There were a lot of questions hanging in the air after last week’s episode of Death Parade – fundamental ones pertaining to both the series’ form and its content. Some of them were answered this week (including in the preview) but a bunch of new ones were raised, too. This was a masterful episode in that not only did it entertain splendidly on its own terms, but it opened up a new world of possibilities for where the series might go from here. It’s exhilarating to ponder where a writer/director with as munch imagination as Tachikwa Yuzuru might go with an entire season in which to give free run to his muse.
Three weeks on, I can’t remember another season where the gap between the best new show and the rest of the field was as wide as it is here. It’s damn hard to write compelling character drama when you effectively start over every week – without the luxury of time to develop characters (and viewers’ engagement with them) making an audience care about what’s happening is much more difficult – but so far Tachikawa-sensei is up to the task. In that respect DP has more in common with Mushishi than the eerie resemblance between the two main characters.
This week’s “Rolling Ballade” focuses on the game of bowling, which I can attest has become very popular in Japan these last few years (especially with those in the age bracket of this episode’s protagonists). The central players are Miura Shigeru (an excellent Majima Junji) and Miyazaki Chisato (M.A.O) – though her name will become a component in the drama. Shigeru arrives unconscious and Chisato not remembering her name (though the veracity of that claim, too, will become a salient point). But it’s clear right away that this is a different sort of story that’s come before above and beyond those obvious differences.
One worry I’ve had about Death Parade is that if it continued to more or less fixate on the dark side of human nature, it might become a bit of a depressing slog in the end. With “Rolling Ballade” we now know that this is a series that’s open to tales of widely differing tones, which I think is a huge boon to its staying power. The nature of DP is such that if the protagonists don’t know what’s going on, we probably don’t either – but the tone of this matchup is starkly different from the first two games we’ve seen in this mythology. Even Onna makes note of the fact that it’s a refreshing change-of-pace – though Dekim’s reaction to that is rather unsettling.
Watching Shigeru and Chisato bowl is akin to watching two shy young adults on a first date. As it turns out that’s effectively what this is, which means the series deserves a fair amount of credit. The impact is that I found myself fervently hoping that some deep dark secret wouldn’t be revealed and set these two sweet kids off against each other. And while there is indeed a deep dark secret and the game itself is rather grisly (each kid bowls with a ball containing a representation – lifelike in heart-rate and temperature – of the other’s heart) – there’s no simmering resentment or cruelty in what’s happening here. These two really are as nice as they seem – and as inexperienced, which makes what we know has happened to them feel all the more tragic.
In the end the big reveal is that Chisato has had plastic surgery to try and make herself look like the girl that Shigeru loved when all three of them were childhood playmates – which is rather pathetic and sad, but a crime against herself more than anything. Whether she remembered that all along is debatable – I would argue that it’s suggested she didn’t until her final ball – but what really strikes me (sorry) as important here is that it seems even after Shigeru (in life) learned the truth, he still intended to strike up (sorry) a relationship with Chisato (whose real name is Mai) again (though that too is debatable, as we don’t know what he was about to tell her on that ill-fated bus). What’s clear to me is that neither one of these young people deserved the Onii-vator – and we no know that it’s possible for both participants to get on the same elevator, even if they end up in different places. It’s sad that these two had only their brief “date” to be together before being split up again, but it would have been much sadder to see either of them sent off into the void.
It’s very good to see the rules show a little flexibility, because it gives Death Parade a lot more wiggle room in its storytelling. It’s also nice to see that Dekim is both able and willing to bend the rules a bit to allow his two innocents to have a taste of what might have been, had they lived (that Onna again shows herself a romantic is no surprise). I’m also pleased to see that next week is another new story, indicating that last week’s “answer key” episode is a series intro one-off (or at least an uncommon occurrence). I’m happier that we’re not going to see the man behind the curtain every other week – now that we know the basics, I’d much rather things be left to interpretation. This is a series that gives us both a lot to think about and a lot of reasons to feel, and those kinds of shows are pretty darn rare. It’s clearly the best show of the season, and the possibilities from here are exciting to ponder.