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Death Parade: Games and the Meaning of Life

September 2, 2017
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What happens after you die? You take an elevator down to a bar to play a game, of course! Death Parade is a short, 12-episode series created by Yuzuru Tachikawa and produced by Madhouse studio (spoilers for first season ahead). The story mainly follows Decim, a bartender in a bar called Quindecim. Decim is an "arbiter," a person who judges the souls of people after they die and decides whether they will be reincarnated or be sent to the void as lost souls for eternity. The way he does this is by observing them while they play a game, while peeking into the memories of the lives they led.

How do you usually behave during competition? Do you get mad if you don't win, or not care at all? What if you believed that losing the game meant losing your life? Would you play more aggressively, or cheat? Would you give your life so the other person could live?

Each episode in the season follows the story of two people who have died and who find themselves in Quindecim. They are told they cannot leave until they play a game, and are told to play the game with their "lives at stake." They don't remember that they have died when they begin to play. To the best of their knowledge, they are trapped in a bar somewhere, and must play and win in order to get out alive. Can you imagine what this would do to someone's competitive gaming etiquette?

The twisted psychology of competition within each of the episodes was very interesting to watch. Decim and his supervisor, Nona, describe that the purpose of having them play a competitive game while they remember their lives is to create extreme situations that would elicit the darkness of their souls.

The first episode introduces a young married couple, a man and a woman, who must play a game of darts. Each section of the dartboard is linked to a body part, and each time a dart hits a certain section, the opponent feels actual pain in the linked body part. With each hit of a dart, the person recollects one additional memory. Decim sees the person's memories and observes their behavior during competition, and uses all of his collected data to make his judgment.

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In this, the pilot episode, as they play, the husband begins to recall memories here and there of times he has been jealous or suspicious that his wife is cheating on him. With each memory, his anger increases, and he begins to hit the marks on the board in order to inflict pain on his wife, perhaps subconsciously. At one point, she begs him to avoid her stomach, as she is pregnant. Eventually, the husband loses it and begins to make accusations. The wife realizes they are dead, and Decim confirms this and informs them that they are there to be sent either to heaven or hell. The wife admits that she has cheated and that the baby in her womb is not her husband's, and goes as far as to mock him and say she never loved him. With this information, Decim makes his judgment. The wife is sent to 'hell' (the void), and the husband to 'heaven' (to reincarnate).

The trouble with making a judgment on such limited information is explored in the following episode. Decim's new assistant, a young woman named Chiyuki who has no recollection of her own past, shares her thoughts. Based on her assessment, she believes the wife lied about the baby not being her husband's. Chiyuki believes that the husband was unable to focus on much more than his jealousy, which was what eventually led to the couple's deaths. The wife did cheat on her husband, but did love him and had a lot of regret about cheating. Seeing her husband's remorse about having killed their baby, she decided to lie about everything else to lessen his pain and feelings of guilt. In Chiyuki's point of view, Decim was not looking deep enough into the human emotions each player felt and the complexities of human beings and their behaviors. The judgment, then, is not entirely fair, because purposely lying so you can go to 'hell' in order for your husband to go to 'heaven' is actually not deserving of hell.

As it turns out, extreme situations may not always bring about the best in us, and it is because of this that this is not the most effective strategy for judgment. Having seen only a glimpse of the individuals' memories, and having only seen them within the context of a competitive game does not give a very accurate or complete picture of a person. When you place someone in an extreme situation, you only see one aspect of them. It may be their better self, or their worse self, but it is still only one facet of an entire, multi-faceted person. Human beings are much more complex than that, as the series explores.

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One of the main themes present in the series is the idea of living a full life. Decim is one of many arbiters, and his bar is in one of many floors, each of which houses a different bar tended by a different arbiter. The arbiters, we learn, are not alive, have never been alive, and will never die. They are but animated 'dummies' created to serve their purpose. Decim does not know what it is like to be a human, but he at one point mentions to Chiyuki that he has respect for people who have "lived a full life."

The lives that each of these people lived are as different as their deaths. For example, some people were murdered, some died in accidents, and some killed themselves. One of the characters who killed themselves is a young man with depression (not explicitly stated in the memories, but one can follow the dots). To me, as a person who often meets people who have suicidal thoughts, that specific episode hit home. The young man recalls his abusive mother, his parents' divorce, the numbness of his life, and his inability to form a relationship with the new maternal figure in his life, who actually loves him like a son. Upon realizing he killed himself, the young man is full of regret about his suicide and why he didn't open himself to others. In death, he is free of the numbness that controlled his life, which angers him as he realizes he cannot change his situation. His gaming partner, a reality TV star/mother with a traumatic past, has similar feelings about her own life, the abuse she suffered and the rage she took out on others, and not having been the best mother.

One of the episodes focuses on the relationship between two young adults who knew each other in childhood and lost touch, and died at the moment of seeing each other again after years. The episode is these people getting to know each other again and develop affection for each other, as they remember their own short lives, and their accidental death. The moment they realize they will never get to explore what their relationship could have been is very bittersweet.

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There are other themes I noticed that were not as fully explored, including the idea of using 'dummies' to judge what happens with a human soul after death, and whether these 'dummies' are capable of developing human emotions. This reminded me of the concept of human emotions and artificial intelligence. I don't think there were enough episodes in the first season to explore everything that could have been explored, but the introduction of those themes makes me think that maybe this is something the creators have in mind for later.

The biggest message I gathered from the first season is that it isn't "the meaning of life" that one should be concerned about, but rather "a meaningful life." Each of the people who went through Quindecim and were forced to re-live their lives through their memories experienced also a variety of feelings regarding what they did, what they didn't do, and what they had yet to do. A woman who suffered and was able to redirect her pain into art has no regrets about her life and doesn't care to know how she died. A man whose twisted sense of avenging his wife's murder turns into a serial killer who feels only the desire to hurt others even after death. A pop star who treated his fans like trash in life is unable to let his gaming partner, a big fan, sacrifice herself for him. A young woman who killed herself declines the opportunity to live again if it means sacrificing another's life, even though she desperately wants to be alive again. Only a fraction of the guests at Quindecim could say that they lived meaningful lives.

What is meaningful in our lives varies from person to person. For me, giving, caring, having loving relationships with my friends and family, working toward improving my life and the lives of others, and allowing myself to be creative, are all very significant. If I didn't have these things, I would work harder to get them. If I couldn't get them, I may find little meaning in my own life. 

What makes your life meaningful? Have you watched this anime? What did you think?
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