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A Long, Quote-Filled, Slightly Biased Guide to Understanding Sayaka Maizono

(Explicit DR1 CH1 spoilers, vague CH4 spoilers, vaguer thematic spoilers for DR1 and DR2)

The fandom doesn’t understand Sayaka Maizono. I say this because I didn’t understand Sayaka Maizono either, for a long time. After everything that happens in Chapter 1…can we really say that any of the behavior we saw from Maizono was genuine? What, in fact, is the genuine Maizono? I want to discuss the answer to this question…but it’s the question itself I’m interested in. So, let’s discuss what exactly “genuine” means for a young girl trained by television. (Alternate title for this post: “TV Taught Me How to Feel: How Sayaka Maizono’s Life is Basically a Marina and the Diamonds Song”.)

This is a long essay. I’m putting it under a cut. But here’s a summary, in bullet form:

  • Sayaka Maizono is the product of a lifetime of artificially constructed identity: she was raised by television, she idolized the people on television, and therefore she became television.
  • The character she acts throughout her time in Dangan Ronpa is the really well-constructed product of that training. What is there behind that mask? Nothing (essentially).
  • She’s someone who’s done bad things to keep her identity and sense of self-existence alive. Her actions during CH1 are also bad things she did to keep her identity and sense of self-existence alive. In her eyes, it was a type of self-defense.
  • And, finally, a fact about Dangan Ronpa that people seem to forget: In her last moments, Maizono was thinking about how to save Naegi.



Let’s start by discussing Maizono’s childhood. Remember, she had no mother and her father worked late every day. She was alone, deprived of guidance and support, but it doesn’t seem like she held any strong ill will towards her parents for it…because she did, after all, have the TV. Specifically, she latched onto the lives of the idols…girls who seemed to have it all together, girls who had friends and lives…girls who, unlike her, seemed to be happy:

MAIZONO: I was just a child… It was a little lonely…

MAIZONO: But the thing that eased my loneliness was the lives of the idols I could see reflected on the TV screen.

MAIZONO: They were like big sisters to me. They could sing and dance really well…

MAIZONO: And best of all… their smiles…

MAIZONO: When I looked at their smiles, my loneliness was forgotten in the blink of an eye.

MAIZONO: That’s why I always wanted to become an idol like them. Someone who can give other people strength. 

So she entered the idol industry. Remember that she’s still young here: by the time she enters junior high school (7th grade), according to Naegi, “she was already a famous person worthy of several ‘super’s attached to her name”. Let’s be generous and assume that she achieved that sort of fame after only a year of working in the industry itself. I want you to imagine an 11-year-old Sayaka Maizono, already deeply invested in idolizing those happy girls onscreen. I want you to imagine the performances she must have watched, the interviews she must have listened to, the “lives” she must have obsessively followed…I want you to imagine exactly how she must have conceptualized female identity as a whole, when the only female figures she had in her life were the airbrushed carefully manufacted personas of the idol industry. I want you to imagine how big a shock it was for her, when she finally stepped behind that curtain herself.

 Maizono didn’t take it too well, obviously. But what choice did she have? There’s no indication that she had anything in her life other than the lives of her “big sisters” on TV. When she saw Naegi save a crane stuck in a pool in junior high, the gesture moved her to the point that she still remembered it years later (she says the event occurred in the first year of junior high, when the students would be thirteen years old…and the Dangan Ronpa cast enrolls into Hope’s Peak at age seventeen.) What was her life, if the idea of someone helping another for no apparent personal gain was so foreign to her? What were her interactions with her peers, if the concept of Naegi choosing not to harass her due to her fame was so foreign to her? And, when she says she had to do “bad things” to make her dream of being an idol come true…what did she have to do? (The implication is it’s sexual favors. It’s probably sexual favors, which is pretty terrible on its own, but let’s not forget the part where she also has no real sense of identity outside of the artificial world she has to maintain for the cameras, because, yeah. The idol industry is pretty fucked up in more than one way.)

