Death Parade Ep. 1: A Rorschach test for the viewers

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A newlywed couple finds themselves in Quindecim, a rather peculiar bar that seems to exist in the middle of nowhere. They’re quickly told by Decim, the bartender, that they must play a game. More importantly, they will stake their lives on the result of this game. After some initial resistance, it is decided rather arbitrarily that the husband and wife will compete at the game of darts. And oh yeah: choosing to not play is not really a viable option. Having said all of that, I don’t want to bog this post down with too many unimportant details, so I’ll just cut right to the chase. After realizing that neither the bartender nor the game is a joke, the couple’s initial plan is to miss the rest of their darts, and thus quickly end the game. After a few deliberate misses, however, the husband sees what his fate would be if the game ends with their current score (483-495). He then hits with his next dart. From there, the distrust between them begins to snowball out of control. Startling revelations are revealed one by one, but the problem is, are any of them even true? Hell, Machiko says she’s pregnant, but is that even true?

The more we learn about Takeshi and Machiko, the more it becomes quickly apparent that their relationship was doomed to fail. The relationship falls apart as a result of the game of darts, but had they continued living their normal lives, I suspect they would have split up anyway. Still, I don’t think Takeshi hit that dart, i.e. the dart that ultimately sunk their relationship, on purpose, though. It’s hard to read his facial expression either way, but even so, there’s no reason to think that either of them are even good at darts. I think it’s entirely possible that you might hit the board even if you were trying to miss on purpose. After all, the out-of-bounds area surrounding the target is not particularly large. Screwing up is even easier if you’re under duress. And let’s face it: even if Takeshi was initially willing to sacrifice his life for his wife’s sake, no one can quickly accept their own mortality in the matter of seconds. Long story short, the game is obviously designed to test the couple’s trust for each other right from the get-go, and in the end, we know that Machiko won the game.

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So what does she get for winning? According to Decim, she is sent to the void. Takeshi, however, gets to reincarnate. It’s a bit ambiguous, however, who truly got the good end. Reincarnation here would imply that we’re dealing with some form of Buddhism. I’m not particularly well-versed on the religion and its teachings, but a key part of Buddhism is to escape the endless cycle of death and rebirth, is it not? You want to achieve enlightenment and leave the mortal coil entirely, don’t you? Nevertheless, the void just sounds bad, but again, I’m not Japanese. I don’t know the actual word that was being used, and all I have to go on is someone else’s translation. The bartender tells them that they’ll be sent to either heaven or hell, and this seems to imply that good and evil is involved to some extent. Even then, however, the bartender’s words aren’t entirely reliable. If the void is supposed to be hell, then being reincarnated is hardly heaven. So ultimately, I don’t know who got it worse, and that’s probably what the story wanted.

Still, I feel fairly confident that the results of these games hardly matter. After all, why would going to either heaven or hell hinge entirely upon the results of some arbitrarily chosen game (it’s entirely possible, however, that the game is not chosen arbitrarily)? Why would reincarnation or heading into the void — either good or bad — depend entirely on a game of darts? As a result, unless there is strong evidence to the contrary. I will operate under the assumption that these games are just a tool to test these people’s characters, and ultimately, Decim gets to decide their fate. Of course, It’s just the first episode, so everything can change as the rest of the series develops, but we can change our stance as we receive new information. For now, the games serve as a battlefield for the struggle and conflicts between the participants. And although the ending remains somewhat ambiguous, let’s try to piece the couple’s story together.

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The problem here is that everything seems ambiguous. Should we take the flashbacks at face value or not? Are they supposed to be reliable? Or are they, like anything that has to do with our memories, always imperfect and open to interpretation? I mean, this is the key question, isn’t it? We see a flashback in which Machiko is naked and crying in bed next to an apathetic individual on his phone. We can also see a wedding ring on Machiko’s ring finger, so this moment occurs after she had married her husband. At face value, we can assume that she really did have an affair, but she quickly regretted what she had done. But how reliable are the flashbacks? Can we even know for sure that this was a flashback, and not just one of the characters’ imaginations? These nagging doubts turns Death Parade into an anime Rorschach test, if you will. I suspect people will interpret these stories quite differently, and their interpretations will reveal a lot about their own character.

