Death Parade – 08-10 Review

[C12] Death Parade - 10.mp4 - 00002A very existential perspective as judging for the arbiters is the same as Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill only to see it roll down the hill again. There’s no point to doing that except the meaning humans would assign to it. Of course, the series is more in favor of the more sentimental opinion that life is meaningful beyond being just some Sisyphean task one simply assigns a meaning to for comfort.  But the series at least makes the effort to turn that into a journey instead to beating the audience senseless with that message.

Death Parade is one of my favorites this season. Yoru no Yatterman is another (which I will review when it’s over… I feel like it’s the kind of series I need to see everything of it before I can talk about it properly) and other than that… Kuroko no Basuke is as entertaining as ever but it’s a hate-it-or-love-it-series (one of the better ones in the ridiculous-anime-sports-genre, though) and Durarara is still as good or as bad as the first season (it’s a series with a very specific style and it does nothing better or worse in the second season). Those are the four series I would recommend from this season (well, from the ones which started in this season, I mean).

Review:

[C12] Death Parade - 09.mp4 - 00002That’s the kind of statement that could be very influential for how this series will treat the characters’ ideals when it’s time to wrap up the story.

Death Parade is an idea-series. That doesn’t mean it has a particular topic or theme to deal with but the idea is the setting. This series is driven by its worldbuilding. First there’s the idea of the world the story happens in and then comes the story dealing with the ramifications of what the worldbuilding has set up. In this way the existence of the arbiters and their flawed judgments isn’t the point of the story. Instead that’s just the basis for the actual point of the story.

Like with every generic fantasy- or sci-fi-setting you first have to buy that this world functions. So, that’s why the story has this episodic pattern. The world of Death Parade is the pattern established by the first episode. And it isn’t supposed to be entirely believable. After all, the story is about the flawed nature of that pattern and there would be no story if it would be this immaculate, sensible thing. What the setting is supposed to do here is be intriguing. The first step is for the audience to be lured into the world of this series and then the series can start dealing with the world after the audience has gotten interested in what is going on.

At that point, though, this series practically jumped the shark and didn’t waste much time questioning the pattern. Essentially the only episode where things have gone “according to plan” was the first episode. Starting with the second episode this series has been hellbent on subverting its own pattern in each episode. And there are quiet episodes, too, where the pattern controlling this world gets talked about rather than creating a plot. This series never had a comfort-period where the audience could get used to the pattern the series’ setting has established. Here worldbuilding and plot are one and usually you start out with a plot exploring the world which leads to an established structure for the series. Of course, no matter how smart that pattern is it will get old at some point and so you try to keep things fresh. You deconstruct the pattern, you question it and you subvert expectations, both the audience’s and the characters’ that have experienced the pattern again and again. What this series has done, though, is to forego this grace-period of just establishing the pattern and it immediately jumped into the subversion-phase of the whole thing.

This has two effects: One is a very focused story. I love this series for cutting the crap and just get right to subverting its own pattern. Rather than trying to create complex episodic stories, this series is more interested in what the episodic plot says about the pattern fueling said episodic plot. Each case this series has presented so far is as much about the system that judges the dead people as it is about the story behind the dead people. Instead of idealizing the pattern and making it all about character-driven short-stories, this series questions the pattern in a “Who will guard the guards?”-way (or “Who will watch the Watchmen?” to quote Alan Moore’s famous comic). In that way, this series is very introspective and the presence of those quiet episodes without a “case-of-the-week” is the most obvious sign of that. And with the way the series just jumped the shark and immediately dived into subversion-territory, the episodic stories got a purpose beyond being entertaining as standalone-experiences. If you’ve already bought into the setting of this series, watching this series becomes a very interesting examination of the complicated nooks and crannies of the setting.

The other effect of this series’ approach isn’t that advantageous, though. The story’s very abstract. Without the proper build-up and exploration of the characters and the setting, the whole thing turns into an abstract idea. It’s the same problem many Nolan-films have: The emotional storybeats just aren’t as effective as the cerebral ones. With the exception of the 8th and 9th episode every episodic story gets wrapped up in one episode. I’ve already talked about the potency of the ambiguous endings many of the past episodes had but overall it just serves as another obstacle between you and getting emotionally invested in what this series wants to say. This series has the sort of detachment where the actual story is what goes on beneath the surface while the surface just serves as an entrance to the real meat of the series.

