This post contains spoilers for Death Billiards and the first episode of Death Parade. I suggest watching both before reading any further.
Hellooo, Hot Stuff. I would pocket this gem into my favorites if it weren’t too early to do so, but whether Death Parade concludes in disappointing fashion or not, one thing is for sure: it kicked off to a smashing start. The anime’s origin, Death Billiards—a 25 minute short produced by Madhouse for the 2013 Young Animator Training Project—makes for tough analysis. It poses more questions than it provides answers, encapsulated in an air of mind-boggling mystery. Having watched it twice, trying to decipher answers or its intent feels like chasing my own tail. Billiards leads my thoughts toward dead ends, and I’m left to go on personal interpretation and to consider the OVA’s social critique. But now that we have an anime (and with Yuzuru Tachikawa’s name still attached!), you can bet I expect to solve some queries. With one episode down, Parade follows Billiards’ suit in that it blitzes the audience and walks away, smug at our simultaneous confusion and intrigue. The key difference is that Parade sprinkles information and offers future promise whereas Billiards intentionally leaves us to think.
Parade starts similarly to Billiards in that we meet our two players—both equally confused as to where they are and how they got here—taking leave from their respective elevators. It doesn’t take long before they find Decim, the stoic bartender, who welcomes them to Quindecim (Latin for “fifteen”)—an interesting difference from Billiard’s spelling of “Queen Decim.” It could easily be a simple variation depending upon the translation or wordplay, or maybe someone more informed would like to clarify (please do), but I can’t help but want to connect this to mannequins. Of course, “quin” here is still pronounced like “queen,” and I may be reaching in desperation. However, Decim’s mannequin display is curious, which brings me to Quindecim’s purpose: to judge who will go to heaven and hell.
Decim informs his guests—newlywed couple Takashi and Machiko—that they are to play a game with their lives as wager. He reviews the usual rules:
- He cannot say where Quindecim is located
- The couple must play a game
- This game will be decided by roulette
- They will risk their lives by playing
- Neither one can leave until the game ends
Of course these rules ignite the same series of questions I had in Death Billiards. I roll with the obvious answer that Quindecim resides outside the earthly realm, but for the game itself, those who’ve seen the OVA know that the game of pool was pre-determined. Decim admitted that if the younger man had not changed the fate of the game, the old man would have won. Likewise, I assume Takashi’s and Machiko’s game of darts is set from the get-go. So who does the game favor? If the game is pre-determined with a predicted winner, does the outcome finalize who is reincarnated or not? Or, if Takashi had won, would he have entered the void in Machiko’s place? What truly determines where a soul ends up? Is it the game’s outcome or the intentions that influence how someone plays? So many questions but no answers.
In the end, Machiko winds up in the void despite winning as Takashi is reincarnated. But is this a fair ruling? I wonder if the game’s purpose is merely to draw out the realization that the players are dead and what their sins amount to. If so, is the verdict instead determined by the players themselves? Machiko convincingly characterizes herself as an unapologetic cheat gold-digging her devoted husband, but I feel there’s more to her story. As Machiko flashes back, we see her in bed with another man—but! Note her body language:
She is turned away from the man she claims to love with her head buried into the sheets and her hand clutching the pillow. This scene doesn’t depict a woman mining Takashi’s wallet as she keeps her true love on the side. This scene depicts a woman plagued by guilt. Regardless of whether this was a one-night stand or a long-term affair, Machiko feels unworthy of Takashi’s affection. She puts on a brilliant act to paint herself as the villain, but I feel that is all it is: an act. And I would have believed it if the loving, warm relationship she shared with Takashi hadn’t been shown. But there is no way for Takashi to know this, and he festers in negativity. He feels betrayed and cheated—because he was, and by a person he deeply loved. Aligning with this logic, the ruling isn’t necessarily fair, but it makes sense. Machiko’s guilt weighed so heavily on her that she deemed herself undeserving, but Takashi?
Takashi is interesting. The initial guilt he feels for killing his wife and unborn child overwhelms him. To cope, he deflects fault and goes into complete denial by turning on Machiko. There’s no way that child was his! Machiko’s a cheat! My issue here is that Takashi is the one who cheated himself out of life, and he took Machiko with him. Machiko had an affair, yes, but Takashi’s suspicions were so destructive that both he and his wife—and this unborn child—paid for it. Even after death, his behavior is a detriment. It works against him and does irreparable damage to his and Machiko’s relationship. By confessing her infidelity, Machiko puts the nail in the coffin and simultaneously alleviates her husband’s anguish. He still suffers, but he now has concrete reason to act out.
