Death Parade: Humanity in Yuzuru Tachikawa’s Anime

Death Parade’s opening theme.

“To suffer, yet stand firm – that’s what it is to live, isn’t it?”

-Nona, Death Parade

For years, Madhouse Studios has produced a great number of memorable anime titles such as Monster, Death Note, and One Punch Man. Like the aforementioned anime titles, Death Parade holds a certain air of remembrance in anime fan circles. Death Parade emerged out of what started as a one-shot, twenty-five minute episode entitled Death Billiards, and became one of the highest watched anime of the 2015 season.

The show is fairly recognizable at first for its dark themes, yet opens with the upbeat song “Flyers” by Bradio while the show’s colorful cast dances, swings, and generally has a fun time through the one minute opening. The second most recognizable aspect lies in the anime’s deep exploration of what it means to be human, what happens after death, and what lengths humans will go to survive the most dire of circumstances by pitting two contestants against one another in a game they believe will cost, or win, them their lives.

The odds are high and often stacked against one character or another within the show. To make matters worse for the already stressed contestants, the bartender/Arbiter named Decim, who runs the purgatorial bar named Quindecim, and his assistant Chiyuki tamper with the games the two contestants play. In the beginning, Death Parade presents humanity in a fairly black and white set of terms. This is also how humans who pass through the realm of judgment should be judged according to the Arbiters, those tasked with the judgement of dead humans – on a black and white scale. The human who proves to have more evil intent throughout their game is the one who must be sent to the void, and vise versa for the other contestant. This proves to be a problem at some point in Decim’s career as an Arbiter however, as he has come across several sets of humans he believes could both be reincarnated, rather than sent below, but he must do his job no matter how difficult. As the show progresses we learn that Decim is unlike other Arbiters in the fact that he was created with human emotion, but was not told. Along with this, he is the only Arbiter at the beginning of the series who has a human with him to help judge souls.

Humanism, or the aspect of belief in individual/whole of humanity, is defined by six key rules. One of these being that humanism focuses not on the spiritual or inherrently supernatural realm, but rather on the human, or society as a whole. In focusing on humanity we are obligated to our fellow humans, and the furthering of our kind in as ethical a way possible while making our world a better place for one another to live. This covers a wide variety of responsibilities that we have towards one another which are displayed throughout Death Parade.

Rolling Ballade – Absolute Sacrifice

One of the key components of humanity expressed by Death Parade appears in its third episode, “Rolling Ballade”. In this episode two childhood friends who had been separated for many years are killed in a bus crash, and they meet once again in Quindecim.

Shigeru and Chisato (Mai) begin their match in episode 3 – “Rolling Ballade.”

At the beginning of the episode when the two begin remembering the events leading up to their deaths, it is implied that the female contestant is a girl whom Shigeru, the male contestant, once had a crush on. After the climax of the episode turns into falling action, we are told that the girl is not who she believes herself to be. Instead, we learn that her true name is Mai, and she was once a friend of Shigeru and Chisato’s (the girl for whom she was mistaken). Mai is mistaken for their friend because as a teenager she received plastic surgery to make herself look more like Chisato to draw the attention of Shigeru and win his heart.

Mai, as a young girl, sacrificed her entire identity for the love of her life. Unlike many other episodes of Death Parade, we see the two contestants who’ve entered purgatory become non-competitive and instead, they ask if they can have time to go on a final date. Overall, Shigeru represents the hopelessly clueless, while Mai represents a much higher dynamic type of character – someone who will do everything for the one she loves most. What are we willing to do for those we love most, and what does it mean for our humanity that we express our love? Some would argue that sacrifice and love are the two greatest components to being human, because without compassion for one another it is nearly impossible to imagine our current society. An even more important topic posed in this episode is not just what we’re willing to sacrifice for the ones we love most, but what we’re willing to sacrifice for those we may not have many feelings for at all. Shigeru’s actions are a good example in this case; he agrees to stay in Quindecim with Mai after he’s remembered that she’s not the girl he once adored, and to go on a date with her because he understands her feelings at this point and wants to part ways by granting her one last request.