 So what we’ve established is…Maizono grows up all alone save for television, she aspires to be television, she becomes television…which is bad. She has this mask she wears and there is nothing under it except this girl desperately trying to hold on. When she brings up the crane story she nearly compares herself to the crane, then takes it back as a joke…but you can kind of see why she’d sympathize with a scared, trapped wild animal.

 Let’s talk about that mask. Her earlier interactions come off as…stilted, upon second glance. She uses the same sort of persona that would get her the viewers if she was on the air at that exact moment…there’s the adopted personal quirk (“I can read minds./Just joking. I just have good intuitions”), the endearing modesty (“I may be unreliable, but I’ll try doing my best!”), the good-natured hard-working spirit (“Heh heh. I’m pretty sturdy. You don’t have to worry about me…I look fragile, but my muscles are actually pretty strong. It’s because I’m always jumping around on stage!”), the naïveté (“Are you already in such good terms that you feel it’s okay to fight?”)…and that last trait directly contradicts her already established “mind-reading” social canniness, too. Sayaka Maizono, the Idol, is a real girl-next-door…someone who works hard despite being kinda clumsy, someone who’d apologize to you despite you bumping into her, someone who has a few quirks and who might need you to explain things to her, someone who’s nonthreatening, someone who’d like you, someone who’d need you…she’s a very carefully constructed persona, in other words. You can just imagine her bashfully admitting that she, in fact…likes sweets a little too much to stick to her diet, oops to the backdrop of audience laughter.

Then she gets locked into a kill-or-be-killed environment, and everyone starts acting out immediately in order to try to keep themselves calm: Kuwata gets in a fight with Yamada, Fukawa gets in a fight with Enoshima, Yamada curses the heavens, Enoshima is really mad in general, Oowada punches a Monobear, Ishimaru tries to maintain order among the chaos and gets really mad when Kirigiri shows up late, Celes tries to intimidate people into believing her icy unaffected persona, Togami is a douche to everyone, Hagakure clings to the belief that it’s all a lie…in other words, the only people not acting out are Oogami and Kirigiri, who are exceptionally strong…Asahina and Naegi, who are exceptionally optimistic…and Fujisaki, who crumbles inwards rather than acts out, generally. Meanwhile, how is Maizono coping with the situation? Up until she sees the motive video (which I’ll get to soon, I promise!)…she’s just working her connection to Naegi and playing her “I’ll try my best to be helpful, so please stay calm, everyone!” card. In other words, she’s acting that idol mask even harder.

That’s what her character interactions are like. That’s how she interacts with other people and how other people interact with her, through this thick veil of celebrity…except, perhaps, for her friends in the industry.

See, this is why her friends are so valuable to her. They are hers, they know her…and they’re the only thing she has, aside from the mask that causes her so much stress. How valuable must they be to her, these few people who understand what she goes through? Well…she says that “If they weren’t there… I would probably have given up my dream a long time ago.” (And, again: from what we can tell from canon, her dream is all she has.) These people are her “precious best friends ever since [they] all had [their] start in the business”…this means she’s known them for at least 4 years (as established earlier), which is a significant chunk of her life, especially for someone who didn’t have a family before. She grew up wanting to be friends with those smiling girls on the TV screen, and she learned along the way how fake those smiles were, but at least she made it, right? At least she has friends, now. At least people finally see her. At least she finally exists.

Then she sees the motive video, and everything in her life is gone. Without her friends, Maizono has no one that really knows her; and without her friends, Maizono’s idol persona is next to go. The motive video shows Maizono her entire life about to disappear before her eyes. She may be popular now, but she knows perfectly well how replaceable she is in the industry, and how little anyone will remember her - manufactured persona or otherwise - when she’s replaced.

