.

Question 2:  How are the character deaths handled throughout the game?

Characters’ deaths in this entry are by far the goriest and grotesque out of the three anime covered here. There’s a seeming fetishization of death, as the bodies are often horribly disfigured—to the point that, even seeing the censored versions can be hard to look at. However, this is not senseless gore—this apparent disrespect to the dignity of his murdered relatives and the estate’s longstanding employees enrages Battler, fueling him to declare all-out-war against Beatrice and the killing game itself.

Question 3: What is the defining philosophy of the protagonist?

Battler is determined to use logic and reasoning to solve the various, seemingly “impossible” murders that occur around him, while refuting the idea that the deaths of his loved ones were caused by the “golden witch” Beatrice and, thus, magic. After the first series of deaths, the anime places Battler in a different dimension, able to converse with a woman who claims to be Beatrice. What follows is a test of Battler’s faith in logic and reasoning, in the face of the cruel and vindictive witch “Beatrice.” This tension amplifies as a sort of groundhog-day effect happens, wherein the scenario resets itself, with Battler forced to watch the murders begin anew, with new victims and circumstances, struggling to keep his head and solve the atrocities in a rational way.

Danganronpa: The Animation

Danganronpa: The Animation

Question 1: What is the basic premise of the killing game?

This anime adaptation of the Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc video game, places Makoto Naegi and his fifteen classmates trapped in a sealed-off, underground version of Hope’s Peak Academy high school. With no memory of what happened to them and how they got there, they are pressured into playing a killing game, wherein the winner can both survive and escape back to the outside world. 

The killing game follows a specific pattern for each murder. Monokuma, the self-proclaimed principal (a talking teddy bear) states that participation in the killing game is the only way to escape to the outside. Each new murder begins with a body discovery, followed by a limited window of time to investigate the murder, and, finally, a class trial, wherein the students try to present evidence to vote for and convict the culprit.

The game itself is very controlled and regimented, with the only freedom presented is the freedom to kill in any way the culprit chooses.

The incentive, then, besides basic survival, is to escape to the outside world, albeit at the other classmates. Soon, however, a thematic duality between protagonist and the killing game’s mastermind occurs, similar to When the Seagulls Cry, as Makoto Naegi fights Monokuma’s attempts to spread despair to incite murder with a fervent belief in “hope” to both stop participation in the killing game and for everyone to escape.

Question 2: How are the character deaths handled throughout the game?

This show revels in death, but not in gore so much as in spectacle. Similar to its source material, the anime builds tension leading up to each body discovery, and everybody discovery is surreal, near-unbelievable because each is bizarre in its own way. The bodies bleed pink blood, and each body discovery is shown with a shaking screen.

The number of bizarre details provided to each murder is crucial to the plot progression, as this lends itself to the “investigation” component, followed by the trial. Additionally, every time a culprit is found guilty of murder, they are given a tailor-made execution scene, complete with its own unique animation sequence—at the hands of a teddy bear. 

Question 3: What is the defining philosophy of the protagonist?

Naegi remains staunchly against falling under Monokuma’s influence and engaging in the killing game. At first, he tries his best to deny that anyone would play into Monokuma’s game. However, once the murders begin, he develops a fervent belief in “hope,” which, as mentioned, runs in exact contrast to the theme of “despair” espoused by Monokuma (and, later, the true culprit). Naegi’s survival instinct becomes intertwined with his belief in his “hope.” As the story continues, Naegi and Monokuma dig themselves deeper into their dualing ideologies, and are alternatingly angered by, and dismissive of, the other’s ideals. 

The inclusion of the other classmates on equal footing means that, while some try to murder their peers, others begin to side with and aid Naegi, to end the game and regain their freedom.

Future Diary (Mirai Nikki)

Future Diary (Mirai Nikki)

Question 1: What is the basic premise of the killing game?

Protagonist Yukiteru Amano, a shy fourteen-year-old student, is pulled out of his ordinary school life as a social recluse when he is thrown into a killing game by the god of causality Deus Ex Machina, wherein Yuki and eleven others are provided their own future diaries, which predict the future in a manner unique to their character, and are pressed to find and kill one another, with the last person remaining will become the next god in place of Deus.

This killing game has next to no rules—kill the other diary holders, and you win. The game, then, has the dual incentives of survival and becoming a god.

At the anime’s beginning, the other participants have seemingly been chosen at random to participate (with the commonality of living within Sakurami City). However, Yuki has previously conversed privately with Deus many times as his “imaginary friend,” and, in the anime, after Yuki muses about having no “dreams or goals,” and saying “all I have is this diary and this imaginary world,” Deus states he will start an “entertaining game,” telling Yuki “I shall bestow the future upon you.” Soon after the game begins and, while the other contestants are regularly summoned to speak with Deus as a group, their identities obscured, Deus clearly favors Yuki from the start, which ironically leads many contestants to try killing him first.

Question 2: How are the character deaths handled throughout the game?

Interestingly, the first two diary-holder deaths are more strange that horrific—their diaries are destroyed, and their bodies morph and warp in a spiral into sheer nothingness. However, there are plenty of non-diary holder characters who die gruesomely, even at this early stage, and soon after the deaths of diary holders become gory in their own right. Much of this death and destruction comes from Yuno Gasai (another diary holder and infamous yandere), who seems unfazed by it, particularly as it involves protecting Yuki—however, as time goes on, Yuki bloodies his own hands, likely desensitized by the game.

Question 3: What is the defining philosophy of the protagonist?

Prior to the game’s start, Yuki’s personal philosophy is being a mere “observer” of life around him. This is made impossible once the game begins. Throughout the game, Yuki struggles between his basic instinct for survival and a growing desire to cast aside his loneliness and build friendships with those around him. This theme is highlighted a number of times, when Yuno, determined to help Yuki survive, delivers heat-of-the-moment ultimatums urging Yuki to abandon potential allies and friends to save himself. This dynamic is ironic, as Deus originally positioned the start of the killing game as a chance for Yuki to break out of his socially isolated tendencies. However, Yuno is from the start is simultaneously reliable and unreliable. On the one hand, she seems an expert at survival and knows the rules of the killing game before Deus has even given his official explanation to Yuki (and the viewer). On the other hand, she is Yuki’s stalker, and her obsessive tendencies are emotionally unhealthy for Yuki.

In the end…

As this discussion hopefully shows, there are a number of ways to expound upon the specific anime sub-genre of killing games. Using the above examples illuminates how choices governing both the killing game’s rules and it’s protagonist’s identity and personal philosophy can take a viewer down vastly different, and shockingly entertaining narrative paths.

By Katharine Booth

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