Danganronpa and Divorcing Hope from Theology

Danganronpa proves Chesterton’s assertion that it is a real shame so much bad fiction becomes lost: we have so much to learn from its mistakes!  Now, Danganronpa is not that bad of an anime (I have not played the video game, though the anime wears its origins on its sleeve), but the hero fights against despair with an inferior philosophy–at once Nietzschean and idyllic.  This article will mainly focus on the final conflict, so you may want to quit reading now if your have not seen Danganronpa and do not want it spoiled.  I myself went into the anime knowing the identity of the final villain, but spoilers–especially within the mystery genre–might vex you.

At any rate, after many deaths and curious twists and turns, our remaining heroes arrive at the last tribunal led by Monokuma.  They must both determine the identity of the last murderer and solve the mystery of behind their entrapment in Hope’s Peak Academy.  Monokuma happens to be a puppet controlled by Junko Enoshima, who faked her death in episode one.  She’s really quite insane, but has a perfect grasp of the extreme chaos which fell upon civilization prior to the students opting to imprison themselves within Hope’s Peak Academy.  Life outside of these four walls is nasty, brutish and short; yet, Makoto Naegi, our hero, pushes his comrades to enter that chaos despite its dangers.  Junko instead argues for them to continue safe and imprisoned within the school.  To settle the argument over whether to leave the academy or not, they hold a vote between despair and hope–to stay safe and imprisoned or to become free with its concomitant perils.

Here, I would recommend reading Russell Kirk’s “The Moral Imagination” if possible, because it more clearly delineates the moral conflict I see present in Danganronpa.  Fiction relies upon imagination.  The form an author’s imagination takes falls in one of three classes: moral, idyllic, and diabolic.  The moral is characterized by a sense of purpose and meaning; the idyllic by caprice and escape from tradition; and the diabolic by nihilism and hedonism.  The struggle in Danganronpa is not between the moral and diabolic imaginations, as one would expect, but between the idyllic (represented by Makoto Naegi) and diabolic (Junko Enoshima).

There is at least one great flaw with combating the diabolic mode of thinking with the idyllic: the idyllic type tends to avoid looking at the nature of evil and is prone to disillusionment when confronted with it.  Do you know where the idyllic imagination most appears in anime?  The Iyashikei or “calming anime” genre.  (My main beef with Flying Witch had to do with this fact.)  In a definite manner, Makoto struggles against Junko not by force of argument, but by force of will.  Makoto has an unwavering faith in hope, while Junko provides a million reasons to despair.  He eschews arguing with her on the basis of reason and resorts to representing hope and despair as absolutes tied to one’s mental state rather than to the reality itself.

Makoto shoots a “hope gun” during these murder trials. It vexed me so much to see both the case and the bullet shot at people.

Yet, hope cannot exist as an absolute value in the same way as despair can.  A brilliant psychologist by the name of Jordan Peterson introduced me to the fact that positive and negative emotion operate differently in the human mind.  Positive states, like happiness or hopefulness, require constant maintenance.  One maintains happiness and hope by overcoming challenges and by seeing personal growth.  Despair, on the other hand, needs no stimuli at all.  In the absence of objectives which produce joy, the mind can spiral into endless depths of negativity.  Eventually, one can come to hate being itself (and Being Himself, for that matter) and long for annihilation, as we see in Junko Enoshima’s death.  She is actually ecstatic about her demise, which she sees as a release from ennui and existential angst.

Makoto’s victory through power of the will cannot satisfy rational viewers.  Enoshima has a million reasons for the heroes to despair, while Makoto only insists on life being the source of hope.  Why?  Because where there is life there is hope!” Makoto would insist.  To a certain extent, this blind faith in existence is natural, and most people keep it until circumstances render their blind faith in existence ridiculous: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life,” (Prov. 13:12).  Hope, to be true hope, requires a raison d’etre; otherwise, people can be overcome by reasons to despair–the idyllic falls to the diabolic.

The moral imagination contains the true antidote to despair of all kinds: God.  I almost wrote “the divine,” because the pagans also believed in a moral universe; but, when they speak of the justice of the universe, they often refer to a singular “God,” as we see in Plato and Aristotle.  The power of the good God is stronger than all evil.  The just shall be saved, and the wicked condemned to eternal destruction.  This is the true ground for all of real hope.  Our Lord increased the hope we have in Him by His death on the cross, which opened the way to salvation for all of the repentant.  No one is beyond the prayer of Christ, as St. Leo the Great averred.  For that reason, Christians can confidently say: “If I should be cast into hell, Thou, O Lord, will deliver me.”

An image of the chaos outside with a giant Monokuma.

