Who Judges the Judges? – anime critique: Death Parade

DeathparadevisualTitle: Death Parade
Format: TV anime
Genre: drama, supernatural, philosophical
Series Creator: Yuzuru Tachikawa
Series Director: Yuzuru Tachikawa
Studio: Madhouse
Series length: 12 episodes
Original Airing dates: January 9, 2015 – March 27, 2015
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


Synopsis:

Whenever two people on Earth die at the same time, they are sent to one of many mysterious bars run by bartenders serving as arbiters. There, they must participate in Death Games with their lives on the line, the results of which reveal what secrets led them to their situation and what their fate will be afterwards, with the arbiters judging if their souls will either be sent for reincarnation or banished into the void. The series follows Decim, the lone bartender of the Quindecim bar, whose role in judging these souls changes when he meets a curious black-haired woman.


Critique:

In my review of Isshuukan Friends from so long ago, I mentioned the condition of “the kick that never comes”, wherein you’re expecting the worst but it’s that’s expectation that causes you to suffer rather than the eventual happening (such as a kick) itself. In Death Parade, we very much have the opposite phenomenon because we are lulled into expecting something more light hearted & fun, only to be hit by the heavy club of the Human Condition.

One reason for that is the excellent & upbeat opening theme Flyers by J-rockers, Bradio.

Such an exciting, joyous song can’t help but lead your expectations of this serious into believing that it is what it’s not. & that theme does it every week.

What we expected is an entertaining look at human nature as people play games against each other but what we get is an exploration of the darkest recesses of the soul as inhuman Arbiters deconstruct all that it means to be human in order to judge where they go in the afterlife.

PARTY TIME TRICKERY!!!
PARTY TIME TRICKERY!!!

This is what makes the series so powerful & so masterful, because it utterly twists our expectations. You never know what’s coming or how things will resolve. It’s not afraid to truly hit you right in your emotional centre yet it’s not melancholy or brooding. Blending the harsh with the humourous is also what makes the series so great, as well as bringing unexpected characters & scenarios. Like Akame ga Kiru! it brings a delicate balancing act & delivers the unexpected & the brutal without flinching yet is not afraid to be introspective on the subject of life & death.

Unflinching truly is the watch-word of this series because even though it looks at them in a hyperbolic fashion, it doesn’t shy away from the subjects of murder & suicide, especially what drives individuals to commit both. Yet, despite the trappings of the series, it doesn’t really judge those who commit the latter as somehow being defective. Rather it looks at individuals who inflict that final wound upon their mortality as people who have somehow lost their ability to perceive the world & those around them. They are not broken or pathetic people, they merely suffer from a misconception of themselves, their lives & what it truly means to live.

Each episode deals with this differently & is done in a fairly neutral, almost passive, perspective.

That is because the main protagonist, Decim -like all other Arbiters- is a construct solely built to judge the lives of humans through various means. Primarily is hiding the fact that they are dead from them and then attempting to induce enough psychological stress that it “exposes the darkest recesses of their souls”.

"Welcome, valued customer"
“Welcome, valued customer”

Here in I have my only real problem with the series.

Without being explicit, the series seems to be based on a Japanese Buddhist version of the Afterlife, where souls are sent to various Arbiters to be judged based upon the deeds that they invoked during their mortal years. If they have found to have lived a life worthy of redemption, they are sent to be reinacarnated. If they display evil in their intentions (especially to their judges), they are sent to actually oblivion -an eternal void with nothing but their consciousness to suffer until they repent & are revoked back to Samsara. This is very much a hang over from early A.D. Daoism that arrived in Japan with the first waves of Chinese people who displayed the original aboriginal populations. There are also other references to Buddhist mythology, as Decim recounts the story of a Bodhisatva (a Buddhist version of a saint) who saves a spider & when he is sent to Hell by a demon wishing to know the Buddha’s secrets, the spider sends him a thread to pull him & guide him home. There are hints that Decim is possibly that spider, with his threads & inclinations, yet nothing is ever explicit about it being a Buddhist or even a truly religious form of Afterlife, yet it still has so many trapping of judgement gods & the living wishing punishment beyond the grave -which ties into the only punishments being reincarnation or oblivion.

