Ultimate Luck and Hope & Despair: Danganronpa 2 as a Manga . . . From Nagito’s Perspective | Review

A brief, spoiler-free review of the 3-volume 2012-2016 manga “Danganronpa 2: Ultimate Luck and Hope and Despair,” based on Spike Chunsoft’s game “Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair,” art by Kyousuke Suga.


A Spin-Off Full of Despair

Sixteen students from the prestigious Hope’s Peak Academy suddenly awaken on a deserted beach. Their teacher, a white and pink “magical girl” rabbit named Usami, proclaims that their first assignment is to become friends with one another by means of touring the island and collecting hope fragments together. Storm clouds quickly gather over this isle of palm trees and blissful breeze when Monokuma, a sadistic bear of monochrome hue, takes Usami down and gives the students a new assignment: to kill one of their peers and get away with murder in the class trial.

To the victor goes the only spoil these teens want—escape from the island. The students swear to one another that they’d never commit such a crime, but as Monokuma slowly and meticulously introduces calculated motives that play on the whims and desires of these kids, temptation is given into, and blood is spilt.

Forced into this deadly killing school trip, what once was an island paradise has become a hell on earth. But when these poor kids find that they’ve been deceived far more than what is even imaginable, the very fabric of their world hangs on the thin threads of hope.

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Greatly truncated for the sake of this review, this is the plot of Spike Chunsoft’s groundbreaking game “Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair,” and the sequel to the equally influential “Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc.” But as you can tell, this review isn’t about the game; rather, we’re looking at the manga spin-off today. Instead of playing this survival game through the eyes of main character Hajime Hinata, we experience life from the view of Nagito Komaeda, the Ultimate Lucky Student, and the bane of the class’ existence.

The Ultimate Lucky Student

Infamous for his willingness to take his “friends” down yet beloved by the community for his twisted nature and bromance with Hajime, Nagito is a complicated human bound by irrational thinking and a moral compass that always points south. Above all, he believes in the talents of the Ultimates of Hope’s Peak, and the insurmountable hope that can arise from their collective efforts. Weird, I know, but it gets worse.

Placing complete faith in his ultimate luck and the hopes and dreams of his friends sounds like a good thing, right? Well, not when you add in that twisted personality part I mentioned earlier. He derives pleasure from inflicting pain, suffering, and humiliation on his peers, without a doubt, but only because he deeply believes that his friends are Ultimates—students handpicked by hope itself. That means that no matter the size of the despair, hope always comes out on top. This flawed logic of his causes him to create scenarios that put everyone at risk just to watch the Ultimates overcome the despair. After all, according to Nagito, their talent can overcome any despair.

So, not only is this scrawny emo a huge Hope’s Peak fanboy, but he’s also a nut job with more than a couple loose screws. The PERFECT player to have in a killing game, right?

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To give him credit, there’s never a dull moment around Nagito. In fact, many of the game’s most exciting moments revolve around Nagito’s lies and schemes. By packing the best reveals and most fascinating plot points into this short 3-volume series, you’ve got a spin-off that is anything but boring. Nagito’s trademark luck carries him through numerous plots and conspiracies—many of which he is directly involved with—at the behest of everyone else’s security.

Madness and Maliciousness in Manga Form

Danganronpa is one of the most stylish games out there, arguably more so than even the hit Persona 5. Its iconic gun-and-target imagery offers fun gameplay effects, sure, but the flashy courtroom gimmicks and screen-shattering special effects aren’t just for looks. The series prides itself with the class trials, the bread and butter of the franchise, and this motif of breaking through lies—shining through despair—to uncover the truth. And thankfully, Kyousuke Suga’s adaptation faithfully adapts this matter of style into the fast-paced panels of his manga.

That’s right. Most if not all of the crucial lines and moments are replicated nearly word-for-word in the class trials. Although we only get the first three (for reasons I can’t explain without entering spoiler territory), I was quite surprised with how full and thorough the trials felt, given the immensely short length.

Like anyone should be, I was skeptical about a measly 3-volumes doing Danganronpa 2 any justice. By limiting the story’s POV to that of Nagito only, however, you realize that the Ultimate Lucky Student’s time spent with the Ultimates of Hope’s Peak is short, perhaps, but immensely impactful.

