WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE FRANCHISE (but not Danganronpa 3 itself)
Something weird happened after that first anime adaptation. The story for Danganronpa 2 was completely skipped over, despite being teased, and series head Kodaka decided to wrap-up the ongoing story since the first game with an anime instead of a game. Even stranger, this anime was divided into two series running side by side, both named Danganronpa 3. Their subtitles, however, list them as the Future Arc and Despair Arc, one continuing the current story of Naegi and friends with the Future Foundation, and the other showing the origins of the Despairs released on the world by Junko. With the director of the Hamatora anime and Assassination Classroom on board, Kodaka tried to tie everything up in a neat little bow to move the series forward, and he may have done that too well.
Future Arc takes place shortly after Danganronpa 2, as Naegi, Kirigiri, and Asahina are interrogated by the heads of the Future Foundation, discovering they may be hiding the Despairs. It’s not long before Monokuma appears and traps the foundation members in a killing game, with bracelets that put them to sleep at designated hours and awaken an attacker that takes the life of one player. Said bracelets also kill those who go against a restricted action listed on it, and that element soon causes a mess of confusion and high emotions that leads to insane slaughter. Meanwhile, the Despair Arc shows one of the current foundation members acting as the teacher of the class that would eventually become the Despairs, along with the manipulations of Junko that lead to the end of the world.
The series is divided into the twelve episodes of the Future Arc, eleven of the Despair Arc, and a single episode called the Hope Arc that wraps up the plot lines of both series. They aired on different days in the week, but referenced each other, with the dead Chisa remembering the events of the Despair arc used as a framing device. Watching them side by side is also the best watching order, as reveals and twists weave in and out of each other in both arcs.
The Despair Arc comes out the strongest of the two. The first half has a lot of fun humor and cute moments with the Despairs as simple students, and does a lot of great character work with Hajime, Chisa, and Nanami. The second half with Junko is also completely insane, as her overbearing personality is tweaked a bit so it’s still constantly changing at random moments, but presented a tad more consistently so she comes off as an unstable person rather than a lost Looney Toon. Her “normal” personality works better as she does horrific things, like casually bombing people or trying to murder them like she was giving a love confession. It also shows just how dangerous and cruel a person she truly was, particularly in her endgame to create the Despairs. Even for Junko, the act she commits is shockingly vile.
The Despair Arc also has less time with the new cast, which is a major saving grace early on. The Future Foundation is woefully underdeveloped outside the most important of them, and the quick pacing of the arc leaves little time to give these characters satisfying arcs. They certainly try, but they lack enough positive elements to really make them more than just a bunch of awful people. Ruruka is especially despicable, and her boyfriend is one of the most useless characters in the franchise. They do get a great ending to their story, but everything before it paints them as cartoon cutouts, even by the standards of this series. Really, the majority of them are just there to be bodies, though this slowly starts to change once Kyosuke begins going crazy. He is a terrifying villain and a welcome change up for an antagonist, presenting an immediate physical threat you never saw in old killing games because of the mystery angle. For most of this arc, it’s absolute madness as multiple characters are busy trying to kill each other in brawls, chases, and ambushes, with the founders actively ignoring and belittling the normal investigation game set-up.
This is partly why this story was done as an anime. The medium lends itself to action better than visual novel, and allows an easy way to explore multiple perspectives without breaking up gameplay. Anime also plays a huge role in the story (with a new character being an animator and all), which may have resulted from the idea of doing an anime in the first place. It’s a cute nod.
With this different medium, the story’s strength mostly comes from Seiji Kishi’s direction. Kishi is mostly known as a workhouse type of director that cranks out solid work quickly, leading to him being attached to a lot of video game anime like Persona 4, Devil Survivor 2, the Persona 3 movies, and the Hamatora anime (worth noting that his RE:_Hamatora series and DR3 mirror each other so closely that one wonders if the writers traded notes at some point). He doesn’t have a complex style, but he knows how to make a scene pop through shadows, lighting, and color contrast, especially with dark areas. The Future Arc is definitely the better looking of the two on the whole because of the setting, letting Kishi does what he does best and make a suffocating industrial atmosphere. There’s also some really interesting shots in the Despair arc, especially towards the end as the school goes mad.
