Death Parade was a 2015 Madhouse production that flew under the radar. It piqued my interest when I heard about it from a few different websites. Interestingly enough, the series was born from a short standalone episode called Death Billiards. The premise revolves around the afterlife. When people die, they lose their memories and are sent to a limbo world to be judged. In this world, there is a group known as the arbiters that judge the deceased. Our main character Decim, is one such person, and with his assistant, they force the people entering the world to play a high stakes game in order to bring out the darkness in their hearts.
Beginnings can be deceiving. Death Parade gives the appearance of an episodic show. Guests arrive at the Queendecim. Decim explains that they will be required to play a game against one another. The two participants are unaware of the consequences of winning and losing, but Decim insinuates that the loser will die. In actuality, both people have already passed from the world of the living. Eventually, they both agree to play and as they play, they slowly recover parts of their memories. Decim uses their actions over the course of the game to judge whether that person’s souls will be sent to the void or to reincarnation. Those are the two options. However, as the show progresses the overarching thematic issues become apparent because the cast expands.
Decim is accompanied by a human assistant. She is arguably the most important person in the entire show. Decim values her opinion because he believes she lived a fulfilling life and can offer a perspective on the situations that he is lacking. Decim’s main issue is that he is not human and therefore, cannot possess human emotions. His assistant is the complete opposite. In several of the games that are played, she sympathizes with the guests. She believes that Decim acts unfairly when he intervenes and forces the dark side of their personalities to come out. She firmly believes that Decim is creating the darkness instead of eliciting it. Decim believes he is simply doing what he is supposed to: judging these people based on their actions within the confines of the arbitrary game. As the show progresses, the assistant’s role within Death Parade’s world becomes increasingly important and the relationship between her and Decim is what the show is about at its core. Her presence allows the audience to think about the larger issues the show presents and what they mean in a broader context.
Decim is not the only arbiter in the show. We also get to see Ginti, who in many ways is the complete opposite of Decim. He is brash and loud mouthed and immediately says what is on his mind a lot of the time. Decim begins to struggle with the fact that he is beginning to understand human emotions, and Ginti has no such feelings. To him, humans are dumb and make poor decisions. He lacks all empathy and cannot understand Decim’s viewpoint. Later in the show, he creates a situation where a human girl, who has been hanging around his bar a lot, will consider giving her life in exchange for a male celebrity she adores. She is convinced by Ginti that the boy will be saved. He is unable to understand what she lives for or why she would so willingly throw her life away for a stranger. Rather cruelly, this exchange is a trick and Ginti sends both of them to the void. His cat companion leaves him in that moment as if to suggest that he will never learn and will always separate himself from the humans he judges.
There are larger forces at play in Death Parade. A character remarks early on in the show that God is dead. This leads to some interesting questions. How did the people in charge come into power? If God is dead, what gives these people the moral authority to judge others? Decim’s boss is a woman named Nona, who is in charge of all the arbiters. She has a special relationship with Decim because she is trying to show that human emotion is necessary to pass judgment. She never lets him know of this ulterior motive because she does not want to cloud his judgment. Behind the scenes, she creates situations and gives Decim guests that will make him question his current course of action. Sometimes he does not have any misgivings, but with his assistant being present, which is also Nona’s doing, he starts to feel uneasy. Death Parade exists inside an interesting world with many things happening behind the scenes with the other characters and Nona is important because she facilitates most of it. She is the driving force behind the show and is a necessary character so the show can present serious subject matter, especially pertaining to human emotion.
Death Parade’s first episode features a human couple that agrees to play Decim’s game. They seem in love at first. They are both concerned for each other before the game starts, but when the stakes are high the ugly sides of their personality come out. Or does it? That is one of the primary questions concerning the show. Do the games bring out the darkness in peoples’ hearts? Alternatively, do the games create the darkness? As the husband and wife play darts against one another, they begin to recover their memories. The wife reveals that she is pregnant. The key issue in this marriage is that the husband is insecure. He remembers a specific situation where he overhears a couple of his wife’s friends talking about how their friend is cheating on the man she is dating. He assumes that his wife is this woman because she fits their description. The husband confronts her during the game, but she denies it and claims that they were gossiping about a different girl. Ultimately, the husband tries to win the game and save himself. The wife reveals that she was cheating on him, and it is assumed they are both condemned. Human emotions are more complicated than that. That is what Decim’s assistant believes. Did she actually cheat on her husband? The husband has to deal with the guilt of killing his unborn child. He acted out of insecurity and jealousy. Telling him what he wants to believe would free him of this guilt. Is she a monster? Or, does she lie to him to absolve his guilt because she loves him so much? Decim treats this situation in very black and white terms. There is no gray area in his mind. This first episode illustrates that Death Parade is willing to tackle difficult subject matter and pose uneasy questions to its audience.
Each pair of guests tackles different subject matter. There is a man who kills himself and regrets it after the fact. Two men come in having both killed people before they died. Each man’s story involves the idea of revenge and makes you wonder if it is ever worth it. There is another man who cheats on his girlfriend, and is murdered by her as a result. You see the consequences of deep seated issues. Death Parade makes you realize just how complex human emotions can be. Decim’s assistant wants him to understand a lot of the time humans don’t make sense, but that does not necessarily mean judgment should be passed one way or the other. Near the show’s end however, judgment will be passed on Decim’s assistant. Since she is human, her soul still has not passed onto the afterlife. Arbiters have to judge as bound by the world’s rules. His assistant learns that she is human and she struggles because she does not understand Decim’s lack of empathy. In the last couple episodes she learns both her name and her past memories.
Decim’s assistant goes by the name of Chiyuki. When she was a young girl, she fell in love with the story of Chavvot where a boy loved a girl who was deaf so they communicated through non-verbal gestures. Chiyuki’s mother made dolls from this children’s story and gave them to her daughter. As a young girl, Chiyuki also developed an affinity towards ice skating. She practiced more and more as she grew up and began to participate in competitions. When doing a routine, she suffered a career ending injury and this injury quickly devolved into feelings of self-pity and self-loathing. Chiyuki kills herself because she no longer possesses any self-worth. Chiyuki’s story explores suicide and the effects it has on its loved ones. In the last episode Decim shows Chiyuki the current life of her family. Neither she nor Decim can interact with the living. Chiyuki sees her mother come home and kneel in front of the memorial constructed for her dead daughter. Her mother starts to cry and laments being unable to neither see her daughter nor understand her daughter’s mindset in the moments leading up to the suicide. As her mother breaks down, Chiyuki begins to as well. She sees the pain her decision made, and she wants to help her mother. Decim offers her the choice of being resurrected in the living world. In exchange, one random person will die. This is the ultimate decision the show has been leading up to. This decision is Decim’s judgment. Chiyuki is unable to press the button and answer yes. She concludes that this random person will be important to someone else in the world. She cannot cause suffering for those other people that will care. Chiyuki takes responsibility for her decision, and we as an audience see the aftermath of a suicide. It is not often an anime is willing to explore that subject, and these issues elevate Death Parade above a lot of other anime.
Do you like mature anime? Mature is a very subjective term, but there are anime that deal with darker themes. Death Parade is such a show. It features two leads that interact wonderfully together because they are so fundamentally different. Decim learns to appreciate human emotion and Chiyuki comes to terms with the consequences of her past decisions. Death Parade made me realize that we all make mistakes, but we can work to understand those mistakes and more importantly, understand each other. Death Parade is worth the twelve episode commitment.