At this point, one sees that the moral and idyllic imaginations rely upon faith, but the faith of the moral imagination is bolstered by reason.  On the other hand, the diabolic imagination claims, like Milton’s Satan, that a being’s own reason or rationality suffices without the transcendent.  That one does not need God is the pride which fuels the diabolic imagination.  Man either turns to God and bases his life on God’s commandments or imitates Satan in making himself his own God.

The idyllic soul, which describes most people in the modern world, escapes descent into the diabolic by adhering to some moral principles without realizing their basis in transcendent reality.  One cannot remain within this middle ground of accepting some moral principles and rejecting others!  The battle between God and the devil is fought in the heart of every man, and men are doomed either to see the beautiful face of God or the horrible face of the devil in the end.

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11 thoughts on “Danganronpa and Divorcing Hope from Theology

  1. Ehehehehe!~ First: I implore you to play the Danganrompa visual novel if you haven’t already. Not only is it worlds better than the animation, but it was one of the sources that rather neatly lined up my conviction that The Joker and Sauron weren’t “two different people,” but aspects of “the same person”: Satan, really. Junko Enoshima makes this point pretty neatly by doing something that makes contextually zero sense: offering the other students “a way out” of the killing game in exchange for damning Naegi. In essence, offering to keep them alive *forever* if it means winning that argument between her and Makoto. This is a really weird thing for a crazy person to do…..unless you analogize Junko to the diabolic, and to Satan.

    “At this point, one sees that the moral and idyllic imaginations rely upon faith, but the faith of the moral imagination is bolstered by reason. On the other hand, the diabolic imagination claims, like Milton’s Satan, that a being’s own reason or rationality suffices without the transcendent. That one does not need God is the pride which fuels the diabolic imagination. Man either turns to God and bases his life on God’s commandments or imitates Satan in making himself his own God.”

    Or one turns to a different God and therefore faces the consequences of that idolatry. In the modern world, we’re more likely to skew idyllic or diabolic than moral in imagination. The consequence of a materialistic, frivolous society in which one’s value is only in what one produces. Yet it is still possible yet to do none of the three, and instead to create a moral code that is based in another God still.

    Then there is the question of whether an idyllic or even diabolic form of moral reasoning is truly destroyed under pressure for all who adhere to it. There are those who have been abused and tormented and have survived not by their faith in God, but by discarding the faith of their abusers for their own unadulterated Will. This would describe my lovers both, the Buddhist and the sociopath. They have been under tremendous, terrible pressure and faced it with infinite patience and faith. In essence, one has deified goodwill and moral justice and the other has deified themselves.

    But I tend to get caught up in these kinds of thoughts when responding to anything you write, an agree-to-disagree sort of thing. I just hope you enjoy it.

    1. I always enjoy reading your thoughts, Luminas, because they describe sides of a topic I wouldn’t have thought of. I just might play the visual novel or at least watch a walkthrough. The anime felt somewhat rushed, but I felt continuously entertained.

      Villains like Sauron, Junko, and the Joker usually do bear some relationship to the devil. They take delight in exercising power over people, by which they aggrandize themselves. Their actions often only make sense in the context of their quest for superiority.

      I’d be skeptical of any system in which a single man attempts to create his own God or moral code. Usually, religion is the result of a long period of development within a culture, and major religious teachers arise from within that context. Someone who attempts to make his own religion and moral code may be dubbed a philosopher. Philosophers tend to act within the context of the religious culture they find themselves in and both critique and/or hone people’s understanding of it. (In the 19th and 20th centuries, the most influential philosophers critiqued Christianity in particular.) A philosopher who utterly throws away his religion without adapting a better religion not of his own making often narrows his understanding of the world and his imagination. (For example, there are some Marxists who really believe that land and treasure were the major motivating factors behind the Crusades. They refuse to credit the documented religious motivations for it, because they view everything in a materialistic manner.) On the other hand, a philosopher who marries religious truth with philosophy, like St. Thomas Aquinas, can make incredible strides in accurately portraying the world as it is.

      Religion tends to be a group effort in which the significant wisdom of a people is passed down to succeeding generations. For that reason, I consider the pagan myths to be very valuable and useful for understanding the world. Even if they are not as true as Christian myth, they provide knowledge about how the world and human beings work–as psychologists like Carl Jung proved. Standing aloof from tradition, which characterizes the idyllic imagination, usually creates more holes in one’s understanding than if one accepted it.

      At least, such are my two cents.

  2. Divorcing hope is the chief struggle of my Christian walk. When trials become too great and joy
    feels nonexistent, I tend to become my own god and numb my own pain. I know that hope is through Jesus Christ, but sometimes it feels like hope has died inside of me. I’m glad you wrote about this subject because it’s one that I’m currently dealing with.

    1. You’re welcome! The life of the spirit is like the seasons of the year: even though we wish to always experience the rebirth of spring, the warmth of summer, or the beauty of autumn, winter always comes. Despite spiritual dryness, we can make a lot of profit during such periods as long as we persevere. You may count yourself blessed to have this share in His Cross, and may your union with Christ Crucified bear fruit both now and in eternal life.

