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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The Kick That Never Came – Anime Critique: Isshuukan Friends

mpage001Title: Isshuukan Friends (One Week Friends)
Format: TV anime
Genre: slice of life, romance, drama, tragedy
Series Creator: Matcha Hazuki
Series Director: Tarou Iwasaki
Studio: Brain’s Base
Series length: 12 episodes
Original Airing dates:
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


 

Synopsis:

High schooler Yuki Hase notices that his classmate Kaori Fujimiya is always alone and seemingly has no friends. After approaching her and becoming acquainted, Kaori reveals that she loses every memory of her friends each Monday. Despite learning this, Yuki endeavors to become her new friend every week.


 

Review:

There is an old saying that goes “the worst kick is the one that never comes”.

The basic meaning of it is the more you dread something bad coming, a kick or other such physical assault if you will, the worse it will be in your mind than the actually reality of it because the fear & expectation has made you build up something far more torturous (more torturous than my allegories to be sure).

This is the pall that hangs over Isshuukan Friends.

The constant dread that you are going to be hit by something monumental emotionally painful yet, it never comes, making that dread all the more worse.

Although that might be my expectations from watching anime that delights in really kicking you in the guts once you think you’re going to be blessed with Sweetness & Light.

The reason you are waiting for this phantom kick is from the central conceit of the series, that being amnesia. A very old chestnut indeed in terms of media tropes -especially in Japan- yet within Isshuukan Friends it stems more from plot driven psychological & physical trauma then some mere need for a character to begin as a Blank Slate.

The major praise that one can give this series is that it attempts to handle such a fanciful contrivance as emotionally realistic as they can -without the central idea feeling too contrite or merely there to heighten the drama or emotional reactions from the audience.

Yet you do not come here to see praise painted upon the page, so I shall return to the (fairly bitchy) critiquing.

The plot of the series revolves around Hase Yuki’s relationship with Fujimiya Kaori, who is the quiet withdrawn girl in his class. He initially approaches her so to get to know her but she coldly rejects his offer for friendship. He is persistent in trying to get her to open up to him so it is soon revealed that Kaori loses her memories of people whom she considers friends every Monday when she wakes up -the exceptions being her family & people she is merely acquainted with. Despite this handicap, Hase persists in trying to become friends with Fujimiya, starting each week with the question “Will you be my friend?”

Isshuukan Friends - 02 - Large 05

When I 1st heard Hase vow that, I was worried it the story would turn fairly stalkery & possessive but it only turned mildly stalkery. Narratively, it is understandable that Hase gets jealous when the formerly cold & quiet Fujimiya starts to open up to others in their class -mainly through the intervention of ditzy pixie Saki, who wants the responsible Fujimiya to baby & look after her because she (Saki) has issues with her own memory (in that she is forgetful).

After watching the 1st couple of episodes, part of me wanted to hate this series -mainly because it kept refusing to go dark like I thought it would- but also because it is so awkwardly cutesy.

All the characters -but especially Fujimiya & Hase- looks as though they are sponsored by a rouge producing company (the makeup, not the D&D class, you bloody dyslexics). Always with red blush patches under their eyes.

Isshuukan Friends - 06 - Large 01

The general art syle & design is light & cutesy too. Skipping a lot of the more moé & sexualisation tropes. More focussing on a sweet kind of soft cute in the characters. In fact, unlike other series this season, there isn’t anything remotely close to a tit or panty shot. Some of the usual awkwardness after falling leaves characters in compromising positions but this is quickly glossed over with humour rather than used to demonstrate masculine dominance, reward the male gaze or a let a protagonist get a quick grope in.

Yet, despite the cutesy looks & lack of narrative darkness, the story is actually pretty good & emotionally mature. In that it’s people reacting to a difficult situation as well as failing to voice their concerns or wishes out of fear of misunderstanding or hurting those around them. So, it follows the standard forms of Japanese dramas, with the inability to communicate less it destroy consensus society as a whole.

isshukan-chara

Nevertheless, Isshuukan Friends does handle a lot of the drama in a respectful & grownup fashion, even though it shows some weird relationship tropes. Such as Fujimiya making lunch for Hase everyday & only allowing him to talk to her outside of the class (such as on the roof at lunch) because she doesn’t want bad rumours to spread about him. That bullshit is stopped with Saki’s spoiltness meaning she just speaks to Fujimiya whenever she wants to & isn’t perturbed by her memory loss -Saki thinks its similar to her absent mindedness. Fujimiya & Hase also develop ways for Fujimiya to deal with her memory loss, such as getting her to keep a dairy so she can keep track of events & drama comes along in one episode when she accidentally loses her dairy as well as the poster on her reminding her to read it every Monday yet she lost it on a Friday, so found it odd she didn’t realise it was gone over the weekend when her memories were still intact.

Each episode follows a basic formula of a week in the life of our protagonists as they struggle to deal with Fujimiya’s ongoing condition, Hase’s feelings of helplessness & selfishness at the situation as well as interactions with other characters & Fujimiya slowly opening up to those around her & not being afraid to make friends. Some edges appear, when classmates believe that Fujimiya is dating Hase’s best friend, the cranky & taciturn Shogo, & say nasty things behind her back (yet within earshot); Hase has to also overcome his feelings of jealousy towards Shojo for becoming friends with Fujimiya & the chance of losing her.

True drama comes late in the series with the appearance of Fujimiya’s former childhood friend, Hajime, who moved to Hokkaido with his family at the same time as Fujimiya began to lose her memories. When her remembrance of him causes her memories to completely reset, so she forgets everything that she had build up until that point & Hase to almost abandon the friendship out of frustration. When that moment comes along, there is no longer an expectation of a kick or anything else apart from a quiet resolution. Tensions remain between the two protagonists for the last few episodes after Fujimiya starts to build herself back up to how she was before Hajime arrived but that’s mainly from everyone learning the cause of Fujimiya’s amnesia (stems from a form of bullying from her supposed friends at a young age) & Hase’s fear that he might cause it to happen again. But mostly the tension in the last few episodes comes from the fact that the protagonists -& anime characters in general- can never express their love without being pathetically awkward or borderline retarded.

In the end, this is a light teen drama that deals with a difficult issue in a mature & responsible way. It has some humour & cuteness but doesn’t kick you when you are down. Your response to it depends on how much you personally engage with the genre &/or subject. For my part, I found it enjoyable & a pleasant balm to the hypersexualisation of other series that I shall be writing about over the week (or just copy pasting random complaints about hypersexualisation in other series) but each to their own. I do hope that you, the reader, take the time to watch the series & take from it what you will.

Isshuukan Friends - 03 - Large 03