What Danganronpa and My Hero Academia say about school as an institution
The way popular media presents teenhood is a version of adolescence that isn’t what being a teen is about, but how we wish it was: thrilling, secure, an actual promise of success, while also being the happiest days of our lives. There is an ideality projected onto the cultural memory of high school. The images produced, as a result, are Real High Schools injected with Hyperreal Ideas. Children are the future in that they are shown to be capable of virtually anything. For many manga and anime series, this is taken to a whole new level.
The basic formula of this narrative is: “X, But As Teens” where X can be elite chefs, soldiers, or the absolute ultimates of any given craft. This makes it all a bit surreal — ‘Teen Doctor’ sounds like a fake B-movie poster — but the high school setting grounds us; it feeds our wish for having had a perfect childhood, so it doesn’t bother us. Teenagers play the main parts in a setting that greatly overshadows the realistic competence of their age. Their high school life seems to be dominated by a specific context that steamrolls them for a certain role in society: Food Wars! Shokugeki no Souma, Little Witch Academia, and even the first part of Naruto feature the school as a proving grounds. A merit-based show of skill is woven into the narrative success of character: they advance the plot by their own bootstraps.
What I see reflected in these narratives is commentary on the role of school as an institution and as a site of meritocracy. For this angle, I want to take a look at two very different settings that both take the idea of high school to different, critical extremes: Danganronpa and My Hero Academia. Both have unique takes on what school ought to be for, how school gets to define success, and how adolescent bodies seem to be inflicted with a negative sense of purpose, placing them in disproportionally arduous contexts for their age. What do these two stories have to say about the myth of meritocracy and the school as its main foothold? Let’s find out!
(The description for ‘meritocracy’ I use in this article is best described in Jo Littler’s Guardian article: Meritocracy: the great delusion that ingrains inequality.)
Please be warned: there will be spoilers for both series.
Danganronpa: Talent as a neoliberal construct
Before we get to the actual game, let’s talk a bit about Danganronpa’s academic institution as, well, an institution. All games revolve around a single school: Hope’s Peak Academy, an extremely prestigious, and as it stands, elitist school. The school only accepts ‘Ultimates’ —or ‘Super High School Level’ — , people who are the very best at what they do in a particular field. This epithat, it should be stated, is given to a student once they’re accepted.
The actual talents the students exemplify are an inchoate mishmash, ranging from ‘Ultimate Fashionista’ (Junko Enoshima) to ‘Ultimate Writing Prodigy’ (Toko Fukawa) to ‘Ultimate Yakuza’ (Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu). There doesn’t seem to be any central structure or unifying theme that lends credence, direction, or mission to what constitutes as ‘talent’— one student, Byakuya Togami, is the ‘Ultimate Rich Kid’. Not to say there aren’t uses for any of these (except for the rich), but as far as educational establishments go, Hope’s Peak Academy doesn’t offer anything in the way of a coherent curriculum. In the games, and even the Despair arc of Danganronpa 3 that takes place inside of Hope’s Peak, we aren’t told what the school offers its students in terms of knowledge or utility. They just ‘have to develop their talents’. Its primary function seems to be clustering together the arbitrary best of society and put them in a classroom together. This is not for their benefit, but for that of the institution. For all intents and purposes, it is a diploma mill. Or a tax scam.
Being an Ultimate, then, is less of a meritocratic success and more of a marketing scheme (is there a difference?) where social superiority is manufactured, quantified, and documented. It offers little but reputation, as the ability of an Ultimate student is already present in the individual prior to enrolment. Moreover, Hope’s Peak entire system is premised on the existence of Ultimates — a concept that the school invented. It equates practised, habitual skill to inherent, essential talent and ties it to objective human worth, something they ‘prove’ with a diploma.
From the start, this school system is made out to be about the credentials, not about guiding a teenager’s growth in productive, or even non-productive ways of life. It takes the idea of merit and makes it, quite obviously, meaningless. It’s a social Darwinist plaque that differentiates groups of people based on their access to a particular institution, as decided by that institution. It places exorbitant significance with ‘ability’ as a quantifiable thing, reflecting a hyper-rational, positivist attitude toward statistics and enumerative objectivity on which the idea of meritocracy is precipiced. Let’s not forget, though, that the existence of ‘merit-based reward systems’ obviate and distract from the fully-realisable possibility of egalitarian educational policies and mass political reform. By hyperfixating on ‘the best society has to offer’, the rest of society gets abandoned. Neoliberalism much???
