Review: Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak Academy (Future, Despair, and Hope arcs)

Foreword

The Danganronpa series builds on itself.  That is, the second game will spoil the first game, the third game will spoil both the first and second game…and so on.  Danganronpa 3 (not the upcoming game New Danganronpa V3, confusion I’m sure will happen from time to time) works off many pieces of preceding material.  It requires knowledge from Danganronpa (PSP, Vita, Steam, and previously animated) and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair (PSP, Vita, Steam) in order to make a decent amount of sense.  You would also find knowledge of Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls (Vita) and Danganronpa Zero (light novel) helpful though not entirely required.

2:23 PM- "Girls With Cup Noodles On Their Heads - girlswithcupnoodlesontheirheads.com

If you haven’t read the foreword above – do it now. This is the least spoiler heavy thing for the prequel games in the entire review. Last warning.

If you are, for whatever reason, reading this review without knowledge of the franchise, here’s the basic introduction: the Danganronpa franchise is a fairly new set of games.  The “core” games (Danganronpa and Danganronpa 2) are probably best described as a cross between Phoenix Wright and Persona.  In both games, you’re in control of a mostly bland, run of the mill Japanese protagonist.  He’s all excited to enter this school known as “Hope’s Peak Academy”, a high school where the best students from around the country flock.  They are the best in their field and are given ceremonious titles of “Super High School Level” (translated as “Ultimate”).  For an obvious example, the Super High School Level Photographer is excellent at taking photographs.  However, the protagonist loses consciousness upon entering the school and find themselves at the mercy of a small bear named Monokuma.

Monokuma has trapped the entirety of their class, about 16 in total, within a school (on an island in the second game) and will not release them without committing a “perfect murder”.  A perfect murder entails the murder of a classmate which, after investigation and debate, confuses the jury of the surviving class enough that they cannot identify the murderer.  Basically, it’s trial by a jury of whomever is alive and the winner goes free if the jury determines the murderer incorrectly.  Yes, that’s a lot of terminology.  No, I can’t think of a better way to word it.  No, you actually don’t need to know any of this for Danganronpa 3 but you will need to understand that this happened.

Incidentally, committing a perfect murder kills the rest of your class once you go free.  Also, Monokuma executes the murderer (in typically humorous and ironic fashion) if the class correctly identifies the murderer.  Monokuma also puts up temptations such as releasing your darkest secrets or starving the class unless a murder occurs.

To make a long story short, the class eventually catches the masterminds in each game…and the survivors leave their respective hellholes.

The outside world fared no better.  Turns out they lost their memories of their last few years.  The world absolutely collapsed in that time.  As in, all of society is pretty much gone and succumbed to the notion of despair; people fight each other and regress to a purely chaotic state.  It’s basically what you would imagine if YouTube comment sections were let loose on the world.  A group known as the Future Foundation steps up in the absence of any real government and acts to fight the despair that plagues the world to restore it to a better state than anarchy on earth.

The first game’s mastermind, Junko Enoshima, orchestrated this downfall by revealing the corruption of Hope’s Peak; the mass expenditures of the school on the “cultivation of hope” resulted in creating a perfect human named Izuru Kamakura.  Who she claimed then proceeded to murder a bunch of other students.  This outrage eventually sparked the downfall of the world.

Enoshima’s death at the end of the first game sparks the slow defeat of this despair movement.  The Future Foundation begins making strides forward as the despair movement loses steam without its leader.  They eventually capture 16 students from a single class at Hope’s Peak Enoshima specifically trained to orchestrate her will.  The Future Foundation plans to execute them but Makoto Naegi, the first game’s protagonist, interferes and puts them into a virtual reality program with the hope of rehabilitating the students.  Few survive the experience due to interference by a virtual version of Enoshima (we’re supposed to just roll with the idea of an AI version of her).  Another long story short, the class defeats her once again and she claims to give up at this point.

Background

Time to finally get to the actual description of this anime.

Don't blame me...there's just a lot of backstory.

Don’t blame me.  There’s a lot of backstory.

Danganronpa 3 is the conclusion to the Hope’s Peak narrative in the Danganronpa franchise.  That is to say that all the events up until now will conclude with this anime and New Danganronpa V3 marks a whole new continuity.  The anime got direct supervision from Kazutaka Kodaka, the series’ original creator.  So all this reads as “we’re dead serious about ending the narrative this time”.  Back into the fold is Seiji Kishi, director of the fairly contested original Danganronpa animation, again taking the directorial role.

The Danganronpa 3 series takes an unusual idea and, instead of a single series of 26 episodes, splits their narrative into two components: a “Future” arc and a “Despair” arc.  They fully intend you to watch them simultaneously as each series supports the other one.  The correct viewing order is: Future arc episode 1, Despair arc episode 1, Future arc episode 2, Despair arc episode 2.  Additionally, the production officially created a 3rd series to replace the 12th episode of Despair arc, naming it the “Hope” arc.  Obviously the Hope arc is the grand finale to the series.

So, summary of this is basically that the series takes a lot of the crew from the visual novel games and transitions them over for a product of a different element.  The creation is exactly what the Danganronpa game creators want.

Note: The sections from here on out will always start with the Future arc, followed by the Despair arc.  Any supplementary notes for the Hope arc are at the end of each section due to it being a finale more than a series.

Story

FUTURE ARC

The Future arc follows the events of Danganronpa 2.  The Future Foundation is understandably upset that Makoto Naegi interfered on what are effectively war criminals.  The series goes explicitly out of its way to define them as million person killers.  Anyways, they call him in to their headquarters…a location supposedly off any map.  Almost all branch heads (previous alumni of Hope’s Peak) come back to evaluate the situation.  Actually, it’s more of a kangaroo court as most of they want his head but still…

Well, you can’t collect this many valuable players for an organization at war without attracting attention.  The entire security of the structure becomes comprised (resulting in the loss of all the security staff) and sleeping gas knocks out the branch leaders, Naegi, and his friends (this time being Kyoko Kirigiri and Aoi Asahina).

They awake to find they are in another game: Monokuma Hunter.  Probably the worst game of Mafia you’ll ever hear about.  Much like in the Danganronpa games, there are many rules to it so I’ll just simply list them here:

  • Each “player” in this game has a bracelet on.  It will inject a sleeping agent when the time listed on the bracelet hits 0:00.  This time is the same for each person.
  • A player designated as the “attacker” wakes up early and will kill another person. The rest of the players awaken a while later.
  • The game ends when no person dies during this “sleeping” phase.
  • Every “player” has a specific instruction known as the NG Code.  Violating this rule will result in death.

Basically, most of the Future Foundation suspects Naegi as the creator of this game and want to kill him so the game ends.  A small splinter group of branch heads come to his defence however; all hell breaks loose as these sides start coming to blows.  Meanwhile, a couple other branch heads use this time to settle scores with each other.

Now, here’s the thing about the Future arc: what drives it very much depends on the episode.  You get about two episodes where you follow Naegi and this group, then one where you watch Tengan, then one with Kimura, then another with Naegi.  Then you go into a side adventure with the cast from Ultimate Despair Girls.  Only after that, over half the series, do you finally settle into a fairly consistent cast.  This is a major stumbling block if you aren’t capable of familiarizing yourself with characters real quickly.  All levels of design do assist with this process though; Danganronpa characters are exaggerations.  They are caricatures…stereotypes so extreme it’s difficult to confuse one character for another.  I sometimes found myself struggling to remember names but never did I struggle to recall their personality or their narrative to date.  It’s quite an impressive feat when there are 12 new characters to remember and only 24 total episodes in both Future, Despair, and Hope arcs.

But outside that, a unifying factor in the writing is its tension.  The series will continually not let you go.  It changes quickly and cause major changes within the narrative.  This is entirely by design: Kodaka stated he wanted a series by which each episode surprises.  And it does not fail to deliver on this front.  Watching this series will leave the viewer on the edge of their seat in anticipation of the next event.  There are many parallels to the design of the Danganronpa games as the game will find your expectations and turn them on their head.  This nature of unpredictability makes each episode exciting.

Of course, this factor in addition to a fairly bloated cast early on means that there end up being major streaks of slow and plodding pace.  Major events have built up and the short time of most events mean that they get separated by longer than normal reprieves.  So those looking for wall to wall excitement and pure pulse pounding action for each second might need to go somewhere else.  Action sometimes happens but it’ll happen in spurts.

One aspect you’ll need to wrap your head around is the fairly scattered nature of the Future arc; this side is extremely dark to start off.  Many characters will receive conflicted love or just outright hatred.  In fact, I’d go as far as to say the most likeable characters initially are pretty much the returning cast from the original Danganronpa game.  This in and of itself isn’t a major issue but makes a major writing hurdle.  You see, in order for you to care about the deaths of characters, the series has to make you go from “I don’t really like this person” to forming emotional attachment.  And in order to do that, the characters need screen time.  this is what causes much of the rocky pacing above: the series has to spend time with each individual character for just enough time to make you care.  Then they kill them.  It almost becomes a point when you can say that focus on a character inadvertently raises their likelihood of dying.  It makes a disjointed narrative early on and eats up a lot of time.  The writing tries to get around this by using the Despair arc as well (more on that below), but it’s still a little difficult to wrap your head around.

