Discussion: Death Parade, Episode Two

Death Parade took me on a surprise trip last week. Rather than plunge forward in its obscurity it took a step back. Perhaps I should apologize: I underestimated Death Parade’s willingness to share. I thoroughly thought this show would leave viewers to grapple with its ambiguity. Keeping to its pattern of straight-forward headings, last week’s episode embodied its title, Death: Reverse. The show revisits Takashi’s and Machiko’s dart match, but from the new perspective of Onna. Her job is not to judge—for she is merely an assistant—but to guide the inexperienced Decim with intuitive perception. Of course, none of this explains who Onna is or how she ended up in this mysterious place caught between life and—as Death Parade calls it—the void.

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The episode opens to Onna asleep on a bed of plants supported by a tree trunk. Nona enters the scene, providing her name, and prompts Onna to respond in kind. But Onna can’t answer, to which Nona replies, “It’s all right. You don’t have a name.” My suspicions are now confirmed: Onna holds no memories of who she is, or that she was ever alive. Some have hypothesized that Nona created Onna specifically to assist Decim, but I don’t feel this is the case—although I’ll get into why later on. For now, I think it’s worth mentioning that humans, or as human as one can get in Death Parade—like Onna—exist. (But they all sport similar Decim get-up… Huh.) This is proven during the train ride. We only see one person’s eyes, but they bear human origin as opposed to an arbiter’s strange yet decorative iris. More than anything, this makes me wonder if they, too, possess blank memories.

And further yet: If a newly deceased refuses to play their “randomly” assigned game, is their memory swiped clean before they begin work on an appointed floor? Because now that Quindecim’s mannequin display is clarified not only to be an empty threat, but Decim’s ‘grotesque’ hobby (which I find darkly humorous), my ideas regarding what happens to a soul if they refuse have adjusted. Rather than anything sinister, I believe that refusal simply means that the soul cannot be judged. Hence, the person cannot move on, and—for the time being, at least—remains stuck in a stagnant in-between hereafter.

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What I find curious is how Onna is cut off or dissuaded from knowing, and even clarifying, her past life and current circumstance—unless it has to do with her job as an assistant. Here, Onna begins, “Am I—” before Nona interjects. Having just been informed that Quindecim is a place where dead come for arbiters to pass judgment, Onna must wonder if she’s deceased as well. In *Death Billiards, Onna speculates that if she, too, plays a game of pool, “We might figure something out.” This heavily implies curiosity and a wish to learn about herself. Nona states, after all, that games stimulate players into recalling memories related to their deaths. But again, she’s deprived. Decim turns down her suggestion, as more guests are about to arrive—perhaps true, but it functions as a convenient diversion at the same time.

(*Granted, Death Billiards is intentionally ambiguous—much more so than Death Parade—and I doubt plans to continue through a show were formed at the time of its release. Still, it makes me wonder just how detailed and developed the Death Billiards/Death Parade universe was at that point—and I strongly suspect Billiards was built from an already expansive, deeply seeded ground. In other words: this anime knows what it’s doing and where it’s going, and I love it.)

So, my question is: why deny Onna this knowledge? What happens in the incident that she is told by a third party, or remembers on her own? In the belief that she was once a living person, I suppose the issue of passing judgment on her soul would arise. When I think about it, Quindecim isn’t a place built for the purpose of human souls taking up eternal residence. I can’t speak for other floors, but Quindecim functions as a sort of rest stop—if I can call it that, although there’s nothing peaceful about Quindecim.

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A more accurate word is tribunal, as described by Nona. She notes that judgment is based on a person’s memories, yet a “kaleidoscope of images” can’t account for personal thoughts or full context—which is why Nona explains that displays of humanity support an arbiter’s verdict. Games are thereby rigged to not just persuade the dead into playing, but to bring out the worst in every soul. As expected, Decim’s fourth rule is merely a persuasion piece that works in conjunction with his mannequins to instill fear. It’s acting upon this fear, terrified of what may happen if they lose—not realizing they’re already dead—that encourages each player’s darkest aspects to crawl out. With that, context can be applied to that kaleidoscope of memories. It’s not nearly as cruel as I thought, but there is a flaw: what a kaleidoscope shows continuously changes; likewise, applying context to those memories depends on one of several possible interpretations—and that interpretation must bear acute understanding and remain bias-free. The system isn’t foolproof—a point made clear through Decim’s error from episode one.