Underlining this grand façade is Hope’s Peak Reserve Course programme. Here, thousands of students without an identifiable talent enjoy a more standard high school experience, basically waiting for the astronomically rare opportunity to advance to the Ultimate tier. In Danganronpa 3, it’s outright stated that this course is where the school, a private institution, gets its revenue, extorting students by carrot-and-sticking them with a lottery system. One selected teenager —and not necessarily from the Reserve Course! — may become an ‘Ultimate Lucky Student’. The selection process is betrayed to not be about scouting talent, but about the honour and destiny of being chosen.
The Lucky Students are Makoto Naegi, protagonist of the first game, and Nagito Komaeda, boyfriend in the second game. Both suffer from extreme self-esteem issues and class regret. They consider themselves too inadequate to be called an ‘Ultimate’, not really worthy of the title when it’s through affirmative action. Surrounded by people with hyper-specialised skills (in a labour sense), they are bombarded with feelings of insecurity and diffidence. Participating in the elitist, bourgeois space that is academia presupposes the appropriate social status — the wealth, the nepotism, the clout. Naegi and Komaeda come from a ‘penultimate’ background; that is, they don’t possess a clear-cut and marketable skill. Even if they graduate, what will their diplomas say? That they were very lucky? Throttling socioeconomic and psychocultural conditions influence a child’s access to higher education, and lacking the right ones is a reminder and a depressant: they didn’t get in, they were let in.
The showpiece role Hope’s Peak places on its Ultimates loses all meaning in the Ultimate Lucky Student, even though the lottery is why so many people even bother in the first place. The false dichotomy the game presents is that the world is divided into two groups: Ultimates and those who aren’t Ultimates. In this, we see a form of consumerist branding, not of intellectual contribution. It is a foundation on the empty and hollow competitive nature of neoliberal education: one where craft, or even student, is of no consideration to fraudulent acquired status. It should come as no surprise, then, that Hope’s Peak Academy is more or less responsible for causing the end of the world.
Danganronpa: Competition, spectacle, and the classroom
After The Biggest, Most Awful, Most Tragic Event in Human History, the school transforms into a game show-style murder mystery. In all Danganronpa games, sixteen Hope’s Peak students find themselves trapped in a school setting and are forced to participate in a ‘death game’ run by Monokuma, the ursine and main antagonist. In order to ‘graduate’, that is, escape with their life, one student must commit a murder, then remain unsuspected during the subsequent investigation and trial. If the murderer succeeds, every other student is killed and only they get to leave. If the killer is found out, they are made to die in an elaborate, horrific fashion. Failure or refusal to participate and to follow the rules result in immediate termination.
The deadly game show setting adds another perspective: that of the theatrical, that is, of visual entertainment. Danganronpa, at its core, dramatises high school life in extreme ways. It does so through its presentation:
Take a look at the screenshot above. The backgrounds are clearly digitised renders of real-world photos, and the character models look like they’re propped up, as if cardboard cutouts. The perspectives are off, the 2D doesn’t mesh well with the 3D background, and everyone seems to have two shadows — one in front of them, and one immediately behind them, like projected on a screen. In addition, every time you transition to a different area, individual props and setpieces are quickly put in their respective places from an off-stage location, and character models literally pop up from the ground, suggesting they were kept out of sight until the scene required their presence. The game’s visual language hints at a stage, a museum display, or a diorama — something that is constructed and only believable through its resemblance to reality. Relevant, too, I think, is the neon pink-coloured blood it uses in favour of familiar red. Maybe to circumvent age ratings, but that plausible deniability works extrinsically as well as intrinsically.