SHSL Weedman

And then you have to deal with Hagakure, who seemingly exists to let you know he exists.

Returning from the game can also create a slight shock as well.  The comedy in Future arc is much less than the original games.  Whereas the games have this:

It’s much harder to find fun and laughter in the Future arc of Danganronpa 3 by comparison.  In fact, this is probably one of the largest shifts in tone.  Danganronpa was a mix of serious and humorous.  Some of the most serious of events would tone down the humour but characters such as Hagakure (and to a degree, Fukawa) would lighting the situation.  Danganronpa 2 often brought relief with Souda and Owari.  Or Ibuki earlier on.  Especially Ibuki.  This time?  There’s much, much less of that.  Your comedic character literally gets locked out of the story and nobody inside really plays the comedy relief.  Sure, you’ll still get cases where Asahina completely misreads the situation or Kirigiri gives crazy lines with absolute deadpan expression but it just doesn’t happen with any level of consistency.  And this provides a fairly oppressive feeling if you really enjoyed this lighter side of high school kids murdering each other.

Though on the other side of things, we do get to see this.

Though on the other side of things, we do get to see this.

So I guess the best way I can summarize the Future arc is that it is very much driven by its need to conclude the Danganronpa franchise.  Well, the part that pertains to Hope’s Peak that is.  This side of the narrative has some amazing aspects to it and it’ll leave you intrigued every step of the way should you opt to join the ride.  But just be aware that this ride also is a bit of a genre shift from the original Danganronpa games.  It’s less fun and more business.  And the focus is pretty blurred early on since they don’t get the option of using Free Time Events to characterize everyone through optional events.

One final note – The end of the Future arc (heading into the Hope arc) starts going off the rails logically.  The actual plan itself starts to make less and less sense the more you think about it even if you account for the in-series hints.  It’s much at the level of “how does this make sense” of recent superhero films (villains in Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War have similarly impossible to understand logic for accomplishing their goal).  Which is to say not really all that good.  Though Danganronpa never really was a stickler for continuity.

 

DESPAIR ARC

Now, the Despair arc takes a different course of events.  It focuses on one character from the Future arc, Chisa Yukizome, as she becomes the teacher for the 77th Class at Hope’s Peak.  This class eventually becomes the SHSL Despair listed above.  The one Naegi eventually shelters from the Future Foundation.  It leads you through the course of events which culminate to create the Danganronpa universe as we recognize it.  Which means it’s on a one way course to despair and terror.

Basically this is what I assume I'd get going in.

Basically this is what I assume I’d get going in.

Or at least it would seem that way.  It actually starts off much more lighthearted than this.  In fact, the first couple episodes almost feel like they’re out of a wacky slice-of-life series where the teacher turns a bunch of eccentric students into a ragtag group of friends.  I mean, the jokes come quick and often initially.  And it doesn’t really entirely shift out of this until episode 6 or so (though you do get the odd episode here or there with a much more cold and bleak tone).  This create a bit of a tone problem as it contrasts so greatly with the Future arc that it’s hard to imagine these two series really needing integrated viewing.

The series at this point shifts dramatically.  You’ll spot it too.  The series, as mentioned above, deals with the descent of the 77th class into becoming the murderers which Naegi protected in Future.  And Enoshima previously claimed she brought them into despair herself.  So it should not surprise you when Enoshima takes over the show.

>:D

She even declares it the B-side.

It’s at this point when the entire series becomes that level of grey and depressing that you really do expect out of an anime following the demise of civilization as we know it.  You then follow the machinations of Enoshima and her sister Mukuro Ikusaba as Enoshima plots to destroy the world.  It basically becomes the Junko Enoshima show where everyone not entirely close to her gets a line or two just to let you know that they exist.

One massive waste of potential in the Despair arc stems from the that the Despair arc never really plays out like its own anime.  It splits is focus on many tasks for the sake of supporting other media.  Multiple episode use their time to characterize the cast of the Future arc.  A viewing of the Despair arc on its own would result in characters appearing and disappearing without reason.  The biggest offender is episode 4 where Kimura, Andou, and Izayoi from the Future arc appear without reason and then disappear, never heard from again.  It gets even worse as much of the series gets writing purely for the sake of filling holes in other media.  Episode 3 purely focuses on the events of the Twilight Syndrome game in Danganronpa 2.  If you haven’t played the game, basically the minigame presents a series of events it portrays as factual.  The events are nearly entirely unrelated to the events in Despair arc but get thrown in to ensure that it completes the narrative posed in Danganronpa 2.  And while these two are the most glaring issues, they’re hardly the entire list.

The primary flaw this presents is the drain from the actual Despair arc, which becomes more and more of a split.  It takes time to explain events for Danganronpa, Danganronpa 2, and characterize for the Future arc.  Only after all that does it get to its own story of how Enoshima brings about society’s downfall.  Oh, and occasionally throw in the 77th class because they become closely tied to it all.  But this scattered approach never lets anything really pick up steam until the plot lines of Enoshima and the 77th class actually converge.  Even then, the entire series of events goes through real quick.  And that’s really ultimately the issue: the Despair arc already sits at a fairly low 11 episodes.  With that, there are at least 19 characters you’d want to recognize as critical to the primary storytelling of succumbing to despair.  You’re already at a low time count for each character.  Then add on top of that the burden of tying together other events and you’re in a place where story flies fast and many events get minimal time.

Contrasting with Future arc, there’s a lot more humour here.  Again, the first two episodes are pretty chalked full of fun and amusement.  It’s much more of the “daily life” of the Danganronpa games and treats you to a little levity from the oppressive Future arc.  But that too slowly vanishes as Enoshima takes over.  And soon enough, you’re laughing at blackmail.

I would kill for a Nantendo Game Girl.

To be absolutely fair, we were laughing at Nantendo before so maybe we’re just not healthy to begin with.

And, ultimately, there ends up being no real resolution due to this.  The aim of Despair arc is filling holes and, while it does that just fine, the cohesive narrative doesn’t feel all that strong.  Enoshima really never suffers a setback and seemingly executes her plan flawlessly.  Which is fine if you’re a protagonist for a shonen type series.  You can get away with that for a full season there if you don’t mind being a little generic.  But for a villain?  Not so much.

Yes, we get to find out about the Twilight Syndrome events, the personality of Izuru Kamakura, the first mutual killing game, and exactly how Enoshima orchestrated everything.  But they’re all foregone conclusions and almost entirely end up feeling like loosely associated OVAs more than a full season.

That said, the Despair arc isn’t without its redeeming factors.  The season creates some extremely beautiful and unsettling moments.  It has its comedy and likely will make you laugh.  It does everything it sets out for.  It’s just that the cohesion of these events themselves really don’t provide much on their own.  They all become parts of a machine greater than the season.  This is part of why I review the series as a whole as oppose to Future and Despair arcs separately…the Despair arc never set out as a standalone piece.  It’s a cog and deserves treatment as such.

 

HOPE ARC

The series unfortunately ends off on a less than stellar note.  The episode becomes pure, unadulterated fan service.  It feels like the series took notes on what fans wanted to have happen and just threw it all together.  It’s unfortunate as it really works reasonably right up until the series reveals its actual villain.  Then things start falling apart.  Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t enough to undo all the good the series provides.  It just feels like a fanfiction series by the end as nothing’s explained and it really feels like the writers let the inmates run the asylum at the end (a crazy notion, of course, but it still has that sort of feeling by the end).   And it’s too bad since the continuity deserves a better send off than this.

 

Characters

FUTURE ARC

So…um…there’s a lot of characters to start.  Let’s just put it that way.  My count ended around 20 characters.  Realistically though, you’ll end up only really needing to know about 10 or so as many die quickly or revolve around a single episode.

Really though, Kimura best girl.

…Wait.  Which storyline were you again?

Your focus is almost split evenly amongst the entire cast early on.  This creates some pretty heavy bloating and the cast drops like flies early on.  This initial grouping starts getting smaller and focusing only on a select group of key individuals.  The survivors of the first Danganronpa game (Makoto Naegi, Kyoko Kirigiri, and Aoi Asahina) get the most attention.  After that comes the contrasting antagonist Kyosuke Munakata.  The series comes down heavily on contrasting Munakata and Naegi.  The parallels result in a great deal of on-the-nose characterization of the two as characters comment how similar the two are.

One aspect that Danganronpa series specializes in is emotional torque…specifically, loss.  It builds up characters that you’ll find sympathy in…only for you to see them mercilessly cut down.  Inside the game world, this comes about via letting you pick your favourite character and spend time with them.  The Future arc seeks the same emotion out by days in the spotlight.  The series will spend time characterizing a new personality, sometimes spilling over into Despair arc to find the additional time, to gain humanizing traits.  It then puts them on death watch and makes them open game for becoming the next victim in hopes of picking enough love to become an actual loss to the audience.  Death and the loss drives much of the Danganronpa series and the Future arc continues the tradition.

