Death Parade Episode 4
by Zac Bertschy, Jan 30th 2015
A man and a woman who don't know each other wake up in Quindecim, and it's game on right from the get go. The woman is Misaki, a reality TV show star (her reality series features her "huge family", 5 children, which is hilarious given the American standard for a show like that has more than 19 kids). She's convinced Quindecim is a hidden camera show (which is weird - wouldn't a seasoned TV vet like her recognize right away that the usual production hallmarks of a show like that - the 'tells' that let the star know what's up - are nowhere to be found?) and starts instructing her befuddled "partner", the reserved, depressed otaku Yousuke, to make sure their reactions seem natural, even though they're in on the gag.
The two wind up playing an arcade fighting game featuring insulting caricatures of themselves - Yousuke is limp and spindly, attacking with bishojo figures and dakimakura, and Misaki literally throws children's toys and occasionally family members at him in return. As the game is played, Decim introduces a new element - a device that helps him forcibly yank out the darkest facets of these two doomed souls, a trick Onna cannot abide - but the results can't be argued with. We learn the horrible truth behind Misaki and Yousuke's death - connected only thematically - and an emotionally-charged double KO leads to final judgment.
As silly as the arcade game stuff might sound, this is Death Parade diving right back in to the dark center of the human soul, another right turn after last week's bittersweet love story. The theme this time around is family, and more specifically, how you treat the people who love you. Misaki is a truly tragic figure; a lifetime of abuse has twisted her into an abusive person, a perpetual cycle of violence and insatiable anger that may be all too familiar to some. Yousuke, a child of divorce, wallowing in self-pity and staying inside a cocoon of depression, was never able to accept his stepmother's love in spite of her best efforts. His malaise led him down the road to suicide. It's a fascinating case study of two people whose dysfunctional family relationships led them to distinctly different but similarly sad ends, and Quindecim judges them accordingly.
There's a lot going on in this episode, and I think we're starting to see a pattern emerge here. Death Parade is, first and foremost, interested in one thing: empathy. Empathy for your fellow man and the chaos of existence that makes us who we are. It's a nuanced take on the subject; Death Parade isn't suggesting that the horrible things you do in life are ultimately forgivable on a cosmic level, but it is chiefly interested in how you managed to get to that point. The show wants to explore how these people wound up here, and it wants us, the audience, to look at these broken souls and understand why. Sympathizing with Misaki, an abusive, self-absorbed person who is shown explicitly using her family for personal gain is really difficult, but Death Parade shows us her life before the cameras first - we are asked to confront that big bold why before we ever even get to the stuff she's going to be judged for, and as we watch the doors on her elevator to the void close, we have to ask ourselves: did she deserve that? She was a victim who became a victimizer; surely the all-knowing jury in the afterlife would understand her circumstances. There might've been some hope for her, but her life was cut short before she was ever given the chance to make it right. Understanding her pain and realizing what that pain turned her into might not save her from the void, but it makes us better people - less harshly judgmental - to know that and accept it.
It should be mentioned that the production values in this episode seemed back to the standard set by the first one - sharp, beautifully crisp animation, character design and shot selection is aided by an fantastic score. Some of the cues here reminded me a little of Trent Reznor's work for David Fincher. As a result of these elements working in perfect harmony, there are atmospheric moments in this one that really shine; I hope the show can keep it up.
Onna's rejection of Decim's little device that "helps judgment" gives us even further clues as to where this show might be going - the fairness of this system is entirely suspect, and I think in the coming episodes that is, chiefly, where this show is going to tread thematically. We've identified the thing Death Parade is most interested in; now we get to find out what it has to say about that.
Death Parade is currently streaming on Funimation.
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