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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Still not a way to sell your TCG – Anime Critique: selector spread WIXOSS

i0O4dk7WbjjtATitle: Selector Spread WIXOSS (selector spread WIXOSS)
Format: TV series
Genre: shojo, magic girl, fantasy, drama, trading card game adaptation, psychological, horror
Series Director: Takuya Sato
Studio: J.C. Staff
Series length: 12 epsides
Original Airing dates: October 4 – December 20, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download


Synopsis:

Tama betrayed Ruko by not granting her wish & has vanished, to be replaced by Iona -whose wish was to become the LRIG for the most powerful Selector in the world. Feeling broken, Ruko & friends try to escape the Selector Battles but find themselves still trapped within them -both by Ulith, in Iona’s former body & Mayu, the mysterious girl behind the Selector Battles. Can Ruko overcome her fate & be reunited with her beloved Tama or will despair consume all?


Critique:

The first series of WIXOSS (selector infected WIXOSS) was surprising brutal, filled with dark & tragic themes, incest & forbidden love, despair & faint glimmers of hope that could be crushed like fleeting embers under heavy boots. The 2nd season of WIXOSS continues with these themes but doesn’t merely rehash them without going anywhere. It uses the previous series as a stepping stone to new ideas, dark themes & finding resolution. It seeks to answer many of the questions & plot threads left over in the 1st season but, in the end, it still fails to sell the Trading Card Game that it’s based upon.

That, in & of itself, shouldn’t be an issue but, ostensibly, this series is designed to promote & sell the Trading Card Game. Whilst this season does explore the rules a little more, it is still focussed on the Maho Shojo (Magical Girl) aspects as well as the tragedy & despair of having your one heart’s desire denied to you.

This series is emotionally heavy & fairly brutal in what happens to the characters mentally & physically. Whereas the 1st season dealt with what it meant to be reach your goal only to have it ripped from you, the 2nd season focuses more on aspects of isolation, need, connection & struggling through negativity.

Before I move into an overview of this season, I have to make mention something that I found a bit uncomfortable to deal with -that being the victimisation, degradation & abuse of young girls.

Ever since Maho Shojo Madoka Magika brought it to public popularity again, the Magical Girl genre has returned to the physical & psychological torment of the mid-90’s. This was something that Dr Susan J Napier touched on in her 1997 work Vampires, Psychic Girls, Flying Women and Sailor Scouts & is to do with turning the Shojo into a representation of Japan in a time of economic & social crisis; one that has to be protected & saved but only after they are being physically or psychologically tormented. This is meant to stir the populace into feelings that society can be saved & redeemed, but only after it has suffered & been purged. This was a fairly common trope within the 90’s, during the bursting of the Economic Bubble, where confidence in the nation, national identity & worth of self was crushed because the traits of superiorism no longer worked when unemployment was high & the country was afflicted by natural disasters like the Kobe Earthquake -which crippled a financial centre of the country. With recent repeats of such natural & economic disasters, it is only naturally that the media will turn introspective about the ills of society (such as with Psycho Pass) or create a catharsis with which to release feelings of unease -into which the Selector WIXOSS and other similar Magical Girl series falls into.

Within this aside, I would like to make another aside.

That is, during such times we may flinch at young female characters enduring hardships, abuse & physical/psychological trauma but we don’t bat an eye when it happens to young male characters. This can be endless argued about trope & gender roles, which is a book unto itself but we have to actually address what is an ongoing cultural & social reflection of gender roles in a very rigid & role-enforced nation like Japan.

In such series as WIXOSS, the female characters much struggle & suffer in order to find empowerment at the end to overcome what afflicts them. But they are only empowered to resume the female roles that Japanese society dictates to them. They must remain cute, loving, emotionally open, accepting & so forth but they must remain women. Women who will never lead companies, join the Diet or have a role in the national spotlight unless they are an actress, idol or pornstar. Whereas when young male characters suffer & overcome they are empowered to become leaders or heroes. They can become anyone with power & authority -even if they happen to die. Their suffering is so they can overcome & conquer, whereas as female suffering is a cleansing for the ills of the world.
RBdEoSo
That being written though, the Selector WIXOSS series does something different with their cleansing meta-narrative.