Now, despite being a proper indoctrinated Buddhist (meaning that I belong to a real temple & have taken oaths of faith) I have no truck with Buddhist Afterlife & Reincarnation doctrine. It has no real logic to it & stories of how karma & Afterlife judgement make no sense what-so-ever.

Yet this is something that the creators of the series seem to think too -after a fashion. As Decim begins to question his role as an Arbiter & what it means for the unhuman to judge the lives of mentally & emotionally complex creatures such as humans when they cannot even begin to fathom their experiences & motivations.

To this end, Decim is introduced to the mysterious “Black-haired Woman” (how she’s referred to in the credits), a human who wasn’t judged & remains in the Afterlife. She acts a bit like Jiminy Cricket to Decim’s Pinocchio -providing him with a human perspective & a form of conscience as he pushes the visits to his level of the Afterlife -the bar-longue Quindecim- to their emotional extremes.

At least she's prettier than Jiminy.
At least she’s prettier than Jiminy.

This relationship seems to be the creation of the cunning, Nona, the supervisor of the Tower that consists the Afterlife. She’s often seen pushing a plan or agenda, at which lies the Black-haired Woman & the taciturn Decim as they push their customers (the dead) to play games within Quindecim by saying it’s for their very lives (because they are unaware that they are actually dead).

Nona near facepalm I think.
Nona near facepalm I think.

It is their games that are the crux of each episode that features them. For seem so mundane yet are twisted in a way they are create physical & emotional pain in those who are forced to play them.

This is demonstrated in the first episode, where a newly married couple are forced to play a game of darts but each section of the board is linked with an organ in their partners body. So if they score a hit, they inflict the other with incredible pain (which shouldn’t happen since they’re dead but the series does explain it very well). This means that if they truly love each other, they would intentionally lose in order not to inflict any further harm. But humans are seldom so simple or so noble & these games are designed to bring out the trauma surrounding their lives & deaths. Usually this involves rage at the indignation of their own mortality, so they lash out. In the case of the newlywed couple within the first episode, the husband suspects that his wife has been cheating on her, so willing inflicts pain on her -claiming it to be an accidentally- until she reveals something that is either the truth or a clever lie to save her from suffering at his hands.

"Ah! My spleen!"
“Ah! My spleen!”

Unfortunately, I think this series comes down heavy-handedly on the actions of women within it -especially a few either been seen as manipulative cheaters or utterly vile in other aspects. Yet that is not the entire truth of it, once Decim has the truths of human nature expounded to him by the Black-haired Woman. This seems to show the hypocrisy within society, as women are judged & condemned for acts that seem to be more able to get away with.

Though yet again, that is twisted around, as the series expands its roster of characters; introducing another Arbiter, Ginta, who has far more loathing for humanity & is less questioning about judging them. Almost relishing the punishment games that he gets to inflict upon them. Yet his perceptions of humanity is affected by his meeting with Maya, a seemingly delinquent high school student who is utterly devoted to the male popstar Harada -whom she ends up in Ginta’s Viginti with. Harada thinks that he can manipulate Maya into losing for him but she wants to impress him. When they are put into what they perceive to be a life threatening situation, Maya chooses to sacrifice herself in order to save Harada, who, in turn, remembers part of the events leading to his death -the suicide of one of his many short term lovers- & doesn’t want anyone else to die because of him.

This isn’t seen as nobility, but rather a form of self-satisfaction, that both Maya & Harada can actually find meaning in & redemption for their lives within these possibly final acts. Yet in doing so, they begin to challenges ingrained views of human nature, making him slowly question what & why he judges in the fashion that he does.

