This is one of those shows that imposes the risk of having already said too much for me as a blogger. I mean, over the course of eleven episodes (and Death Billiards) I’ve laid out my feelings about this series and the people behind it pretty clearly by now, so there aren’t going to be many surprises. And the final episode was perfectly consistent and harmonious with the rest of the series in every respect, both thematically and qualitatively – it was the ending Death Parade deserved and that I always expected it to deliver. So I apologize in advance if this post covers a lot of familiar ground.
That consistency is one of the key elements of this series, though. There’s no question that Death Parade is a story that was conceived as a whole, written with the format in mind. This is the luxury of anime-original series – they can deliver complete stories that achieve closure without having to worry about addition, subtraction or communicating ideas that might not be well-suited to the medium. There are adaptations that achieve this too, or close to it, but it’s rare – a lot of things have to fit into place just right for it to happen, and they rarely all do.
In a very real sense, I think Death Parade stands as a kind of absolute contrast to Tokyo Ghoul, and it’s more than coincidental timing that makes me feel that way. Though it ended brilliantly that series was incredibly inconsistent, and never seemed certain of what kind of show it wanted to be. It very much seemed to suffer from a disconnect between what the original author wanted and what would work in anime form. DP is, as much as any series these days can be, a personal project for Tachikawa-sensei. He conceived it, wrote and directed most of the episodes, storyboarded several. Comparing it with TG should make the upside of this scenario obvious – the downside, of course, is that the end-product is only as good as the creator behind it. In this case that’s happily magnificent, and it really deepens my longing to see Morita Shuhei get a chance to direct material he himself conceives for series anime.
The interesting question for me – and I’ve asked it before – is whether Tachikawa Yuzuru had all this in mind when he wrote Death Billiards. Was that OVA an audition he passed, or was it simply so good that Madhouse refused to let it die? In the final analysis it only matters for curiosity’s sake, since the series is what it is – and whenever it was conceived, it was conceived brilliantly. This is a story that has a point, a reason for being told, and it’s not to sell discs (which is a good thing, because I doubt it will sell many). No, it’s the same reason why great stories over the centuries usually come to fruition – because the person who wrote them has questions to ask, and the writing helps them find answers.
The questions Tachikawa asks here are as fundamental as it gets – they probe the very nature of existence. And of sentience, too – and I use that word that quite intentionally, because in the context of this series’ mythology “human” is too narrow a term. What does it mean to be “alive”, and what does it mean to be self-aware? What happens to us after we die, yes, but much more fundamentally – what meaning do our lives have? Are we fundamentally alone in the Universe, doomed to never be able to understand those around us? The afterlife it presents is a fascinating construct in its own right, but I think Tachikawa-sensei clearly uses it primarily to probe the nature of life – not what comes after.
I’ve felt this for a while for a while now, and the finale confirms it for me: I think Tachikawa is saying that yes, we are fundamentally alone. No, we’re not capable of true understanding with others, and when our time is done what remains isn’t ourselves but a caricature of what we were – which is what the memory others have of us is. Those are the “dummies” that Decim keeps – those representations of the lives that have flickered and gone out. Perhaps our closest loved ones have rooms where our dummy has more detailed features, but over time even they fade (just as Decim’s memories do) – and no matter how detailed, it’s still a dummy. It isn’t who we are, or even who we were – it’s just how one person remembers us, and that only until they forget (or likewise pass from the Earth).
That’s a depressing notion in a vacuum, certainly. But it’s only half of what Tachikawa is saying here. All of that may be true, and life (and afterlfe) may be fundamentally unfair to boot. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seize the day and make the most of every moment we have. The fact that we can never achieve perfect understanding with other beings doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and that we shouldn’t strive to make those we love happy while we’re with them. That’s root of Decim’s – this strangely wise and childlike “dummy” – personal philosophy. That’s why he respects those who “live for the moment”, even (and especially) after they’re dead.