There is an intentional uncanniness to the aesthetic, one that amplifies its idea of ‘it’s just a game’. Despite the direness of the situation, its contestants seem to constantly forget about the pervasive paranoia and the choking terror of everyone being a potential murderer. They only ‘remember’ that this is a death game when a murder actually happens, tongue-in-cheekly referenced in how each chapter has a ‘Daily Life’ and ‘Deadly Life’ part. During the former, you get ‘Free Time’ events where you amicably hang out and goof off with classmates in order to obtain ‘Friendship Shards’, something that seems surreal given the circumstancess. When the body discovery announcement plays and the Deadly Life starts, a murder investigation, trial, and execution take place. In pacing, it’s nearly identical to game shows like Temptation Island or Paradise Hotel: voyeuristic and mundane scenarios where people flirt and mingle in front of a camera, followed by a harsh and emotion-laden elimination event.
Whereas the dating show genre turns love and other emotions into a game and spectacle, Danganronpa’s base concept takes it only a small step further. In the chain of escalation, it’s not that far removed from the strange and cruel game shows we already have on our TV screens. The game takes this ‘entertainment of emotional cruelty’ and places it in a poppy aesthetic, a facsimile of the bubbliness and overbearingly scripted surreality of the game show. The shock of elimination is produced through the loss of life, but it follows an existing schematic. That is to say, we can recognise and understand the ‘game’ aspect of its scenario and contextualise it as being satirical.
Through the sensationalisation of competition, Danganronpa makes an intended comment the cutthroat nature of talent. It is a meaningless concept, but one carrying the actual future of mankind. Society places all its faith in those who manage to come out the other end of private education; winners who have avoided being destroyed, psychologically or financially, by school. We might consider the stakes of the death game as a literalisation: you don’t deserve to live should you fail to win. The prize of victory is survival, and survival is termed as ‘graduation’ for a reason. Success is pivotal, no matter the cost or the sacrifice, even if there’s nothing to show for it. But more than that: a game show requires an audience. People who want to see people come out on top, on a mountain of bodies. When school becomes a contest with unquestionable rules, it becomes something to win or fail, not a place of growth.
The game supposes that teenagers have totalised the mastery of a certain craft, not limited to: anthropology, coding, combat, medicine, photography, robotics or even being a robot. I’m not trying to say “UM, THIS IS UNREALISTIC”, but rather, I want to think about why decades of experience are given to an adolescent. Institutionally, capitalist school systems train a student to be effective in a certain market — from a young age, you need to know what you want to be, that is, have a job preferrence. Educational relevancy is a big thing on CVs, and academic courses are selected for their projected productivity and job security. To instantiate this as a teen, who has already obtained all the necessary knowledge and skill, is a way of formulating human existence through productivity. They aren’t of legal working age, but they have already become their jobs. Embodying this, and forced to compete in a market, it seems almost logical that it’s their lives on the line. That is Danganronpa’s meritocracy. The gamification of life, producing spectacles.
It seems, then, that Danganronpa has a lot more to say than ‘Nagito Komaeda is horny’ and ‘Chihiro Fujisaki deserved better’. Its dystopian ideas of spectacle and competition are realised through the lens of high school; the ensuing horror entrenched in the mechanism of hyperbole and satire, not per se in that of sudden, baseless shock. It is at the crossroads between the entertainment industry and the school system. If you’ve seen the ending of New Danganronpa V3, I mean, yeah.
My Hero Academia: Heroism as labour
The following section I couldn’t have written without the help of my excellent friend Markos, who is one of the smartest and insightful people I know. Thank you, I love you.
My Hero Academia is a series featuring a school that teaches kids born with extraordinary abilities — Quirks — how to be superheroes. The first two episodes revolve around the meeting taking place between the initially-Quirkless protagonist, Izuku Midoriya, and the #1 Hero, All Might. All Might, an American-style beefcake with ballooning muscles and eagle-like hair, has run out of juice, transforming with a comical poof into an emaciated, sunken-eyed goblin man. During this encounter, All Might mentions two things of note: 1) being a (professional) hero is ‘work’, meaning contractual labour; 2) he has been severely crippled in how much he is able to sell his labour thanks to an injury he got on the job. MHA defines heroism not as a virtuous, extralegal vigilantism, but as a job. A job with special academic requirements! The Hero Academia!