Parallel to these games is woven a subplot involving a story of children’s book, Chavvot, which is about a little boy trying to befriend a deaf girl & find the best way he can express his love for her & her eternal, optimistic (& creepy looking) smile. This is an allegory for how humans connection, which is an external subject within anime (if you watch enough of it really). The main trust for this series is how human’s connect with & understand each other -even if it seems impossible because all we can know is the tiny universe inside our own heads.

That’s the main drive for the Black-haired Woman’s plot & itself ultimate irony as well because she came to Quindecim through her inability to connection & understand other humans. Yet that is what she constantly pushes Decim to do. Making him question his own judgements as she forces him to understand the complexities of human existence & the impossibilities of knowing why people do & say what they do.

Unfortunately I found a huge part of her character arc spoilt by a tiny throw away reference in the opening credits, which is a huge pity because they tease it out so well over the course of the series. The climax of her arc is a genuine kick in the guts & evokes a lot of hard emotions & questions -which I applaud it for.

If I have one final complain about the series it is that there is not enough of it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this series, more than I have many others of late (or even recent years) & it seems that I was not the only one -as they rushed through the English dubbed production to match the series by a week or so of release.

This, in my opinion, is a good trend because it means that anime is reaching a wider market & being taken seriously by distributors in the West.

I genuinely hope that they have a 2nd series for this because, despite wrapping up a lot of it, they still have a lot to explore with the side characters who don’t get as much screen time as they deserve. There is also a lot to be explained about who really created & controls the tower of judgement, because it’s forever hinted that even those within who think that they are the masters are in fact the puppets of others.

There isn’t much more about it that I can say, so I shall leave you how the series left us every week. That is with the end theme, Last Theatre, by NoisyCell -which is quickly becoming one of my favourite songs.

This is a series that I cannot recommend highly enough because of how it attempts to explore the human condition & human connection, as well as the amazing visuals & stories that it has. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favour & get a copy right away.

& so, without further adieu, here is the song:

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A Delicate Balancing Act- Anime Critique: Akame ga Kiru!

Title: Akame ga Kiru! (Akame ga Kill! Akame Slashes!)
Format: TV anime
Genre: Shonen, fantasy, action, pseudo-harem, gore
Series Creators: Takahiro & Tetsuya Tashiro
Series Director: Kobayashi Tomoki
Studio: White Fox
Series length: 24 episodes
Original Airing dates: July 6, 2014 – December 14, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs

Manga cover
Manga cover

Synopsis:

Tatsumi is a fighter who, accompanied by his two childhood friends, sets off to the Capital in search of a way to make money to assist his poverty-stricken village. After being separated from his friends, Tatsumi not only fails to enlist in the army, but is swindled out of all his money. He is then taken in by a noble family who offer him help, but intend to torture and kill him, just like they did with his friends and dozens of other people. Tatsumi is rescued by a group of assassins known as Night Raid; who are also part of the revolutionary forces assembled to overthrow Prime Minister Honest, who manipulates the young emperor for his and his men’s personal gain, leading the rest of the nation to poverty and strife.


Critique:

In my view, Akame ga Kiru! is one of those rare series that takes established genre tropes and not only subverts to a degree but comfortable balances them with other common & uncommon elements -such as humour, emotion, fan service & extreme (& I do mean extreme) violence.

This delicate balancing act is the key strength to the series -but it is also its greatest weakness to a degree- as it takes many of the ideas of your typical Shonen narrative -such as ideas of justice, self-empowerment, overcoming more powerful opponents through strength of will & ignoring powerful female characters- and skews them into something basically other to the narrative norm.
Akame-ga-Kill
Primary to this is the central protagonist, Tatsumi, who seems like your typical Shonen manga hero. In that he is idealistic, naive & stubborn in his beliefs. The way that he is set up in the beginning, as a teenager coming to the capital to meet up with his two best friends so they can make enough money to save their village which lies along the farthest boards of the empire. Even though he is rejected for the army, swindled & exposed to the corruption of the capital, he maintains his naive idealism & is eventually taken in by a young noble woman who promises to help him find his friends and get into the army with her father’s connections. When the noble girl and her family are targeted by the assassins, Night Raid, Tatsumi does his upmost to protect the girl he believes to be his saviour -even going blade to blade against the titular Akame- but when it is revealed that the girl and her family tortured & killed his friends for their own sadistic pleasure, he shows no hesitation in being the one to kill her where she stands.

