This is a tough series in many ways, among the most obvious being that it’s often not easy to watch. But it’s also tough to judge – not in terms of conception and execution (where it’s stellar) but ethically and morally. After four episodes and an OVA I’m still not sure what we have here – what Death Parade is trying to say, and why. Perhaps its intent is nothing more than to provoke a visceral reaction from the audience, and if that’s the case, I think it’s definitely mission accomplished.
My initial take on this week’s pairing was that if last week had two characters who clearly both deserved another chance, this was two who both belonged on the Onii elevator. And for a while, I thought that’s where we might be headed, with Tateishi Yousuke (Morita Masakazu) and Tachibana Misaki (Yamaguchi Yuriko) being presented as an intentional counterpoint to last week’s much more innocent pair. But as usual DP did a brilliant job of muddying the waters by episodes end – in more ways than one.
Make no mistake, even by Death Parade standards this was certainly not a feel-good episode. In Yousuke and Misaki we had two characters who weren’t especially likeable, yes, but it goes deeper than that because this story again asks serious questions about the entire premise. “Who are you to make decisions like these?” Misaki asks Dekim accusingly – and it’s a question I find myself asking as well. He later says “I draw out the darkness of their souls” and while not specifically an answer to her question, it may as well be – clearly, he sees his role as peeling away the artifice his “guests” erect over their true selves and casting judgement on what lies underneath. But there are definitely times when I feel that if this is how the Universe chooses to judge our eternal souls, the Universe is kind of an asshole.
Of course, a key question (and one I’ve asked before) is whether we’re in fact supposed to feel that way. I suspect the answer is yes, but I’m not certain – and I’m not certain it even matters, if indeed DP is merely acting as an agent provocateur. Dekim certainly gives us all the more reason to feel dissatisfied with the fairness of his operation, using a cheat to skew the results of the combat between Misaki and Yousuke when he feels they’re not producing enough tension for his purposes. But he later seems to show genuine “human” compassion in consoling the two tortured souls when they realize the truth of what’s happened – though it’s the hard genius of his character that we can’t be sure it isn’t just part of his job description. And Onna again seems to play the audience proxy role here, emotionally reacting to highly abnormal situations in much the way a normal human probably would.
As for that duel, it’s an arcade setup called “Battle of Life“, a classic fighting game cleverly featuring the two leads as the only character choices and employing the unmistakeable Tachiki Fumihiko as the narrator. As the story unfolds we realize that both principals have had pretty depressing lives. Misaki is a reality TV Mom with five kids who’s been abused repeatedly, and now seems to view her children mainly as props and treats her colleagues like dirt. And Yousuke is an otaku (perhaps a hikikomori) who continually pushes away his stepmother despite her sincere efforts to reach out to him. And once the nature of their deaths become clear, the picture gets even bleaker – Yousuke committed suicide (which in most Western religions would make this whole pretext moot) and Misaki was strangled by her manager after taking her abuse (verbal and physical) one step too far.
The question Death Parade forces on us is whether either of these two deserves another chance. Certainly Misaki’s behavior during the episode is pretty damning: she convinces herself the whole thing is itself a reality TV stunt (which may have prompted Dekim to goad things along a bit) and later, repeatedly pounds Yousuke’s head into his console after Dekim sabotages her joystick, with enough force to kill him if he hadn’t already been dead. Certainly, both parties show genuine remorse in the end – but is showing remorse alone enough to make amends? If not, what is the qualitative difference between Misaki and Yousuke – what prompts Dekim to send him upstairs, and her downstairs?
I suppose it wouldn’t be Death Parade if it were easy to answer that – and the nature of the series itself is part of the conundrum, not just the specifics of this storyline. I think the best argument that could be made is that even in the end, Misaki’s sorrow seemed to be self-centered – less a concern about the children she’d be leaving behind, but in the act of leaving itself. In Yousuke’s case I think the remorse was more genuine and more self-directed – anger at himself for the hurt he’d caused his stepmother by his stubbornness and pettiness. Is that enough? I don’t know, nor do I know if neither player getting a chance at reincarnation is even one of the options. But I do feel if either one deserved the chance, it was Yousuke – and that if the Universe were to err, I think it would be vastly preferable to err on the side of forgiveness.
This wasn’t an episode I would say I felt good about, but at the same time I think it was pretty close to brilliant. As I said last week it’s harder to get audience buy-in telling episodic stories than ones with character continuity, and it’s also harder to emotionally connect when telling stories about basically unlikeable characters. I love the fact that Death Parade isn’t looking for easy routes here – it’s taking the harder path with the choices it’s making, including not connecting all the dots for the audience. I don’t believe we’re supposed to feel good watching this episode – not about Misaki and Yousuke, nor about the way Dekim handled their arbitration. I’m certain the show’s reward is going to be dismal disc sales, but I’m fervently glad anime still has a tiny corner for shows that are more than amalgams of production committee demands and a marketing strategy.