Adapting video games is perhaps the most strenuous task when it comes to creating anime adaptations. Not only are you working with stories with playtimes well beyond the run of a normal anime series, but much of what fans find to be iconic or unique about the original product are game-like features that don’t transfer well to a non-interactive medium.
Lerche Animation Producer Yuji Higa was entirely aware of this, but it didn’t stop him. It’s common for viewers to ask “Why did that studio get to adapt the game I love?” and the reason is often: They love it too.
It was during the production of Carnival Phantasm (the comedy OVA series featuring characters from the popular game company Type-Moon) that the idea of creating a Danganronpa anime came to Higa. Carnival Phantasm was a production with director Seiji Kishi and screenwriter Makoto Uezu at the helm, and Higa took the opportunity to recommend the newly released Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc to his co-workers. He was so excited about the game that he referred to it as his “next animation project” before he’d even begun to pitch it.
Carnival Phantasm, produced at studio Lerche
To Higa's credit, the rest of the Carnival Phantasm staff began to mirror his passion after they picked up the game. Seiji Kishi was playing it whenever he was commuting and Makoto Uezu stated that: “When I wasn’t working or sleeping, I was playing Danganronpa.” All of them fell in love with the game’s visual personality, interface, and how it all came together. The fact that Danganronpa was a low budget production, made with few resources, also resonated with the staff and how they often had to do the same within anime production.
And so, once the production of Carnival Phantasm was complete, Higa put together an anime proposal with the entire core staff of Carnival Phantasm on board. This set of materials, documents, and ideas formed a single message: “We are the best team to adapt your video game into an anime.” However, Higa’s proposal was something even more than just this. He'd written it in a way that only a hardcore Danganronpa fan could have, including a deep knowledge of the game and a respect for its narrative and visual presentation.
Spike Chunsoft, the video game company behind Danganronpa, accepted the proposal and invited the staff to their building for an initial meeting. One of the main topics was how to adapt the game's lengthy story to just thirteen 20 minute episodes. And here, Spike Chunsoft’s Team Danganronpa were clear: They wanted the anime staff to change the story specifically for the anime.
“Our staff are excited to see the new kind of Danganronpa that you’ll create,” they said.
“Oh, no. That’s not what’s going to happen. We’re not going to change any of the fundamentals,” Kishi replied.
Despite instruction from the developers, director Seiji Kishi wanted to keep the story intact and replicate the experience of playing the game in animation. This became a problem.
Danganronpa wasn’t the first time Seiji Kishi had had to cut out large amounts of game dialogue and scenes for an anime adaptation. One of his most similar efforts to Danganronpa was his adaptation of Persona 4: The Animation at AIC. However, this time, he had a new helper – one who was passionate and determined to help out. Danganronpa creator Kazutaka Kodaka was in the studio every week, supervising the production and advising what parts could be cut to keep the story intact. He often would stay in the studio so late that he’d miss the last train home.
Trying to keep the anime so close to the games became a creative struggle for the anime's staff, but it was one they repeatedly overcame. Yuji Higa even storyboarded and directed the opening to Episode 4 himself. Adapting the "Bullet Time Battle" feature in Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, it featured Monokuma dancing along in a Monokuma Festival. Everything about the presentation was designed in a way that reflected the personality of the original title.
This held especially true for the Classroom Trials. In preparing to adapt this part of the game into anime, the anime staff noted these events were quite strange – not the sort of scenes that would appear in anime at all. During the Classroom Trials in the game, the characters are essentially flat cutouts, standing in a circular room as the camera spins around. Simply put, in the game the characters aren’t animated, but instead switch between a series of distinct poses.
To achieve a similar effect in the anime, the staff modeled the 3D room again, but put everything that appeared in the foreground in 2D. With constant camera movement, the room feels unnerving and offbeat in a uniquely Danganronpa way. With the game’s UI implemented and adapted for animation, the anime succeeded in creating the same effect as the PSP game’s Classroom Trials – but through its own means and methods of production.
Furthermore, if you go to the credits, the iconic “Punishment Movies” are credited to "Spike Chunsoft X Lerche." Using the original scenes from the game, Lerche stepped in to assist in revamping them for TV. This meant adding color, redesigning characters, adding new CGI parts and even changing some of the camera angles so that the violence would fit within TV broadcast regulations. The close relationship between the two companies, fostered in those early meetings by the anime and game staffs' love of the game, that allowed the show to redevelop the original aesthetic in a way that was fit for anime.
In the end, though, Danganronpa: The Animation was unable to fully adapt the game’s script in ways that either the audience or the creators were satisfied with, having to remove compelling conversations and shorten investigations – but the staff’s overwhelming love for the title lead them to find new ways to bring Kodaka’s personality to the TV screen. Seiji Kishi has always aimed to make “offbeat anime” and whilst this may not have been one of them, he certainly was in his comfort zone when adapting many of the game’s most iconic eccentricities.