Thursday, April 9, 2015

Anime Recommendation: Death Parade

I'm often jaded by the prospect of original, twelve-episode animes.

The time frame is short for a series that wants to set up a story with any kind of depth; there are limits to how many ideas you can explore.  And so when Death Parade started, I dismissed it as a formulaic case-of-the-week type show, where the dead popped up in Hell's Waiting Room to see whether they'd be reincarnated or not.

But I was wrong.  To my delight, Death Parade turned out to be infinitely more than what I'd hoped: not a formulaic death-of-the-week show, but a series that very eloquently illustrates the bare-bones nature of existentialism and seeks to explore why the temporal, mistake-riddled, passion-driven lives of people matter.

Memento mori: remember you must die.  That credo is at the heart of DP's philosophy and, if you can handle the attendant darkness and sadness, this is a show I think you'll enjoy.

Don't let the opening fool you; DP is, at times, as dark as it gets.

The central premise is pretty simple.  In an afterlife bar called Quindecim, the souls of the recently deceased are judged by the bartender and Arbiter, Decim.  By putting humans through emotionally-rigorous games meant to exposure their "true natures," he can determine whether they should be reincarnated or sent to the void.  Alongside him works a woman known simply for a while as Kurokami no Onna (Dark-Haired Woman), who currently serves as an assistant at Quindecim.

Onna smiles.
 The first episodes serve to flesh out this basic premise; the rest unfold a series of questions that the show then attempts to answer: is this way of judging humans fair or just?  What is the true nature of the Arbiters, and how does their lack of humanity and empathy help or hinder their judgments?  And - maybe most importantly - what influence is Onna meant to have on Decim, and what is her purpose at the bar?

The show offers up a mix of recurring characters and a slew of one-time 'guests.'  The recurring cast is composed mostly of the Arbiters and various afterlife workers: the emotionless-but-earnest Decim, another grouchy Arbiter Ginti, the ambitious manager Nona, her boss Oculus (the closest thing we have to God in this show), and Onna herself.   This group anchors the show, and the inner workings of arbitration as well as Onna's journey drive the plot.  However, it's the one-and-done bar guests on which DP sketches out its ideas.  From kindly obaasans to murderers to lovebirds to manipulative reality-tv stars, the show forces us to confront humanity in all its glorious disarray. 

Two new 'guests' to the bar flirt in the afterlife.
Make no mistake; some of the guests are morally despicable people, while others very obviously deserve a second chance at life.  And then there are those ambiguous guests who fall somewhere in-between, like Mayu: she's a devoted-to-the-point-of-obsession fan of the idol group C.H.A.  Harmless?  Sure.  Making valuable contributions to humanity?  Well...

And that's the point.  This slew of souls from the valuable to the invaluable to the frankly insignificant show up at Quindecim, and the series would have the readers wonder who, and how, they ought to be judged.  Oculus seems to find the judgment process arbitrary and meaningless as he finds human lives arbitrary and meaningless; the manager Nona thinks otherwise, and uses Decim as her grand experiment: what might happen if Arbiters - dispassionate and unable to empathize with what it means to be human - begin to feel?

Ginti, another Arbiter, argues with a human idol fan named Mayu.
 That's all I can give away of the plot without offering major spoilers, but suffice it to say that this question is the axis around which the series hinges.  The relationship between Decim and Onna - his relentless impassivity marked by curiosity and wonder, and her genuine empathy and warmth - is a marvel precisely because it neither blossoms into a full-blown romance nor loses intensity and instead rests somewhere between the two, illustrating the gap between them. A study in mutual discovery and compassion, the bond they share is marked by a depth and a curiosity which could be romantic, but also needn't be.  And the many people who enter the bar, and the honesty of Decim's care for them, makes the viewer wonder: how much is a human life really worth?  And how much do our choices matter in the end, within such an arbitrary system?

Decim at the bar.
 DP isn't interested in tidy answers to these questions, but the series as a whole seems to settle on the existentialist notion that human life is valuable precisely because of what we choose, and how we choose to live.  Regardless of the choice, the will to make choices is powerful in and of itself - it is both the burden, and the blessing, of being human.  And though the series ends on a bittersweet note, with the potential for much to come in regards to Nona, her rejection of arbitration without empathy, and Quindecim, the series is unafraid to conclude the arc at hand, and ties Onna's situation to the greater narrative of the Arbiters and of Decim himself.

If you like fluffy shows and can't handle angst, stay away.  The series also involves depictions of suicide and sexual assault, so if those are triggers for you, then you will want to avoid the series. If you're familiar with existentialism (if you've read The Myth of Sisyphus or No Exit) then you'll recognize some of the philosophy brought to bear in the last handful of episodes - but I've read both and a bunch of other existentialist stuff besides, and found nothing lacking in the series in spite of my familarity. Beyond that, however, if you want a taut twelve-episode series that elegantly mingles questions of being with deft humor and heart-tugging sorrow - the complex array of feelings that being human entails - then give Death Parade a shot.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Follow by Email