It’s unknown whether Shigeru shows Mai pity, or if he truly had some semblance of feelings for the girl, but either way his actions and her own during and after their game allowed for them both to be sent to reincarnation. Throughout the series, double reincarnation only happens once in this very episode. Does it matter if his act came from pity, or true feelings? Or does Shigeru’s actions only matter because he decided to take them in order to make someone happy? There are two mindsets about this question – those who would believe that the simple act of trying to make someone’s life better is good enough even if that person is miserable, and those who would believe without true feeling behind the actions they are meaningless.

Death Counter – Judgement in the Moment

Tatsumi (on right) antagonizing Shimada (on left) in episode 9 – “Death Counter.”

Judgement for the Arbiters is an imbalanced process because to judge humans, Arbiters must draw out the most horrendous parts of their personalities within the time span of only a few hours so that they can tell who is fit to be reincarnated or not. Chiyuki, Decim’s long time nameless assistant, progressively disapproves of Decim’s methods of judgement, and in one the series’ most remarkable episodes (episode nine) she pushes Decim to see what he and the other Arbiters do is not proper judgment of humans because as she says, humans aren’t as complex as he thinks and they get angry or sad over the simplest of things. This in Chiyuki’s response to Decim attempting to judge a young man named Shimada’s behavior of wanting revenge against a detective named Tatsumi who could’ve stopped Shimada’s sister from being sexually assaulted, but instead waited and watched behind a tree.

Chiyuki is the voice in Decim’s world that stands to tell him that without experiencing life, one cannot hope to judge those who have. By the end of episode nine Decim is clutching his chest as he slowly discovers his human emotions, and the scene fades out while zoomed in on the symbol above the door leading to the void. The episode ambiguously leaves the audience to wonder which of the two men was sent to the void. In a way, this ending asks the audience itself to judge each man for their actions, as if only we can. Tatsumi taunts Shimada by saying that if we can’t change the world around us, then we must change ourselves. In the context of the episode this statement is meant to say that because Shimada cannot reclaim what his sister has lost, he must choose the only option he has left: revenge against the man in front of him. This taunt pushes Shimada over the edge to the point where Chiyuki urged him not to go for fear that his actions might send him to the void.

The problem Chiyuki addresses in this episode is that the contestants are only judged based upon how they act and react during their game against their opponent, rather than being judged based on what they’ve done with their lives. Considering this, most might judge Tatsumi negatively for not helping victims, and instead simply allowing crimes to happen so that he might personally punish the criminals. With this knowledge under his belt, Decim still pushes both men to see how they act within this short moment of afterlife rather than judging their lives based on their memories of which he has possession.

The actions of these two men beg the question of whether it is appropriate to judge someone by their emotionally driven actions. Can this be a reliable way to say whether someone is good or evil, and are we responsible for the actions we choose regardless of what we’re feeling at the time? We must also consider the difference between each man’s version of vigilantism during their lives. Each one killed, or punished for their own personal reasons, and each were in turn punished by death. Their situation in Quindecim makes one wonder if death truly could be the great equalizer that we believe it to be considering that once Tatsumi regained his memories, all he would have needed to do to be reincarnated was to keep his real personality hidden. A closer look at the consequences of the arbiters’ in-the-moment judgments shows a deep flaw in their system exposed by Tatsumi and Shimada.

Tatsumi’s own point of vigilantism still stands as an ambiguous feature of the episode. He states that he couldn’t punish people who had not first committed any crimes, therefore he waited until after a crime was perpetrated before he would stalk and kill the criminals. This parallels with his and Shimada’s visit to Quindecim; Decim states multiple times that people who enter his realm are not judged based on the memories he receives of their lives, but based on the darkness he withdraws from their souls during their matches against one another. Decim’s faulty judgments fall into this same disorder, and like Tatsumi, he waits until the crime (the perpetuation of evil intentions by one or both contestants) has been committed before action is taken. His own emotions cause him to suffer as he realizes his errors as his humanity breaks through the surface of his nature as an arbiter.