Decim is a fresh arbiter and he lacks ability to read human emotions. Moreover, because he doesn’t understand people, how can he possibly give fair ruling and apply appropriate context to a dead person’s memories? In Death: Seven Darts, Decim decides Machiko is suited for the void whereas Takashi is reincarnated—and help me, for I am trying very hard to understand why a frightening number of fans deem this a fair verdict. Of course, Decim made a terrible mistake, and I thank Onna for calling it out. (Ahhh, Decim! *shakes fist*) It not only allows Decim to understand his error, but it’s like a slap to those pouncing on Machiko. So in your face, everyone who called Machiko an unfaithful “whorebag” whose fate was well deserved. In your motherflipping face.

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From a viewer’s standpoint, Machiko’s performance is not difficult to see through. Although extremely well-acted, too much visual evidence and inferences conflict with her “confession scene.” I noted Machiko’s body language during one of her flashbacks, but I also found it telling that her face remains hidden on several occasions—which this episode re-visits, and we learn of her remorse, her love, and her tears. Just before Machiko paints her betrayal to Takashi, we see her looking at her wedding ring. She reflects back on his proposal and tears well up in her eyes. Truly, she loved Takashi, and she lies to spare him grief over killing his child.

Oooh, Machiko. She was too good for that man.

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Yeah, she cheated, but so what? No matter the gender, cheating is wrong. That does not mean a person’s soul deserves to be shut in a void of eternal suffering. My obstinacy over this chiefly comes from fandom reaction. The comments about Machiko’s adultery reek of ignorance and double standards. On a personal level, I even find it insulting. And infuriating. Don’t forget infuriating. Because I’m mad at you people. And I’m going to quietly cleanse my brain and forget that you exist. (To further my point, the young man in Death Billiards is also guilty of cheating on his girlfriend—it’s why he’s dead in the first place. Interestingly, we now know that the young man was allowed rebirth, but I can’t say I’ve seen viewers hold him accountable in the same way viewers have with the condemned Machiko. Although I accept that a number of fans have yet to watch the OVA, that’s no excuse for the comments I’ve seen.)

My disappointment over shallow interpretations over Machiko’s confession is immense. I am dumbfounded, not because people failed to spot Machiko’s discrepancies, but because her dialogue is taken at face value. But then, this is Decim’s mistake, too. He fails to realize why she lied despite knowing that they were already dead. Onna explains that it’s because they were dead. It’s possible that she wanted to “respect her own feelings,” Onna says. Whatever the case, Machiko loved Takashi so much that, in order to relieve his grief, she became the bad guy even though Takashi resented her for it. It’s at this moment Decim seems to grasp the meaning behind Machiko’s tears.

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Decim at first calls Machiko’s act “incomprehensible,” but what is truly incomprehensible for him are emotions. He fails to understand why Machiko lies because he doesn’t understand human nature. Reasonable, considering that he isn’t human—but Onna is, and this is why she’s able to assist Decim. Onna as the assistant is meant to help Decim mature into a more adequate arbiter by allowing him to better understand human complexities. He has no experience of love (I presume), so how can he pass fair judgment if he doesn’t understand why one person will hurt another in order to save or comfort them? Nona scolds him, bringing to light how “feelings often get expressed in random ways,” yet Decim blundered by brushing Machiko’s off. Decim then balls a fist, most likely in anger or disappointment in himself—further shown when he apologizes to Onna, for he was—indeed!—an unfit arbiter.

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Which is an intriguing note. Decim has stated that he’s never been alive, and his error bears enough proof of what he lacks: a grasp of human nature. But in these episodes explicitly, Decim doesn’t know love. And yet regardless of Decim’s inability to read people, it is clear that arbiters also experience emotion—just perhaps not in the same way humans do, maybe because an arbiter’s existence differs from a human’s. For people, the meaning of life is philosophical with no clear or right answer. But for arbiters, their single purpose seems to revolve around or relate to passing judgment on the deceased. They’re not “living” entities in the way human beings are. An arbiter’s experiences are perhaps then (in a sense) limited—or just different—and their emotional depth and apprehension reflects as much. Yet in order to fairly judge, broad insight is necessary. Decim’s inexperience, then, is essentially reflective of one species attempting to comprehend another one.

I don’t mean to belittle or misjudge Decim, but I find his misinterpretation almost comparable to a child’s naivety. In the same way that people begin—unaware of complexities and perhaps a little egocentric—I believe an inexperienced arbiter can be similar. (I always find it silly when otherworldly entities are assumed or shown to lack feeling, as if this is something innate to the human race. Just because he’s non-human doesn’t mean emotional and intellectual growth is any different.) For Decim, it’s like encountering alien beings that live by a culture completely different than his own. It’s one thing to read about them in a textbook, or hear first-hand accounts, but to interact directly is an entirely different experience. (If this makes sense; I hope it does.)

