Many people after watching this anime seem to take for granted that one of the two men will go to heaven, and the other will go to hell. But how can that be?
Old Man: “What happens if I lose?”
Bartender: “I can only tell you that you will risk your life.”
If they are to be sent to either heaven or hell, what life is there to risk? If this had actually been the case all along, then wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the two men’s lives were already forfeit? Near the end of the short, we find out that the young man had been stabbed by his girlfriend. As for the old man, he was supposedly in a vegetative state before he presumably passed away. After all, the old man says, “I had fun being able to play you right before I died.” But that’s a peculiar bit of phrasing, isn’t it? Especially the “right before I died” part. When did he die? Unless the subs are inaccurate, his words seem to imply that he had died just now when the young man had slammed him against the aquarium. He got to have fun before he died, though. If he was already dead when he got here, he would not say such a thing. So if that’s the case, did the young man kill the old man then? I don’t think so either.
Earlier in the short, the young man starts to clutch his stomach. He also begins to get blurred vision. At the time, he assumes that the results of the game of pool is negatively affecting his health. After all, the old man had just pocketed the ball with the young man’s stomach imprinted on it. Trapped in an unbelievable situation with his life on the line, it is not surprising that the young man would assume a connection between the results of the game and his physical well-being. Nevertheless, the woman had already said, “The body parts are simply images on the balls, so even if your heart ball is pocketed, you will not lose your life.” There’s no reason to assume that the woman is lying, and when the old man pockets even more of the young man’s balls, we can clearly see that she isn’t. The young man thus comes to a different conclusion later in the story: the pain in his stomach and his blurred vision are actually due to his stabbing. But why then? Why does he not feel any pain until a particular point in the story? And again, why does the old man say, “I had fun being able to play you right before I died.” Unfortunately, I will painfully have to start speculating.
I think neither of them are actually dead when they first enter the bar. They are, however, near death. In fact, they are in two different places at once. They are simultaneously here in the bar and wherever they are in the real world as well. That sounds crazy, but c’mon, it’s a story in which two individuals are risking their lives over a game of pool. Not only that, the game is being adjudicated by some mysterious bartender who can turn you into a marionette if you refuse to play. Therefore, is it that crazy that the two men are in two different places at once? So if you grant my premise, I will now say this: the young man doesn’t get stabbed in the real world until he actually starts to feel the pain in his stomach midway through the short. Likewise, the old man doesn’t actually pass away until he is actually knocked out near the end of the story. This would explain why he says, “I had fun being able to play you right before I died.” In fact, he has accepted his death whereas the young man obviously has not. Furthermore, this would explain why their lives are on the line. One of them will presumably go back to the real world and continue living. The other will move on into the afterlife. But wait, what about the whole heaven and hell business?
Bartender: “In general, humans go to either heaven or hell after they die. There are, of course, many exceptions. And for those who die at the same time, there’s a rule to invite them here. I am an adjudicator. You were asked to play the game to be labeled.”
You’ll notice that the bartender does not actually say that the results of the game will send the two men to either heaven or hell. He simply says that most people are headed to those two destinations when they die, but “there are, of course, many exceptions.” We, however, assume otherwise. But if our assumption is correct, again, how are the two men’s lives on the line? If they were destined for either heaven or hell, again, their lives were already forfeit. I don’t think the bartender is lying just like how the woman was not lying about how the images on the balls were merely cosmetic. After all, the bartender doesn’t even apologize for lying after giving his whole spiel about heaven and hell. He simply apologizes for having “being quiet” about his own role in the game.
Bartender: “The game was predetermined to be pool. And that the old man would have won if things went smoothly.”
Young Man: “So you did know!”Bartender: “You have won the game. You changed fate yourself. If you enter the elevator, you will understand the outcome for yourself.”
So what is the point of the game? The young man makes a lot of assumptions throughout the course of the story. Likewise, we do too. We know that the bartender is an adjudicator, but there’s no reason to assume that he’s even judging the content of the men’s moral characters. Both men see their lives flash before their eyes. Both men were not exactly saints either. We can sit here and debate whether or not cheating on a girlfriend is worse than bullying some kid, but at the same time, we’re not getting a complete picture either. Who’s to say the old man had not done a lot worse than what we are allowed to see? And who’s to say that the young man’s girlfriend is entirely blameless for her situation? And even if we assume that cheating on a girlfriend is worse, should such a thing really condemn you to hell? And is the old man so much better that he deserves heaven?