Some people have suggested that perhaps the guy in this flashback is just her clean-shaven husband, and she’s crying because he’s constantly checking her phone. It’s a familiar scene in dysfunctional relationships. We know Takeshi was always annoyed with his wife, because she was constantly on her phone and talking to someone else. This distrust even led to their deaths, after all. And perhaps he’s checking her phone shortly after sex because he couldn’t trust her. They had just had an intimate moment, and he still feels the need to snoop on her phone. That would destroy anybody; distrust is always poisonous to any relationship. Nevertheless, I don’t buy this theory. Why would the husband be clean-shaven here? Yes, he was clean-shaven when they first met, but not during the wedding ceremony and not during the car accident that ultimately killed them. As a result, I’m still inclined to take the flashback at face value.

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Machiko’s facial expressions right before her breakdown are also somewhat ambiguous. She looks like someone who’s taking pity on her husband. Not only that, a series of flashbacks would seem to imply that she was truly in love with Takeshi, perhaps she decided that she would tell a white lie, and let the guy believe he had not killed his own child. After all, he had just uttered, “I killed my own child? That’s absurd!” The man she loved (or still loves) will torture himself forever with the knowledge that he had murdered his unborn son out of jealousy, so perhaps she wanted to spare him of that guilt. She thus took the burden upon herself, and admitted to an affair that never really happened. But why would we then see the flashback of her being in bed with someone? Is it the husband’s imagination? Or is the guy in the flashback really supposed to be Takeshi? Actually, I have a stronger reason to doubt Machiko’s story.

There is one key reason to doubt Machiko’s character long before we even see that memory of her crying in bed shortly after having sex with someone else. When Takeshi first told her that they could simply miss all of their darts, and thus quickly end the game, she says, “But if we do, then you’ll lose, honey.” He smiles and replies, “That’s nothing for you to worry about, Machiko.” And that’s that. We next see them missing a bunch of darts as if the matter had long been settled. But that’s the thing: there’s no way on earth that the matter would be settled between two loving people in a healthy relationship. They know what the stakes are. Decim has clearly explained to the husband and wife that they’re playing for their lives. Speaking from personal experience, I have yet to marry my girlfriend, but there’s no way she’d allow me to just die. There’s no way I could say, “Don’t worry about it, honey,” and we’d just go about our business. Nah, it doesn’t work that way. Even if Machiko was pregnant, if she truly cared about Takeshi, she wouldn’t have accepted their solution so quickly.

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So was the story about Matchy really about Machiko’s friend Machida? Or did she just make up a really bad lie? I mean, Machida is real, right? This was supposedly her seat at the wedding dinner, right? Still, why would you wait until the honeymoon trip to announce that you’re pregnant? A woman has been pregnant for ten weeks, but she hasn’t told anyone? Not even her own mom or girlfriends? I mean, I guess it’s possible, but it’s just a little farfetched to me. On the other hand, it’s entirely believable that she would keep the news to herself if that baby belonged to someone else. Furthermore, this is the sort of thing that a loving person would’ve said immediately before they started playing the game. Their lives are at stake, after all. And as it would turn out, Machiko is potentially responsible for second life (let’s not debate when life begins in an anime post of all places). But she chose not to say anything until the very last minute. What? Was she still hoping to surprise him after all of this was over? I doubt it. I sincerely doubt it.

Besides, Decim must have known something. Look at how he quickly looks to the side as the couple embraced each other. He does this immediately after she utters, “I’m sorry.” Decim must have felt as though he was witnessing a farce. At the same time, however, he seems genuinely surprised right before Machiko’s breakdown near the end of the episode. It was as though he didn’t think she would go on her rant. Is he surprised because she’s finally admitting to her sins? Or is he surprised because she’s telling a white lie in order to spare her husband the realization that he had killed their unborn child? Ah, no matter how you try to look at it, Death Parade doesn’t want to lean one way or the other. Ambiguity looks to be the entire point of the series, and this would make sense. After all, ambiguity was all over the Death Billiards OVA. That’s why I was initially so surprised to hear Decim reveal where the husband and wife had ended up… until I realized that his answer was ambiguous, too.

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Nevertheless, Death Parade is here, and so far, it lives up to the promise. Like I’ve said, it’s like an anime Rorschach test. What the writer really wanted to say is hardly as important as our own personal interpretations.