This juxtaposition of being naive morality and responding to the harshness of reality is what makes Tatsumi -& the series as a whole- interesting. Because even though he wishes to be moral, freeing the citizens of the empire from the corrupt tyranny of the manipulative Prime Minister -ironically named Honest- he is aware of the practicalities of achieving this. He accepts that he must become a murderer -even if the people killed are the worst humanity has to offer- but he does not let such darkness cloud that what he does is for an ultimate good. Yet a good that must always come at an exceptionally high price as people will suffer & die, even if you have the power to stop it.

The majority of the characters are also subversion of the standard genre tropes & cliches -for the most part that is.

They often fall into the typical archetypes that we come to expect -such as the unemotional one, the tsundere, the perv and the homo (how they refer to him in the series)- yet, for the most part, the characters are given context as to why they are like they are and are even given a change for develop, so that they have an arc to journey. What gives another good twisting to convention is that this development is also offered to the major antagonists of the series -the Jaegers- so that they aren’t just cardboard cutouts being bad for the sake of it (for the most part that is).

While Tatsumi is the naive idealist who grows to accept his roll as a killer, he is never shown  having the typical weakness of trying to spare his enemies or get them to see his point of view (such as Emiya in Fate/Stay Night). He grits his sense of mercy against having to do what is right in the situation, even if that means performing a brutal or underhanded act to win. He does gain more strength and power as the series progresses, as well as gathers a kind of harem around him, which are typical of the Shonen genre yet his development is never as clear cut as it would be in a more down the line (cliched) story like Bleach or One Piece. Since the manga is still continuing, the team behind the anime made an exceptionally brave way to resolve Tatsumi’s story arc, which was extremely unexpected & whilst a lot of people will be upset by it, I salute them for such a brave way of ending.

Tatsumi isn’t the only one who undermines standard Shonen characterisation, because his friends & enemies -whilst being cliched or archetypes at time- tend to have fleshed out backgrounds to explain their personality & behaviour.
Akamegakillcast
The titular Akame seems to be the usual taciturn killer obsessed with food but because she was raised solely and brutally as an assassin she lacks social skills and she constantly needs to eat to fuel her incredible abilities; also: despite appearing utterly emotionless, she cares deeply for all of her comrades, even if Tatsumi can’t understand how she does this at first. The sniper Mine (pronounced like mine as in the game Minecraft) seems like your typical tsundere but her emotion and arrogance fuels the power of her Taiga (Relic/Imperial Arms) weapon, Pumpkin, which grows stronger the more trouble its wielder is in -as well as the fact she is a half-blood child, which meant she was ignored & bullied all of her life, so she uses her arrogance to hide her fragility. The lion-like Leone (see pun in name) seems like your typical morally dodgy hedonist, actually swindling Tatsumi out of all of his money when he arrived in the Capital, but she has an exceptionally deep sense of loyalty to her friends & believes in personally punishing those who commit the most wicked sins upon the innocent -acting both as Night Raid’s spy & powerhouse in a fight. She also has a softer side, caring for Night Raid, insisting that they all refer to her as “onee-san” (big sister), which Tatsumi dutifully does despite their 1st interaction. Lubbock is seen as your typical amoral pervert who’d do anything to see the female Night Raid members naked but he never lets himself fall for enemy tricks -especially those involving beautiful- because he will do absolutely anything for his beloved commander, Nijenda.

Unfortunately the two remaining characters, Bulat & Sheele don’t really get time to develop but do have interesting backstories.

