Death Billiards: Desperate to survive

Death Billiards 01

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.

Death Billiards 02

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.

Death Billiards 04

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.

Death Billiards 06

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.

Death Billiards 05

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.


15 Replies to “Death Billiards: Desperate to survive”

  1. In some ways it feels like the old man had some prior deals with the bartender. The old man was apparently a pool champion, and the game was ‘pre determined’ to be pool, so he clearly had an advantage as the young man came to realise. It also seems that the old man got something out of the deal, I say this purely because of the smug smile he pulls as the elevator door closes. Neither the bartender nor the woman ever seem to outright lie over the course of the story, but the bartender is intentionally quiet and vague. He says ‘there is a rule’ to invite people who die at the same time. While that may be the criteria for inviting them, whose to say what’s being judged about each individual is the same for each guest? And whose to say it’s the only criteria determining which of the deceased enter the bar? For example, age seems to be a crucial factor, for example two young men might be both be judged on their desire to continue living, while two old men might be judged for who deserves to go to heaven and hell. The bartender must get a huge range of diverse people visiting the bar, so I can only imagine that the rules have to be very flexible. So what I’m trying to say is, maybe the entire set up was only ever testing the young man, seeing how hard he fights to survive against uneven odds. If the old man was prepared to die soon anyway, it’s possible that he’d play whatever role in the game they wanted him to for a reward in the afterlife. Although it is possible that he only came to understand the advantage he had been given after the game ends, and he uses that knowledge to say whatever it is he says to the bartender before leaving.

    What interests me is the the two heart billiard balls the bartender holds in the credits. Neither of them are beating, suggesting that neither of the two men had a second chance to live despite the young man’s speech and will to live. The message being conveyed in the short seems direct enough, but I’m uncertain as to weather the young man managed to achieve any of the endings he desired.

    Thanks for this article, I found it a really stimulating read, although it is a shame that the short didn’t further develop some of its themes in favour of trying to be more obtuse.

    1. What interests me is the the two heart billiard balls the bartender holds in the credits. Neither of them are beating, suggesting that neither of the two men had a second chance to live despite the young man’s speech and will to live.

      I’m a bit busy so I’ll respond to the rest of your comment later. But I will say this: when we see this scene, it’s long after the two men have left. It would be rather strange if the two billiard balls are forever tied to the two men’s bodies whether or not either of them survived the ordeal.

        1. Shrug. Who knows? Just like we have no idea what the old man had said to the bartender. Maybe the bartender is just reflecting on his latest visitors. Maybe the billiard balls don’t mean much more than that. I think we naturally have this need to find the one true answer to every story we consume, and therefore, every single thing we see must necessarily be a clue. Then again, the director has said that he’s leaving the interpretation up to the viewers. And I see a story in which the major theme is the fight to survive. Everyone is relatively calm except for the young man. The young man is the only one who shows any significant amount of emotions. They can’t understand the young man because they are not like him. They don’t know what it’s like to be alive. To be alive is to fight, and he fights harder than any of them. The old man put up a decent fight too, but he still lost. I just think it doesn’t make any thematic sense to have the young man put forth so much effort only to be killed off in the end. But that’s how I see it. The Rorschach test may look differently to you.

    2. It could be that in reality it really was just a test for the younger man to fight for survival.
      The one who fights the hardest wins life.

      It’s pretty much was E Minor was saying about how the short is less about heaven and hell, and more about life and death.

  2. I agree with a lot of the points you both brought up, but I’m surprised you forgot to mention the masks, E Minor.

    Coming from the west, viewers would say that maybe the old man requested a change of things, that he go to hell and the young man go to heaven since he’s the one who gets on the elevator with the demon mask above it, yet smiles.

    However, noh masks are different in meaning. The “devil mask” above the elevator that the old man gets on is an onryo mask, which signifies a spirit which has regrets of some kind. The fact that the old man is peaceful by the end, and leaves with a grin, suggests he no longer has any regrets, and so he’s able to pass on in peace. It also backs up the assertion that the old man really is dead.

    …Unless that’s actually a Kishin mask, which is more about demons and monsters, so…that’d be Hell, and I’d be wrong.

    But taking into account everything you wrote, I don’t think I am. The director and the whole short focused on the ferocity of the younger man to survive more than anything else. The fact that they were both portrayed as flawed men also showed that this wasn’t a piece about moral judgement, especially since the old man was just as focused as the younger one on pocketing the balls. No one was a martyr, no one was a saint. In a way, the bartender was right: they were pretty much equal.