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13 thoughts on “Death Parade Ep. 1: A Rorschach test for the viewers”

  1. I´m still uncertain about the woman, was she really bad or was when trying to protect a husband she was still in love with? Whichever you chose, she was a really good actress when portraying her false feelings (wether the false ones were love or thirst of money). We can only be certain that the man was always showing his true side during the match. I don’t know if the rules by which you are sent to heaven, hell, the Earth, etc., are related to how you behave during the match (for eg, if you repent) or decided beforehand, and the match is just a way for you to show your real self.

  2. Initially I was rather annoyed at the end of this episode because of how obvious things were. The wife was demure and the husband was clearly the pathetic jerk who ruined everything. He goes into a breakdown over it all, choosing the delusion of his jealousy over the cold reality, and to save him from that she puts up the front of a gold digger.
    _Intentionally or not, she saves him from hell, or the void, and to further bring this home was the switching of the masks above the elevators, which this time were given ample notice so that the audience could understand, “See? He came out the devil mask and she came out the white mask, but now the masks are switched! Get it!”

    It annoyed me because it’s a very typical story that doesn’t take any consideration for reality. Yes, jealousy can indeed crop up in anyone and run the length of a lifetime. Yes, husbands can be consumed with jealousy and ruin everything while their pristine, innocent wives are forced to be the victim of circumstance. This is true. What’s also true is that women cheat, women keep lies, and women are capable of everything that’s typically associated with men (you know, since they’re people too).

    Archaic, one-sided and devoid of the Billiards charm of ambiguity…until I read your post and noticed all of the subtleties that had escaped me while watching it. It’s so well done, so quiet in how it’s handled that it really blows me away. The beauty of it is that it I was totally blind to it whereas you were capable of spotting those touches. I don’t know if it’s because you’ve gotten more used to spotting things in anime over all the years or because reflecting on your own relationship helped highlight those oddities in the story.

    Damn great episode and fucking brilliant analysis, mate. I’m excited to see this continue.

  3. I also hope this anime doesn’t get caught up in itself and its lore. It seems like the kind of thing that would work perfectly as a type of Twilight Zone episodic show with self-contained themes.
    That preview for the next episode has me concerned…

  4. So far this looks quite promising. I like that they didn’t just re-do the Death Billiards gimmick without making a few alterations to vary things up, and hopefully this will not be a one-off exception. I can agree that there are risks in being too ambiguous, but I am willing to wait and see about that too. For now, it doesn’t bother me.

  5. On par with Death Billiard.

    My stray observations:
    -The masks above the elevators got interchanged at the end. Maybe this means that the masks really do determine whether you go to heaven or hell. If this is true, it also means the old man was the one to go to hell in Death Billiards (unless he whispered the bartender to swap the masks to calm and trick the other guy).

    -There are a lot of characters introduced in the OP. I hope the show won’t get bogged down by this. I hope it will remain contained and episodic, somewhat like Mushishi.

    -Having seen both Death Billards and this episode, I’m noticing a trend in the show’s structure.

  6. I hope we get DDR playing bartenders at some point in this show.

    I find this first episode to be a bit less ambiguous compared to Death Billards. There seems to be a bit more evidence leaning towards the wife cheating considering your observations and the fact the name on the card was still “Machida Yuuki” despite her friend being supposedly married. Of course, nothing’s concrete but it feels like there could be an actual answer this time. Death Billards on the other hand makes it obvious it’s leaving everything up to interpretation. Not that I have any problems with that (I love discussing and reading others’ interpretations) but I personally prefer something akin to an answer at the end of the mystery unravelling.

    And I thought that even if the reveal of where the husband and wife ended up wasn’t ambiguous, it would still raise the question whether each deserved the “justice” they were given. After all, it’s hard to say who’s the less worse of the two. Was it the potentially paranoid husband who accidentally killed his wife and unborn child? Or was it the potentially unfaithful wife who married for money and status?

  7. I’m uncertain if the “Void” is hell or heaven, remember this is Buddhist philosophy. “Void” is the usual translation of one of the five elements of Buddihsm, and depending on the interpretation it can be considered “Heaven”, at least according to the Internet. Does anyone have an idea about this?

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