The few of you that follow me on Twitter might know that late last year I started the very questionable undertaking of playing through every Danganronpa game in a row. It was… an experience and I can’t deny it’s left a bit of a mark. Mostly, it got me uselessly waxing philosophical and now I find myself overfilled with these little banalities I want to share with you. I’m planning to do a couple of these posts, so I do hope you enjoy them. Please note that non specific spoilers abound so if you want to avoid that, you should stop reading now.
With Squad and Friendship being the theme for this month’s OWLS tour, it got me thinking on the nature of trust in relationships. To be a bit more specific, in the middle of my v3 playthrough, I started (and finished) watching Magical Girl Raising Project. If you’ve read my review, you probably got the sense that the series also made an impact and I couldn’t help but draw some parallels between the two works. Although presentation, tone and ultimate thesis are completely different, at the core of both stories, there is a blatant assumption that given proper motivation, humans will instinctively turn on each other. And this proper motivation can be disturbingly superficial.
There’s nothing particularly revolutionary here, we have generally taken a rather stark view of human nature and works depicting us as basically monstrous or at least animalistic are easy to come by. Morality being subjective in nature, the assumption is that it is a mere social construct created for convenience’s sake that will immediately get pushed aside once that convenience is no longer obvious. What makes these two works interesting though, is the relevant immediacy and lack of judgement associated with the betrayals.
In Magical Girl Raising Project, we see a group of fairly ordinary people start to brutally, and very efficiently, eliminate each other as soon as it becomes the easiest course of action. The catalyst is that they are fighting for their own lives, survival taking precedence over everything else but for most of the cast, trying to come up with an alternative course of action isn’t ever considered. After all, they know that inaction will still indirectly lead to someone’s death, and yet this consequence seems secondary and irrelevant to them. It quickly becomes apparent that what started out as a necessary evil has become an end onto itself.
We can argue that the predatory nature of human beings makes them killers at their core. Raising Project went one step further. Not only did it posit that given the means and a little push most people are capable of turning on friends in the most brutal way possible, but they will in fact see that betrayal as a goal rather than a tool. Bonds of trust become irrelevant the second they outlast their usefulness and the *girls* will even see a strategic advantage in picking out people they are close to first, when they are least suspecting and most vulnerable.
The grim efficiency of betraying those around you is apparent. The heartless rational of using the people close to you for your own means is in flagrant display, and even the characters that are presented as “good” can not escape the necessity of playing dirty. If you can’t win, cheat.
The series is brought to extremes, exploring just how impractical loyalty can be but scaling it way back, it is nevertheless applicable to our everyday lives. We get close to coworkers with the same titles and responsibilities as us because we need to work together but when a promotion becomes available, those are the people we have to step on and discredit in order to get it. Otherwise we will most likely get overlooked and linger in a low paying job with little opportunities.
Our closest friends are often our most common romantic rivals when we are younger. Since we enjoy each other’s company because we have similar tastes and have the same friend group, it isn’t surprising that we are likely to develop the same attractions.
So what do those friendships mean when faced with competing desires. Are you really expected to give up everything just so others can have it? Shouldn’t they be doing some of the sacrificing as well. If everyone steps back, does that mean no one gets to win? Where is the line between betrayal and self-preservation?
Danganronpa sets up it’s large casts in similar fashion but presents the treachery with morbid glee. One of the recurring elements of the Danganronpa games is that the characters do not have to turn on each other. In every setting, they are told that they are prisoners, but they can choose to live out their lives in relative comfort if they do not wish to betray one another and yet, the double-crosses come quickly and incessantly and are ultimately, deliciously futile. The darkly hilarious conceit of it all is that in the end we will double-cross each other not because we have no other choice but simply because we got nothing better to do…
In every single game, one of the basic rules is, if the murderer gets away with the murder (i.e. someone else is judged guilty) they get to go free but everyone else dies. This is repeated over and over again. At least it was for me as I shouted it at my TV at least once a trial.
You see, most murderers have some type of (if not always reasonable) understandable motivation. They need to get out to help a family member in a desperate situation, they have a deep-rooted ambition they need to follow, they are protecting someone else… Often we see the rest of the remaining students sympathize with the guilty parties and turn their wrath on the situation and the unfairness of it all. They never seem to consider that the murderer’s plan didn’t simply involve killing one person, it also meant making sure everyone else got killed as well.
With only a very few exceptions, every single deception is immediately forgiven, and traitors are remembered fondly as friends and martyrs simply doing what they had to. There is absolutely no expectation that a person would brush aside their selfish needs for the good of others. Some do, but those are saints going above and beyond. The idea that you will be betrayed by those around you is completely ingrained and taken for granted in the progression of the narrative.
So much so, that even a potential fatal deceit doesn’t necessary mean the end of a friendship. It’s not so much that these characters are quick to forgive, not at all, in fact many of them are quite petty. It’s simply that there is nothing to forgive in the first place because people were just acting according to their nature.
Danganronpa relishes in our baser instincts and joyfully embraces them. It shows us that loyalty isn’t required in a friendship and alliances can be forged even in the absence of trust. It’s almost adorable in how it suggests that we will put our faith in each other and strive to come together even while fully expecting our neighbor to stab us in the back.
And maybe there’s a twisted lesson to be learned here. Maybe you shouldn’t consider loyalty a two-way street. Maybe you should learn to love your friends even if you know they will push you under a bus just to avoid being late for class. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve been playing way too much Danganronpa…