Suicide Tour – Understanding One Another

Episode nine drives the nail home as the series’ most climactic episode in terms of exploring what it means to be human, and the question of how someone might judge humanity. However, Decim takes yet another hit in the final episode of the series when he learns of Chiyuki’s suicide. Becoming close with the young woman throughout the series, being able to see all of her memories, experiencing her past, and understanding why she took her life breaks down his ability to be unemotionally uninvolved in his judgments of humans. These scenes show a slant towards humanity needing deep involvement with not only one’s own emotions, but the sympathy and empathy to understand others’ emotions.

In the series’ final episode Chiyuki is given the choice to press a button that will bring her back to life if she is willing to sacrifice the life of a random human somewhere on earth. Her resolve is that people all over the world have someone, somewhere, who cares and feels for them, and she could never take a life away from one of those people. This sentiment resonates in Decim as he realizes the true depth behind her words. In the final moments of the episode Chiyuki apologizes to her mother for not understanding her feelings, and not appreciating her own life. These feelings she expresses parallel with Decim’s character as he has been unable to appreciate human life or understand its value until just recently as he continued observing Chiyuki. The idea of characters understanding one another is subtly and then not so subtly emphasized throughout the series; at first we see the message within the games – each player plays with pieces of their games that cause pain in various ways to their opponents, and both contestants often receive their memories leading to their deaths near the same time and face this realization together. As the series continues we see the theme and importance of understanding in a more definitive nature as Decim struggles to know Chiyuki as a person unlike he has attempted with any other contestant. Death Parade insists near the end of its run that pity, sorrow for others, and shared pain are how we as humans can understand one another, and therefore, make the world better for each of us.

Decim reaches his breaking point in episode 12 – “Suicide Tour.”

The final test ends, the world Decim has created out of Chiyuki’s memories shatters, and Decim falls to his knees with a final resonating sympathy for his friend. Decim resolves to be the kind of Arbiter whose guests enter his bar having been happy that they lived their lives. Understanding, or the simple act of attempting to understand one another, is highlighted in the anime’s final episodes as having great importance in the role humans play in their daily lives.

Death Parade explores a wide variety of topics such as suicide, love, regret, unpreparedness for death, the afterlife, what it means to be human, and what it is to have humanity. It is left to us to discover what value we will place on our lives; will we spend our waking moments regretting a single decision, hating a single person for one mistake, live life never trying to understand one another, or will we overcome?

Decim and Chiyuki part ways at the end of episode 12 – “Suicide Tour.”

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Jong Yoo

    I’m kinda disappointed about Death Parade. The designs are great with very good art, good premise and ideas and a fairly high budget, but it was poorly written and I was kinda overhyping it once it aired.

    The episodic characters have a well thought out and a effective and cool back story with details that makes them interesting, but the main ones are 1 dimensional. I will mention the poor writing again; the main characters that are supposed to be or at least try to be emotionless, show a good amount of emotion every time, while the principal character of the anime that is supposed to HAVE emotions is complete emotionless.

    • I can’t say I agree. The show reveals that Decim always had emotions, so any emotion he’d shown previous to episode 9 would not have been odd. Chiyuki showed a range of emotion throughout the show even though she’d had her memories wiped, which would account for any lack of emotion that might’ve been inferred.

      While they both seem one dimensional to begin with, I’d say it’s only to build the tension that forms in later episodes where we begin to see more than just the Death Games, and we start getting a clear vision of how Decim and Chiyuki came to their situation at the beginning of the show. I believe it was Tachikawa’s goal to have the episodic, “fleshed-out” characters have a dramatic effect on the two main characters for the specific purpose of developing their characters.

  2. A touching finale for this show.

  3. This show was such a damn treasure. Each reveal from beginning to end was handled so well. And when the theme song blasted out for the last time, it brought emotions out of me.

  4. So, if the players are good (or at least fundamentally decent) they get to be reincarnated, but if they are bad they are erased from existance?

    But I thought the whole point of reincarnation was to put “bad” people in situations where they can overcome adversities so they have a chance at becoming kinder, or at least making up for their sins, and eventually earning a place in Nirvana?