Bulat at first is shown as the butch homo (the translator’s term for him) with flamboyant hair but he acts like an older brother and mentor to Tatsumi (who refers to him as “aneki”). Despite his pretty boy appearance, he is a powerful fighter who is trying to make amends for the slaughters he committed when he was a soldier in the imperial army. I would’ve liked to have seen him develop much more outside the tender tough guy/queer trope but, alas, media has no issue in killing off homosexuals or deviants.

Sheele isn’t deviant in the traditional sense but she also doesn’t get time to shine. She’s shown as clumsy, airheaded & a tad useless but one of the most brutal killers in the team when armed with her giant scissors (yes, scissors like you do Arts & Crafts with). She claims a neurological condition, a “twisting inside my brain”, makes her useless at everything life but fighting & killing. After saving her best friend from a brutal assault & near rape, she discovers her talent for murder, becoming an assassin before being recruited by Night Raid. Unfortunately she’s turned into a sacrifice to demonstrate the power & brutality of the series’ main antagonists, the Jaegers (German for Hunters even though Germany doesn’t exist within the series).

The Jaegers I find a really interesting set of characters, proving the axiom that for a series to work you must have deep, complex villains who are twisted reflections of the heroes. Each member of the Jaeger is given details on their backgrounds & time to develop on screen, with each not only mirroring Night Raid but also displaying the issues inherent within the corrupt Empire.
The_Jaegers
The Jaeger’s leader is the insanely powerful & brutal General (Shogun) Esdeath, who’s motto is “the strong survive and the weak die”. She also wields one of the most powerful Taiga in the series, the power to manifest ice in any shape or amount from out of nowhere. Her utter brutality lies in stark contrast to how she cares for her subordinates, even if she believes that if any of them die it was because of their inherent weaknesses (also blaming herself for not helping them overcome their weakness). She also wants to know what it is to be in love, falling for an undercover Tatsumi when he won a tournament set up to find her to perfect mate. Her devotion towards him boarders on the Yandere but she is shown to have genuine affection for him, even though he keeps trying to escape her.

The other really interesting members of the Jaegers include the flamethrower using Bols, who hides his face behind a gasmask & comes across as intimidating because of his huge, scarred body. Whereas, in truth, he is a gentle soul who cares for his team members, is a skill cooked & likes being as helpful as he can. He also has a loving wife & daughter but is fully aware of the atrocities that he has committed in the name of bringing peace to the empire -including burning an entire village to ash so to stop the spread of a plague. He knows that he will one day be judged & punished for the crimes that he has committed but that doesn’t stop him from being open & caring for everyone around him -despite his painfully shy nature & dark self awareness.

The other interesting member of the Jaegers is Seryu Ubiquitous but for opposite reasons as Bol. She’s utterly obsessed with justice & with becoming a Hero of Justice like those whom she idealised. Unfortunately those whom she idealised were either murderously corrupted -such as the Capital Guard leader Orge- or dangerously insane like Dr Stylish. Her version of justice is twisted & absolute, with no room for subtlety or reason; so she responses with extreme violence. Often using her dog-like Taiga, Koro, to devour the so-called “evil doers”. Her mentality is further twisted when Sheele severs her limbs at the cost of her own life, making her believe that “good” (herself) will always triumph over the forces of evil (everyone else). Though when she is introduced she is shown as your typical, bumbling & airheaded “ally of justice” type because that is what she believes herself to be. Except her mind is so twisted that even her comrades don’t trust her -especially Wave.

