This was a mixed bag. On the one hand, Death Parade has some of the best atmosphere and mood of the past decade. It has style and attitude in spades. It’s easy to forgive a few flaws because the series is so damn cool doing its thing.
On the other, when we do sit down and examine the substance, it’s like finding out Fonzie has recently been reading Mein Kampf. It’s just one of those double takes where you kind of still want to think of them as cool, but there’s that one really harsh detail that you just can’t work past. “I’m sorry, what? Did you just say Mein Kampf? Uhh…I’m gonna sit at this booth over here…for a bit…”
This is ultimately the problem I have with Death Parade. Looking at its moral judgments through hindsight leaves an uncomfortable taste in my mouth. And we’ll get to that, but let’s start off with some simple stuff first, hm?
Shall We Play A Game?
Right off, I want to say I rather love the whole concept behind this series. The idea of judgment in the afterlife taking the form of a game is interesting. And a few of the games shown really did have a solid horror dynamic to them that made for some great drama.
Some of them. Others, such as the bowling match, or the air hockey game, were generally lackluster. While the first couple games had interesting, dynamic curve balls to them, the rest fell into a pretty standard progression of “play game, score points, win memories”. There was no real device to entertain the thought of betrayal, there were few, if any, relationships between the characters involved to MAKE them dramatic.
It was as if the show had set out to establish its status quo off the bat before getting too deep into the character stuff. But, much like someone who takes their romantic relationship for granted, as soon as they won our trust it seemed like they just stopped trying. The wooed us, they won us, but they didn’t bother to keep us. This simply compounded the issue of the uncomfortable grandstanding that the series later tried to do.
Because what makes the concept “playing games in the afterlife” sound so cool isn’t the “games” part, it’s that all important “afterlife” part. When the gloves are off, what strange and interesting concoctions emerge to put a spin on something that we consider “familiar”? And it’s sad to say that, for almost all of the games, the component that made the game supernatural was underwhelming. And in the case of Twister, it was completely absent, save the life or death stuff, which Ginti did, not the game.
But the physical threat is not compelling. It helps, to be sure. But what made the game of darts so GREAT was the psychological threat. The idea that these two lovers were inflicting damage ON THE OTHER is what made it so great, the fact that in order to win the game they must make a conscious decision to damage their most precious person, not the fact it was dealing with soft tissues and the human body is ew. The beating hearts in the bowling balls, the organ shatter on air hockey, the memories printed on playing cards…these are all interesting, but they don’t deliver the same punch psychologically, so they are by nature, at best, only physical threats. And even then, only the air hockey match was as such.
In short, the primary selling point about Death Parade’s premise ended up being perhaps the weakest element of the show. Not a very promising start to the review, sure, but there is plenty of good stuff to deal in.
…Sure Is Death Note In Here
Mood is important, and Death Parade handles it well.
Character designs and settings were wonderfully realized, and added to this slightly off-putting world the show found itself in. Even the regular Human designs were just a bit off…a little too hollow eyed, a little too saggy, just to add to the vibe of weirdness we had in the atmosphere.
And of course, hammy acting. Melodrama hit the right note, able to be believable, while just shying away from being laughter inducing. Usually. Three points off the top of my head did the actors get ahead of themselves and maybe let the Shatner out too much. But on the whole this wasn’t often a problem.
The Moral of the Story
Part of the problem with Death Parade’s moral dilemma was that…in the end…Decim didn’t actually confront it. He went about his judgment of Kurokami by deciding, no, she did not have enough darkness in her to merit going to the void. He did it in a unique way, but in the end his metric was the same lousy metric the show SEEMED to be setting up as a bullshit standard.
Which makes one ask what WAS the point of it all? Was the point supposed to be that you can’t accurate gauge how evil someone is by how they play billiards? Casting about an illusionary world and presenting the subject with a moral choice where they must perform evil to do good, that’s the better WAY, not the actual idea of finding their darkness?
Let’s do a brief recap of where everybody went, shall we?
Takashi: Reincarnated because his evil was “justified”.
Machiko: Voided because she slept with a man who wasn’t her fiance.
Miura: Reincarnated because he had a boner for his gaming partner and was trying to play nice the whole time, and was SUPER swell in that he didn’t think plastic surgery was too gross to touch.