To that end, the characters are not the most deep.  As mentioned before, they’re often caricatures.  They aren’t extremely deep or more than a couple of notes.  The shy girl is shy and the nice guy is still nice.  But their stories become sympathetic and their face in these circumstance admirable.  So you come to love the one side of them which does that.  It’s just enough time and space to cause the loss the series so much seeks out.  And I think that’s the best way to describe most characters in the series: most of them are simple.  Most don’t have the biggest stories but ones you’ll find attachment.  Then you’ll lose them and you’ll get hurt.  And this becomes the game’s primary usage for characters: to ship off for death.

Now, that isn’t to say some characters aren’t actually fairly interesting.  There are a couple of them which get tender love and care from the writers.  They grow, they have nuanced thought.  The series goes out of its way to show you that nuanced though.  But it’s just most of them get written for emotional processing and come off just interesting enough to pull this off.  To that end, few are truly dynamic throughout the narrative.

 

DESPAIR ARC

The majority of screen time goes to Chisa Yukizome and Junko Enoshima.  I’m quite serious on this.  In a narrative splitting time to explain the backstory to the Danganronpa 2 game, the 77th class has very little screen time after a while.

What's up with Nidai's face by the way?

I know, I’m sad about it too.

A major issue on this side of the series is its impossible task of splitting time between the 18 important characters.  And yes, I do mean 18.  Chiaki Nanami makes an appearance.  There are only about 4 hours of screen time for the entire Despair arc.  It is virtually impossible to provide satisfying characterization to all of them as well as progress anything resembling a plot.  It also doesn’t get any chance to thin the cast ala Future arc.  It gets stuck with a bloated cast and no time to give the spotlight to each of the important individuals…so the entire cast from Danangronpa 2 get the short end.  And then so does Yukizome halfway through the series as the plot picks up faster and faster.

Another strike against the Despair side is a lack of utilizing deep or interesting characters.  Again, the writers give one or two characters get a lot of care and love.  Problem is that none of them are really the main characters.  Enoshima is…well…Enoshima still.  She’s goofy, quirky, and doesn’t exactly sound like an insane sociopath until she talks about despair (in which case she becomes the more obsessive person we all recognize).  But you ultimately learn nothing really new or interesting about her, her personality, or her goals.  Now, a more charitable look at it (which I prefer more) would claim that Despair arc shows Enoshima as more of an analyst than an out-and-out genius.  But still…that’s half a series and pretty much all you get out of her.

What...what do I even say?

Actually, you also get this.  The goofiest eyes I can recall.  All intentional too.

Yukizome gets a bit of characterization and time early on.  As I’m sure you’re tired of hearing now, this basically goes to the wayside as Enoshima’s plans become more and more central to the narrative.  But this thematic change does ultimately change much of the narrative focus and you can see the effects in many aspects.  Yukizome basically becomes a supporting cast member in the Despair Arc…which focused on her pretty much from the first episode on.

Ultimately, much of the cast as presented in Despair arc are walking pieces of scenery.  I joke earlier, but I got the feeling by the end of the arc that the 77th class’ entire role was “show up, say a line to ensure that people are aware you exist”.  Yukizome becomes much less important driving the narrative’s as time goes on and it practically feels like the Junko Enoshima show.  And, to some discomfort, Junko Enoshima doesn’t really become that much more interesting a character due to this.

That doesn’t take away from the good points: there are legitimately good scenes for making you care about the characters.  The writers appear capable of such tasks.  It’s just that they chose to not make it a primary focus over explaining the vast series of events they wanted covered before they leave the Hope’s Peak narrative behind.

 

Animation

First: Future arc and Despair arc have a slight difference in colour choices.  Future arc does away with the series’ traditional pink blood.  It seems they have done away with the ratings issue for that season.

Does that mean the humble strawberry is red once again?

Meanwhile, the Despair arc opts to remain in pink blood.

I take it all back - Ikusaba still best girl.

Danganronpa‘s first animation got treatment from Lerche.  It…didn’t go so well.  The series got extremely poor animation at points and off-model imagery turned up frequently enough to cause distraction.  So you can imagine the trepidation when we found out Lerche animated Danganronpa 3 as well.

Kimura still best girl.

The best way to describe Danganronpa 3‘s animation on either end is…”inconsistent”.  Actually, that’s not really the best way.  The animation quality is inconsistent.  The animation choices themselves work out pretty nicely.

The palettes are absolutely perfect for what the series need.  Darker tones, akin to what you’ll recognize from the first Danganronpa game, fill up the Future arc.  Outside hair colour, you don’t get much outside the neutral tones.  Looking at my collection of images, I’d hazard a guess that dark blues, dull reds, and brown cover most of the spectrum.  This creates a fairly oppressive, darker environment.  Which is pretty much an accurate summation of Future arc…a narrative some claim is so depressing and unlikable that they will use the words “I don’t care what happens to these people”.  It meshes well with this oppressive and bleak atmosphere.

Also, lol at Andou running.

This is not one of the bleaker moments.  Also, would it kill them to add more lights next time?

Conversely, the Despair arc utilizes palettes to dictate the “feel” of the episode.  You’ll notice duller palettes akin to Future arc coming out when the narratives gets darker and less fun.  However, early episodes will use bright shades similar to Danganronpa 2.  These episodes carry a level of levity and the shades add to it.

dedicated-gaming

Of course, these are just the choices.  Again, the animation is inconsistent.  You’ll have some extremely beautiful sequences where Lerche obviously put tonnes of care.  These signature sequences have a calibre to them that matches the intensity of the scene.  And then there are entire stretches and indeed entire episodes where animation quality apparently goes downhill.

Andou worst girl.

On one end, you get this.

And the other end, this.

And the other end, this.

One final issue you’ll find is “same face syndrome”.  Many characters share the same generic “anime face” look that many series struggle with.  You’ll probably most notice this lack of detail in the face between Yukizome and Asahina who pretty much look the same outside their hair and eye colour.  And clothing obviously.  But it still expresses a lack of detail.  Humorously, this actually worked out quite well for those watching the episodes as they aired as it fuels many different forms of theories.

Hope arc addition – I can’t help but say that things don’t mesh well in the Hope arc.  The specific mix of character and colour choices just don’t work for me.  I can’t say much without ruining things or going into details but suffice to say that things get a bit strange here.

Sound/Music/Voice Actors

The first Danganronpa anime borrowed quite heavily from the game.  Danganronpa 3 is no exception and follows back to the same well.  Expect many call backs to the game’s soundtrack used at times you’d absolutely expect them to pop up.

This isn’t really a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.  The Danganronpa franchise has some excellent in-game music and typically utilize a more uptempo feel (though you’ll also get the slower, chime heavy pieces as well).  They do show up a little less frequently than I’d like but do set the tone well enough.  It feels more like a fan service more than anything else…a way to get the viewer to go “I remember that!”.  It’s enough to get you from scene to scene without realizing there’s a void in the dialogue.

Future arc and Despair arc use different openings and closings.  Future arc opens with Dead or lie by Maon Kurosaki (featuring TRUSTRICK).  The ending is Recall THE END by TRUSTRICK.  These two pieces work out quite well, fitting the tone of the arc quite well.  Dead or lie features a strong mix of fast pace and mix of instruments.  It doesn’t slow down once it speeds up its pace and does a good job fitting the hectic and chaotic pace that the Monokuma Hunter game would ultimately introduce.  Its animation doesn’t bring much to the table outside some pretty nice still shots of each character with a possible death in the background.  Recall THE END is a more generic piece of soft rock.  It has an interesting animation sequence but you’ll likely not feel it’s worth listening to more than once.  That is, until you get to the end of the series.  There are some fairly useful interesting foreshadowing parts in it but it’ll likely be more difficult than not to spot them until they pass.

Despair arc has Kami-iro Awase from Binaria as its opening and Zettai Kibo Birthday (Megumi Ogata) as an ending.  Kami-iro Awase is very much a different piece than Dead or Lie.  It’s a lot softer and less intense.  Which makes sense given the pacing of the Despair arc.  Probably the most unusual aspect of this opening is its choice in palette.  It ends up changing at specific points in the season to reflect the tone and narrative progression.  It’s quite interesting and worth watching each episode to spot the changes and how the opening impacts your mood for each episode.  Zettai Kibo Birthday ultimately starts off making sense and just goes further and further from understandable as time goes on.  It’s upbeat and shows the 77th class in happy times.  I get there’s a reference to the Danganronpa 2 narrative in it but it ultimately gets the feeling of being quite out-of-place by the end.

I’ve tried by the subbed and dubbed version of this series.  The subbed version retains a strong cast and probably the same recognizable voice actors and actresses you heard before.  Well, except Monokuma.  Actually, there’s very, very little Monokuma.  TARAKO took over from Nobuyo Oyama due to Oyama’s health issues.  Regardless, this is the same series which specifically asked for voice actresses for Sonia Nevermind and Peko Pekoyama.  The team has a pretty strong idea over what they want and they generally do quite well with it.  Conversely, the characterization and dubbing choices for certain characters (Enoshima and Tengan are the most glaring) may leave you confused if you chose the dubbing route.  Additionally, the choices in voice for the characters becomes awkward as they use phrases which don’t always feel the most natural for the situation.