The resolution does remain that everyone shall be reunited in friendship & find strength in that connection -which is the theme of almost all Magical Girl narratives- but Selector Infected WIXOSS & Selector Spread WIXOSS serve to point out a cancer within female interactions. A cancer manifest within jealousy, petty rivalry, victimisation & extreme bullying that is part of a scapegoating/victim mentality culture.

A health dose of random lesbianism. Nothing wrong with that.
A health dose of random lesbianism. Nothing wrong with that.

This is represented through 3 characters: Akira, who delights in tormenting the weak to achieve her desire; Mayu, who wishes revenge against the world; & Ulith, who is a natural born sadist who delights in the utter suffering of other girls.

In this, they work in concert, with one using the others to reach her own ends yet it is not as simple as that.

This is expressed through Akira, whose entire sense of self-worth is shattered after she loses her 3rd Selector Battle in the 1st season. This left her scarred down her face, after being attacked by a deranged fan, & her psyche fractured. Her entire identity being based upon her beauty & using that beauty to manipulate others means that she can no longer hide the ugliness that is within her -on that feeds on the misery of those whom she deems weaker than herself. With this exposed, she spirals into destructive depression, locking herself in her room because she thinks that all her value, as a model/object of beauty, & her life’s purpose -destroying Iona because of how she was born into ease & privilege- are gone.

That is when Ulith, now in possession of Iona’s body (now that Iona is Ruko’s LRIG avatar), gives Akira back her beauty (through the use of make up) & a new purpose -to expose the ugliness in other girls before crushing them. In exchange, Ulith promises to give Akira utterly love, devotion & attention but only if she can fulfil her promise to obey her commands & show the ugliness within her that takes such pleasure in tearing down others.

Naturally, Ulith is only doing this for 2 selfish reasons.

The 1st is because she needs to fulfil Iona’s wish to find powerful challengers for her & Ruko, otherwise she’ll be ripped from Iona’s body & basically destroyed (a punishment any LRIG faces if they fail to fulfil their former Selector’s wish). The 2nd is for the simple factor that she’s a pure sadist, who gets basically sexual pleasure out of destroying things -especially other girls.

Ulith’s background is covered well. In that she was a human girl who took pleasure in physically torturing & tormenting other creatures & people until she was caught & punished for hurting a classmate. From then on, she developed techniques to create extreme psychological distresses, eventually pushing some girls to suicide. Her ultimate wish is to be transformed from human to LRIG & back to human again so she can keep on destroying lives & inflicting misery in whichever form she can. She is basically using Akira to achieve these goals but doesn’t understand the limits of what someone as unstable as can do to get the love & affection that she thinks she deserves -since Ulith is leading her on with sexual & emotional promises of belonging & contentment. Even so, such setbacks down stop Ulith from trying to spread misery & malice around her.

To this end, she’s aided by Maya, whose backstory is flesh out in this series.

Without giving too much away, she was a girl who suffered from profound physical & emotional isolation due to an unnamed illness. Meaning that she never go to socialise with other children or even go outside. Her family withheld any positive emotional reinforcement from her, simply leaving her with games & toys rather than affection -almost wishing she would die so she’d no longer be a burden on them. When she’s handed a deck of WIXOSS cards, she has no one to play with, so she creates to alter-egos -a Girl of Light (Shiro) & a Girl of Darkness (Kuro)- to play the game for her. This fundamentally shows her spiral into madness but it also somehow grants her magical powers to affect the lives of any other girls who play the game in the outside world. Sending out Shiro & Kuro, she begins the Selector Battles to twist & destroy the wishes of others, so they can suffer the isolation & deprivation that she did.

It’s all dark & very twisted but ultimately is a brilliant summation for what is a truly terrible cancer at the heart of all societies throughout history. That is: that those who feel isolated & abandoned will find some way to get revenge on that society -which is pretty much how ISIL & #GamerGate got started (same with any terrorist group really & yes, I did just call #GamerGate a bunch of terrorists).

The series also (re)introduces as characters who are key to the unfolding of the events behind the Selector Battles, such as the former LRIG Fumio & her LRIG Anne, who both wish to escape the Selector Cycle so Fumio can restore the original Fumio to her human form so she can live her dreams of being an author. Unfortunately, they aren’t used much in the full series but are supposed to have time in the spin-off manga.

