It seems to me that fans of the Onepunch Man manga (and I knew they are legion) ought to be very excited about the news that Madhouse will be handling the adaptation (with Shingo Natsume directing, no less). This studio is compiling a pretty remarkable record over the last couple of seasons – it looks set to continue with Ore Monogatari!! – and I think it’s pretty clear there’s a two-track production system going on there. We have the commercial LN adaptations (where IMHO, it’s clear that most of the time the studio is pretty much mailing it in), and then the series they really care about – which inevitably sell almost no discs.
Many directors and actors in Hollywood have used this approach – “one for the studio, then one for me” – but I don’t know how commercially viable it is in anime. Perhaps being owned by a major network isn the difference, but whatever the reason, it’s a damn good thing we still have Madhouse making shows like Death Parade and Kiseijuu. Perhaps in OPM they’ll finally have the show that bridges the gap – an artistically ambitious series that succeeds by conventional commercial measures. I have no doubt that Hunter X Hunter made money for the major parties involved, but it’s a unicorn – a generational shounen standard with a huge cross-platform and demographic presence.
I think back to the early days of Death Parade, when a lot of critics were dismissing it as shallow and exploitative, a show that was only using its hook for provocation purposes. How wrong those people were, if you ask me – DP has answered any questions about its motives above and beyond reasonable doubt over the last few episodes. It knew exactly what it was doing all along, and it was doing it from a perspective both sensible and humane. Merely because a series is dark and unsparing doesn’t mean it’s also defeatist and fatalistic – I think we’re seeing a fundamentally uplifting tale played out here, albeit one that pulls no punches about how hard it is to live a life of empathy and compassion in a Universe that’s often cruel and usually uncaring.
Setting aside the larger power struggle between Nona and Oculus and its implications for the moment, there were two plotlines playing out concurrently here, with each arbiter dealing with his “problem child”. While the dialogue intercut between the two of them for the entire episode, I think it’s easier here to deal with them one at a time, and I’ll start with Ginti and Mayu. And Harada – I was very surprised to see his body, but it was back (if uninhabited). Ginti has effectively admitted he failed in his role to judge Mayu (I’m still not 100% sure why, to be honest) and given her a choice – she can reunite Harada’s soul with his body, but in order to do so she must condemn another soul to the Void in its place Ginti spares no detail in spelling out for Mayu just what a bad place the Void is, and what the consequences are for the unnamed man (who yes, does look a dead-ringer for Yagami Light from Death Note – who was voiced by Miyano Mamoru, who voices Harada, and which was also a Madhouse series) if she condemns him sight unseen in order to save Harada.
Just what exactly did happen here? For me, the Occam’s Razor answer is that Mayu pressed the button and condemned the man (who was likely a dummy) to the Void – which was actually a test for her, which she failed. It could also be that she declined to press the button and accepted being condemned with Harada – but that doesn’t make as much sense to me. Assuming it’s the former, was what Ginti did to her a dirty trick? I suppose I would have to say yes – I mean, he did pull a bait-and-switch with the elevator. But I think a strong case could be made that Ginti basically offered Mayu the truth, and the question he asked her was whether she was willing to give up everything in order to be with Harada. It’s kind of a dumb life choice, that’s obvious, but it is a choice – this is something Mayu followed through to the end, and it seems at the very least she and Harada are now joined forever – though the accommodations leave something to be desired.
The main event, of course, was Onna’s story, and it didn’t disappoint. In the first place, the way her memories played out through a scene with her ice skating under the watchful eye of Decim and his dummies was masterful – poetic, poignant, beautiful. It was splendidly animated, with a lovely piece of music I can only assume was an original composition by Hayashi Yuuki. And it fit the story perfectly. We see scenes of her happy childhood – loving parents, “Chavvot” dolls on the shelf, a love of figure skating (hugely popular here) when eventually is rewarded by a chance to skate competitively. Onna is beautiful – as a child, as a young woman, and achingly so on the ice – and that’s why it’s so painful when her life takes a turn for the worse. She injures her knee badly, and is told she’ll never skate again.
With no hyperbole, I can say that I loved what happened next. It was genuinely deep – deep in a way fiction of any kind rarely is. What happens to Chiyuki – what sends her down a path of despair that eventually leads her to take her own life? It’s not the loss of skating – Chiyuki herself realizes that there were more important things in her life, and she had plenty in that life outside skating (though skating did help her find it). No, it was the fact that losing skating forced her to realize to most fundamental and terrifying truth in the Universe – each of us are well and truly alone. I played this stretch of conversation back several times, just to savor the words and come to terms with them – because as always, Death Parade allows us to find the way to the truth ourselves. “Those dear friends, pals of mine, even my family were all strangers in a very real sense, right? I mean – they weren’t me. Everything that seemed so important was now so hollow… People just can’t understand each other. It’s wrong to try to understand each other.”
Without putting too fine a point on it, this feeling is the very essence of existential despair – and one could argue that the driving force behind most philosophical and religious development in recorded human history is to try to understand it (between DP and Kiseijuu this week, Madhouse may have had the most profound 48 hours in recent anime history). And, of course, to deal with it without killing ourselves. Decim, so childlike in his way, gives Chiyuki a child’s answer. He asks her what emotion she’s feeling, and when she answers (“Sad, of course”) he asks “Is it wrong for me to want to understand that? I have never so much as lived, yet alone died. I do now know the correct way to express this, but I am truly glad to have met you, Chiyuki-san.”
In its way, this has become one of the most emotionally powerful anime relationships in a long time. It’s not romance, simply a kind of soul connection – and one of the parties doesn’t have a soul. Decim (one suspects Nona knows this) has evolved into the perfect advocate for a humanistic view of existence – that we die because we have lived, rather than live simply that we may die. That the fact that we cannot truly understand each other doesn’t matter – what’s important is the effort. We still must wait and see how Decim and Onna’s story resolves itself, but the larger story seems likely to dominate the final episode – and I don’t think it should be overlooked that whatever her motives, it appears that Nona has exploited Decim and Onna for her own purposes – and in doing so, she’s trifled with their feelings in a way that’s truly a violation of their dignity as sentient beings. There’s no black and white here, not in Death Parade – this is a story that asks difficult questions, and doesn’t pretend they have easy answers.