Synergy

The Danganronpa Future arc focuses on pushing a narrative.  It’s a thriller which completes the events with Hope’s Peak.  So everything naturally gravitates to that.

Conversely, the Despair arc…really doesn’t have much synergy.  There are episodes here and there which will focus on specific aspects which they want to provide further illumination.  But then they don’t really tie in together too well until Enoshima walks in and starts pushing certain aspects towards her plan.  Then things start to converge a little.  But even then it remains a bit scattered and confused throughout.

Why to Watch

If you’ve played Danganronpa games and loved them, come right in.  I think it’s as simple as that.  The series aims to answer some questions left throughout Danganronpa 2 as well as tie them closer to the original game’s narrative.  It closes out the time with Naegi and company while providing a new thriller narrative.

Why Not to Watch

It’s really a case of just saying the opposite as the above…walking in with no knowledge of the Danganronpa franchise might not work out too well.  Alternatively, if you liked the games but like them because you could learn a lot about each character…that won’t happen here.  Really, that’s about it.  This series will likely find a niche around its fans and won’t have wide striking appeal outside it.

Personal Enjoyment

The Danganronpa games are probably my second favourite game series.  Only the Zero Escape franchise edges it out.  I’ve always been hoping for a good animation from the series for a while.  So I’ve walked in with a lot of hope.  The thriller genre is one of my soft spots…so the Future arc gets a lot of love from me.

Summary

Danganronpa 3 is pretty much an extension of the games.  It’s a love letter to fans: we’ve had a good run with our Hope’s Peak narrative.  But it’s time to close up and move on.  Kodaka and his team put every idea they had left for that continuity into one place.  It ends up scatterbrained and a little lost at times but ultimately pushes exactly what he wants to say.  Some issues with logic and focus do hamper it a bit.  But this is a watch if you know the continuity to date and want one more trip to the same world.

Overall Rating

Danganronpa 3 has a 7.05/10 for me.  Given I use 5 as average, this is a pretty solid ranking and actually comes close to how I’ve felt about other “solid” series.  Anybody who wants one last lap with the Hope’s Peak absolutely should watch it.

The strongest aspect of this series is its gripping narrative.  Danganronpa series fans will likely love having another deadly game.  Monokuma Hunter is an incredible idea for 11 episodes.  That said, the series falls apart towards the end (honestly dropping its score by a small amount) and the half of “supplementary watching material” in the Despair arc bog it a bit.  Additionally, the entry fee of “knowing the Danganronpa games” is quite high so keep that in mind as people without knowledge of the games will likely end up lost.

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Review: Fafner in the Azure: Exodus (Seasons 1 and 2)

It's always this lighthearted. I pro--who am I kidding?

It’s always this lighthearted. I prom–who am I kidding? It’s downhill from here.

Background

Studio Xebec.  There’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time.  Let’s face it…it basically became, for a long time, the name associated with mediocre series.  Heck…a long search of their credentials few noteworthy series in the last 10 years.  The last “popular” one might be Shaman King.  Past that?  Some occasional moderate successes.  Some underrated series.  But nothing really spectacular or groundbreaking.  Or really “great” for that matter.  Throw the 2004 series Fafner in the Azure as part of that.  Reasonable and decent plot but suffering a bit of a budget issue and some pacing problems (10 episodes are only worth watching upon second viewing), in addition to some complaints when Hisashi Hirai basically recycled the same character design templates (themselves already questionable to some fans)…and things went a bit off the rails.  But I liked it.  It’s kind of interesting and a bit of a Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion hybrid.

Colour me surprised as this series slowly plods along for the next decade.  It gets a prequel OVA, Fafner in the Azure: Right of Left, a movie sequel, Fafner in the Azure: Heaven and Earth,…and, around 2013, announces a sequel series.  More shockingly though comes news that Xebec, which hadn’t done a lengthy standalone series in years (at least something over 6 episodes), produced the entire series under the new name Xebec Zwei.  Also, and this is even more shocking, the attached name to the project doesn’t include three words after the colon: Fafner in the Azure: Exodus.

Story

Welcome to this version of Earth.  About 2110 AD (give or take.  Memory is pretty bad on the exact date), a series of aliens eventually named Festum make contact with Earth.  They begin what can only be described as a horrific assault.  The world as we know it falls to pieces as these aliens, apparently silicon-based, begin attacking.  Each live in packs led by a Mir and tend to form more inquisitive thoughts than the standard invading alien.  Their standard attack is announcing into your mind the question “Are you there?”.  It then attempts to read your mind and assimilate your mind and body simultaneously.  This wave of offence pretty much destroys much of the world…Japan and much of China sink into the ocean outright.  Escaping Japanese civilians are apparently all sterile. Did I mention that the Festum also come in a wide variety of lovely shapes and sizes?  And they fly?

Braaaaains

They’re pretty much zombies. Golden, Angel-esc, mind destroying zombies.

But one floating centre of Japanese culture survives.  Tatsumiya Island.  It is a cloaked, mobile island which spends its days living a much less bleak life.  Children go to school, people have routine worries, and there are even happy cafes still in operation.  Why?  Well, they harness the power of teenagers and mecha.  That is…they genetically engineer children with the ability to fly mecha known as Fafner.  The ones on this island, currently in production as of the original series, provide a combat efficiency unparalleled across the Earth.  That is to say, they win battles.

Now, this is where many series diverge.  Fafner falls into a pretty cynical category.  Things rarely go smoothly for the pilots.  Death exists all over.  Multiple pilots die in the original series and mecha routinely end battles trashed.  The original series goes as far as to make a single Festum a challenging enemy.

The original series introduces Tatsumiya to the world.  Namely that they not only hid from the Festum but from humanity.  The rest of the world formed under the Neo UN, an apparently more effective and militant version of the UN we know today.  They fight the Festum at an international level with their own line of Fafner.  Poorly.  Anyways, the existence of Tatsumiya comes as a great surprise to them.  They routinely attempt to pull the island into greater conflicts in the original season.  They also present a threat in the movie Heaven and Earth as they slowly fall into more extreme measures when fighting Festum.  In fact, Exodus begins with a nuclear strike against an exceptionally large Festum walking over the island of Hawaii.  Which fails to do anything.

Exodus picks up four years after the original series and continues to show this arms race between Festum and humans.  The Neo UN finally develops a line of Fafner which actually compete with the even evolving Festum…which now have trump cards in the size of exceedingly powerful individual Festum (known as “Azazel” type Festum.  Get used to a lot of terminology if you watch this series).  They still get crushed and lose their base in Hawaii.  It’s quite odd as, outside of the events of Heaven and Earth, Festum rarely act in such an organized manner. A small splinter group of the Neo UN, led by General Wiseman-Bose, eventually flee and end up making contact with Tatsumiya.  Long story short, the general plans to end this war by having a citizen from Tatsumiya who is capable of speaking to the Festum accompany him so they can find a way to co-exist with the Festum.  They agree and things go on from there.  The narrative follows two groups: one which follows the General on his trip to India to seek out this possible end to the war and one which stays on Tatsumiya and defends it from Festum attacks which are spiking in both size and ferocity.

It should be clear, even before I begin going into analysis of the series itself, that there’s a massive learning curve.  There are 26 episodes and 1 movie’s worth of plot worth knowing before getting started.  It’s worse than a series such as Dragonball Z since many events in Fafner‘s prequels directly affect this series’ events.  It’s simply more than knowing the characters’ names and falls into directly understanding events from the series in question.  And making it worse is the seeming love of technobabble.  There are terminology for locations on Tatsumiya and components of Fafner that I’m still not familiar with after 22 hours of this series.  Little of it holds much impact to the series but just get used to it if you watch.

For all this though…it’s quite the payoff.  It’s very evident, even if the structure of the two released seasons didn’t make it clear (Winter 2015, Fall 2015), that both Exodus seasons linked together for an overarching season.  The narrative mostly builds for the first 13 episodes but picks up an incredible amount of steam around episode 16-17 (if you count both seasons as a single 26 season series) and never looks back.  It plays out with suspense and slowly reveals each and every secret which surround the season all while retaining top-notch mecha battle sequences.  I’m not sure what it is about Tow Ubukata.  He’s traditionally struggled when handed an established franchise and is currently the internet plaything for blaming the failings in Ghost in the Shell: Arise and Psycho-pass 2.  But Fafner?  No complaints here.

I’ll start with the aforementioned narrative.  It’s difficult to really piece together the overarching plot from an omniscient perspective until the final episodes.  Any returning Fafner fan will likely spot the Festum as almost radically different from the original series.  They’re no less terrifying but act completely different.  A viewer may see this type of plot point as trivial but such details play into the complete narrative by series’ end.  A viewer who catches such details may begin asking why the series shifts the Festum’s behaviour so significantly.  The series resolves such points but only as it closes out.  It’s incredible to have such details hidden so well, leaving the audience guessing about the exact plot, yet also retain a plot which plows forward.  I’d argue it’s almost perfect how well it plays with the audience and lures them to the exact spot they want the viewer for the knockout episodes.

