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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Article: the Death of Celebrity & the Questions of Our Own Mortality

Many of us have heard that today (12/8/2014) that comedian & actor Robin Williams was found dead in his home of an apparent suicide.

Naturally, this has caused a massive outpouring of grief from the famous, the infamous & the mundane yet to put things into perspective, also in the world today famous Irish actor J.J. Murphy died after filming part of his role on the next season of The Game of Thrones, riots broke out in Ferguson Missouri caused by the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by members of the local police force, an apparent coup has happened in Iraq as the Islamic States continues to slaughter its way through that nation.

Yet this day shall be marked by the passing of one man.

I am not diminishing a family’s loss or grief but rather seek to highlight why the death of a single celebrity can impact us, as relatively secure members of the First World, more than the force of global events that occur every day in our most harsh world.

That is because we as consumers of media have a more immediately feeling of presence of a celebrity in relation to out lives. They aren’t some distance abstract that that many of us cannot fathom or relate to because it (hopefully) goes beyond our own experiences. Yet a celebrity is in our lives almost every day, whether you are a devoted fan or casually note random appearances of them. We find them more relatable because the cult of celebrity permeates our lives, we project out own hopes & desires upon them, using them for a touch of vicarious living.

There are also some celebrities who do genuinely affect our lives, open our eyes & actually help us through some very dark times that we may face.

Robin Williams was such a celebrity because he was very open about his own faults & addictions -having battled drugs & alcohol his entire adult life. Like many other comedians, such as the legendary Richard Pryor (1940-2005) or Billy Connelly, he shared his pain with his audience in order to both make them laugh & to exorcise them from himself. He also showed an exceptional ability for acting, both comedic & serious, which can be hypothesised as being part his natural ability to hide his pain -which has also been mentioned by some of his friends & contemparies as why he often acted so manic & did impersonations. His roles touched many & also helped inspire many, such as his famous turn in Dead Poet Society, as seen here:

That is one reason why his death has been so felt by so many yet it is not the entirity of the matter.

When anyone dies it causes us, as human beings, to reflect upon our own mortality. When someone whom is famous dies, the news is flashed through the media to both provide information but also for the ghoulish reason of making people watch that news service, which gets people watching sponsored messages & helps push brand awareness & revenue for the media provider up. It is difficult to escape the news of any celebrity death, which pushes up our own self-reflection of the Mortal coil up to levels they would otherwise not be.

In losing them, we lose part of ourselves.

In that we are once again granted awareness of our own deaths, causing the death of our ignorance and innocence within the same moment. It is this which causes us the most pain.

That is not to say that we do not have some genuine grief over the passing over another human being but it is a communal grief -a collective acceptance of our mortality & limitations. All the dreams & desires that died with the person yet it is also because we have some shared memory or experience of that person. Some part of our collective lives that was so deftly yet unknowningly touched by they who are now gone. Many were so marked by William’s turn at playing the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, which is highlighted in this performance:

He was also a performer who crossed generation, with many first seeing him on screen in the odd sitcom Mork & Mindy. He then accompanied many of us through our media infused lives, in many guises. Some more memorable & touching then others yet it cannot be denied that no genuine, interpersonal connection existed between audience (with some natural exceptions), so our grief returns to the aforementioned point of us not grieving for the loss of an individual but rather for the passing of an icon, a memory & ourselves.

Whenever someone famous dies, we see the usual media scrum & wrenching of shirts because it is culturally acceptable. Again, it is the communal grief & the lifting the collective fear of individual mortality that permeates cultures so abstract from the truth of everyday loss & violence. It does not deny that people feel that loss acutely yet we still must acknowledge that we do not mourn for whom we don’t know, only for ourselves.

Even with that being said, any loss, known or unknown, weighs upon our collective humanity. With grief being a myriad beast that lies hidden deep within so many, merely waiting for release.

One thing I do hope that has occurred with Robin Williams’ passing is that is highlights issues that people do have with depression & addiction. I hope it does make people genuinely reflect upon themselves & their own lives; to seek out help where it can be found & to realise that they don’t have to suffer alone (as so many out there do because they do not know where or to whom to turn). Find the people & services that can provide the most help & if they are unfunded & overwhelmed, bring attention to the situation. In this: one life, voice can begin to help many -your own voice, your own life.

