Death Parade is a religious sci-fi thriller series that started this season. It has an interesting take on how people are judged in the afterlife. Before getting too far into the series, it might be a good idea to step back and ask what has been said so far.
Before I begin, let me warn that I can’t talk about what happened without giving away the plot of the first two episodes. In other words: spoilers follow. I should also note that there’s a mild spoiler in the lede.
Death Parade opens with two people getting off an elevator with no recollection how they arrived there. We’re informed that they cannot leave and they must play a game where their lives are at stake. Naturally, this game pits them against one another. In this case, they are playing darts where not only do they believe the loser dies, but each dart that lands in a scoring position harms the opponent.
This is where the show becomes a psychological thriller. The idea as presented in the first episode is to allow them to be judged. The viewer is led to believe that judgment comes almost entirely from observing the game.
Our main characters, Takashi and Machiko, start to fall apart. There’s the revelation that Machiko is pregnant. There are accusations of cheating based on hearsay. We’re shown through flashbacks that Takashi caused their death in a jealous fit, wrecking their car while trying to snatch her phone away. Takashi doesn’t believe the baby is his, and ultimately Machiko says that he’s right. Then the game’s over. Machiko wins. Takashi tries to attack her and is restrained by wires deployed by the bartender, Decim. Then they are shown to the elevators where Machiko is going to hell and Takashi to heaven, so to speak. (We’ll address the religious implications and details shortly.)
After this first episode, I was really worried. The story is of two people who are deeply flawed and have died because of this. Most troubling was that Machiko, who was not trying to win the game and may have lied about whether Takashi fathered the baby she was pregnant with, was sent to hell. Yet another anime told from the perspective of some moralistic, woman-hating shut-in, I thought. It rewarded the guy, who caused their death with his jealousy, and punished the woman for cheating.
By the end of the first episode I was disappointed. There’s a competence to the production and writing that was left unmatched by the conclusions. It was a waste of potential that was upsetting, but perhaps the next episode might be better.
The second episode shows the same story, but it’s shown from the perspective of two judges, Kurokami no Onna and Nona Ginta. Kurokami no Onna isn’t actually a name but means “dark haired woman,” and she is new to the job, while Ginta is apparently the supervisor. Ginta explains how they can judge these people by reviewing their memories, yet it seems like they need to evoke strong emotions in the people to be able to judge correctly. This is why the people are convinced they are in a life or death game, to heighten their emotions. Further, it indicates that those flashbacks we saw of the people’s lives were meant to represent the way the judges see memories. So the judgment is based off more than just what the people say during the game.
The second episode also clarifies that heaven and hell aren’t the correct destinations. The true destinations are reincarnation or “the void.” This seems to be more along the lines of Hinduism reincarnation than the more Western concepts of heaven and hell. Though I don’t believe that Hindus believe in a void; instead their worst case scenario is being reincarnated as a snake or some other lowly creature. It’s actually the reverse, you are reincarnated until you are released from the cycle, an event called moksha, which is about as close as Hindus come to a heaven concept. The religious affiliation is never stated, and it’s not a bad move to model the world on a particular religion while changing the details so you have more freedom and no one is offended.
Perhaps the most important change the story takes as of the second episode is that the Kurokami no Onna posits that Machiko may have lied to save her husband’s soul. Ginta indicates that this may be the case and chastises Decim for getting it wrong. Suddenly we have a story that does not declare outright infidelity to be a worse offense than manslaughter.
There is a huge difference between a show that believes the man was the more righteous of the two – despite his jealousy, despite the callous way he excuses himself from saving her, and despite her attempt to throw the last dart away – and a show that says that the previous conclusion was likely a mistake. The former show would paint a conservative world in which moral judgments are easy, with the rules set forth by patriarchal societies. The latter is a world in which moral judgment is not only difficult, but it is a matter of perspective. The latter is preferable, as it is much more realistic and much less likely to become petty.
The result of this change in attitude is to humanize the characters and the writers as well. The characters are allowed to have lapses in judgment, with the consequences loosely stated and ultimately open to the viewer’s imagination. That the writers would see both sides of this and present them this way shows their skill.
What is Death Parade saying with all of this? This show wants to toy with questions about morality and it is not afraid to argue with itself. It attempts to show the evil that is part of our humanity in contrast with the expressionless judges determining the fate of both souls. In one episode, it showed only the ugliness we are capable of, but in the next it cast a different light, in which we might find some redemption.