[C12] Death Parade - 08.mp4 - 00004Here the series is trying to lessen the impact of having a very bland detective-character by lampshading it. Really, it’s only once the detective remembers his past that he gains a non-stereotypical personality.

With all this said the 8th and 9th episode stand out in many ways. The most obvious fact is that this is the first episodic story that takes more than one episode to resolve. But what’s really noteworthy about these two episodes is how the two dead people’s story serves as a dark reflection of the series’ setting. So far, the episodic stories have only tangentially served to subvert the premise of the setting but the game between the boy and the detective directly reflects the nature of judgment the arbiters are supposed to pursue.

And that’s where the series gets abstract again. It’s clear that the audience is supposed to question the current system of judgments but this isn’t exactly about one character going on a journey to find that out. Things are a little bit more complicated. The dynamic of Decim and Kurokami isn’t entirely a product of their decisions. The quiet episodes are there to show that and to characterize the mastermind behind this dynamic: Nona. In a way this only further subverts the premise as judging dead people isn’t even the point anymore. The real story is what Nona thinks Decim can become. And she does all in her power to help him evolve.

One thing about arbiters and the dead people they judge is that they have something in common: They both are just people inhabiting a doll. And the judgments have the arbiters pretend to be humans who can properly understand and judge the dead people while the dead people in the judgment-process essentially become dolls in the way the arbiter is pulling their strings with the game. But when you analyze those three laws Arbiters have to follow (whose number is the same as Asimov’s three laws for robots – which isn’t a coincidence, I think) you realize that the arbiters are just supposed to be talking dolls without a real spark of life while the humans have the spark of life (so to speak) from having been alive but the judgment-process is trying to strip away that spark. And when you look at both sides you get a level playfield thanks to this. On one side you have the arbiters being unable to be human and on the other side you have the dead people who are not allowed to be human (due to the nature of the judgment).

All this the series had covered in the previous episodes but what the 8th and 9th episode cover is the nature of the judgment. How do the arbiters judge someone? That is the question which drives the meta-story of these two episodes. And with the two characters’ stories being meta-commentary on the judgment-process, you essentially get a version of the arbiter-judgment-system if you would apply it to real life. Because the thing is: This isn’t about justice, it’s about punishment. When the Arbiter has to decide who gets to disappear and who gets a second chance, he just decides who needs to get punished more. There isn’t a reason to believe that rebirth will lead to a better life necessarily. This isn’t the promised Heaven-or-Hell-Situation where in one scenario you enter paradise and in the other you get punished. Here, you either get punished or you can simply try your luck again in the hope that you will do better next time. First, I thought this series tried to aspire to a reference a specific religious paradigm but now it feels like the series is more interested in its own fictitious setting instead of referencing some specific religion. This isn’t a series with a big message that transcends its own material. Whatever it wants to say is kept self-referential and introspective.

The more obvious thing is that this is the first time the series used two episodes for one story. Having two episodes to tell the story of the two dead people makes a huge difference when it comes to the pacing of this story. The two episode’s pacing is far more balanced and tense than usual. The tension comes from how the plot of the two episodes is based on escalation. With having two episode to tell the story, the placements of the memory-sections feels far more organic and it leads to the boy and detective actually having genuine character-arcs. The boy and detective from the beginning of the 8th episode aren’t the same as what they’ve become at the end of the 9th episode.

It gets even better as the escalation affects Decim and Kurokami as well. At the start of the 8th episode Decim tells Kurokami that he won’t influence their game but more than that happens: Decim essentially loses control of the judgment. When he places the blue puks in front of the boy, he’s really just going with the flow. Kurokami tries to steer the boy into another direction but she intervenes far too late and the boy’s course is already set at that point. He wavers only for a moment and then proceeds to damn himself.

And it all goes back to the idea of punishment as judgment the detective explains in the two episodes. When judgment is about punishment, you just try to make the people you think are bad do something bad. And when the supposedly bad people have done something bad then you can punish them for that. On one hand you try to be just, abide by some form of moral codex but on the other hand, you want to punish evil. Because of the latter you want to hunt down evil people but because of the former you have to be sure that the punishment makes sense to you. And so you get this situation where the detective is just watching some guy rape an innocent girl in order to have a reason to punish him later.