The narrative itself?  It’s fairly grim.  You’ll find comedy but it’s stretched thin.  The main thrust throughout is that we all have limited time and we should impact the world while we have time…which means a lot of death and a lot of despair.  Power comes at a price.  And nobody’s nice to each other.  Kind of what you’re expecting when my best description is “real robot Evangelion without the mind screw”.

Though I'm pretty sure this guy is pretty much an angel.

Though I’m pretty sure this guy is an Angel.

And none of this is to say that there aren’t heartbreaking moments.  Far from it.  One of the series’ most poignant and memorable moments come with several shades of “ow, my heart”.  Character death almost instantly invoke this instead of the character going out in a blaze of glory.  Which is quite strange as many characters die while heroically exerting themselves in a fight…but the series instead casts each death as tragic.  And I really feel this is one of Fafner’s standouts…especially when it gets mixed with the ongoing feeling of “anybody can and will die”.  Some characters die quick.  Some die suddenly.  Some die in a prolonged fight and have some touching moments.  It almost entirely throws out the notion of predicable character death (outside of some obvious death flags actions).

This genre of anime lends itself greatly to action scenes and Fafner doesn’t struggle with these.  They are elegantly choreographed in most instances and well executed.  It’s a major upgrade from the combat sequences provided in the mid-2000 series, which were a few steps behind fight scenes of the era, and the CGI heavy 2010 movie.  Actually, I’m sure this one heavily relies on CGI as well but it does a far, far better job masking in as time goes on.  I reviewed the earlier episodes and realized how incredible the final episodes become as CGI I found effective in the early episodes become far, far more obvious.

The biggest shock to most mecha fans will likely be Fafner‘s lack of fear in having its mecha routinely destroyed in battles.  Repairs are apparently really cheap and you’ll constantly see characters beat up hard.  Arms lopped off, pilots out of fights entirely, events which really look like death (and traditionally are in mecha series).  Heck, the first battle using any of the characters from Tatsumiya have a character’s mecha lose an arm and, as pain extends to the pilot, they disconnect him from piloting further.  I cannot think of a single character not impaled by something, killed, or in extreme pain at least once throughout the entire series’ run (including its old series and movies.  This combined with the above notes about character death create some pretty tense scenes as life and death come pretty much at the will of the seemingly unforgiving plot.

Again, the biggest weaknesses of the writing lie in its assumptions.  You really must know the previous content, of mediocre nature in my opinion, to really develop an understanding and feeling for this series.  That is an absolutely massive time investment (~12 hours) and many viewers might find this too large a gamble, even for the huge payoff.  Furthermore, the narrative is relentless and unforgiving at points.  Simply just not understanding a sequence may completely throw you.  There are sequences, even entire episodes, which reveal major plot points and not being on top of your game comprehension wise can leave you steps behind and playing catch up once again.  A bit of a standard drama series issue…but it goes double when you have technobabble to deal with.

One issue I have looking back is the obvious sequel hook.  The series leaves off much the same way as the original series did and ends with questions about the remaining plot line.  The mysteries end up solved, yes, but what happens from here remains up in the air.  I mean, it’ll be clear at the end of the series that this isn’t the finale.  No.  There remain “things to do” as the term goes.  But the adventure continues on a later date…one I’m not sure Fafner will ever get due to some pretty low viewer numbers.

I would also watch out for on-the-nose characterization.  That is, character stating exactly what they’re thinking to develop character as oppose to showing the audience such traits.  This stems primarily from the series’ unwillingness to use internal thought processes but sometimes creates some awkward dialogue.

Characters

Honestly, incredible character use probably ranks as the top reason to watch Fafner.  The series routinely works to develop characters, make you like at least part of the ensemble cast, and then pick away until they end up killing someone you liked.  They’ll die.  Or give them a nice heaping of mental trauma.  Or maybe just almost kill them.  Or have family issues.  Or just not want to die as piloting in this series slowly kills the pilots.

Christ, they broke Maya so hard.

Really, this will be your standard response to later episodes.

The primary protagonists are Kazuki Makabe and Soushi Minoshiro.  At least they are in theory.  You only spend half the time with the two as they lead the same episodes, episodes which only constitute about half the series.  What you’ll really find is that Fafner becomes much more of an ensemble performance; every character gets a little time in the spotlight and finding out a little about them.  The basis of the series in this regard becomes fairly simple, often boiling down to either character moments, narrative moments, or action.  There are a few points in time where the series combines two of the three but it often move itself in only one of three directions.

It’s difficult to really go further into the series without emphasizing how much character development plays into the series.  Much of the series emphasizes the growth and development of each and every character.  Virtually none of the pilot characters remain static (though it’s worth noting that many side characters remain extremely flat).  They’re not necessarily the deepest characters nor do they have the same level of unexpected surprises that you’d find in a Persona type of production…but they change.  That is to say that events ultimately change the characters and Fafner emphasizes these developments and often places them at the forefront.  As an example, a few of the more naive characters from the “Exodus” party end up fairly traumatized.  They end up suffering greatly and the series provides screen time to these characters grappling with this new reality.  Part of the franchise involves developing an emotional attachment to the character and ultimately feel emotionally with them as they go through their trials and tribulations.  It’s very evident in the series’ newest cast additions as you’ll spend extra screen time with them.

Part of the reason having background in this series becomes critical is because of this character driven element.  It’s certainly possible to view the series from this angle without knowing the previous elements.  The series, at the most basic of levels, even provides enough background for you to do this and spends a lot of time in the first couple episodes explaining the situation to viewers.  The overall effect is much weaker, however, as you don’t have the exact same context.  I would almost chalk it up to a similar effect as the live action series The Walking Dead in the sense that you could probably start watching either partway through their intended order…it just makes certain scenes a bit weaker and some nonsensical.

These characters ultimately sell me on the franchise and provide a major drive for my sentiments to the series.  It’s a fairly unique series in the sense that every reasonably major pilot grows.  I again emphasize that this certainly fails to hold up when looking at the supporting cast, which is a bit of a disappointment since it makes the world seem just a little flatter and less dynamic.  Nonetheless, the characters slowly mature and develop new outlooks on the world.  The growth and transition period for some of the cast from unwitting teenagers to full-grown adults occurs over the span of 20 hours of viewing time and feels quite natural due to this extreme length of time.  Developments within the franchise of Exodus itself are not complete turnaround developments and thus feel more natural than some other series.  As an example of the hastened version of character change, I think of the often utilized tsundere archetype character.  There are some franchises out there which have this character really turn around from the aggressive personality to the more caring and loving character within two or three episodes…leaving as little as an hour for us to understand this character and then appreciate the meaningfulness of these personality change.  It just sometimes doesn’t work because of this haste.  But I find Fafner deals with this fairly well.  Characters change either from extreme circumstances (and have very jarring shifts in personality to accommodate this) or develop slowly and in manners that the audience appreciates.  It’s very applicable that the characters “earn” their growth.

This same emotional appeal drives quite a bit of payoff as well.  At least, the parts where you don’t find action based payoff for this series.  It’s very much, and I hate to use the term since it might not make sense to all readers, a “feels” series.  That is, the series puts negative emotions onto its viewers through the character.  That you feel for the character’s on-screen pains.  Many episodes use this to cap off the events of the episode…there’s a buildup of action, emotion, intensity.  Then pain and the episode ends, leaving questions about how the series progresses from there.  It may be something of a simple formula but Fafner plays this card quite well.  It used the same points in the original series and replays them with improved precision.  It’s very difficult to not end up heartbroken at the end of each episode in the second season (where death becomes increasingly rampant).  Even episodes without death start dealing with lots of drama and stress on the characters.  Again…it’s not a nice world.  There are typically problems or plans just plain go wrong.

And sometimes people just get assimilated and you have to watch.

And sometimes people just get assimilated and you have to watch.

One oddity in this franchise I must mention: few characters actually drive the plot.  Most end up as soldiers or present themselves as representations of the “feels” driven appeal.  Yet few of them actually move the plot along and instead just accompany certain positions such that there are entire squads of combatants that you care about.  It sometimes feels strange and you might end up wondering why certain cast members exist for this reason.  I know I did (though I really can’t say much without spoiling who lives and who dies)…but this is at least my interpretation.  That, and some characters must continue to exist as they survived previous iterations of the franchise and their death would serve little purpose as well.

Another interesting aside about the characters: very little romance exists.  You might want to find something else if that’s a major issue.  Major characters rarely deal with each other in a manner beyond close friendship.  I’m not sure if it’s a writer problem or just a desire to not introduce undue romance when it’s not really needed…but characters almost never have romantic ties.  Comparing other well know mecha franchises…and this concept is almost foreign.  It’s part of why the series ends up so dark…there’s so little positive emotion to fill this void.

