Junko Enoshima, the glamorous antagonist of the Danganronpa franchise, is many things: a despair addict, a fashion icon, an unhinged mastermind, and most lately, a TikTok It Girl. From trends like “Junko posing” to audio memes like “anime is an important part of our culture,” Junko is smeared across TikTok’s hashtags and recommendations alike. However, it’s not just anime stan accounts getting in on the fun — even Italian e-boys and TikTok’s favorite dancing ferret are reenacting Junko’s hijinks.
The proliferation of Danganronpa isn’t the only anime-related phenomenon that’s inescapable on TikTok. Across the 2010s, anime has gone from a niche passion to the mainstream, where corporations embraced the buying power of fans rather than demonizing their communities. In the last decade, you’d find at least one kid in every high school proudly wearing this specific Attack on Titan hoodie on a daily basis. When Kim Kardashian posted a photo of Zero Two from Darling in the Franxx on Instagram, all bets were off; anime was for everyone.
The anime references on TikTok, and the culture that surrounds them, aren’t superficial. Fandoms are the genesis of trends, but somewhere along the way, it became cool for jocks to pose to melodramatic anime audio clips. To understand why, you have to know Danganronpa.
The first Danganronpa game — Trigger Happy Havoc — was originally released in Japan in 2010. The basic plot of the franchise is simple: a class of exceptional high school students ends up trapped in the school, where a mechanical stuffed bear named Monokuma (the school’s self-proclaimed headmaster) informs them that in order to escape, they’ll need to get away with murdering one of their classmates. Junko is the game’s secret villain: after posing as a student and faking her death along the way, she reveals herself as the mastermind who has been pulling Monokuma’s strings. “All I want is despair,” she crows, both in the game’s final act and in a popular TikTok audio, “and there’s no reason for it!”
In 2014, Trigger Happy Havoc was eventually distributed in the United States on PlayStation Vita, falling into cult acclaim for its melodrama and engaging gameplay. The Danganronpa franchise falls squarely into “anime culture” territory: aside from the fact that the games are anime-esque visual novels, Trigger Happy Havoc was adapted as an actual series in 2013, with a final run, 2016’s Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak High School, tying up the franchise’s loose ends.
Since entering Western consciousness, the series has built up a sizable following. In 2019, it was the ninth most popular video game franchise on Tumblr, the first time anything in the franchise cracked the fan-driven platform’s year-end lists since Danganronpa 3 clocked in at the 10th most popular anime or manga in 2016. Part of that resurgence is likely due to the franchise’s sure footing on TikTok, which relaunched in its current form in August 2018 after TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, acquired and fused the service with the lip-syncing app Musical.ly.
There’s plenty of Danganronpa content on TikTok that’s explicitly about Danganronpa, intended to appeal to other fans. Dig around and you’ll find short videos of characters like Junko or Monokuma, or clips that reference events in the series itself. Danganronpa’s cult following and sizeable fandom ensures that each iteration of a lip sync or reference will blow up: according to public viewership numbers on TikTok, the #danganronpa hashtag boasts 2 billion views vis-á-vis #anime’s 7.3 billion.
What’s more exceptional are the Danganronpa-related phenomena that transcend the borders of fandom, appealing to a more general base of TikTok users. “Junko posing,” a trend that sees TikTokers switching between four of the character’s iconic game poses, typically plays out to the sounds of Sporty-O’s “Let Me Hit It,” which had a meme career of its own in the early 2010s. On TikTok, however, it’s become the Junko posing song — while the trend was spearheaded by cosplayers and anime fans, it eventually spread to accounts whose primary focus wasn’t anime. Out of context, it’d be easy to stumble on the trend and take part without knowledge of its roots.
That’s less true for the “anime is an important part of our culture” meme, which lays dialogue from the English dub of Danganronpa 3 over bbnos$ and Lentra’s “nursery.” Though the dialogue is explicitly tied to both anime and Junko herself, it’s regularly invoked by users whose accounts, at least on the surface, had little to do with Danganronpa or anime fandom.
That popularity, and subsequent dissociation, of anime memes from anime fandom is a result of Danganronpa possessing valuable TikTok traits. The platform’s users have wholeheartedly embraced melodrama and cringe content, and thrive off of easily mimicked physical challenges; audio clips (like the “Cuphead Rap”) that have both a pulsating beat and personality in spades have a good shot at staking a claim on the platform. Both of the Danganronpa trends that have gone viral outside of fan circles have done so because they fall into content categories that users already love: Junko posing doesn’t require an abundance of coordination or skill but makes for a flashy performance, while “anime is an important part of culture” is cartoonishly hilarious (“he’s gonna burst a blood vessel because I dissed his waifu!”), but also features a pulsating beat that’s easy to dance or pose to.
That’s what’s exceptional: trends that started as expressions of anime fandom on TikTok have become phenomena that appeal to a broader audience that’s not necessarily tuned into the source content. In fact, it’s less common for memes that are so explicitly tied to a specific fandom to go viral. More frequently, popular anime-related content isn’t tied to much other than “anime” in the broadest sense. The recent “anime girl running” trend is based off of general anime tropes — ridiculous running and unrealistically large boobs — rather than any kind of specific reference.
Aside from the fact that the anime’s drama and over-the-top characterizations match up with TikTok’s performance values, part of the reason that anime phenomena have found a home on TikTok is because anime, as others have noted, is cool now. Actor Michael B. Jordan released a limited-edition, Naruto-inspired collection with Coach in 2019. Rapper Megan Thee Stallion posed in full Todoroki (of My Hero Academia) cosplay on the cover of Paper magazine in August. Even aside from celebrity endorsements, major anime series like Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, or My Hero Academia are full of recognizable signifiers that are part of today’s pop culture text.
Ultimately, anime’s integration into TikTok culture, from explicit references to more tangential phenomena like nightcore music (a genre that today essentially means sped- and pitched-up tracks) that harkens back to early to mid 2010s anime fandom, is indicative of a new evolution of anime fandom as a whole. After a decade that saw anime go from a niche to a marketable interest, the 2020s anime is set to become a major facet of Gen Z meme culture, both on TikTok and elsewhere. Danganronpa’s popularity is due to the fact that it epitomizes a number of characteristics that play out well on a platform filled with users who are already receptive to anime content, fans or not.
However, Junko Enoshima is more than a one-off hit: even older anime mainstays like the “Caramelldansen” have been making a comeback on the app while tunes like Giorno’s theme from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure have soundtracked anime-dissociated trends. Whatever the assumptions about anime’s potential for mass consumption, made by outsiders or the fandom itself, it’s clear that Japan’s animation output is an important part of TikTok — and global — culture.
Palmer Haasch is a New York City-based entertainment & culture writer. A former Polygon intern, she specializes in TV, anime, fandom, and internet culture. Find more of her work at palmerhaasch.com.