The 8th and 9th episode have been VERY dark and it’s also depressing because of how powerless both Kurokami and Decim are to really control the direction the game is headed for. These were two very tense episodes and it’s nice to see that the series understands the necessity of a more relaxed episode to follow that. The 10th episode is more than just relaxed, though, it’s melancholic. It’s the complete opposite of what the two previous episodes have shown. It isn’t exactly a happy episode but this is the first time the dead person’s realization that he or she is dead is met with a feeling contentment. Instead of seeing a game that breaks the contestants, there’s something very meditative about the way Decim, Kurokami and the old lady play. There’s no drama or action and more than that, the old lady thanks Decim for the experience.

The direction of the 10th episode has been quite good but of course, you could argue that using the stark contrast is a little too “on-the-nose”. Previous episodes have relentlessly subverted and questioned the judgment-system of this series and to have this peaceful, content episode after Decim has started to question the way Arbiters do their job feels a little bit like the series is shoving its message down the audience’s throat.

It’s really just a matter of whether you’ve bought into the premise of this series. The series’ worldbuilding isn’t so amazing that no suspense of disbelief is needed. Especially since the whole point of the series is that its world is flawed. Where the series excels is in trusting the audience to get what’s going on which allows the series to immediately delve into the subversion- and exploration-territory of the world-driven narrative. In many ways this series is a world-type-anime with the typical format of having characters’ fates connected to the mystery and fate of the world while the plot is leading to an apocalypse that resets the world. With the help of the episodic structure and the very introspective perspective, this series does enough, though, to stay interesting.

Rating: 8th/9th Episodes: 8.5/10 10th episode: 7.5/10

About M0rg0th

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

Posted on March 19, 2015, in Anime, Death Parade, Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Here’s what I don’t get: why should I care about any of this? Is it a metaphor for something? Because if it is, I’m missing it. From where I’m sitting, it seems like they created an arbitrary world, with arbitrary rules, but they haven’t given me any reason to give a hoot about any of it. The characters are all shallow and under-developed, so why should I mind that they live in a crappy setting?

    I freely admit that I may well be missing the point, with all the praise this series receives, but personally, while I appreciate the production values, the actual storytelling leaves me stone cold.

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    • The narrative scope of the story is similar to that of one of those big comic-stories with icons like Superman or Iron Man. For example, the Gotham Central comic has a story-arc asking how effective the police can be with someone like Batman running around and how effective the police even can be when faced with Batman’s rogue-gallery. To buy into that premise you already have to buy that Gotham as a city and Batman as a character exist. The story’s scope and themes are going down a rabbithole of multiple steps of buying into the premise of the series.

      In this case, though, things are sped up to a great degree. That’s why I describe it as a “jumping-the-shark”-scenario because the series gave the audience only the first episode to really get a taste for the setting and the characters. After that, each episode where a game is played is the equivalent of the series looking at its own premise. And the series is asking for a lot of suspense of disbelief here as the series doesn’t really have a mythology. “That’s just how this world works.” – is all you get for an explanation why this flawed system is in place. Of course, that, uh, bearded, old guy follows the belief that not only works like that but that it should work like that because the alternatives are worse. But if you haven’t started caring about the world yet then the series does very little to draw you in.

      I’ve also mentioned the weakness of the emotional storybeats of this series. Emotions have more value on a conceptual level than a personal level. And that’s also a part of the world-building. The dead people aren’t the sum of all their experiences. It’s been established that some other doll-people shift through the memories of a dead person and give both the dead people and the arbiter the “best-of”-version which helps the arbiter to steer the dead people into a scenario where they have to confront their own darkness. And then they simply punish whoever is worse. The lack of personal attention and the lack of personal development the dead people can show are just another flaw the series is trying to address.

      *shrug* But you have to buy into the premise for that. And that does take a not very small amount of suspense of disbelief. Also, you may never know but the series may end with a mythology-episode that explains it all (not that this would make the current problems go away).

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  2. Could phrase this all better, but want to cover my issues with the episode quickly;

    Episode 8;
    This episode was essentially padding. It introduces the prospect that one of them is a murderer and until the reveal that they were both murderers, you have the interactions between the two though its nothing we haven’t seen in any of the other prior episodes. They have good interactions until they discovered more, but at this stage I’ve seen 7 prior episodes and a short film where the exact same thing happens.