(‘Heroic’ labour is also found in other sectors: Kyoka Jiro mentions to Denki Kaminari that “[y]our electricity powers can still be useful even if you’re not a hero,” hinting that Quirk-havers are welcome in jobs that their Quirks allign with. But MHA is not about those people, it’s about heroes.)
The setting can be considered a soft critique on modern capitalism, exposited through the portrayal of peacekeeping as a market. The next stage in human evolution has arrived: suddenly there’s people with incredible supernatural abilities and the first thing society does is commodify them. Maintaining public order has been outsourced to privately-run talent bureaus called hero agencies, who compete to be the first and the most effective at eradicating danger for positive ratings and continued subsidies. For this job, an academic trajectory has been set up that trains and produces heroes to participate in and perpetuate this market. A market, we may assume, of monopolised violence.
When villains — people who also possess Quirks —upset the peace and endanger the public, the heroes must neutralise them; in this we can see the job of ‘Hero’ as a glorified police officer. They deal in punitive justice in retaliation to disruptive behaviour, the corporally-punished villains then delivered to a prison system. There is no real mention of rehabilitative justice. This transaction is initially set up in superhero terms: villains are bad, heroes are good, but MHA moves to complicate this dichotomy. The motivations for its antagonists such as Stain or Shigaraki (more on these later) are compelling arguments for why the hero system is flawed, and why it breeds only despair and resentment in those who it doesn’t accept.
And they’re right! Excepting Deku, success in the system is never based off good intent: almost everyone’s motivations for enrolling into hero school is personal, rather than an unconditional desire to save people —for example: Bakugou wants to be the best and Mineta wants to be a filthy sex pervert. In the fourth episode, All Might laments ‘wasting’ time protecting people on his way to school instead of rushing to his job at the school, showcasing that the system is grinding the idealism out of even its greatest symbol, turning the #1 Hero into a dispassionate tool of its perpetuation. Interestingly enough, the system isn’t really based off of merit either. This is exemplified by Hitoshi Shinso’s situation: his hereditary brainwashing Quirk is deemed too ‘evil’ to be heroic, locking him out of the primary Hero course.
Heroism, then, is based off the ability to market a nebulous product: heroics. This gets haphazard and sometimes even gets in the way of what heroes are supposed to do, which is saving people. As early as the second episode, Bakugou gets taken hostage by the Sludge Villain. At the hostage site, no less than four professional heroes are present, but they’re unable to perform what we might actually consider heroics. Confounded and helpless, none of them can help Baby Boomer Bakugou. Their abilities, which may have earned them the credentials of heroism, aren’t actually effective in diffusing the critical situation at hand. The requirements of the Hero diploma, then, are not about possessing a utilitarian Quirk in the employ of a public good, but to possess a Quirk that can be sold as spectacular and powerful and flashy. Status and PR play the overmost parts in determining the value and success of a hero.
This reveals an important link in the sequence from Quirk-haver to professional hero: you need a sponsor. In the U.A. Sports Festival Arc, the students not only have to defeat their classmates in a skill-based tournament, they have to do it in such a way that company scouts will want to sponsor them. If we take our hero Deku’s performance: despite all his victories, his control (or lack thereof) of his ability is considered too destructive and uncontrollable and unappealing by most hero agencies, slimming potential trainee offers to just one. And that was a favour called in by All Might. The most feasible chance at a career in heroism, then, is to garner attention and excel at selling a labour-of-spectacle at age 15. Internships, as we know, are a working agreement where workers provide maximal labour output for a company against minimal compensation and protection. Like a real neoliberal institution, the university rents out its students to perform uncompensated labour. This brings us to why people become villains in MHA.
My Hero Academia: Idealism of the underdogs
One thing MHA does that sticks with me a lot is how believable the motivations of its villains are. Contrasting its heroism in a context of neoliberal productivity — you ‘learn’ being a hero so you can get a job — , are the surprisingly sober subplots about the ramifications of such a heavily pipelined system. Because, similar to Danganronpa, the leading academic institution gets the ultimate say in who is or isn’t a hero, that is, who gets to be a valuable member of society.