I think it’s sort of funny that Light Yagami made a guest appearance in Death Parade, because a lot of the criticisms that were hurled against this show are actually kind of true about Death Note (as good a pulp thriller series as it was, and that’s very good). Tachikawa systematically tore down those criticisms with the work itself – that it was shallow, that it didn’t have a larger point. That it was presenting a skewed view of the Universe with no context as to why it existed. There was a point to everything that happened in Death Parade, and Tachikwa showed it to us to create a complete picture of a Universe he sees as fundamentally indifferent and unfair (or more accurately, indifferent to fairness). But over the course of the last few episodes he really showed us how much his larger his vision of life, the universe and everything is than just those harsh and bleak elements (indeed, I think the infectiously genki OP acted as a sort of hint that we should look past the darkness that dominated the early episodes).
I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s monologue from Hannah and Her Sisters, which comes after he’s just had a terrifying medical scare which had him contemplating suicide.
One day about a month ago, I really hit bottom. Ya know I just felt that in a Godless universe I didn’t wanna go on living. Now I happen to own this rifle, which I loaded believe it or not, and pressed it to my forehead. And I remember thinking, I’m gonna kill myself. Then I thought, what if I’m wrong, what if there is a God. I mean, after all nobody really knows that. Then I thought no, ya know maybe is not good enough, I want certainty or nothing. And I remember very clearly, the clock was ticking, and I was sitting there frozen with the gun to my head, debating whether to shoot.
All of a sudden the gun went off. I had been so tense my finger squeezed the trigger inadvertantly. But I was perspiring so much the gun had slid off my forehead and missed me. Suddenly neighbors were pounding on the door, and I dunno the whole scene was just pandemonium. I ran to the door, I didn’t know what to say. I was embarrassed and confused and my mind was racing a mile a minute. And I just knew one thing I had to get out of that house, I had to just get out in the fresh air and clear my head. I remember very clearly I walked the streets, I walked and I walked I didn’t know what was going through my mind, it all seemed so violent and unreal to me. I wandered for a long time on the upper west side, it must have been hours. My feet hurt, my head was pounding, and I had to sit down. I went into a movie house. I didn’t know what was playing or anything I just needed a moment to gather my thoughts and be logical and put the world back into rational perspective. And I went upstairs to the balcony, and I sat down, and the movie was a film that I’d seen many times in my life since I was a kid, and I always loved it. I’m watching these people up on the screen and I started getting hooked on the film. I started to feel, how can you even think of killing yourself, I mean isn’t it so stupid. Look at all the people up there on the screen, they’re real funny, and what if the worst is true. What if there is no God and you only go around once and that’s it. Well, ya know, don’t you wanna be part of the experience? You know, what the hell – it’s not all a drag. And I’m thinking to myself, Jeez, I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I’m never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts. And after who knows, I mean maybe there is something, nobody really knows. I know maybe is a very slim reed to hang your whole life on, but that’s the best we have. And then I started to sit back, and I actually began to enjoy myself.
It will have escaped no intrepid observer’s attention that suicide is a recurring theme in Death Parade. It’s a difficult subject to say the least. In many faiths it’s considered among the most grievous of sins a human can commit, one from which there is no possibility of eternal salvation. There are multiple characters in Death Parade who commit suicide (some more literally than others) including the one who’s unquestionably the heroine. And even if it’s largely metaphorical, the issue of the eternal soul is certainly crucial in the literal narrative of the series. What are we to make of the series’ view on whether a suicide victim can indeed be “saved”? In this mythology, it seems, the key is whether or not one can come to realize the true nature of the deed – not just or even primarily the sin of wasting one’s own life, but the pain and suffering it causes to those left behind.
This makes me think of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a hugely popular place to commit suicide, and has been since it was built in the 1930’s. So much so, in fact, that in recent years a suicide barrier was finally erected over the loud protests of those who felt it would compromise the bridge’s beauty. It so happens that a certain percentage of those who attempt suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge survive, and in interviews later on they almost invariably come back to the same point – as soon as they were in midair, they realized how foolish they’d been. They realized that they actually didn’t want to die – or even more crucially (and with DP it’s an important point) that they wanted to live. In effect, these people were given a second chance – a hard and painful (both physical and emotional) one, but a second chance nonetheless. And that’s how I interpret the “good” elevator in Death Parade – a second chance, of a sort. It fits in Buddhist terms, but I believe it’s intended to be taken somewhat differently.