    Episode 9;
    This episode was trash sadly. I get the idea that its supposed to be on about the human condition, but that doesn’t work here. Both are in the wrong from the start and just because one is more evil than the other shouldn’t give the other a free pass.

    – The detective murdered many people.
    – The kid murdered someone out of revenge and then murdered the detective simply because he entered the house. It could have been anyone.

    The ending also sucked, because its just the woman trying to pretend that if he doesn’t choose to torture the detective that he’ll be able to go back and see his sister again. She overstepped her boundaries and messed up big time, its a good thing neither of these two got reincarnated.

    Granted the situation was laid out in the position where he had the tools, but if you give someone a gun and a target its still their fault if they pull the trigger. This episode however is trying to blame the person who supplied the gun and target. Nobody was forcing this kid to torture the detective and the woman clearly explained that he didn’t have to.

    As such I found this to be the worst episode of the series so far, the second worst being episode 2. Episode 2 being the bland recap episode that decided to support a cheating wife because the guy she cheated on became paranoid after the fact. Episode 2 also had a similar issue to episode 9, it tried to twist the facts to make people question the overall judgement.

    Episode 10;
    Once again, due to episode 9 being utter trash, this episode falls flat. Decim questions himself, but he’s questioning himself despite him being valid in his judgement. As such rather than the idea that an arbiter with emotions can be a good thing which is where this show is no doubt leading, we instead see it the opposite that it is indeed a bad thing because he’s now questioning himself.

    We have a subplot with an illustrator who is completely ignored for most the episode to focus on Chiyuki’s memories that don’t really lead anywhere and most the episode is wasted on people gathering memories and setting up events that will lead to the finale.

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    • “They have good interactions until they discovered more, but at this stage I’ve seen 7 prior episodes and a short film where the exact same thing happens.”

      … which is part of the show’s format. The stories are mostly episodic and the structure is a procedural. And I feel like the show has done enough to not be too repetitive. There’s the thematic undertones that vary between the episodic stories, there’s a main-story connecting all these and you have the quiet episodes for a change of pace. Unless you hate this format of serialized storytelling then I would say this show has done enough to make the stuff that is repeating itself bearable.

      “I get the idea that its supposed to be on about the human condition, but that doesn’t work here. Both are in the wrong from the start and just because one is more evil than the other shouldn’t give the other a free pass.”

      So you’re disagreeing with the premise of this particular episodic story? You think it’s an open-and-shut-case that both should get punished and because of that there’s nothing to explore here. That’s one of the reasons how this series subverts its procedural premise by focusing more on the why than the punishment. This isn’t about finding out who the bad guy is, this is about on what grounds you should judge someone.

      “Nobody was forcing this kid to torture the detective and the woman clearly explained that he didn’t have to.”

      While the detective was taunting him! I think you’re oversimplifying the point these two episodes were getting at. The point is that the way arbiters judge people puts those into a situation where they’re faced with these cruel and dark situations. Sure, if you argue on the basis of free will then it would be the boy’s fault for making the decision but in terms of causality Decim and the system are also to blame for putting him into this situation and offering him these tools. And by motivating people to even consider doing bad stuff in these situations, the arbiters aren’t much better than the detective who watched a girl get raped so that he had a justification to punish the rapist. And in that way the arbiter-system also only cares about punishment. Who deserves to be punished more? – that’s the whole point. And it’s telling how there isn’t any sort of reward in place in this place. You can have been the nicest person imaginable in life and the best thing you get in the afterlife is “Well, how about doing the same thing again?” in this series’ universe.

      “Decim questions himself, but he’s questioning himself despite him being valid in his judgement.”

      But that’s what the series has been getting at the whole time: His judgments are NOT valid! Decim isn’t judging people, he’s trying to find out who he should punish. Those games are about bringing out the darkest parts of the players and putting them into a confrontational scenario. And the game isn’t even fair! After all, the arbiter can influence the game at will to make the game even more tense. That’s hardly a method with which you proclaim valid judgments.

      “As such rather than the idea that an arbiter with emotions can be a good thing which is where this show is no doubt leading, we instead see it the opposite that it is indeed a bad thing because he’s now questioning himself.”

      He’s questioning a bad system and above all, he has become more human by not being just an emotionless “robot-slave” who performs his tasks. Becoming aware of his situation and wondering about the status-quo brings him closer to being a normal human which in turn probably will lead to how empathy is an important tool for judgments the average arbiter is missing.

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