I decided to resume watching Death Parade after dropping it around episode five or so and it got really good.
My early reservations about Death Parade had to do with how uneconomically it used its time. Episodes one and two, with some clever direction, could have been merged into a single episode. Episodes three and four hit the same thematic point—the arbiter system being flawed and unjust. Episodes five through seven, while generally entertaining, offered nothing in terms of thematic import, instead fluctuating between setup for Kurokami, comedy, and silly philosophizing.
But, with the arc stretching between episodes eight and nine, Death Parade seems to have put itself on the track to fulfilling a promise made to its characters: that, inasmuch as they are people, due diligence to their humanity will be done. It’s a promise made as early on as episode two (or one, if we’re attentive), when we learn that wife may have lied about being unfaithful in order to save her husband’s soul; and compounded when Decim recognizes the error in his decision to send the wife to the void. Episodes three and four extend this promise: the system is unfair, not just because the arbiters can make faulty decisions, but because these people were dealing with the cards that life dealt them in the best way they knew how to—and who can blame them for a moment of weakness?
In episode nine, Kurokami strikes at the heart of the problem: the arbiter system is flawed because it attempts to judge people by a rubric incompatible with their nature. What can be conveyed about the myriad experiences of a person’s life–much less two people—in twenty-two minutes? Especially when the memories they’re forced to relive are their last moments, which, in most of the show’s cases, are deeply spiteful and irrational?
What emerges from Kurokami’s outburst is the overwhelming sentiment that human lives cannot be systemized. Emotions are too simple and irrational for that. The detective Tatsumi—who explains life as a system of give-and-takes—is wrong. Nona, who claims that fear is the best way to get human beings to show their true nature, is wrong. The show’s structure is wrong. Decim’s compassionate actions, too, wholly revolve around the basic “intimate” unit of the hug as an action he trusts to convey empathy when he himself feels none, systemizing it in the process. When the camera zooms out on Decim, it’s to show how inhuman he is in the light of Kurokami’s criticism, with his cross-shaped irises and white hair, and how alone and in pain.
Death Parade is, above all and despite its dark melodramatic elements, a deeply compassionate show. It attempts to give these human beings, lost to both the arbiter system and the episodic (forgetful) structure of the series, the weight their lives deserved. The episode may end on a negative note—Decim’s downturned gaze match-cutting to a shot of the Void elevator’s mask—but the show doesn’t seem to have forgotten that where there’s darkness there could have been light; that the options for kindness and evil exist simultaneously, even if hard to pick up on, like shattered glass; and we can’t forget that where the Void looms, so too does Reincarnation.