Take, for instance, the villain Stain. AKA the ‘Hero Killer’, Stain is a vigilante who has grown tired with the hero industry, taking it upon himself to cleanse society of what he calls ‘false heroes’. He believes that those who work as Heroes solely for an income are unworthy of being called the name, meaning that his fury is directed at and targeting the commodity of heroism. The privatisation of heroes has sucked all idealism and morality from the duty. To Stain, this has made the monniker of hero universally meaningless, barring one person: only All Might deserves to be called a hero, for he possesses a moral purity and an unwavering justice that really DOES benefit all of society without being directly tied to profit.
In addition, gruesome as they are, Stain’s murderous methods are noted to be effective at reducing the overall crime rate — that is to say, the presence of villains. By taking out heroes, villains proportionally disappear in the area. To me, this reads as society as a whole finding release for its frustrations with and anger at the hero system in the violent destruction of its actors. The hero system, considering the hierarchisation of ability it demands in the commodified state, has been pushing those it discriminates against into disenfranchisement, into marginalisation, and, as a result, into crime— we may call this last one villainy. Stain understands that villains are necessary for heroes to exist; he also believes that heroes should theoretically be used to maintain order. But since this order and idealism have been outsourced to private agencies, Stain sees no heroism in that, just a career path.
The second villain I want to talk about is Tomura Shigaraki, a direct victim of the sociocultural alienation that hyperspecialised jobs contribute to. The more specific and pillarised a labour process gets, the more training it requires, the less connected you start to feel to a greater community or even to a sense of spiritual fulfillment. As a child, he got into an accident that left him immobilised and defenceless. And as he lay there, people simply passed on by his broken and hurting body without ever offering so much as a hand, frivolously assuming that a hero will take care of it instead. Because the cultural locus of ‘public maintenance’ has been rigorously entrenched in the idea of professional heroes and their daily patrol routes, Shigaraki didn’t receive the urgent care he required, scarring him for life. In the end, he was saved by All For One, the biggest and baddest villain in the series. He taught him that society has grown complacent in its own morals since the invention of professional heroes. He’s not wrong.
As such, Shigaraki believes the entirety of the hero system to be corrupt. Heroes and villains are just people with Quirks, but for some arbitrary reason, those with ‘unheroic’ abilities are punished for just existing. Shigaraki’s rage and actions target heroism as a concept and as an institution. Specifically, he wants the death of All Might. To humanity, All Might represents true (traditional) heroism, so to destroy the Symbol of Peace is to strike directly at the heart of the problem. Or so he believes: symbols are replaceable, and All Might himself has made that crystal clear throughout his mentorship of Deku. He will become the next Symbol of Peace; the institution has its own built-in failsafe.
Both Stain’s motivations and Shigaraki’s frustrations stem from systemic injustice, which is also what makes them sympathetic villains. Stain even has an ‘ideology’ that recognises the problem for what it is. But ultimately they both lash out individually and hope that through their actions, which are of a limited scope, they will be able to bring the entire institution down, a hope (or despair) that is doomed to fail. Propaganda of the deed doesn’t have the same inspiring effect in societies where idealism has been a fire long snuffed out.
The underlying theme in high school narratives is that you have to get the most out of your adolescence in terms of hedonism, social relationships, and emotional fulfillment. You have to do this before you enter the world of adults, that is, the job market. Once maturity is reached, that’s when the social imagination stops believing in you as a subject of innocence, of exploration, of experimentation. Instead, there comes obligation. Our inevitable surrender to selling our labour comes with a near-synonymous loss of leisure and forgiveness, so is it any wonder that our fantasies flock to the permitted blamelessness and curiosity of children? As a vessel to explore transformative spaces, sites, and rites of adulthood, we employ teenagers, because they’re still allowed to dream.
Danganronpa and My Hero Academia use the high school setting to explore different versions of meritocracy. Both reveal intrinsic faults and highly exploitative tendencies, with Danganronpa doubling down on the artifice and the meaninglessness of talent and competition, while My Hero Academia has more concern for the negative ramifications of its actors and its forsaken. Both, however, agree that violence is almost foundational to the inner and outer workings of the school system. They lament what the school under capitalism has become: no longer a place of true learning, where the young individual can attend to and nurture their own dreams and abilities and so much more in guided and forthcoming ways. With a cynical touch, they lament what school has become: a place for talent scouting.