As seems pretty obvious, I struggle to find real negatives in the character aspect.  Some side characters end up flat for sure and that hurts the world building.  The series underutilized some characters and underdeveloped others…making their plot lines feel almost hallow.  But it’s almost overwhelming covered up by the development from other characters.  That is to say that the sum of the parts outweighs its negatives.  Just stick with it until the end as much of the payoff comes in the second season.

Animation

Maybe I’m just old.  Maybe I don’t watch enough modern anime.  Maybe I’m just a little crazy.  Whatever it is though…I really love Exodus’ animation.  Battle, drama, whatever.  It is just beautiful.

Let’s start with combat sequences since they impress me the most.  Exodus is one of the rare series which seem to effectively integrate CGI into standard animation.  It’s alright in the first season.  Some of the more foreign Festum and some points in the Fafner animation are obvious CGI.  Planes are extremely obvious.  But the second season begins hammering this out and the sequences become elegant interplay of effective CGI in animated backgrounds.  A comment I’ve heard about CGI often comes in the statement “CGI is only bad if you notice that it’s CGI”.  Anime production typically uses it as a cost saving mechanism and it typically comes off as bad CGI.  Fafner sometimes falls as this but has quite a few moments where it’s clear that, for the sake of the artist, they had to use CGI…but it doesn’t visually register as such.  I mean, the above Festum are almost always CGI.

And then there's this.  Which is pretty blatant CGI by Exodus' standards.

And then there’s this. Which is pretty blatant CGI by Exodus’ standards.

There also an extremely large number of sequences I can rattle off where there is extremely elegant background scenery.  Pausing and marvelling at the background almost qualifies as a hobby.  Again, I feel like I might have missed something as I haven’t watched many recent anime but the sheer amount of detail is…well, it’s breathtaking in its own regard.

And then there's this almost alien visual.

There’s this almost alien visual.  Did I mention Festum explode into purple…things…upon death?  I meant to.

There are, of course, episodes with decreased budgets.  That much is always clear and Fafner is no exception.  There are some fairly obvious episodes where the animators needed a break and just used further distance shots…or repeated the use of the same low-cost plane animation.  Or just hid a lot behind stills.  I find it typically happens in episodes where the series just needs to advance its plot to the next major point.

I must admit, a major failing this series continues throughout the franchise is its difficulty distinguishing characters (made even worse by the fact that characters often change appearance between different series).  Character A looks a lot like character B which looks a lot like character C.  A visual heavy viewer might have difficulty understanding motivations and development when they can’t even remember which character did what action.

Sound/Music/Voice Actors

Fafner routinely uses an orchestral composition…which makes sense, as memory serving, they used the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra in the original series.  I found myself constantly jotting down notes when they utilized this grouping for slower or more emotionally charged segments.  The soundtrack didn’t add much in combat sequences and simply stand to “do their job” (though they did bring back Opening of Nightmare’s Gate for a couple sequences…an excellent piece from the original series).  Really, expect it to get you from set to set unless you’ve in a very dialogue heavy segment.

The two seasons contain two openings and two closings…though not split as you’d expect…changing over around the 17th episode mark.  angela performs all four pieces and it’d be no stretch to say that atsuko’s voice adds a lot of the franchise with this mark of consistency; Shangri-la and Separation, the opening and closing pieces for the original series, are probably the most recognizable aspects of it.

The first opening, Exist, introduces you to the nature of its first few episodes.  A mix of angelic chanting and some pretty haunting lyrics, the animations continually flip you through characters and provide viewers with a bit of background on each character.  It’s very much an opening which eases viewers in.  The first closing, which I probably would translate as Anya koro, is a pretty simple ending piece.  Very little animation, a “cool down” type of piece, and overall something very easy to skip.

Things really get interesting as the series switches over to its second set of opening and closing pieces.  The second opening, Dead or Alive, is one of my favourite openings (and would probably adjust my rankings from the previous list I completed on this matter).  Another mixing of angelic chanting and lyrics, this opening takes multiple improvements over the last.  There is far greater coordination between animation and lyric.  The music is a major improvement in my mind with rapidly changing tempo, extremely unusual lyrics (which also combine aspects from previous songs of this franchise), and an incredible tie-in with the previous series of this franchise; the opening presents a litany of characters, including those long dead as if to claim that nobody forgets any sacrifice or loss of life.  It’s quite stirring.  Finally, the animation calls strongly back to the original series by animating many of the stills used in the original series’ opening of the characters happily enjoying their younger years.  Well, except for poor Canon.

Though I'd argue she makes up for it in pure cuteness.

Though I’d argue she makes up for it in pure cuteness.

Another unique aspect of these last few episodes comes in its ending song, Horizon.  It is not much of an upgrade in the visuals department…but the musical piece is far more uptempo and heart racing than you’d expect.  The musical piece sets the stage for the almost non-stop train ride from the 17th episode to the series’ conclusion.

I find it difficult to recommend anything but subbed here.  Mainly because the option of viewing this series in english isn’t here.  The series is free subbed on Crunchyroll and you don’t even need to worry about losing time waiting for a translation if you view it subbed.  I would recommend subbed either way as the dubbed version are alright.  At best.  Voice acting talent is all over the place.

Synergy

Everything runs in and out of the characters.  Why do you care about the battle?  Your favourite character is fighting it out in a series where you know they could easily die.  What’s going on with the plot again?  How could it affect all the characters?  How is [x] changing due to all this?  It’s actually a unique run with this level of viewer interest in characters and character development.

Why to Watch

This series…I can’t say enough good things about its emotional torque.  It’s absolutely incredible for setting you up, getting you to feel a specific way, and then playing with your emotions until you start feeling for the characters on-screen.  It is an incredible mix of emotion and action…both being incredible.  It’s a terrific lesson in what well utilized CGI looks like and how to create battle sequences.  And finally, the characters grow at a seemingly natural rate…or at least more natural than other modern anime which often need to fast track characters given the short episode runs.

Why Not to Watch

Do you dislike decade old mediocre anime (or dislike having to roll with whatever they’re saying about the older characters)?  Do you dislike having your favourite character killed?  Do you dislike the creeping notion that someone is doing to die and you won’t be happy if it’s a specific character?  Do you really dislike having no clue what technobabble does and just “having to roll with it”?  Really, those are the main reasons to avoid this series.

Personal Enjoyment

Fafner is a series I’ve felt pretty unappreciated.  The original series was alright but presented a unique change on the real robot genre.  The movie was fair for the time but its use of CGI makes it struggle a little.  Either way, I was pumped to hear Exodus and honestly am glad I can see more of this franchise.

Summary

I’m not exactly sure what I want to say about Fafner: Exodus.  It’s good.  I mean, really good.  Memorable, well executed, and visually beautiful.  Something for anybody who enjoys these somewhat darker tales of mecha.  Well, except decent levels of romance.  I can’t stop saying good things about the series and really feel that the disparate score on many aggregate sites (that is to say that it’s often rated higher than series with comparable reviewer bases) reflects its quality.  But it’s also a series that has a lot of background work.  An old series and a movie are very much required to get a full experience.

I really want to suggest it to everybody but its a series which I’m sure not everyone could get into.

Overall Rating

Fafner in the Azure: Exodus has a 7.86/10 for me.  Given I use 5 as average, this is one of the higher scores I’ve been able to give.  The comparable review score I’ve given on this blog is Boogiepop Phantom (7.89).  I would recommend this to anybody who has the prerequisites I’ve listed in previous sections.

Characters, as should be extremely obvious at this point, carry the score immensely.  The review sheet had consistently high ratings here.  Many other categories had high scores though some categories dropped the average quite a bit.  Narrative, as much as I love it, ended up with the lowest score.  It’s not really an indictment of any major flaws with the series itself but a note that the series leaves a hook for a sequel and this doesn’t provide a natural conclusion to the series…an issue seen before in this franchise.

Review: Persona 4: The Animation

Just a typical day in the life of Yu Narukami.

Background

Persona 4: The Animation is one in a long, long line of game-based anime.  The base of the narrative, Persona 4, is an excellent JRPG and many argue it as one of the few recent JRPG games to meet critical praise in and out of Japan (side note: I highly recommend playing Persona 4 Golden if you are one of the six or seven people on earth with a Vita).  In fact, it launched the Persona franchise into mainstream popularity out of Japan despite the reasonable popularity from Persona 3.

So I guess the obvious happened: AIC, best known for adapting anything and everything under the sun (I went half crazy reading the number of “based on” and “adapted from” on their anime list), brought it to the animated scene.  It’s not like they were taking chances here as they’ve got a good number of hits.  Heck, they even grabbed Seiji Kishi almost right after his adaptation of Angel Beats! and gave him the exact same role as director.

Story

Welcome to the quiet town of Inaba in some unspecified rural part of Japan.  Almost nothing of relevance happens here.  Murder count is at a nice fresh zero most of the time.

In comes Yu Narukami.  His parents, for reasons unknown, send him to live with his detective uncle in Inaba for the year and have him attend the local high school, Yasogami High.  The next day, things go from boring to horribly confusing for this sleepy little town as police find Mayumi Yamano, a newswoman recently finding herself in the headlines for cheating with a councilman, dead and hung upside down from a telephone wire.