Mai: Reincarnated for being a yandere.
Yousuke: Reincarnated for regretting that he treated his stepmom poorly.
Misaki: Voided for regretting she didn’t treat her children better.
Mayu: Voided for being willing to sacrifice another person to save Haruda from the void.
Haruda: Voided for being willing to kill Mayu to save his neck.
Tatsumi: Voided for being a remorseless vigilante.
Shimada: Voided for taking revenge on Tatsumi after an Arbiter encouraged it.
Kurokami: Reincarnated for not sacrificing another to bring herself back to life.
The idea that “if someone has darkness in their heart, we void them” is of course a total lie. Takashi gets a pass for being so jealous he killed himself and his fiance, and for wanting to beat her senseless. We saw nothing positive about this man’s character.
So what then? Is this very different from Kurokami? Takashi minus his paranoia is a generally well meaning guy. Except for the part where he totally betrays his wife and “slips”. His kindness, then, is only when its convenient for him. When everything is his way, he is kind, considerate, and shows compassion. When that is untrue he goes bad apple on us. Kurokami seemed to be the same. She was gregarious, outgoing, cheerful. And when she lost her career, everyone became baggage. Nothing mattered anymore. She outright stated that her relationships with others meant nothing if they couldn’t advance her skating career. What makes her different? Kurokami did express that desire, to kill someone and take their place in the world of the living. She backed out at the last second.
Much like Haruda backed out. And yet he was still voided. Perhaps this is because Ginti performed the judgment and not Decim, perhaps it’s unfair to compare them like that.
The only other explanation, alas, is the more likely one. Takashi gets a pass because the idea behind the judgment is misogynist. It is perfectly fine to want to hit your woman for cheating on you. It is not okay to hit someone when you are led to believe that your children will be left orphans if you do not act. Revenge, however, is a sin, both other characters who partook in it were voided. Not Takashi.
This is reinforced where Mai gets surgery to look like a girl Miura liked. Instead of treating this as kind of creepy, and exploring the behaviors that led her to that decision, it’s just the sweetest thing ever because, hey, women should carve their faces up to get dick in them. I’m not saying it CAN’T be sweet and endearing, but the fact it was a foregone conclusion that’s in error.
So…yeah. That’s our Mein Kampf here. An extremely uncomfortable judgment that sets a sour tone for the entire series. In a vacuum it was fine. I didn’t really point fingers when that episode aired, because the rules were still vague and ill-defined. But looking back at the whole picture, this is the conclusion I must draw and, sadly, it pretty much ruins the series for me.
On Its Own Terms
Okay let’s set aside the introspection and examine the stories at face value.
I did appreciate the attempt to link the vigilante story with the Arbiters. It could have been poetic if it had been consistent. And switching the dynamic up is always great.
Most of all though I feel Kurokami was handled very well. Her personality was so unique, and backstory so unexpected. But it was so natural that it made perfect sense when it finally came along. Again, the strengths were in the presentation, it made her stand out particularly well.
Some of the sillyness of cultural attitudes did come through, particularly the second story. “Oh, plastic surgery? Well fuck I’d never sleep with her.” It does make the drama a little harder to swallow, probably why, from a Western background, it felt the weakest to me.
And as I mentioned in the episodics, the setting up of contradictory positions for the establishment hurt the message the show was trying to send. On the one hand the argument is in favor of tradition and order. On the other, none of the establishment, when asked, give a shit about the tradition and order. They couldn’t seem to care less about the rules, unless the VERY SPECIFIC OCCURENCE of mentioning that they be changed comes up. Then suddenly they take to moral grandstanding and fanaticism, that the rules must be obeyed because…because…because they’re the rules, of course!
Pretty Face, Empty Head
If a theme hasn’t been popping up so far, it should be that while Death Parade is a gorgeous, atmospheric series, it’s ultimately not one that stands up to scrutiny.
So, adjust expectation, and try not to think about it too hard, and you’ll probably enjoy your time spent with it.
I wish I had more to give, but on reflection the series has so little ACTUAL substance to it, rather than the illusion of substance, that there is really not a lot to say. If it intrigues you, it’s worth the look. Banter is entertaining, characters are strong, just ignore the plot and strong moral convictions that dominate the second half of the series and you’ll find it a pleasant, creepy ride.