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The only turn-off to this little series is the character designs. All the guys look anorexic, while the ladies have totally unrealistic “curves,” almost as if everything was somewhat over-sexualized. Even if the seemingly sloppy, disproportionate bodies and facial expressions feel uncharacteristic of the game’s original designs (which were boldly outlined and always on point), there’s beauty in the quirkiness of Suga’s style, though.

This lax, less faithful style allows for us to see character expressions and reactions that the game just couldn’t keep up with. A sprite system might feel more stable, but this adaptive style manages to keep up with the subtle dark humor and self-deprecation (given that now we’re Nagito) that I felt the game just didn’t. Suga’s work is much more organic and less “cardboard cutout,” literally, and it makes for a nice afterword piece to the franchise.

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Why Should You Read This Spin-Off?

For one, it’s short. At three volumes, I finished it in a day and a half. Plus, it fills in some gaps of the game. During chapters two and three, Nagito is tied up (don’t ask) and unconscious (also don’t ask), meaning that while the others (namely Hajime) are experiencing the events of the story live, Nagito is playing catch-up. And boy does he do a damn good job at assessing the evidence of each crime scene.

Instead of running around and talking to our classmates, we enter Nagito’s nightmares and delusions of self-reflection. We see his fears, understand his motives, and get a better picture of why Nagito antagonizes his peers like he does. Much better than in the game (save for chapter 4), we get inside Nagito’s headspace and see what makes him tick, allowing the viewer to connect with him a bit more—even if he’s still a freak at the end of the day. You can practically regard this spin-off as cannon, as it never strays from the original plot, nor does it add conflicting details. That’s always a plus.

Additionally, we get different angles from the game. The “camera” shows us live conversations with multiple characters in a shot at different angles talking to one another, as opposed to the game where 2D characters are layered on top of a 2D backdrop. Plus, Kyousuke Suga just seems to understand that Nagito is not a character to be disgusted or hated all the time; Nagito is an oddball to the class, an anomaly that can’t always be understood, and I appreciate Suga’s more comedic take on Nags’ obsession with hope.

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Like Loki to Marvel’s Thor franchise, Nagito is a trickster that is fun to watch and frustrating to befriend, but undeniably inseparable from the equally quirky work in which he comes from. As such, it’s a real treat to have an entire narrative devoted to his character, even if it’s both a rehash of the game’s events (with a few dream sequences of backstory and inner monologues added) and, frankly, a series tragically short for its own good.

This manga series shows you some of the parts you wish you saw in the game, and it does so craftily without tampering with the existing plot. Is it for newcomers to the franchise? Absolutely not. But as supplemental material for those pining after anything extra to do with Hope’s Peak Academy’s 77th Class, Ultimate Luck and Hope and Despair is your stepping stone toward hope.

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Komaeda, you aren’t trash. If you died, or helped someone commit murder, it won’t give rise to hope. Just the opposite . . . it’ll wind up extinguising a ray of hope. ‘Cause . . . ’cause hope . . . is already shining inside you, Komaeda. — Monomi


Afterword

I had a blast reading this short little spin-off, especially given that I finished playing the second game right before starting this series. All the parts of this franchise connect together so intricately, so purposefully and creatively, and this manga spin-off is no exception. It’s extra material for sure, but if you love Nagito Komaeda’s guile as much as I do, you’re bound to love Suga’s work.

And can we talk about those volume covers?? The first two are so brightly colored and stylish with all the characters wrapping around from front to back, while the third is a haunting minimalist piece of Nagito looking like he’s preparing for the final show (if you know what I mean). I think Suga could’ve split volume three into two separate volumes, adding in more content from the ENTIRELY SKIPPED fourth trial, as the third book is nearly twice the size of the other two. Oh well, at least we got the series (in all its matte-cover glory) thanks to Dark Horse.

