Death Parade: Humanity in Yuzuru Tachikawa’s Anime
“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.
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
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.
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?
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