Death Parade follows up possibly its weakest (but still very good, and quite well-received by most) episode with just maybe its best. I’m not breaking any big news here, but this show is good – really, really good. It pretty much justified the existence of Anime Mirai all by itself, because this is exactly what the goal of that project was – to give an opportunity to talented young industry professionals to make a big impression. And boy, did Tachikawa-sensei ever do that – and he still is.
What’s impressing me most, I think, is that a show that I expected to love as an episodic series of one-offs with minimal continuity continues to reveal new depths and complexities week after week, with no end in sight. To put things in perspective, Tachikawa is both director and writer of Death Parade – but he’s also written every individual episode and storyboarded several. The headline of this series may be the arrival of a new creative giant in anime, but the question I find myself asking is this – was Death Parade always this big a story? Did it always have this many layers, and was all of this in Tachikawa’s mind even when Madhouse let him make Death Billiards? Or did he simply dream up that brilliant one-off, and only after the idea of a series was floated did he flesh out the broader universe and story?
So much that seems important was said by so many characters this week that it’s hard to know where to start. We can begin where the episode does, with Oculus telling us the three rules of being an arbiter: No quitting making judgments, no experiencing death (because that would make them too close to being human), and no emotions – because they’re dummies. That’s a bit of a bombshell right there, though it’s not abjectly surprising. The big takeaway for me isn’t that the arbiters are dummies, but that the three rules seem essentially to add up to one thing – no empathy. And one gets the sense that Oculus is on to the possibility that Nona is testing these boundaries – and that for all his seeming joviality, he’s liable to bare a terrible set of teeth at some point.
Nona’s exact reasons for messing with the system aren’t clear, but she definitely is, and it’s manifesting itself in many ways. There’s Onna’s existence, and Nona’s toying with her dreams and memories via the “Chavvot” book (which Oculus discovers near the end of the episode). Oculus’ reference to it as a “living world book” seems to confirm that Onna is – or was – a human. And it seems clear that she’s part of Nona’s “experiment” to create an arbiter with emotions. “I just think there should be more than one way to judge souls.” she confides to Quin (Shiraishi Ryoko). Which seems to fly directly in the face of Oculus’ stated rules.
A couple of things seem clear enough. If Onna is indeed part of the plan to draw out Decim’s emotions, she’s not the entire plan – Decim has obviouslyly had emotions (implanted or not) right from the beginning. We can see that in his “final exam” where he declines to use the cheat button to create a tense situation and bring out the darkness in the players. Also, it’s obvious that Decim isn’t alone in having emotions and thus, not alone in being part of Nona’s experiment – Ginti clearly has them too, even if they tend to manifest in much more obvious and negative ways. The fact that he’s seemingly declined to pass judgment on Mayu just as Decim did on Onna confirms this – though I don’t find the reasons why Mayu should have been the one to drive Ginti to this quite as obvious.
As for Quin, she’s the “Quin” in “Quindecim” – Decim’s predecessor, and now working in the information gathering section (which she hates, because it’s too much work). She also seems to be something of a confidante and friend to Nona, and is likewise unsettled by the rate at which folks are dying and the half-assed job of sorting memories this forces her department to do (and quite possibly the half-assed judging it forces her old section to do). The tone of their conversation – while sipping Grand Cru Bordeaux on deck chairs in front of Nona’s house in one of the most gorgeous and imaginative backgrounds of the season – clearly suggests that a crisis is brewing, and Nona has little enough faith in Oculus’ ability to handle it that she’s willing to take some major risks (I’m assuming bribing Castra to send two “marked” souls to Quindecim is part of this risky plan).
This is all great stuff, frankly – I just love how much Death Parade demands that you really think about what you’re watching. But for me the highlight of the episode is not about thinking so much as feeling, and it comes when Decim shows off his collection of dummies to Onna. This was in response to reminiscing about Quin, whose parting advice to Decim and Ginti was “find one thing you truly treasure” – but the funny thing is, Decim doesn’t seem to exactly grasp what she meant by this. He’s clearly the least “human” of all the dummies in this afterlife corporate structure as far as temperament is concerned, but that he’s loaded with the forbidden empathy is beyond doubt. The dummies, it turns out, are the housing for the souls that come to be judged – once the souls have boarded the elevators and moved on, the dummies are to be discarded.
Though we see no overt emotion from Decim in describing why he does what he does, I found it to be the most touching moment in the series thus far. He makes a dummy representative of each of the souls who’s visited Quindecim whose lives he respects, because he can’t bear the thought of them being cast aside and utterly forgotten. This is his way of honoring their memory – and it’s all the more poignant because it’s Quixotic in nature. Decim himself will forget those people, because the memories of arbiters about the souls they’ve judged are periodically wiped. He’ll look at his dummy of Machiko or any of the others and have no idea who they are, yet he still treasures them (even if he doesn’t understand what that means) because somehow, they still represent that soul’s existence. It’s kind of like saying the tree that falls does make a sound, even if there’s no one around to hear it.
There’s a childlike purity of feeling to this, and it really cements Decim as someone who’s fit to be the emotional core of the series even if he betrays no emotion himself (by contrast I would describe Ginti as childish – but no less “human”). I feel as if my earlier comment that “the universe is kind of an asshole” is true, but what’s emerging here is that even in so-called “dummies”, there’s a core of humanity that’s always fighting to assert itself – to treat souls with the dignity they deserve no matter how flawed they were, and to give them a “jury of their peers” because it’s simply the right thing to do. Just what this says about the mythology of Death Parade I don’t really know – we’re getting into some pretty metaphysical territory here – but what I do know is that all of this is utterly fascinating to ponder and strikes a chord that’s emotionally true. And those are certainly among the most positive things one could ever say about a series.