Oh shut up, spoiler freaks. This happens almost right away.

Not exactly her best day.

Another murder occurs soon after.  Same style of death: hung from a telephone wire.  This attracts the attention of all of Japan (at the least), leaving the small Inaba police department scrambling to solve and close this case ASAP.  Parallel to their investigation comes the adventure of Narukami and his friends.

At the same time all this occurs, Yu finds out that he can enter a different world.  One that he can only access through TVs.  For some reason.  He can’t understand why either.  I promise it gets explained…kind of.  Anyways, one thing leads to another and he finds out, along with his classmates Yosuke Hanamura and Chie Satonaka, that the pair of murders directly tie into this other world.  But that’s not all this “TV world” offers them.  In that world, they gain the power to generate supernatural creatures…avatars…things called persona.  The exact nature of these personae are not explained, but they enact the will of their controller, or something.

Though Izanagi is still impossibly badass. No matter what it is.

Tell you what: you find a better description and I’ll use it.

One sticking point on those persona though: only those who face and accept their shadow may wield one.  What’s a shadow you ask?  Well, continuing with their Jungian philosophical tour, a shadow is an aspect of the self that the conscious self doesn’t recognize.  The series takes it a step further though and the shadow of an individual is a different physical entity than themselves.  This world takes the part of the mind that they don’t recognize, that they don’t associate with themselves, and makes it a living creature. And this creature hates its lack of recognition.  It tortures and accuses its creator, telling them things they do not wish to hear.  And upon seemingly inevitable rejection, it turns violent.

Characters gain their persona only after defeating a shadow (read: beating it over the head with personae) and having the creator accept that the shadow is a part of themselves.  I know the rules of this universe are a lot of take in…but basically it comes down to: person sees a physical representation of themselves they don’t recognize, person refuses to acknowledge that it’s them, the other part of them attacks, loses, and person gains the ability to wield a persona.  It’s got very loose ties to Jungian psychology if that helps.

I should use this time to mention that shadows range from creepy to weird. Very weird.

I should use this time to mention that shadows range from creepy to weird. Very weird.

Anyways, the point being that it’s up to Yu and his group of friends to go to school, solve the murder mystery, and defeat shadows along the way.  All while hiding the detection of the police, who would probably frown on the idea of people investigating a mystery for them.

On one hand, the narrative is very good.  It reveals itself in manners which hide the deepest secrets until the final episodes (and extra episode in releases).  Minor twists and turns keep the narrative progressing at a fairly brisk pace.  Coming in with a completely blank slate creates quite a fascinating and gripping narrative in this sense.  There are very few “pauses” in the flow of the story (whereas you could have weeks in story (hours of gameplay) between points in the story).  Those which do exist often come in the form of amusing comedic adventures also known for populating the Persona universe.  This aspect certainly becomes more of a mixed bag as the side events sometimes carry a small bit of narrative, making all the filler episodes difficult to miss for fear of losing out on part of the mystery, but also generate tedium if your goal is squarely on a mystery.

I mention it previously but it deserves multiple statements: this narrative is fascinating if you walk in without spoilers.  This is a surprisingly difficult task as Persona 4‘s popularity breaks internet searches and litters fan forums and other such sites with walking spoilers.  I’ve tried to avoid such a problem myself but I might slip one or two in by accident.  Regardless, I again should describe this nature of the narrative that works well here: the progress despite continual restarts.  The mystery aspect finds an extremely small niche of playing both the frustration of having to begin again, a notion seem several times throughout the narrative, and slowly diminishing the list of possible suspects.  It espouses tenacity and optimism.  It’s not difficult to spot either of these as a primary motif of the narrative boils down to turning away from the ugly reality versus facing it head on.  Well, kind of.

Finally, as mentioned above, there are filler episodes.  They are probably some of the funniest and entertaining parts of the series.  It inadvertently pulls the same humour strings as the game by typically drawing humour on more of a slice-of-life level.  Focus on character exaggeration is the order of the day.  It’s a nice break from watching these characters trudge through a serious series but it’s certain that it won’t fit the desires of all viewers given this major genre shift.

Given all this though…I’ve got a serious love-hate relationship here.  On one hand, this story quite faithfully follows the narrative of the Persona 4 game.  It’s intriguing, full of some obvious (and not so obvious) turns, and has an ending you probably can’t predict.  There is high calibre material without a doubt.  So why the love-hate instead of pure affection?  Well, it breezes by at such a fast clip at times that major plot points do not receive proper treatment nor do certain aspects really build up.  This sometimes comes from just a failing of the series as a whole; Persona 4 did not adequately explain several plot points even in-game and this simply transfers over to the anime adaptation.  It simply becomes something that you must accept of the world you’re watching.  The series ties up most loose ends by series end, but you have to scour every single line very carefully to make sure you catch it all.

To further this, the comedic effect sometimes contrasts far too greatly with the serious character side.  This often funnels back to the commentary I stated I’d later give on Yu alone but it stretches into each character at some point or another.  Serious scenes inexplicably become comedic.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it just falls flat.  For example, there’s an entire episode which feels like it should be serious but gets played for a string of laughs.  And this sometimes drains the fun out of the episode as it certainly got the “serious” treatment in the game (for the most part).  An excellent description I heard of the animation is that “every character is now the comic relief”.  A thought which is mostly true the more I think about it.

Probably the most egregious issue stemming from both the anime and the game is serious lack of development for the final antagonists.  The antagonist is hinted barely in the game…it’s very easy to forget that the reference even happens.  In the animated version?  Even worse.  This might be because the series intended for a single ending (whereas this unhinted antagonist comes from one of many endings in the game)…but it still feels strange watching the bonus episode since it comes out of nowhere.

Ultimately, Persona 4 is optimistic.  The mystery gets solved, etc.  It’s neither dark nor gritty and you shouldn’t go in expecting such a piece.  I guess though that this is typical given the narrative focuses on high school students who are solving mysteries the police can’t.

Characters

The series focuses around Yu Narukami and the friends he gathers along the murder investigation.  It’s very difficult to distinguish between characters and plot spoiling at this point so I’ll focus more on the series’ effectiveness in expressing characters.

Personally, this area is a strength of the series.  It’s certainly much, much compressed (and I’d even say to a slight detriment of the series) but some key aspects get by which make interesting characters within the realm of the world they inhabit.

Persona 4: The Animation is by nature very focused on fleshing out characters; they have “shadows” which they reject and must accept in order to progress in narrative.  This exercise by definition pretty much requires exposition of character by a description of a shadow.  I’ll spoil part of Episode 2 to make an example: Yosuke’s shadow claims he absolutely hates his life.  He hates the fact that it’s boring here and went on this adventure because it was merely exciting.  Very basic application of the rules of the universe (pretty much presented during the monologue) means we learn something Yosuke.  Actually, the game and series both throw it pretty hard in the observer’s face that it’s part of the character they know.  So, naturally, we learn a lot through the initial shadow battles about the characters who witness their shadows.

But it certainly goes beyond that.  The characters themselves have subversion wired right into them, making a very unique experience.  Chie, probably the easiest to spot “tomboy” type of character you’ll see in a long time, is quite uncomfortable with that type of position.  And you find this lack of confidence permeates into other aspects of her personality even going as far as being surprised when everybody seems to agree on her theory being correct.  The design of the entire series focuses and highlights these striking distinctions between the character stereotype and the written personality.  This interesting and fairly unique decision (when mixed with the concept of shadows) provide a surprisingly deep set of characters in the length of time given for characterization.

Not only are the characters deep and subversive but they also deal with topics rarely seen in such anime.  I don’t want to ruin anything but later “shadows” deal with subjects rarely spoken of in such situations.  Almost everything in this regard becomes interesting and stand out very heavily because of it.

But unfortunately the series also suffers from lack of time, simply put.  Characterization is typically a Persona franchise strong point as the series gets older and older.  Starting with their third main game (that is, Persona 3), an element occurs known as a “Social Link”.  It’s nearly a dating game aspect where the protagonist (in our case, Yu) gets to spend time with other protagonists and NPCs.  A great deal of in depth characterization occurs in these events, often tying well in with the main theme of the game.  This is no different in Persona 4, where I’d argue is about half the game in a similar way to Danganronpa having half-Free Time, half-murder mystery.

I mention this aspect because Persona 4: The Animation attempts to replicate parts of Social Links to a net negative in my mind.  They often deal with one early Social Link (out of 10 stages) and one late stage event.  It is certainly ambitious to even consider adding these as they would consume great deals of time from start to finish.  However, the scenes rarely, if ever, hold the same weight or value as they do in game and is little more than time filler without the amount of interest or emotional investment.  I understand that they wanted to showcase the aspects shown in the game (I’m very partial to a couple selected scenes myself) but they come without warning or real context and the flow of the episode often shoehorns it into a side aspect of a greater episode narrative, making any character revelation secondary to the ongoing narrative.  As a result, it becomes little more than fan service for the fans of the game and little else to first time viewers of the animated version.