    I mean, what if you get reincarnated as a defenceless civilian in a war-torn country and spend your new life getting horribly tortured and/or raped by guerilla or dictator’s militia? What if you get reincarnated in one of the poorest places on earth and spend your short new life starving to death? Reincarnation, in and of itself, is not necessarily a prize. At its worst, it can be a worse fate than nothingness.

    • Well it is not so much whether they are good or bad, but rather if the Arbiter thinks they should get another shot a life. They don’t have to send one to the void and one to reincarnation each time. They could send them both to the void, or have both reincarnated, even. Despite them judging two people at the same time, they are in the end still judging them individually.

    • I like how you refer to them as “players.”

  5. shugo828

    I think Death Parade was an amazing anime for the subjects that it brings to attention regarding humanity. Every day we say that we are this persona that we don, but if we were faced with similar situations that we see in Quindecim, it makes us question whether or not we would do the same. We begin to realize that the answer of how we would carry ourselves in those events, and how we likely would go through these events are likely different.
    Another great theme within this anime, regarding the humanity, is the feeling of regret. Every single episode we see that every human character carries a regret from their lives that define how they carry themselves through their existence in Quindecim.

  6. I am so glad you did this article! i really enjoyed death parade and surprised how crazy it had gotten over the episodes. It really shows the emotions of reality and how important how life must be lived. Seeing more of the characters when gaining their memories and the actions they used toward the gain made you think really hard if their judgement was the right one.

  7. It was unexpected to se Decim getting human emotions and cry. His smile at the end…priceless. And he made a doll of Chiyuki. So cute.

    However, I still expected a bit more of the last episode. There was something missing…I hope they make a second season or an OVA.

  8. Pretty deep. A good lengthy read.

  9. Ariel Prado

    Death Parade is one of the few anime I have seen that would make for an amazing live-action feature film. Don’t gt me wrong, I love 2D animation and feel that it is the best method to convey these types of stories, but as I watch each episode, I kept picturing the actors of a live action film and seeing practical effects make it a less intense version of Hellraiser. Everything about it is so damn original, in the sense that you are battling for your soul in the most mundane ways. The fact that each episode is like a self-contained story make it easy for anyone to pick up at any time and not be that lost.

  10. I just love that apparently Death Note is part of this series’ universe as well(note, this is just a joke based on the fact that Light appears very briefly in a cameo in one of the episodes).

  11. Energetic

    This show was exceptional. Absolutely stunning animation and incredibly well-written. With 12 episodes, it’s also pretty easy to digest.

    Would recommend to people who don’t have much experience with anime / newcomers. Some really deep philosophical discussions and each episode keeps you questioning what the ‘right’ decision is.

    Also: super emotional. Prepare your feels.

    • Damn i love shows that just straight up punch me in the gut. with decim in particular i was intrigued by him from the second i saw him, and to follow his development was incredible. 10/10 would get punched again.

  12. The bigger question being if we need a god? Maybe?

  13. brilliant series and the ed theme was perfect and just added to the atmosphere of the whole series and helped you let it sink in what happend in the episode.

  14. Dominic Sceski

    I’m gonna have to check out death parade now! I love anime that brings up big questions.

  15. I haven’t seen this anime yet, but I plan to sometime. You’ve analyzed this thing to the bone it seems, and I like the points you made on judgement that the show supposedly supports. I love reading articles like this! Meaningful posts about anime are a double win!

  16. This anime was amazingly intense and emotional and was probably one of the best I’ve seen in years.

  17. Glad to see MADHOUSE put quality to this prospect.

  18. sounds awesome; I might watch this, but since the episodes are anthological , does the settings change or they just revolve around the bar?

    • The setting for the most part is in Decim’s bar. Other episodes move around other areas of the purgatorial world where his bar resides; since there are other Arbiters, there are also other “game rooms.” Any other setting change only happens through the memories and flashbacks of characters.

