I told you I had a couple of these up my sleeve. This time I’m contrasting Danganronpa with my latest obsession, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Yes, I realize I’m the absolute last person at this particular party. I’m still in the middle of the series (35 episodes in) as I write this, but I think I’m getting a feel for it. In any case, absolutely everyone in the universe is right, FMA is a great show. I will most likely fail to do it justice, in yet another fawning review some time in the near future. Again, spoilerrific for both Danganronpa and the first half of FMA. You have been warned. 

In the meantime though, I was struck by how ruthlessly it portrayed hope (and a lot of other things, FMA is a harsh show guys…)

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very harsh…

V3 has a ridiculous, pseudo-meta ending that had me grinning from ear to ear. It’s probably not quite as clever as it wants to be, but I still loved it, and somehow it fell right in place with the rest of the series while being over the top absurd. It did however go out of it’s way to spell out exactly how brutal hope can be, something that has been consistently illustrated throughout the series. I don’t particularly enjoy when a narrative feels obligated to take us by the hand like that. It was already glaringly obvious, but I’ll forgive them because the games were so much fun.

Brotherhood actually makes the exact same point (so far, maybe it turns it on its head in the latter half, but I doubt it) in a much more discreet matter, that’s likely to stay with the audience a lot longer.

A repeated philosophy of the Danganronpa series is the duality of Hope and Despair. Despair being impossible without hope, and as such creating and nurturing hope becomes a necessity for breathing despair. The absence of hope is seen as complacency or apathy and must be avoided at all costs. 

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Nagito, you are going to love this post!

In the first game, the duality is highlighted but an uneasy balance is maintained. In the second, we see the very concept of hope itself brought to an extreme which renders it just as devastating as despair. Blind faith in your happy ending can lead you to atrocities just as horrific as desperation. The two are in fact chillingly similar when stripped of reason. By the end of the third game, the characters finally catch on that hope and despair are an endless cycle and that one cannot be completely avoided without forsaking both. Or to put it in the most direct terms, hope will always lead to despair.

Yeah, it’s a bit on the nose and guileless but kitsch is part of the Danganronpa appeal. And it’s not a message we see all that often in anime, or even in general. There’s a certain novelty in shrugging off the happily ever after convention. One that may sound bleak at first but holds so much freedom and possibility.

In Fullmetal, hope is the catalyst for boundless pain. It is the brothers’ unwillingness to accept cruel fate and their hope to remedy it that leads them to commit the taboo in the first place and sets them on such an unmerciful road. It’s Mustang and Hughes’ hope for a better world that costs them both their lives, one literally and the other figuratively as he sets everything else aside in the pursuit if this hope. 

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they had such grand plans

Hope for glory, for peace, for equality, moves nations to war and gives power to monsters. Most of the characters in the story have a clear dream and an imposing hope that they can reach it. It is what sets them up to violently clash with one another. This hope has given them all the eyes of a killer.

Because hope is so often presented as a savior, a happy ending, we tend to forget that it is not a pleasant emotion. Hope is a desire, a frantic need to gain something we do not have. It’s uncomfortable that’s why it spurs us forward. It’s greedy and selfish, even in it’s kindest form it demands sacrifice. Hope is painful, difficult and draining to sustain.

A truly contempt individual, one that is happy with life and the world around them has little need for hope. But what fun is that? 

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oooohhh yeah! party time!

Both of these stories show us just how brutal and agonizing hope can be. Just how prone it is to lead us to our own destruction. But they also show us just how necessary it is.

No matter how many times the students of Hope’s Peak are brought to the brink of despair, they get up and try again driven by hope alone. It may be twisted beyond recognition but hope still gives us purpose and that is just as precious as happiness.

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yay, a different game!

Hope may have paved the way to hell for the Elric Brothers and the survivors of the Ishval war. They would have all lead quieter, more comfortable, and in a few cases longer lives, if they had simply given up on their goals and stayed home. All of them. But they would not have been the same people. They would not have brought about change.

So, I guess my point was, just because something is unpleasant, a little ugly at times, painful and miserable, doesn’t mean it’s bad. Hope isn’t an inherently good thing. It can be misleading even dangerous. The villains have just as much hope as the heroes. But it can also be a saving grace. It is responsible for all of our greatest accomplishments and all of our most deplorable tragedies. Both Danganronpa and FMA understand this duplicitous nature. They invite hope in cautiously. They accept it, knowing the risk.  Personally, I find this frank treatment refreshing and inspiring!

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33 thoughts

  1. That’s what I love about both Fullmetal Alchemist so much. Their hope to bring something back brings them immeasurable pain, and have to face the harsh truth to never let go of it. Very few things can make fully appreciate the hero’s journey quite as much as FMA. Just about every character I can think off in both series have to sacrifice a great deal just obtain something they want. It’s the fact that is fleshes out its characters so much that it themes hit closer to home for me than any other shonen where they typically streamlines their characters to just good guys, or bad guys.

  2. This is an excellent, insightful post. It is not popular in the real world today to honestly speak the truth that hope is cruel and painful and always leads to despair and suffering – in real life as in anime. In anime, at least, there may be a happy ending. I applaud your courage to speak the truth.