Now, you could argue that perhaps the young man deserves to go to hell, because in his desperation to survive, he attacks the old man. When he believed that he had killed the old man, he even tries to justify the crime to himself. But the young man is clearly under duress. He is facing an unbelievable situation in which he has to fight for his life. After all, he is right in that the game is hardly fair. He can’t possibly compete against the old man in the game of pool. If the young man had done nothing, he presumably condemns himself to death. If he had not fought for his life, he wouldn’t have deserved to live anyway. Nevertheless, what actually happens is that the old man loses the game. And according to the bartender, you risk your life by losing.
I still maintain that there’s no reason to think the bartender is making a decision as weighty as who gets sent to heaven and who gets sent to hell. He doesn’t seem to be that sort of morally righteous judge. Rather, I think he adjudicates whether someone is still fighting to live, and whether someone has accepted that it is their time to go. The young man simply assumes that he’ll go to hell, especially because of everything that had just transpired. Fate had already determined that the old man would win the game of pool. Nevertheless, the young man tries everything in the book to survive. He tries to bargain, and when that didn’t work, he became violent. Most of all, the young man breaks down at the end of the story, and through his tears, suddenly gets philosophic on us:
Young Man: “How can anyone possibly say that we are all equal when we enter this room? How? Who could say that? It’s not like… You guys are actually alive. Don’t mock the people who are alive.”
In the end, the bartender admits that the young man had changed his own fate. If he really did, the question of whether the young man will go to heaven or hell seems irrelevant. Afterwards, the bartender and the woman reflect on their latest visitors:
Woman: “Those last words really got to me.”
Bartender: “Indeed. Being able to say such a thing must be proof that he was alive.”
It is the young man’s words that got to them and thus the audience as well. On the other hand, we can’t even hear what the old man has to say to the bartender. This is perhaps a reflection of how the old man had spent his last few years as a vegetable. Furthermore, the old man merely wants to go back to taste his wife’s pickles once more before he dies. He has already accepted death in more ways than one whereas the young man fights for his life in order to keep living.
So what is even the takeaway from this story? We make assumptions, and we make a lot of them. We think that by judging a person’s character, we can decide if he gets to go to heaven or hell. We even think that there’s a good guy and a bad guy in every situation. I read somewhere that the same director responsible for Death Billiards was also responsible for the seventh episode of Kill la Kill. If you’ll recall, the seventh episode of Kill la Kill has the previously innocent Mako coming to blows with her best friend Ryuko over money. No one’s a saint, not even someone like Mako. Likewise, both of the men in Death Billiards are flawed. Not only that, human nature can’t really be judged from a short montage of a person’s life or even a game of pool. One of these two men, however, fights harder than the other to survive. And that is perhaps the only thing of any tangible worth in this story.
In an interview from this blog, the director even said, “One of my motto is ‘To live is to fight.'” I can’t seem to verify this quote anywhere else on the internet, but if this is actually what the director had said, I can’t say that it’s all that surprising. His particular motto is reflected all throughout Death Billiards.
Let’s consider a few questions…
But the bartender says, “…for those who die at the same time, there’s a rule to invite them here.” If your theory is correct, then the two men do not actually die at the exact same time.
You could also say that the young man does not actually die as soon as he is stabbed. Rather, he slowly bleeds out, and when the old man “dies” in the bar, the young man finally dies from his mortal wound as well. They both lie motionless on the floor for some indeterminate amount of time. The young man is simply the first to pick himself back up in order to continue playing the game. After all, he is fighting to live.
In the old man’s memories, he sees a shrine his wife had made for him. Aren’t those shrines just for dead people?
In most cases, yes. But whether or not the old man is still alive at the start of the story, how would he know anything about the shrine? The shrine would not go up until the old man is either already in a coma or long dead. As a result, it’s not something he should have ever been able to see. I’m not saying that the old man is lying, but what he actually sees in his thoughts can’t be entirely reliable.
What did the old man say to the bartender?
I can’t possibly answer this. If there’s one quibble I have with the short, it’s the way the director repeatedly insists, “The meaning behind this anime is totally up to you!” The old man’s silent words seems to suggest this. The way the bartender refuses to answer the woman’s questions during the credits suggests this as well. While we’re at it, we may as well address the old man’s smile too. Why does he smile right before the elevator doors close? Who knows? But once again, it’s yet another pointed suggestion from the director to his audience that we should come to our own conclusions about the story.