  19. Man, I love the opening song!

  20. What a strong final episode, would of hoped to see the Oculus take a bit more action after they made it look like he was going to be attempting to stop Nona, but besides that there’s not a lot of flaws that stand out after having seen the whole series.

  21. That structure of episodes – Games and story of thing happening in Quindecim is quite good i would say..

  22. I haven’t personally watched “Death Parade” and now it’s making me envious of those who’ve watched it.

  23. Henriette

    Some of those episodes… so emotional. Especially the finale. I mean, the whole thing with bud-head-guy (…name escapes me) was kind of… slightly confusing and left rather unfinished. But the black-haired woman’s story was wrapped up excellently, and some of those mini-stories in between—like the bowling one—man. That was such a great show.

  24. What a wonderful example of the type of medium anime can be. At the very core, something as simple, or not so simple, as humanity can be a topic for a twelve episode anime that hits multiple emotions throughout the series. Death Parade, and this article, did a wonderful job of showing you what proper humanity is in the eyes of the animator/director/writer.

    Any show that can spark realization that we are all humans and should attempt to understand one another is on the right track.

  25. Peacock

    My only real confusion about it was that the little faces above the elevators didn’t seem accurate in indicating where a soul was ultimately sent at the end of the episode. Therefore, it was sometimes unclear if a character got another shot at life or not. I felt like that denied me some closure, but I went through the Wiki for the show and filled in the blanks.

  26. I found this article particularly helpful.

  27. I watched this show about a year ago in one binge sitting, going back to my favorite episodes once and awhile ever since. It’s so stylized in the way it approaches discussing themes like life, death, and a afterlife based on a moral system. Such a great show. Going back and thinking on it, yeah, there are a lot of humanistic ideas. Great article!
    Thinking further on Decim’s relationship with humanism, what can be said about his fellow arbiters? Decim’s supervisor, Nora, spends the entirety of the series guiding Decim and protecting his true nature from her boss-Oculus. Most of her peers either are hesitant or outright disapprove of Decim’s human nature, and Oculus’s words in the finale have a haunting ring to them when he recounts the rules, stating that arbiters possessing human emotion will be the end of them. Yes, we see Decim perform his duties twice, perhaps better off with emotion. But we never see the prolonged effect. That put up against Oculus’s last words leaves the impression that we’re never given a real conclusion to the show’s underlying conflict. Seeing as arbiters hold a God-like occupation, even without perfect omniscience, it begs the question; is a humanistic approach the best way to fair judgement? Should our Gods think and feel like we do?

  28. Karen

    I thought this show was highly under-appreciated so imagine how pleased I was to discover this. You highlighted just what is so damn captivating and clever about this anime. I love just any book or movie or show that explores humanity and human nature, and Death Parade really did it for me. Not only was the art fantastic, but each episode was an absolute treasure and I have no regrets in binge-watching it. I haven’t watched it in months but I vividly remember that game of darts played between the couple in the first episode – and just how ugly the characters became to one another as their secrets came pouring out. And from there, I was hooked. I particularly loved the episode you noted above, where the characters’ fates were left to our own interpretation. What better way is there to judge your own understanding of justice and human nature?
    (Also, that opening song is so deliberately incongruent with the anime’s content, it’s quite honestly one of my favourite anime openers.)

  29. Dr. Vishnu Unnithan

    Nicely encapsulated summary of a wonderful series!

  30. cc guest

    Glad to see Death Parade is getting the love it deserves, but the episodes in the article should have been more analysis about the presentation of humanity and what it means to retain your humanity rather than summarizing the episodes as it spoils the experience for those who have not yet finished this anime.

  31. Madhouse is a very unique studio that tries to delve into a bit of everything but I was a fresh breath of fresh air through Death Parade.

  32. Judging by my love for death note, one punch man and what Ive heard from others about ‘monster’, death parade seems pretty interesting. The plot itself is enough to drag me in.

  33. Painful anime to watch but all the more rewarding.

  34. The Shigeru & Mai recount touched my heart. Ah the feels (TvT)

  35. I’m so glad there are more people talking about this show now, bc I thought it’s so underrated for the subjects it tackles

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