Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for past Danganronpa games and the very first trial of Danganronpa V3. However, there are no spoilers for any late game content, given the game has only been out for a couple days.
Junko Enoshima isn't the most cosplayed game character in the world for no reason. The "big bad" of the Danganronpa franchise is also known as Ultimate Despair in the flesh. She wants the world to crumble, to mold to her will. She wants everyone to feel despair; to have no hope; to die helplessly. She's the purest distillation of evil. It's fitting that Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, a game that definitively closes the book on Danganronpa as a whole, finally gives us her polar opposite.
That opposite comes in the name of Kaede Akamatsu, the assumed protagonist of Danganronpa V3. She's among the most tragic heroes of the Danganronpa series. She has everything past boy protagonists have not had: a personality, an Ultimate ability of her own (Pianist). She's also flawed, insecure, yet she's stronger willed than past heroes: she wants everyone to believe in their future and trust her. Early on, her leadership gets on the nerves of her companions. Not everyone loves her at first blush.
In the end, she becomes a beacon of hope for the class, and ends up sacrificing herself with a solid wish that everyone else will find a way to go free. She does what no other past protagonist would dare to do and commits the ultimate risk: she's down to murder for everyone else's gain. She's a vigilante, in the ways that murderous vigilantes are and not virtuous Batmans. She has such a profound effect on resident quiet boy Shuichi Saihara, that her death imbues him with immense determination for the remainder of the game. But not just him either, her conviction and death resonates with everyone.
For the first time the Danganronpa series has put forward a true hero (albeit tragic hero) to contrast the past villainy of Junko. While the series has had its fair share of heroic figures, ones meant to inspire with the promise of hope, none have represented Junko like a glistening mirror. They've mostly just been bland boys, with much more interesting friends surrounding them. Arguably, Danganronpa 2's Chiaki Nanami was a hero in a similar light, set side by side with the protagonist. Like Kaede though, Chiaki meets a deadly end. In the past, protagonists have overcome evil through just luck, or alternatively, sheer will. Kaede, like Junko, overcomes nothing. She greets death openly, hoping that in her death, something bigger will form.
For Junko, death was only the first step forward. Her death, as we learn, inspires leagues of loyal followers entitled the Remnants of Despair, who carry out her Ultimate Despairness even long after she's gone. Junko's death birthed something greater and arguably more terrifying: an ideology. And so did Kaede's.
Kaede's death is the first shocking plot twist in a game that centers its thematic focus on the intricacies of a lie. It subverts the lie entirely, rendering everything leading up to the game a lie in itself, from its marketing to the fact that Danganronpa finally had a female protagonist (who actually had a personality too). All of it had potential to fall flat and feel cheap. Instead, it's the most emotional opening trial the series has ever had, resulting in one of the best trials in the series' topsy-turvy history.
Her death, while distressing, has its repercussions felt throughout the entirety of the game. Kaede's like an angel, overlooking the heroes carrying out their quest. We spend so much extra time with her in the game's lengthy opening that even though she's gone relatively early on, we miss her the whole way. Her death is felt by the player, in ways other deaths in the series never quite have before. Because for once, we were her. And then we had her torn away.
Kaede's death might be seen as aligning with the trope of "fridging," where the death of a female character only happens to seemingly urge a male character forward in their hero's journey. Kaede's death manages to sidestep that, giving us a rounded, flawed, endearing heroine in the game's opening hours. Her death, as a result, has a profound effect on nearly everyone in the group.
Kaede may be labeled as Ultimate Pianist, but in actuality she's more like Ultimate Hope, even as she committed a true evil in attempting murder in the first place. During the first trial, with the murder of the mysterious Rantaro Amami, she subtly guides her confidant and friend Shuichi Saihara during the Class Trial to out her. Rantaro wasn't an intentional target, she was only aiming for the Mastermind controlling the grim Killing Game, hoping it would end it and thus save everyone. But murder is still murder.
Later in the game (and since it's only been a couple days since its release, I will refrain from any details), more revelations come to light, and more parallels between Kaede and Junko shine through. As its conclusion spirals out of control, Danganronpa V3 feels very much like the end for the series. While it began many years ago as a quirky, elaborate visual novel that got unexpected success, I wouldn't be surprised if its sequels and continuations caused its creators some fatigue.
Even as the anime series attempted to end one chapter, Danganronpa V3 feels like an extra lock clasped over the book. Looking back, it's strange that somehow, during all of that time, Junko as a villain never had an honest counterpart. There were fumbling heroes—both in player protagonists and their surrounding friends—but never a hero that shared both similarities with the villain and stark differences. Junko was the most memorable character across all of Danganronpa because there was no one to rival her influence.
That is, until Kaede. Kaede did whatever it took to instill hope into her friends; like Junko did with despair. And if death came to claim them in the process, so be it. At least their deaths were the start of something grander. As disappointing as Kaede's demise initially is, players have the time with Kaede to cherish. Luckily the game doesn't forget her either, as it repeatedly reminds you that her influence and efforts to save the day will never be forgotten. They were not for naught.