 

I doubt many of you will end up checking out this series, but if you do, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it! Although a manga series, I’ll give Ultimate Luck and Hope and Despair the “Coffee” rating for being a fun read but not an essential one. I believe the regular manga adaptation of the second game along with Ultra Despair Girls are coming out this fall, so I look forward to picking those up. Till the next review, this has been

– Takuto, your host

Bokurano: The Darkness Within Our Hearts | Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 24-episode spring 2007 anime “Bokurano: Ours,” animated by Gonzo, directed by Hiroyuki Morita, and based on Mohiro Kitoh’s manga of the same name.

***MINOR SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST COUPLE EPISODES ARE PRESENT***

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How Would You Spend Your Last Day on Earth?

I’m sure you haven’t given it much thought; to which, neither have I. None of us do, and yet here’s an anime where kids are told when they will die, how they will die, and that whatever they do with their final day is up to them. There is no running away from fate, it’s do-or-die time. However, I suppose my words would have more weight if I told you why. Allow me to backtrack . . .

Fifteen children are enjoying their youth together at a summer camp. It’s sun, sea, and, what’s this? A mysterious grotto by the shore? The kids explore the creepy cave only to find a strange setup of computers and monitors, along with an even creepier old man calling himself Kokopelli. Supposedly, Kokopelli’s been developing a game, one where the players pilots a giant robot to defend Earth against 15 different alien invasions, and all he needs now is willing players to test it out. Sounds fun, I mean, what could be the harm? By individually placing their hand on a scanner, the kids complete their contract and suddenly blackout.

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They awaken back on the beach. Other than the fact that night has fallen, everything appears normal. Normal, EXCEPT for the impossibly high 500-meter-tall giant robot now towering over them! In a horrific twist of fate, the children must now take to their seats to pilot Zearth one at a time in hopes that they have the physical strength and mental fortitude it takes to defeat the bizarre enemies. But Kokopelli’s abrupt disappearance leaves the afraid and confused kids with harsh truths they must discover on their own: What exactly is Zearth, and what is the giant robot’s energy source?

Before I rip into the fantastic story of Bokurano, I wanted to address my biggest issue with the show right off the bat: the “antagonist.” Surely, even just by reading the synopsis something seems fishy. Where did Kokopelli go? Will he reappear later as the antagonist? It’s tricky for me to explain much of anything without ruining the surprise, but I can imagine that you, too, understand that there’s something else at play here. And here’s the thing: that “something” doesn’t really make much of an appearance. When director Hiroyuki Morita brought over the story from Mohiro Kitoh’s manga, even he felt that some of Bokurano was just way too damn sad (sources are all over the web confirm this).

So he changed it, and I think that the force that moves the anime along was “left behind” in the process, either because it didn’t mesh well with Morita’s new story, or that there wasn’t enough time to explain it all (as is what often happens in anime). Don’t worry, this anime adaptation is still one of the most depressing things you’ll ever watch, but if the ending feels somewhat incomplete, it’s because *frustratingly* this is not the same ending intended from the start.

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The Saddest Soldiers for the Saddest Anime Ever

Systematically, we bear witness to pilot after pilot fight their battle and depart from the scene. Where do they go, what happens to them? Ready for a dose of reality? ***SPOILERS for the first couple episodes, but they die. That’s all there is to it. There’s no glory, and no reward. Once you’ve served your purpose in prolonging the planet’s safety, no longer are you of any use to Zearth and Koemushi, a cruel and sadistic ABOMINATION whose job is to circulate this cycle of death and inevitably select the next pilot.

Each episode or two, we center our narrative focus on the next pilot chosen. From family and friends to one’s most carefully guarded secrets, we quite literally see all of it. The darkness in our hearts can seem infinitely deep, regardless of one’s age, and the fronts we put up can’t always mask it all. We see kids break, physically and emotionally, and although we know that they’ll die at the end of the episode, it can still be dramatic and utterly heartbreaking. Honestly, I wish they had more time . . . I won’t go into further details for real spoilers, but watching others suffer is . . . well, “Pain is addictive.”

Bokurano is thrilling up until the very end, even if it is hard to watch these poor kids undergo psychological torment to no end. Either it was super interesting to watch or, subconsciously, I wanted to quickly put them out of their misery, but I just could not put Bokurano down for a second.