But it’s okay, because, remember: Maizono’s already done bad things to stay in this industry. Why would she stop now? Her identity’s been split since the day she entered the industry, between “Sayaka Maizono the Happy Idol on TV That I Always Wanted to Be” and “Sayaka Maizono the Girl Who Does Bad Things”…why not call upon that bad girl to do another bad thing to save her soul? This is the decision she makes: taking someone else’s life, for the sake of “saving her own life”. (Which might seem like a kind of melodramatic way to say “avoid being forgotten”, but remember that she’s a teenager and this is her entire life’s work thus far we’re talking about. Also, she is not in an environment conducive to rationality.) Remember, she doesn’t know yet that she’ll be killing all of the others if she gets away with murder…Monobear only explains the trial rules once Maizono’s dead. To her, it looks like she’s going to do a terrible thing to someone she doesn’t know, and then escape back to her idol land, never to talk about it again. That’s not too different from the bad things she’s already done. That’s why she then forms a cunning plan using the skills of social manipulation she’s learned over the years, using a boy who’s already demonstrated several years ago a willingness to help the scared and trapped…and it’s not like she’s killing Naegi himself, so it should be fine, right? And as for Kuwata…all she knows about him is that he has some sort of shallow dreams of becoming a musician. Maybe she’s a little mad at him for trivializing her life struggles like that.

And…then her plan fails. Maizono tries to stab the dude, fails, panics, locks herself in her bathroom, and waits there while Kuwata goes and gets the toolbox from his room and goes back to murder her…lots of time to reexamine her life choices. By the time Kuwata comes back and actually stabs her, she’s apparently had a pretty major change of heart about the whole deal. Kirigiri explains it pretty well after the first trial, when Naegi’s sitting around feeling betrayed about Maizono framing him:

KIRIGIRI: It’s true that Maizono-san tried to frame you.

KIRIGIRI: That’s the unescapable reality…

KIRIGIRI: But I think she had second thoughts until she died. You see…

KIRIGIRI: She thought of you in her final moments.

NAEGI: In her final moments… she thought of me…?

NAEGI: Please don’t say such foolish things…

NAEGI: We have… no way of knowing for sure… after all…

NAEGI: There is no way… to ask her anymore…

KIRIGIRI: Even though we can’t ask her, we can reason it out, can’t we?

KIRIGIRI: Her last thoughts…

KIRIGIRI: Were about how to save you.

NAEGI: …eh?

KIRIGIRI: She used her last bits of strength to leave a dying message. That’s the proof.

KIRIGIRI: If she didn’t care what happened to you, she wouldn’t have left a message at all…

NAEGI: Maybe she just… wanted revenge on Kuwata-kun who killed her…?

KIRIGIRI: You’re right. This is also a possibility.

KIRIGIRI: But I don’t think it’s true, personally…

KIRIGIRI: She was lost, that girl.

KIRIGIRI: Her heart wasn’t in it.

KIRIGIRI: Not in tricking you, and not in killing another person.

KIRIGIRI: That’s why her plan didn’t succeed.

KIRIGIRI: Her feelings of doubt… led to failure.

KIRIGIRI: It’s a little ironic, isn’t it?

Kirigiri is a reliable narrator. Unlike Togami, who is clever but can’t seem to get the hang of people having emotions that result in them making irrational decisions…Kirigiri is the sort of smart cookie who can both detach herself from the case and put herself in the shoes of the people involved in the case - capable of flipping the chessboard, or seeing the heart, if you will. She bails the other characters out using her cool empathy skills a few other times in the game (remember CH4? Togami was positive it had to be Asahina who did it, and yet…), and this moment in the first case is her first demonstration of those skills. The manga might have redeemed Kuwata by changing the order of a few of the events (more details on that here), but don’t forget that in the game, in the original canon, it’s Maizono that’s redeemed first.