The other characters who get more screen time is the hyperactive but delusional klutz Chiyori & her old country woman accented LRIG, Eldora. Chiyori’s wish is to turn into a LRIG so she can experience what it’s like to have magical powers & have a life like the novels that Fumio (above) wrote. This is mainly because before she encountered Eldora, she was a friendless introvert who spent all of her time in her imagination because she was to painfully shy to connect with anyone. The main trio of heroines -Ruko, Yuzuki & Hitomi- don’t want her to experience the hardship of what it means to both win & lose battles, to suffer at Maya’s whim, but Eldora, for all of her fighting with Chiyori, would rather give herself up than to see the hyper little girl suffer -wanting her to be free & who she really is rather than adopting a personality as an escape from the real world. A world where she can make friends with the central trio & have a happy life.

Chiyori: Innocent or brain damaged? You decide!
Chiyori: Innocent or brain damaged? You decide!

It’s this notion of self-sacrifice that surrounds Ruko’s core conviction to free & restore everyone caught up within the Selector Battles. This is pushed by discovering the truth behind Tama & Iona’s origins. As well as Maya granting Ulith the use of Tama as a personal LRIG with which to make Ruko truly suffer.

This is something that I genuinely found disturbing, more than some of the other inflictions of malice within the series.

Where Ruko can fill her LRIGs (Tama & eventually Iona) with the power of light & love, making them evolve beyond normal limits; Ulith can force all of her vileness into Tama, transforming her into a twisted version of herself who delights in destruction.

The horror at the heart
The horror at the heart

The concept of corruption is what is disturbing but the fact it takes on such a sexualised connotation that is.

Ulith basically rapes Tama; forcing her will, her inner darkness into the innocent (& fairly mentally deficient) girl. The dialogue & reaction of Tama plays it out like a rape, going on about Ulith “entering her”. This is combined with Tama’s shrill voice to terribly effect. It really left me uncomfortable & alarmed but I sense that was the entire intention of such scenes. To show what happens when someone uses their power to utterly violate another human being. Fittingly, Ulith finds a hubris filled end that echoes the countless physical & emotional violations but even for such a vile creature, it was a little too much & too unexpected but plays into the idea of some people being utterly unredeemable.

Again, this hooks into the disturbing trend of making female characters suffer that I mentioned in the 1st few paragraphs of the review but it bares repeating -especially since we have other series such as Yuki Yuna wa Yusha de Aru. This is a series that I couldn’t finish watching because of a lack of decent subs but the basic rub of it is that the female characters -all a form of Magical Girl- are made to suffer when they use their powers to protect a God Tree -which in turn feeds of their suffering & creates a cycle of producing new Magical Girls to sustain itself through their sacrifices. This is just one part of a continued & disturbing trend that girls must suffer horrendous things in order to be granted a chance of peace & love. A theme echoed in several recent Shojo series, especially the utterly abhorrent Amnesia game/anime series from a few years ago -which saw the heroine killed again & again, as well as suffering other emotional & physical tortures for no real reason in each episode of that terrible series (yes, I watched it all because it was like a fucking train wreck).

Anyway, back to the critique.

Visually, the series remains a mixed bag.

With some very dark & intentionally murky -such as the battle grounds- mixed with some bright & vivid cityscapes. The animation itself is fluid, able to shift scale & action well. The use of primary colours for characters as well as the varied designs of the LRIGs is very well down; if a tad sexual at a times. Still, the designs are both unique & referencing other cultural markers as well tropes.

wixoss-10

In the end, if you can get past a lot of the emotional & physical trauma within the series, it is a rewarding end & answer to the first arc. It has a lot going for it, with many subtle messages about the ills of modern society -especially in regards to how girls treat each other as well as how the poisonous nature of some people can be overcome with an unwavering heart & the determination of self sacrifice for a positive end. Even if you can’t achieve such goals, having the support of those whom you love & care about to carry you through is enough for you to see a resolution that benefits the many rather than giving up yourself to cease your own isolation & discontent.

A smile to end the darkness
A smile to end the darkness