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Oh, and be prepared to have your guesses as to who’s next get smashed, as even the seemingly “main” characters are not spared from Koemushi’s wrath.

Lost Iconography: The Circle of Chairs

A lot of early 2000s anime don’t hold up very well in today’s day. Bokurano is no exception from this. The show’s characters can look pretty rough on the eyes, and other than the robot fights, Gonzo’s animation is kept to a minimum, resulting in too many dialogue scenes and conversations that don’t seem to end. On those robot fights though, man—Bokurano’s got some of the most engaging, exciting, strange, and truly colossal mech fights that the genre has to offer! Unlike a tedious game of “My gun is bigger than your gun,” a real amount of strategy is required to pilot a robot that essentially has no controls—just your mind. Sync with Zearth, tell it what you want to do, and it will likely perform the feat even if its mechanical structure has to be reconfigured entirely. Just as how we know more about the cast as we go along, we come to see Zearth’s true range of abilities, and understand why it is able to put up such a good fight.

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I wanted to briefly mention the chairs, though. You know, that eerie circle of unique chairs inside Zearth’s pilot chamber. The chairs are how the pilots enter and exit Zearth, and without their genius iconography, works like Madoka Magica may not have that extra special “Shaft” touch. A single object or location can tell an entire story—and these chairs encompass both of those categories. Whenever I see Daiichi, Komoda, or Chizuru’s chairs, I immediately recall their struggles, their emotions, their story, which is absolutely wild given that they’re ultimately just furniture. Where do you spend most of your time sitting? How does that area represent who you are as a person?

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While the main OST doesn’t offer much in the way of me thinking, “Oh yeah, that’s Bokurano!” Chiaki Ishikawa has absolutely dominated the sound department with her amazingly addictive OP and two excellent ED themes. “Little Bird” and especially “Vermilion” are rich with a somber quality to them, but “Uninstall” ranks up there as one of my favorite OPs of all time for its epic melancholy, sorrowful lyrics, and ability to call to mind all of the beauty and tragedy in Bokurano. 

The Pain of Letting Go

Could you put enough pain on a single person to change the human heart? Short answer, yes, but the road to such change can be messy, frustrating, and completely exhausting. Bokurano‘s main interest comes from the constant curiosity of where the story is headed next. What will ultimately stick with you, however, are the hearts left behind along the way, and the stories that succumbed to tragedy—or the few that ended with a glimmer of hope.

As characters exit the stage one by one, their vacant seats are left to inspire the next chosen hero. At one point, these chairs had a warm body that sat in them, that thought about their place in the world, and that struggled to come to terms with their fate. Although its visuals are dated and some of its background plot points could’ve been fleshed out better for the finale, Bokurano still holds fast as a gem of its genre, reminding us that everyone suffers—but we that can still be saved.

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An awesome reality came to meet us from beyond. It came to laugh at how simple our existence was. Even when I covered my ears, the truth slipped through both hands and confounded me . . . I have no choice but to act as a warrior who knows no fear.—from “Uninstall,” the opening theme


Bokurano‘s been sitting on my backlog ever since I watched Evangelion, and now that I’ve FINALLY seen it, I can confidently recommend it to fans of that other popular abstract mecha anime. Their distorted premises may be different, but the stakes of the game are the same, in that a group of kids must pilot giant robots against the wrath of the heavens—or face the destruction of their world. Similarly, both stories feature a very human cast dealing with issues like depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses to sexual frustration and an inferiority complex. Both series handle these themes with extreme care and realism, which can be appreciated immensely. If it isn’t a surprise by this point, then please, let’s honor Bokurano: Ours as a “Caffe Mocha” title, a rating reserved for only the best!”

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Because of its clockwork death count and endearing participants, I found this smartly written survival game to literally be The Saddest Anime I’ve Ever Seen. Despite being full of nothing but misery and grief, the suspense of hope that releases at the very end feels immensely satisfactory. If you’re up for a bit of a psychological challenge and don’t mind a throwback, you ought to give Bokurano a try (Crunchyroll’s got it for FREE)! Already seen it? Let me know what you thought about Bokurano or this review down in the comments and we can reminisce together! Thanks for reading, and until next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host