Really, if Kishi wasn’t at the project helm and pumping in that style, Danganronpa 3 would suffer greatly, as the actual writing starts to fall apart once the mysteries are solved. Kodaka’s story is a good one, especially the fantastic tragedy that is the Despair Arc, but things don’t add up particularly well. While Danganronpa has always been more character focused than big picture, the ending of the Future Arc really tests the audience. The mastermind isn’t Junko this time, and it’s certainly not the most obvious other suspect, which is nice. But that leads to a huge problem as the mastermind’s goals and plan don’t mesh too well. The idea is sound, but there are so many simpler ways to get there, and the mastermind isn’t someone swallowed in despair. Why they thought a murder game that would result in the most important people in the world dying horribly at their own hands was a good idea is never explained, even in a proper throwaway line. A dead Junko does suggest that the things the mastermind saw in her world of despair lead to this decision, but nothing in the series actually conveys this. There are still highlights, especially the Despair Girls episode tossing out a really clever twist, but the Future Arc’s entire premise is on rocky foundation.
The Despair Arc also has its problems, mainly from ignoring Danganronpa Zero and trying to wrap parts of that game, the back story of the Despairs, AND new story lines introduced here together. It works, but in a very patchwork way. You can see seems here and there, most glaring being the incredibly important Matsuda from Zero only having a blink and you miss it cameo that adds absolutely nothing to the story. Only the student council slaughter is used (and presented in vomit enduing fashion), but we’re given no context beyond “this is the student council.” It’s hard to get a read on the time line for this time period, but the anime isn’t too interested in that. After all, the Despair Arc only uses Junko to an end, so her story isn’t really explored, which still comes off as a huge missed opportunity.
This attitude leads to a particularly messy ending in the Hope Arc, which left me smiling a bit, despite all the deus ex machinas pulled out (though they’re all set-up in small moments spread around). It undercuts the majority of what the Future Arc tried to do, and while we do get a neat twist on the big threat, it feels like it wasn’t fleshed out enough. The characters all get a fitting end of some sort, but everything is wrapped up in way too perfect of a package.
It’s frustrating. There are a ridiculous amount of highs to this series, so it’s easily recommend it to fans. But it’s clear it could have been so much better an ending to this chapter of the franchise. It’s sort of like a old bookshelf. It looks great and does the job, but those nails sticking out and some chipped paint sort of taint what would otherwise be a really sweet piece of furniture.
Kyosuke Munakata – Ultimate Student Council President
The vice-chairman of the Future Foundation, Former Ultimate Student Council President, and a man consumed by grief. He wants nothing more than to wipe out despair from the world entirely, and it’s no long before he starts to lose it. In the Despair arc, he’s trying to uncover the misdeeds of Hope’s Peak High, relating to the creation of the Ultimate Hope. Design is based on the Persona 4 protagonist, notable as Chief Director of the series also directed the Persona 4 anime.
Juzo Sakakura – Ultimate Boxer
Kyosuke’s right hand man and the Former Ultimate Boxer. Sakakura is violent and ridiculously resilient, and has a huge chip on his shoulder because of his failures during the Despair arc. He isn’t all bad, but he’s prone to elitism and anger. He also makes a lot of bad decisions, and ends up setting a lot of the Despair arc in motion by complete accident.
Ryota Mitarai – Ultimate Animator
A former member of Class 77 and the Ultimate Animator. His dream is to make an anime that inspires hope as he works himself into bad health in the Despair arc, while the Future arc presents him as far more easily startled. The Ultimate Impersonator took his place during classes.
Seiko Kimura – Ultimate Pharmacist
The Former Ultimate Pharmacist and a twitchy wreck in the future arc. She blames a former friend for her expulsion from Hope’s Peak, though the cause of her misfortune was actually by complete accident on Nagisa’s part in a crazy scheme. Can turn into a horrific monster with her drugs, and cure most any poison if she discovers it fast enough.
Ruruka Ando – Ultimate Confectioner
The Former Ultimate Confectioner and Seiko’s former friend. She’s an incredibly self-absorbed girl that was already plotting on a power grab before the events of the future arc occurred, and has a bad habit of using people and failing to see things from their perspective. She was also expelled with Seiko and blames her for similar reasons.
Sonosuke Izayoi – Ultimate Blacksmith
The Former Ultimate Blacksmith and Ruruka’s boyfriend. He would do anything for her, to the point of the inability to think for himself. He’s also one of the most dangerous founders, making great use of his weapons in unexpected ways. He also knows a lot about booby traps.
Koichi Kizakura – Ultimate Student Scoutman
The original teacher of Class 77 and the Former Ultimate Student Scoutman. He’s a bit of an old drunk who takes everything in stride, but he’s far more observant than he appears. He was also responsible for picking out the kids that would become the class who would defeat Junko Eroshima in the first Danganronpa, and was a friend of the principal.
Chiaki Nanami – Ultimate Gamer
A Despair Arc only character and the Ultimate Gamer. The Danganronpa 2 character was actually an AI created from the shared memories the Despairs and Hajime had of the real Chiaki, who’s presented as a shy girl that brings the class together and befriends Hajime.