In the final analysis, Death Parade was more intricately plotted, more subtle, more intellectually ambitious and more humanistic that its critics accused it of being. The final episode certainly laid some interesting ideas on the table. The arbiters – even Oculus and Nona themselves – are dummies too, and made of the discarded souls that have passed through. What does that make them, if not much more human than they’re alleged to be? When Nona cries “There’s no way this world can be right the way it is right now!”, that’s the helpless indignation of everyone who’s ever railed against the unfairness of life, and a cold Universe which seems to hold little regard for our happiness. And she goes further – it’s not wrong for the arbiters to suffer when they make judgments. In fact, it’s vital – because to be forced to face the painful and difficult and make choices is what makes us alive in the first place. And arbiters, these so-called “dummies”, are very much alive.
And painful this is for Decim, most certainly in Chiyuki’s case. It’s not difficult to see early on that the journey he takes her on and the choice he offers her are false (now we know why he ordered those memories) – themselves part of his role as an arbiter. But while this may seem cruel and unfair itself, it’s the only way Decim knows to relate to the world. He wants to know Chiyuki better, just as he wanted to know all of his “guests” better. And the knowledge that this is likely illusory doesn’t make watching Chyuki’s visit to her home any less agonizing. She’s a kind and empathetic person, clearly, but one who made a terrible mistake – and she’s being shown just how much pain that mistake caused the person she loved the most. To see Chiyuki’s mother preparing food for a daughter who’s gone, clutching at the “Chavvot” dolls she made for her (just as Decim makes dolls of those he wishes to remember) is truly heartbreaking both for Chiyuki and the audience.
I was certainly repeating “Don’t press it!” urgently to the screen as I watched this unfold – not just or even mostly because I knew this was a test, but because I knew it was wrong. And I knew Chiyuki did, too. Iwaaki-sensei makes the point at the close of Kiseijuu (Madhouse’s other gem which ended this week) of how the lives of those we don’t know hold less apparent value than the lives of those we do, but Tachikawa goes at it from quite a different angle here. He focuses (through Chiyuki’s minds-eye) on the fact that everyone is precious to someone, and that every life is fragile and priceless. Ultimately Chiyuki realizes that no matter how terrible the mistakes we make, we must accept responsibility for them – we cannot pass the cost on to others. And she must bear with the knowledge that she cannot make amends to the ones she’s hurt via her mistake – not in this life, anyway, though perhaps somehow in the next one.
If this is the lesson for Chiyuki in her test, and she passes it with dignity, the lesson for Decim is much as Nona describes. He experiences a pain he’s never experienced before – the regret he feels over the impermanence of the lives that touch his magnified a thousand times by the urgency with which he wants to understand Chiyuki. But he still tried to understand her – even if the effort was unnatural, difficult and ultimately painful. And in the end because of that pain he’s able to do something else he’s never done before – smile. He smiles for Chiyuki, and because of the connection they’ve made. It’s a truly beautiful and bittersweet moment – an acceptance that there is no joy without pain, and that ultimately life is a series of compromises. Accept that which is unfair and cruel, and do our best to reach each other in the imperfect manner that’s all we’re capable of. It comes down to a simple question – do we live so that we may someday die, or do we die because we have lived?
This is where Tachikawa leaves things, elegantly open-ended in lifelike fashion. Memine has left Ginti’s side, but he now has a Kokeshi in her image – the proof that she made an impact on his life. Nona is content to let her revolution simmer for now, though she’s clearly not prepared to let Oculus’ vision proceed unchallenged. And as Chiyuki goes on to her reincarnation, a new dummy resides at Quindecim – one which seems altogether more lifelike than any that came before it. This is neither a happy or tragic ending, because existence is more than those simple concepts – they’re part of it, but it transcends their meaning. It’s exactly the place I would have expected Death Parade to leave things, because it’s the only place it could and still be true to itself.
As Death Parade now sails off to commercial oblivion, it’s a good moment to reflect again on just what a miracle it is that series like this ever get produced in the current anime climate. If the price for one Death Parade is Mahouka or Mahou Sensou – hell, ten Mahoukas – I’ll pay it. If that cost is what it takes for Madhouse to keep producing subtle and powerful series that have a larger purpose than simply making money, I’ll gladly pay it – there is no reward without pain, after all, and fans of quality anime know that all too well. And I’ll be eagerly waiting to see what Tachikawa Yuzuru does next, because with the brilliant and ambitious Death Parade he’s stamped himself as one of the best and brightest in anime.