    The strings pulling the young man away likely wasn’t a matter of dragging him to hell, but merely the mechanical process of “you win, now go”. They left when the bartender was moved by the younger man’s words, letting him go the moment he showed him compassion. This kind of mirrors the two perspectives of a god’s judgement really: one is a necessarily cold, emotionless and objective viewpoint, while the other is the idealized compassionate perspective.

    Considering the focus of the piece, I think the old man’s words really don’t need to be heard either way. They could have meaning, or they could just be him commenting on the drinks. It doesn’t change anything, so it’s not really important and only seems important because we don’t hear it. Who knows? Considering how it’s done, it might’ve just been a last second addition to the script to add more speculation.

    Anyway, that’s my thoughts and the 10mins of research I did on Noh masks. haha
    I’d like to think I’m right, that the young man was able to return to the land of the living having “changed his fate” and the old man can pass on having let go of his regret. It just seems like a more interesting and unique affair whereas the “heaven and hell” bit is like an old Twilight Zone episode. It’s not bad, but it’d lost a bit of the uniqueness about it.

    But then again, I’m just an American in NY who’s never even seen a full Noh play, let alone know anything about it beyond what I read. If that mask isn’t a “regretful spirit” mask but a “demon/goblin” mask it falls apart.

    Of course, the Kishin mask apparently also signifies a “fierce god”, so… I don’t know.

    1. That’s an interesting theory, but I have on quibble with it. If the masks were meaningful, I don’t think the woman would ask the bartender where each of the men ended up going. After all, she should know what the masks mean, shouldn’t she? I mean, it’s probably fair to say she’s been involved in this game for quite some time. I simply think the director threw in a few red herrings. Like the bartender bringing up the topic of heaven and hell. Their destinations have been kept so vague, it seems a bit odd to me if the masks above the elevator doors would say it all.

      1. Haha Very true. Strange, if another work had tried to pull this I’d have tossed it aside as pretentious trash, but the tone and presentation really do help it feel genuine, even if it does try a bit too hard to be vague.

        On the matter of the woman, I don’t think she’s been working as long as the man for a couple of reasons, mainly the way she acts in the end (like a tired part-time employee) and her line “Want to play pool with me? We might figure something out.”

        I don’t think she’s been there as long as he has, and if even if she had then she clearly doesn’t know as much as he does. After all, she’s the one almost begging him for answers in the end. This clear difference in understanding would explain why she she didn’t notice the masks having any meaning. It also means that her question “Then which one went to which?” doesn’t confirm that this was ultimately a tale about going to Heaven or Hell, and the question is which went where.

        Seems like she made as many assumptions as the young man did.

        1. The woman might not know as much as the man, but if the masks are that straightforward, she should have a clue, no? Anyway, I don’t think it’s important to focus on any one particular clue. Rather, the overall theme is what’s important, and I think we can agree that the young man is alive. After all, he fights unlike anyone else.

  3. Oh, and let’s also note that whereas the younger man fought to live, the old man seemed to have played dead and let him win. You could say that’s him being a kindly martyr, but it’s more of a case of illustrating that he knew he didn’t have anything to go back to, which is what his dialogue entails.

      1. Well, true. I only thought he was playing dead because of how he gets back up, and at that exact moment. But you could be right there.

        Oh! Also, I just checked it out:
        The old man first gets off the elevator with the onryo or kishin mask (the red devil face).
        This either lends to the idea that he really was dead/dying all along and was just a spirit with regret, or that the masks mean nothing.

        Either way, this disproves the idea that the old man went to Hell just because he exited under the devilish mask.
        …Just felt like adding that in. haha

  4. “Anyway, I don’t think it’s important to focus on any one particular clue. Rather, the overall theme is what’s important, and I think we can agree that the young man is alive. After all, he fights unlike anyone else.”
    Indeed, mate. I’m right there with you.

    Haha You know it’s fun to read (and I’m sure, for you, write) about anime like Death Billiards from time to time. It’s such a much needed break from Selector Brynhilder Magic No Life.

  5. None of them were absolutely good guys, but almost nobody is. I think the young man is given a new chance to leave based on the fact that he regreted to have killed the old man, while the old man did not care that much about killing him, when he said that the considerate cannot win wars or something along those lines. Also the grin of the old man was a bit malicious to me. Maybe he wanted to have fun in hell? (In case the mask means a devil from hell).

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