  3. You sound like you really like that under lying theme in Brotherhood. You really should look into watching the first series eventually, since it actually explored the concept of hope and it’s tie to despair in far greater detail.

  4. Ah… If it wasn’t for Brotherhood I probably wouldn’t be here in the world of anime. Even though my first show was Cowboy Bebop. It was FMA that made me go watch other anime. I had no clue that anime has such stories! I was amazed at this form that I previously thought were silly cartoons. For the reasons you stated it drew me into this world to find some amazing stories and characters that were more powerful than any tv series that I was watching.

  5. I don’t know how some shows don’t get this…
    To care about what happens to the characters in a story, you need to actually care about the characters. You need to have hope for the characters, so that their despair feels like your own.
    In less Danganronpa terminology-
    Light is necessary for telling a dark story. To have tragedy, you must have love- not necessarily intimate, but any strong passionate feeling that resonates with the viewer.
    Conversely, I enjoy happy stories that have tension and stakes much more than I do those without. Sometimes loss in a story might make you appreciate what you haven’t lost in your own life!
    Really, media allows us to explore emotions and ideas that we might not experience in the same way in our own lives. For that reason, I really enjoy watching anime!
    Crap, I took a break from the post I was writing, and now I’m about to repeat myself… 😢

  6. Hope is what makes things scary. A person in agony for his whole life compared to somebody who overcomes their agony, only to regress again, is scarier to me.

    Hmmmm, this also makes me want to make my Mirror Match posts be more about themes as well!

    Thanks for the great post.

  7. Great post as always, Irina!

    On a side note, I finished Magical Girl Raising Project today and wanted to do an essay about it and the ~conflicted~ feelings I had about it and anime that take a similar approach to characters being killed. I don’t normally do essay’s on my site but maybe I should start; 20 Question Anime Essays might work…

    1. I would love to read that. I remember being very intimidated by essays at first but now I find them easier to write than reviews….

  8. I watched the original FMA, before it was remade into Brotherhood. It was okay, but I came to it at the wrong time, having watched enough anime to not be entranced by a show with similar structure to Bleach, that of fighting an evil enemy and dealing with uncertain allies. Shonen Anime are part of the anime path, and everybody watches some of it until they can’t anymore. I agree that Brotherhood has better production values, but it wasn’t better enough to justify sitting through it again. I do like reading about new fans impressions of it, or even reviews by those who never saw the original.

    1. It’s too bad you couldn’t get anything out of it. I found it had a lot of interesting and thought provoking themes

      1. I liked the references to the 7 deadly sins, and that of homunculi arguing for the right to exist. The setting was interesting too, being WW1 with magic. I thought Tanya the Evil was sort of obliquely referencing FMA. The problem with shonen anime is most of the “I will grow stronger” shouts just makes you facepalm. “Are they using voice activated weaponry?” asked Goat Hoary. I know you remember him.

      1. It is shorter, and doesn’t have as much character development. Brotherhood is closer to the manga, apparently, and the relationships are more complex. I only watched about 10 eps before getting bored.

        1. Well there are no voice activated weapons (you may have been making a joke…) And one of the most prevalent premises is the importance of giving up power. One of the few shows I’ve seen where every character is much more powerful in episode 1 then at the end. Which isn’t what you were describing. Mind you, I’ve made no secret that I tend to favour mastery over novelty.

          1. Goat Hoary was the giant guy on the bridge of Nadesico who ends up dating the hottest girl. He’s shown a shounen mecha anime around ep 12 of Nadesico and is baffled by the hero’s obsession with it, and why all the characters shout out the attack names, thus the question. “Are they using voice activated weaponry?” It was a joke. I thought you’d remember the reference since it was one of the better jokes from Nadesico.

            1. All shounen anime shout out attack names. Same with FMA. It reminds me of shows which mock this trope, like Nadesico, Haganai, Oregairu, SNAFU, and Love Chuunibyo and Other Delusions (origin of “dark flame master” which gets cited in many anime). Genshiken also references the tendency to shout attacks, and its one of those embarrassing tendencies of shounen anime fans that they may do it too.

            2. I didn’t know that. They took out the shouting attack trope all together in Brotherhood. I’m sort of curious how hey would integrate it into the wartime storyline, I should watch the original.

            3. All shounen anime and manga have shouting attacks. Its one of the reliable tropes of the genre. Its also what drives adults away from it.

            4. I guess brotherhood isn’t a shonen. Although I doubt the shouting attacks trope was your point to begin with.

      2. Like FMA, Bleach was a big deal for its time. Bleach was transgressive punk rock in its day, but after the first couple arcs it went to crap, and I don’t recommend that show to kids today, mostly because what seemed transgressive ends up being just another shonen anime with giggling villains, violence for its own sake, and there’s better programs out there today. Most librarians are women and don’t watch anime except maybe Ghibli, so they know NOTHING about what to recommend or purchase, trusting in agencies who promote them or popularity lists without thought about the messages in the shows, or whether there’s positive messages or qualities which makes them good over time. Picking classics from dross is hard, and often a big budget gives you a wall of crap instead of carefully picked examples of GOOD stuff. A fan would be better than a woman librarian without real interest in the topic.

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