The other issue I have with the general tendency towards more exaggerated characters.  Characters in Persona 4 are more rounded and realistic than their animated selves.  This really does feel like an issue with the amount of time available as oppose to real director issue since there’s not enough time to keep the more subdued scenes in and more extreme characters results in more viable comedy scenes, something leaned on heavily in this adaptation.  This leads to more silly and over the top characters.  Like a version of Chie which seems to solve any problem by kicking.  Or a Yosuke which has no value other than comic relief whereas he acted as the strong secondary leader and an emotional driver of the investigation in Persona 4.  It’s less notable for viewers of the series only but may leave them confused as to why characters receive so much adoration for their game equivalents.

Boss needs beating? Galactic Punt. Yosuke bothering you? Galactic Punt. Yosuke ticks you off? Galactic Punt again. You get the idea.

Worse than this is the absolutely mixed situation of Yu Narukami.  Yu is, by nature, a silent protagonist in-game.  This lets you filter whatever personality you want into him and, by extension, let you immerse yourself through his eyes.  Parts of the personality are set but much of it open.  The animated Yu, on the other hand, takes on a whole new personality instead of adopting some bland presence.  He’s somewhere between socially awkward, eccentric, one step out of reality, and professional troll.  There’s no better way to describe him honestly.  He keeps a fairly deadpan personality yet makes constant confusion and humour.  He even pulls this card during the most tense situations.  It’s very much another case of extreme hit and miss.  He’s sometimes the funniest character on-screen and makes the scene incredibly funny.  Other times…no so much.  It’s not that his antics aren’t funny.  They typically are.  But he feels so far out of the world he’s in that he is basically an imported character from another series; it’s easy to lose your sense of immersion due to this character.

Animation

I…don’t want to put it this way…but I don’t think I have any other option.  The animation for this series is heavily inconsistent.  There are some lively, beautiful, and breathtaking scenes.  They hold up today about 5 years after release.  And I absolutely love these scenes due to obvious love and affection in its creation.

Yet…the same series carries some incredibly poorly animated sequences.  There is no joke when I state that there’s about 20 seconds a single frame.  Stills and characters filling the empty void with dialogue.  Older series could get away with this…but this is pushing the limits.  Actually, it crosses it when you mix in the fact that there are great numbers of cost saving animations.  Poorly rendered characters, lots of distance shots, “side mouth”, and smaller cost saving measures.  There’s in fact a sequence where’s it’s extremely obvious the animators animated a small set of cells for Yosuke and cycled sequentially, completely ignoring whatever dialogue it supposedly represents.  This begins leaning heavily on the willing suspension of disbelief.

Let’s look at the positives first.  Some sequences are incredible.  It’s unfortunate that I can’t really provide examples as they almost always occur in spoiler heavy situations.  However, I almost always note a large jump in animation quality.  Detail are quite notable and honestly feel a step above what the series provides elsewhere.

Crazy Yu

Unfortunately, the negatives are just as painful.  Character’s mouths are “just” off-screen too often, letting the animation get away with showing the character’s eyes for multiple seconds on end and animate a single frame.  Characters get placed in wide pan shots frequently to prevent having to animate mouths.  Or if they do receive animation, the mouth is incredibly small so detailed lip flapping becomes non-important.

I’m not one to typically concern myself with animation but I did notice this vast difference based on scenes.  It’s alright to have difference between scenes.  It’s not always alright to have individuals look like the same character between scenes.

Sound/Music/Voice Actors

Much of the soundtrack for this series comes from the original game.  It’s hard to not love the music…the Persona series is well-known for its excellent pieces, something carried through all the mediums it inhabits.  Part techno, part pop, part rap…there’s probably a little bit for everybody.  The series undoubtedly leans on carried over feelings from the game to secure this since it copies the same soundtrack this heavily.  There are new pieces and they work well…such as I’ll Face Myself – Reincarnation.  Actually, I find the new pieces fit a model of this grander stage with the use of more classic instruments such as piano and violin.  The comparison being the heavy use of guitar and synthesizer in the Persona 4 game

The anime utilizes two openings and two closings.  Kind of.  The series typically uses two openings and two closing pieces.  The opening changes a couple times…primarily, incredibly serious episodes get treated with no opening and simply a title card.  Episode endings also revolve around two piece but change for some special episodes.  Almost all the pieces are written by Persona series favourite Lotus Juice, who writes most of the series’ battle lyrics…almost all raps.  They work strangely well and it’s an interesting experience.

The first main opening is sky’s the limit and the second opening is keys plus words, performed by Shihoko Hirata.  The former is much calmer and less pressing while the latter is quite upbeat and intense.  It makes sense for this duality at some level since the series does pick up in intensity as the episodes pass.  Neither are really outstanding but the mix of that plus the animation really do reflect the concept that this series isn’t fully intended for “new” fans.  The openings outright spoil which characters are protagonists.  Which is too sad since this would be a terrific series for “evolving” opening credits.

The first closing song is Beauty of Destiny and the second is The Way of Memories.  Both are one again primarily produced by Shihoko Hirata.  I cannot claim to know the exact thought process for developing these pieces but they do not really fit the anime as they are both relatively calm pieces, the latter far much more so.  They are nice pieces to listen to but don’t do a tone for the series.

This series has pretty fantastic dubbing voices.  The names on both English and Japanese ends are well recognized and typically fit their role well.  There are some struggles with work schedules (that is to say, honeymoons) which make Troy Baker’s character suddenly shift in tone halfway through the series.  Additionally, fans of the original game will find that Chie Satonaka and Teddie have changed voices too.  There honestly is a very large carousal of changing voice actors and voice actresses for the English side of this franchise over the years and this might make the Japanese version more palatable.  But that’s not to say the cast for this anime are bad, per say.  Actually, Laura Bailey and Amanda Winn Lee both do excellent jobs in their respective roles.  I’d probably recommend you take a listen to the characters and decide for yourself.

Synergy

How this series floats itself depends purely on the episode.  One episode might use the main story to pull you in.  The next might have a nifty battle.  The next could get you laughing.  It’s very much a beginner friendly series in this sense as it offers a little to everyone but not enough of most of these traits to really dominate.  Except for the mystery.  That part is absolutely an overarching idea…it’s just that you might forget that it even exists from time to time as the episode demands a different pull.

Why to Watch

All the slagging I give Persona 4 doesn’t mean it’s bad.  It’s actually a decent recreation.  You want a compressed version of the narrative and it gives it.  It’s quicker and involves far less monster bashing than the game.  You get to focus purely on the narrative and some silly side adventures.  That’s simply it: you get to watch the mystery come forth and recede in ~10 hours what you’d take 60 hours to see in a game while involving no button pressing.

Why Not to Watch

It’s very easy to see why not if you have a Playstation 2, 3, or Vita in addition to a bit of time on your hands.  The game does a much better job telling the narrative.  The characters are more cohesive, the engagement higher, and the world building comes together much better in-game format.  Like my many comparisons to Danganronpa: The Animation, it’s a case of either needing massive, massive episode blocks (probably to a level of twice as many as given) or having a series which doesn’t quite match the game.

Finding the series might be a bit pricier than the games too as you’re looking at DVDs or a similar distributor.

Personal Enjoyment

I love the Persona franchise.  Plain and simple.  Recent editions of the franchise engage itself deeply with character psychological issues (coming to a front with the “Shadows” in Persona 4).  I re-watch Persona 4: The Animation routinely despite my issues with it.  That should tell you exactly how much I ingrain myself with the franchise.

Summary

Persona 4: The Animation presents a real conundrum.  On one hand, it represents the problems with compression of expansive games into a short ~10 hour viewing.  Even stripping away all the level grinding leaves far too much to tell in far too little time.  Some of the intriguing aspects of the series fall to the cutting room floor and the series well-known as the gold standard for character writing feels a little incomplete, living with character exaggerations.  It’s also a bit of a shameless re-creation designed to appeal to its core fans since key parts of the narrative are either left obvious from the start or skipped over with haste.  And it’s hard to recommend it because there is such an impressive alternative.

But what’s left is still decent, enjoyable, and you’ll likely leave a viewing happier than if you left the series alone.  It’s good in a world with no comparable source material and I’d still recommend watching it provided you’re either done with the game or just short on time getting into the franchise.

I guess the easy way to put it is that it’s good, but saying it’s good is a letdown when the source material is just that much better.  If you have the time and a Vita or a PS2, play the game.  If you don’t, watch the anime.

Overall Rating

Persona 4: The Animation has a 7.01/10 for me.  Given I use 5 as average, this ranks as a solid anime.  I would personally place it as an excellent series to put on your “to watch” list and keep it in mind, despite the flaws I list above.

This series, as an obvious carryover from the game itself, scored strongest in the character section.  This means that it manages to reflect the unique characters from the game, even if they lose some of their depth.  The music also help quite well.  It’s unfortunate but the real limiting factor became the lack of episode count and cramming far too much into far too few episodes, leaving out many details which made the original game great.