(This is, of course, purely my own speculation. It’s just as likely that Machiko’s appearance of Loving Wife was a sham, revealing her true self in the confession scene. But to keep up such a pretense, even until the near-end, requires a lot of work. I feel exhausted just thinking about it.
It’s worth noting, however, that Death Billiards shares similar footing. One can argue that although the young man is desperate for his life, he deems himself the lesser person. This speaks on just how harshly people judge themselves in comparison to others. It’s true that humans often judge each other on appearance alone, even using that as basis to factor in whether or not someone is deserving. But what does the young man see? A humbled elderly man who lived. And his life—the young man’s—was cut short. He wants to live, but does he deserve a second shot? I think he answers this in his own way. He automatically assumes that he’s going to hell, and desperation leads him to take violent measure. In fact, Takashi’s actions and logic seem to imitate the young man’s, only the young man won whereas Takashi lost. We also don’t know where the nameless men ended up, but I digress.)
What I also find curious is the attention paid to players endangering their lives. Those who enter Quindecim through elevators never realize they’re dead until much later, so what is the true meaning behind this rule? Decim adjudicates which person goes where in their afterlife—early on in Billiards, I assumed that one moves on to hell as the other receives a second chance at life. Either the soul is reincarnated, I thought, or it returns to their former body. Considering this episode, it now appears that one soul is in fact readied for reincarnation, yet the other crosses over into the void. The latter becomes nothing, having forsaken any chance of rebirth. Perhaps my hunch that players unknowingly dictate where they end up is completely wrong, but in the chance that I’m right… this rule seems cruel. It’s almost as if it exists to pit players against each other as they play in terror. What comes next—a murder-esque stash of bodies—only amplifies this panic. We all know guests cannot leave until the game ends, but what if they refuse?
Just as in Billiards, the wall behind Decim opens to a spectacle of bodies dangling from the ceiling—Decim really does not recommend refusal. (And while it’s hardly noticeable here, these bodies were shown to resemble mannequin-like figures rather than corpses in Death Billiards.) Whether this threat holds any validity isn’t known, but it serves as a powerful persuasion piece. But what if? What if someone refuses? Do they take up a more permanent residence at Quindecim as a soul-turned-puppet, animating only when needed? Part of me itches to see this just to quell my curiosity.
But then there’s that peculiar scene in Death Parade’s opening, and I wonder. Is Onna one of the daring few who refused?
I know I’m reaching and there are points to dispute this (like: why is Onna the only one active?), but I wouldn’t feel surprised. There is a reason why Onna works at Quindecim, and it must be for a different reason than the rest of the Quindecim staff.
Anyone familiar with Billiards will notice Onna’s absence, who doesn’t appear until after credits. She functions off-screen as a behind-the-scenes spectator, watching Takashi and Machiko tear into each other. This leaves her unsettled, possibly unnerved not only from how the game is played, but from how this seemingly loving couple left with their relationship torn apart by their own cruelty. It’s Nonaginta who assures her that she will “soon get used to it.” From this we surmise that whatever events are to unfold here occur before Death Billiards. (Which leads me to consider that we may end up where we began: at Billiards. Parade may provide more background information on Quindecim, but our characters may be left shrouded in the same mystery.)
Here, Onna is new to Quindecim staff, which begs the questions: who is she, and where is she from? How did she get here and why? And by extension: who or what are the rest of the Quindecim staff? Onna bears noticeably human traits, unlike Decim and Nonaginta—whose eyes share a similar design, distinctively different from Onna (who appears human, at least in origin). Nothing’s certain at this point, but I speculate that Onna doesn’t doesn’t have any recollection of a previous life. In Billiards, Decim states that the young man’s emotional outburst was “proof that he was alive.” She ponders this momentarily before an idea strikes, and something about this response feels telling. She requests Decim to play a game of pool with her, as if wondering that by playing, memories of her own life—and death—will return.
Only future episodes will tell… Or, at least I can hope that they will.