Wave is Tatsumi’s mirror. In that he is also naive & idealistic, believing that he must serve the Empire no matter how twisted it is. Because a righteous heart can heel any wound if they stick to their path. He isn’t entirely stupid, seeing the wrong doings enacted upon the populace -especially by other Jaegers (mainly Seryu)- but he still acts, along with Bol, as their anchor to normality & morality -especially for Kurome, Akame’s mentally-warped younger sister.
akame1
Both Kurome & Akame share many similar traits, such as insatiable appetites & incredible, inhuman fighting skills. Yet whereas Akame feels the burden of all the lives that she has taken, Kurome feels their comfort. More considering that her Taiga, Yatsufusa, can turn anyone it slays into undead puppets. Her sense of being abandoned, stemming from being separated from her sister & experimented on, shows through in the use of her weapon to keep those whom she loved close to her -usually by mercifully ending their lives or murdering them when she thinks that they’ll leave her. Her character arc is minor yet interesting in how she develops outside seeing herself only in relation to her sister, especially when dealing with people as emotionally open & supportive as Wave.

There are heaps of other characters in the series too but in translated many from an on-going manga to a 24 episode series meant that they often appear, are introduced & then killed off without much fanfare.

In fact, there are several aspects & characters from the original manga that are removed or completely changed to fit with the new format but this doesn’t detract from it. I actually like how they were brave to give a solid ending to an continuing narrative rather than leave everything up in the air for a series that may never come (oh, how you betrayed me Horizon In the Middle of Nowhere!). Whilst some may quibble with the ending, I felt that it fitted for the most part but do be prepared to have your heart torn out a little if you’d grown attached to characters.

As well as playing with narratives & tropes, this series is also exceptionally violent. Surprisingly so in fact if you’ve never read the original manga. With blood spumes & dismemberment par for the course. Often shown in unflinching & uncensored fashion (unlike the TV broadcasts of Tokyo Ghoul or Gokukoku no Brynhildr). Yet the series does flinch away from the more sexually violent aspect, such as hints of rape & molestation. This is a positive in my view but it does mean that they cut out one of the best mini-arcs from the manga, where naive girls from the country are brought to the Capital, spoilt for a day before being assaulted & molested then addicted to drugs until they die a brutal death. This segment is important to show how vile the Empire has become & the lengths Night Raid go to in order to dispense their brand of justice.

Yet, as it shies away from aspects of sexual assault & molestation, it still has a lot of blatant Fan Service. Which is many cleavage on display but occasionally taut male muscle for the ladies. The Fan Service is never graphic or ogling, never really lingering or shoving your face in it but it can distract from the overall scene and series. This was also an issue in the manga but felt more satirical there, whereas the anime just has the jugs out on display (although covered up in some aspect).

TITTIES!!! Covered but still titties!
TITTIES!!! Covered but still titties!

The Fan Service and Sexualisation aren’t deal breakers or annoying but they do feel jarring out of place at time.

The fight scenes are often exceptionally well depicted, with fast paced brutal action always centred so you know what’s going on. Unfortunately, it still falls into many annoying Shonen tropes, such as taking time to explain “Special Moves” and attacks as well as every character having a hidden “trump” (turumpu) card ability that they always expound upon during battle. I personally find this trope to be overused & very annoying but the fights themselves are bloody & enjoyable (bloody enjoyable you might say, gauffered laugh).

The series is also beautifully animated, with interesting anachronistic designs that juxtapose our modern with classic fantasy -especially in regards to clothing design. With Tatsumi & Akame both wearing what look like school uniforms. It’s also vividly colourful, using lots of scenery, such cityscapes & nature, but it does look all the same after a while because they reuse the same backgrounds a lot (cash saving measure).

Overall, I thought that this was a brilliant series that translated many of the positive & transgressive aspects of the manga to the TV medium whilst still maintain a delicate balancing act of using & subverting standard tropes & cliches.

Whilst it might not be for everyone, I still found it immensely enjoyable -especially with its tender moments and quick fire humour. Some may not be able to get passed the extreme violence with it’s rivers & fountains of blood or forgive it for killing off characters whom you’ve come to love but stick through it all before casting your judgement -just like I’ve done.

mt-inc-akagakill-01-214783a8-mkv_snapshot_15-30_2014-07-09_20-02-42