If you do feel as though you are falling into a dark unfathomable place, reach out your hands to see who grasps it. Many of us suffer through such things but does not mean we have to suffer alone.

Yet to bring it back to a singular point: the world is diminished by the loss of a brilliant, truthful jester in Robin Williams yet we must use such passings as a means to uplift ourselves, our friends & families if they need to be uplifted.

All grief shall end, all memories fade yet to be touched by a single spark in a dark cold world can speak of the brilliance of existence that few truly acknowledge.

Getting real sick of your shit, Shinbo! – Anime Critique: Mekakucity Actors

61519Title: Mekakucity Actors (Kagerou Project)
Format: TV anime
Genre: supernatural, tragedy
Series Creator: Jin (Shizen no Teki-P)
Series Director: Yuki Yase, Akiyuki Shinbo
Studio: Shaft
Series length: 12 episodes
Original Airing dates: April 12, 2014 – June 28, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


Synopsis:

Shintaro Kisaragi is an 18-year old hiki-NEET who has not left his room in two years, engrossing himself with his computer and the internet. However, on August 14, due to the messing about of the cyber girl Ene, who lives inside his computer, Shintaro spills soda on his computer keyboard and is forced to go outside to buy a new one, due to the fact that during the Obon festival none of the stores will deliver until August 17. Shintaro- goes to the department store, where a group of criminals break in and hold the people inside hostage for ransom. Here he comes in contact with a group of teenagers calling themselves the “Mekakushi Dan” (lit. “Blindfold Gang”), who stop the robbery with their mysterious eye powers and force Shintaro into joining their group.


Review:

Mekakucity Actors is the latest work from the prolific & strange director Shinbo Akiyuki, his 2nd series after Nisekoi earlier this year (review here), & based upon the multimedia project Kagerou Project that combines Vocaloids & Light Novels.

It also combines two of my (current) pet hates.

The rushed brevity of this current anime season (which I complained about here in my Chaika critique) & Shinbo’s idiosyncratic style that was once great in Bakemonotagari series.

Shinbo’s distinct style that he 1st brought to the fore in Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei that featured a combination of lingering shots, rapid cuts, flashcards inserted over scenes describing characters’ internal thoughts, weird positioning/posing of bodies as well as non sequitur shots of almost random objects, characters or buildings. This crossed over into the aforementioned Bakemonotagari series, where is was considered bold & refreshing from your standard animation style but now Shinbo has used it so often without variation that it feels trite, tired & cliche.

Separate of Shinbo’s direction, the plot & delivery of the series does not do anything great, interesting or original to give it much merit.

The framing device of each episode is that it focuses on certain characters as part of their story is told in am almost non-linear fashion; where it intercuts past & present experience as characters tell their stories & perspectives, as well as jumps to seemingly unrelated events. Each episode finishes with an also seemingly unrelated coda in a childish/storybook animation style about a lonely (then murderous) monster looking to understand its place in the world.

Because of this disjointed narrative style, flitting between characters, you don’t actually get to spend much time getting to know them all (or the ones that are meant to be important) in any significant way. Plus all of these narrative arcs are told in parallel with each other, so when all the characters do finally come together & the meaning behind their powers, past & connections are all revealed, it has no weight -thus is lacks any true impact. The last few episodes where they do finally get to explain everything have this vexing feeling of being pretty token & hollow efforts; like not much thought was put in to connect things properly. Especially the revelation that they’re operating on an all too cliched timeloop that wasn’t even hinted at in any early episodes.

The characters are frankly pretty annoying & underdeveloped. Some fans have really latched onto them, especially the Hatsune Miku parody/clone Ene. But that is more related to the usual non-canon fan nonsense which I can honestly never be bothered with or can be bothered to understand.

The weird head twist is Shinbo's most cliche & annoying visual form
The weird head twist is Shinbo’s most cliche & annoying visual form

I honestly don’t have the heart to critique this series any further. It’s not something that I can willingly recommend. If you enjoy Shinbo’s previous auteur style work, you’ll dig this but if you want something interesting with substance to the story & characters, you’re far better off looking at any other series out there in all honesty.

Mekakucity-actors