      Still, it is a hard cross to bear. Do your best to feed your soul on good works, the company of holy friends, Scripture, and Christian literature. Above all, pray, for no one who prays is lost, and I shall pray for you also. God bless!

    2. I understand your struggle there. If you’d like I’ll pray for you on it. I’d actually say this series can be an inspiring one to watch at times (though a tad gruesome at times). One thing that helps me is trying to focus externally rather than on myself, and that actually comes up in the anime. The protagonist is rather selfless and has at times inspired me to try to do better at that.
      As we work towards God’s will, the hope will come from God. He’ll take care of everything that is too big for us to handle. The hope that we have is not in this world, but in His Kingdom to come.

  3. Though you have a different perspective on a favorite video game of mine (which I have not yet finished, but I do know how the plot and stuff goes, complete with deeper stuff about the characters), it’s a perspective which I find very refreshing! Will is one thing, and it can be powerful, but will is supposed to have direction, particularly a good one, otherwise it’s just nothingness, or driving a car while pressing the gas pedal but not holding the steering wheel. Considering your thoughts as well, I now consider a Naegi a modern-day youth with somewhat developed potential, and not exactly the “Ultimate Hope” (and really, I would expect Naegi to still be modest and not like being known by such a pretentious title, considering what I understand about his character), though I think I can understand if his fellow survivors would call him such. Living in such a chaotic world is freaking tough, after all!

    But hey, the space we call “neutrality” is still not as safe as we people of today like to think. To call it safe is simply making ourselves blind to the black in the gray, after all. Trying to reach true goodness can be scary, but even a little bit of true goodness is already proof of a bigger and better form of it, no?

    1. Overall, the guiding philosophy of Naegi seems to owe a lot to Nietzsche. That’s where the importance of the will and creating one’s own morality come from. This philosophy is necessarily incomplete. As you say, a little bit of goodness indicates that there may be true goodness in an ultimate form–which rather recalls St. Thomas Aquinas’s fourth proof for God’s existence.

  4. A nice article, but I think you may misunderstand some of the themes though. You are definitely right in that all hope comes from God, and any arguments made against evil or chaos ultimately fall without the backing of an objective God. However, I don’t think that the story is trying to claim that Hope in itself is the objective good, but it is a principle worth fighting for. You say that Makoto struggles against Junko not out of force of argument but force of will, but I think his reasoning is pretty sound, and I like to consider myself a “rational viewer”. If Makoto were Christian and he couldn’t mention “God” in his argument, I think the reasoning would still be sound and justified. Nihilism and despair do ultimately win out in the long run without faith, but in the short term one can make good arguments that love and hope are things worth struggling for, and through his he restores hope in his friends. While not explicitly Christian, I’d believe this isn’t something to reject. It’s definitely better than what we get from most anime. You kind of take what you can get in the realm of anime with good principles. You can be a rational viewer and still appreciate the truth in the basic Aesop of struggling against evil because what you believe in tells you that you should. It’s not an un-Christian message for sure. Trinity Blood’s the only anime I can think of that explicitly treats Christianity in a positive light.

    (minor spoiler)
    Also, in Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls, Toko successfully dispels a spirit by saying “The power of Christ compels you”. While this is probably just a cultural translation from what may have been a Shinto thing, it potentially implicates that Christianity is the valid religion in their world and Toko is a Christian.

    1. It’s important to note what Danganrompa is commenting on in the hyper-competitive Japanese culture, as well. Throughout the game, people with “ultimate talents” are introduced. That is, people who are “elite” in some way, or “divinely blessed” with the potential to succeed. The game, particularly the second game, condemns this entire mode of thought— the very idea that there are humans that are “just better” than the rest of us. Who just *deserve* to be happy. The game does it by showing what happens when talent and strength and competition is prioritized above all else, leading to the neglect of the common man and eugenics. Junko embodies, in a lot of ways, how utterly empty this element of the liberal-progressive philosophy is— By being what it wants and nonetheless despising the whole world.

      I suspect that this eugenics-like element exists elsewhere in the culture as well. Adachi is basically commenting on it in Persona 5. One of the best aspects of the Black Rose Arc in Utena is when Utena’s normal best friend points out how horrid it is to be average when you’re surrounded by “gods,” super-human humans, more interesting than you could ever be. Then there’s the insanity of the Japanese employment process, where every high school and college student competes against everyone else for entry into a few salaryman positions. Where you’re expected to have a job by the time you graduate and old people cannot get hired at all.

      I suspect part of Danganrompa’s hope/despair paradigm has got something to do with Japan and its economic situation, because the game developers in the place keep commenting on it in various ways….

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