What I want to emphasize is this: Dangan Ronpa is a story about hope and despair, but it’s also a story about talent and expectations. It’s a story about talent and high expectations bringing people to despair, and about that despair destroying the entire world, and about a group of students redefining those high expectations for themselves in a way where they can bring hope back into the world and stand strong. Sayaka Maizono’s story, in other words, is the perfect introduction for the themes Dangan Ronpa discusses. She’s just another casualty of the burden of high expectations, media scrutiny, and her identity being reduced to nothing more than her talent…and in that context, she’s really similar to many of the other characters, who also suffer from stress and loss of identity due to their talents. (How about that one SDR2 “tool” we know and love, for example? How different is it really…being trained as a weapon for the sake of another, or being trained as a piece of wish fulfillment for the sake of millions of people across Japan? Or, how about being trained as a Togami, not allowed to lose? Or that particular MAJOR SPOILER CHARACTER? The theme of “high expectations placed upon the talented erasing their identities” comes up a lot.)

But damn if the Dangan Ronpa writers didn’t manage to fit an entire, fairly deep character arc based on that theme just within the first chapter of Dangan Ronpa.

TL;DR: Let’s give Sayaka Maizono a hand, everyone.

[rebloggable by request]

Well, first of all, WELCOME TO ONE OF MY PET PEEVES.

A female character does not have to be “strong” (whatever your definition of that is) to be a good character.

Women can be strong, or wussy, or emotional, or stoic, or needy, or independent, and still be legitimate people and interesting characters.

In our totally understandable desire to see portrayals of strong women (in reaction to decades of damsels in distress and women as appendages), we’ve somehow backed ourselves into this corner where the only acceptable portrayal of a woman in the media is a strong, kick-ass woman.  That is not doing women any favors.  It just leads to the attitude that you have to be ONE WAY ONLY to be legit as a woman.  You shouldn’t have to be Natasha Romanoff or Xena to be considered a good character.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Buffy as much as the next person, but that should not be the only acceptable portrayal.  It should be okay for a female character NOT to be strong, too.  Let’s take Molly Hooper as an example.  She is not the stereotypical “strong” woman.  But hell, she went through medical school, didn’t she?  She’s smart, and she’s funny, and she serves a story function - she is not a major character, but she doesn’t have to be.  But her character gets criticized because she pines after Sherlock.  What, you never pined after somebody?  Did it make you invalid as a person?  You never got a bit silly over a crush?  I know I did.  And I still consider myself a strong woman.  It should be okay for Molly to have a crush on Sherlock without getting the “oh, she’s so pathetic, what a terrible example, what a horrible female character” thing she so often gets.  Yes, because it’s so terrible that a female character should reflect an experience that like 99% of us have had.  

Screw writing “strong” women.  Write interesting women.  Write well-rounded women.  Write complicated women.  Write a woman who kicks ass, write a woman who cowers in a corner.  Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband.  Write a woman who doesn’t need a man.  Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anybody thinks.  THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all those things could exist in THE SAME WOMAN.  Women shouldn’t be valued because we are strong, or kick-ass, but because we are people.  So don’t focus on writing characters who are strong.  Write characters who are people.

The only bad female character, if you ask me (and you did), is one who’s flat.  One who isn’t realistic.  One who has no agency of her own, who only exists to define other characters (usually men).  Write each woman you write as if she has her own life story, her own motivations, her own fears and strengths, and even if she’s only in the story for one page, she will be a real person, and THAT is what we need.  Not a phalanx of women who can karate-chop your head off, but REAL women, who are people, with all the complexity and strong and not-strong that goes with it.

This is why I disagree with the “damsel in distress” criticism of Irene in the last scene of Scandal.  Here’s the thing about being a damsel in distress…it’s only bad if that’s all she is.  If the character’s defining characteristic is being a damsel in distress, that’s bad.  But if an otherwise complex character with lots of other agency and actions happens to be in distress, then…that’s all it is.  She is in distress.  That happens.  Characters are often in distress, or there would be no plots.  Should a female character never be allowed to be in distress, at ALL, to be valid?  No.

A strong female character is one who is defined by her own characteristics, history and personality, and not solely by the actions or needs of other characters.  She is a person in the story, not a prop.  That is the best definition I can come up with.  Note that my definition did not involve martial arts. 

That was probably longer than you were anticipating!  I’ve had that percolating for a long time.

30 May 2013 ·