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And on that note, I love discovering these new depths of Decim’s character. It’s easy to dismiss him as an indifferent spectator, judging from a detached viewpoint, but he’s proving to be so much more than that. All of his micro-expressions to his clenched fist signify just how dimensional he is. I look forward to seeing more from him, of course, but I’m equally excited to learn what new changes Onna’s influence will bring out. But I seriously wonder how Decim feels about Onna presently. Decim, by his nature, doesn’t seem like someone who would outright express distaste—and while I didn’t sense abhorrence from either Decim or Onna, the after-credits scene makes me wonder.

Decim shares a brief phone conversation in which he begins by thanking Nona for understanding. The subject isn’t made clear, but Nona reveals that “the term is only three months.” I can only go on the brevity of both parties, but it’s difficult to see how Decim’s feelings on the discussed topic are positive. Does Decim not appreciate Onna’s presence? I initially perceived that he, at the very least, felt passive and didn’t mind her being there. Although we’re unaware of the subject, Decim’s conversation seems to indicate otherwise. I’ll also note that something in the direction of Decim’s clenched-fist scene feels off.

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Decim’s fist struck me as the physical manifestation of his own self-directed anger. But then the angle at which this scene is animated is noteworthy. Why not show this from Decim’s front, capturing nothing but Quindecim background scenery? Instead, we see Onna, and I’m not sure if I should interpret this as Decim feeling unreceptive toward—or even threatened by—Onna’s company. In which case: what will happen to Onna in three months?

However, it’s also possible that Decim’s  (assumed) dissatisfaction stems from his work as an arbiter—a term that will possibly end in three months. Either way, Decim’s work may start off as trial-and-error—scary as that is for the dead—but with Onna’s help, it will accumulate to useful experience he can grow from. Nona, for example, has been around for so long that what she’s seen in humanity has granted her greater understanding. It’s this undeniable keen awareness that makes her an excellent arbiter as well as an apt supervisor.

While her precision is vaguely sensed throughout the episode, it’s made especially clear during the elevator ride with Clavis. He queries how Onna did, and Nona says that she “wasn’t bad,” but is quick to take it back. She recalls Onna’s statement that, had Takashi not been given the wrong impression, he and Machiko would have lived a happy life together. But such a life isn’t possible for a man like Takashi, whose nature to distrust searched for an opportunity to doubt Machiko. Nona clarifies that Onna has a ways to go, but this is an unfair assessment.

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As I said, Nona must be incredibly old. Not only is she in charge of Decim and Ginti, but she illustrates just how accurately intuitive she is as an arbiter—indicative of Nona’s expansive knowledge and experience. Her perceptive ability is uncanny whereas Onna lacks the arbiters’ gift of possessing another’s memories. Onna went on observation and intuition alone, and considering that, I think she did a commendable job. And yet Calvis’s remark—that it’s unusual for Nona to not “put them down”—allows me to speculate that this old arbiter is one helluva judge. “Them” can mean one of a few things: humans, assistants, or human assistants. I only assume Onna is human, but it’s not a sure-rule that all assistants are like Onna either.

It’s of course plausible that Onna isn’t human, as some have suggested that Nona created Onna to specifically to assist Decim. But this seems overly complex, and I believe it’s much simpler than that. For one, if Nona in some way crafted Onna into existence, this labels Onna as an inhuman being and negates her purpose as an assistant. What’s the use in her empathizing with the deceased if she isn’t human? And what else explains her knack to identify with human behavior? Until proven otherwise, I think it’s probable that Nona was Onna’s arbiter as well as the one who emptied Onna’s memory bank. Even if Nona wasn’t Onna’s arbiter, she provides a strange comment in this episode. Early in, Onna extends the question. “…Arbiters?” To which an amused Nona replies:

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…Uh, shouldn’t it? Onna has no memory of who she is and requires explanations not only on what arbiters do, but how they do it. It’s not a stretch to guess that arbiters for the dead would sound like an unfamiliar concept. If anything, this scene feels like Nona teasing, as if to suggest this isn’t Onna’s first time encountering an arbiter.

At this point, I’m prepared to make whatever necessary sacrifices in prayer to the Great Anime Gods: please do not end this show at Death Billiards. Please do notParade provided more information regarding a soul’s destination than I expected it to this early on in the show. (Although Death Parade is slated for twelve episodes, and leaving its puzzles unsolved for later wouldn’t roll well pace-wise.) That said, I still do not want to raise my hopes for this show, but I’m simultaneously wishing that Onna’s backstory—above all other characters—is elaborated. Noted, though: it’s still possible—and likely—that we’ll land up at Billiards, but with Onna’s information shared while she’s off screen. I can at least hope for that much. A key point that allowed me to appreciate this episode as much as I do was my underestimation, but I find it difficult to keep these expectations at a fair medium. What I can say, however, is that I’m confident in the team tasked with the show’s production, and I await great things to come.


 

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