In these reviews, I try to bring together an anime and a work from a different artistic medium to discuss them relative to one another. In the process, I try to relate them to real life and show how similar themes across art convey messages about humanity as a whole.
In this review, I discuss Death Parade, our club’s half-season anime from the beginning of the semester and the indie video game, OFF. It’s pretty lengthy and spoiler-laden, so beware!
Death Parade is a 12 episode anime produced by Madhouse based on the OVA Death Billiards. It is an anime that deals with death and its relations with individual humans and humanity as a whole. When two people die at the same time, they are sent to a mysterious place run by Arbiters. Arbiters are emotionless, non-human beings whose role is to decide the peoples’ fates—to be reincarnated or to disappear forever into the Void. The protagonist, Chiyuki (originally, her name is forgotten until much later in the series), is a human woman who has lost her memories and who works alongside the arbiter Decim. Throughout the series, the two develop an interesting relationship as Chiyuki learns more about the arbitration process and the Arbiters themselves and Decim begins to question his own purpose and existence as an Arbiter.
OFF is an independently made role playing video game produced by Mortis Ghost and Alias Conrad Coldwood. It was built in RPG Maker and features mostly standard turn-based random battle RPG gameplay. OFF is special due to its artistic elements: its story, dialogue, character and enemy design, visuals, and music are incredibly unique and unmatched to other games. You play as the Batter, a bat-wielding baseball player who seeks to purify the world from the specters, crudely drawn ghosts and ghouls that seem to exist everywhere. Led by the Judge, an anthropomorphic, intelligible cat, you (the player) lead the Batter across 3 Zones and the mysterious Room, learning more about the strange world of OFF and discovering how your actions affect its denizens.
Ambiguity and Morality
One common idea expressed through these two media is the concept of arbitration and the ambiguous nature of making decisions regarding morality or life and death.
Death Parade brings this out in the relationship between Decim and Chiyuki. Decim makes his arbitrations of people (to send them to the void or to be reincarnated) by having them play a game with their “lives on the line,” observing how their behaviors change toward each other and towards themselves if they believe that one of them will not leave alive. The intent is to bring out their darker side of the humans so that Decim—unable to feel emotions—may pass judgement based on a logical deduction of who is more or less “evil.” Chiyuki, however, is overwhelmed by the feelings and actions of the participants and urgently explains to Decim how emotion plays a vital role in human behavior: people sacrifice themselves for others and make irrational decisions based on incomplete memories, making arbitration based on pure logic impossible.
As an example, in the first episode, the two humans to be judged are a male-female couple who died together in a car accident. To arbitrate, Decim has them play a game of darts. At the beginning of the game, the couple cooperate and support each other, hoping to both leave alive. But eventually, memories from the past resurface and the man’s suspicions about his pregnant fiancé’s fidelity begin to emerge and change his demeanor. He becomes untrusting and aggressive towards her, doubting that he is the father of her child. The woman becomes afraid and then angry. Finally, when they both realize that they have already died and that they are being arbitrated, she hysterically admits to him that indeed she had cheated on him and that he is a pathetic man who she only married for his money. At the end of the game, the woman is sent to the void and the man is reincarnated. But Chiyuki picks up on the woman’s true motives: it is suggested that she sacrificed herself by lying about an affair as to lessen her fiancé’s guilt about having accidentally killed all three of them (including the unborn child) in the car accident.
This roller coaster of human emotions and morality varies according to how the characters are presented to us, the viewers. We first think that both members of the couple are good, but we then see that the man is more “evil” and mistrusting. Then the woman appears to us as evil. But then, a few episodes later, we see that she was likely sacrificing herself—an act of good. Death Parade presents many situations like this where the viewer is tempted to judge the characters themselves as moral or immoral, based on what we know about them, only to realize that there is another unknown element to the puzzle. Death Parade is a discussion on the human tendency to associate meaning and find order in things; it manipulates this tendency to show how it can hurt others and lead to incorrect decisions on the topics of morality and arbitration.
OFF also conveys a sense of moral ambiguity through its gameplay and artistic style. The game seems innocent enough at the beginning; the specters you defeat then are often simple, inconsequential enemies. But as the game progresses, your intentions to “purify” the land are called into question. The game pits you against innocent local residents and leaders of the Zones. It also forces you to slaughter enemies that do not fight back.
[0:00 – 2:00] – The “critic-burnt,” an inexplicable adversary that ultimately calls into question how much you are really helping anybody on your quest. Note the “adversaries purified” message that appears at the end of a battle
Even more unsettling, upon defeating a Zone’s leader, the area is declared “purified” and indeed reverts to an immaculate state. But as you can see in the two videos offering a comparison of gameplay between these two states of Zone 1,
[3:50 – 4:20] – Zone 1, as it appears normally
[0:00 – 1:03] – Zone 1, in its purified state
Something is definitely not right.
Both of these media contain an element of unpredictability and ambiguity. We might attempt to eliminate this and see how we can make each media more “precise.” In Death Parade, removing ambiguity would mean that each game would have clear cut results for arbitration: one person is genuinely good and the other is evil, instead of somewhere in between. It would also be easy to tell between the two, as people would not lie or act out of emotion. Removing the ambiguity from OFF would mean that the Batter’s quest is obviously beneficial and good, or obviously damaging and evil, yet the game seems to approximate this somewhere in between: you’re removing harmful specters, but possibly creating something worse?
Real life is inundated with ambiguity, although often time in a much more subtle form than that expressed in Death Parade or OFF. One example: when we’re confronted with unfamiliar social groups or situations, we are unsure of how to act (ambiguity). Our solution is often to turn to copying the people around us (subconsciously and consciously) to act “naturally.” Human social interactions are riddled with ambiguous gestures, expressions, mumbles, sayings, and comments: our mind does its best to interpret and understand what other people are truly feeling and saying, but it is ultimately impossible to guess 100% correctly, even in face-to-face communication. OFF and Death Parade examine this natural lack of preciseness of humanity and apply it to the question of moral judgements imposed on other people and things.
When humans judge someone or something, we draw on our previous memories, experiences, and opinions to help us. But for questions regarding moral rules, we never have enough information or reasoning to decide what is good or bad. Other anime like Angel Beats!, Samurai Flamenco, Tokyo Ghoul, and even Assassination Classroom, as well as the new (greatest) video game (ever), Undertale, maintain similar themes, featuring ambiguous characters with mixed motivations which the viewer is tempted to judge, but may be entirely incorrect in their judgement.
A Trivial Reality?
In Death Parade, alternate realities and other worlds are directly involved in the story: life and death are presented as labile and fluid, concepts like the void and life are defined as opposing forces. It uses this to pose some weighty questions regarding humanity and the concreteness of reality.
In one of the last episodes, there is a powerful scene in which Chiyuki begins to recall some of her memories. She remembers her proficiency in ice skating and her mother and friends’ constant praise of her abilities. It is also revealed that she had an accident which prevented her from skating ever again. Without skating, her life felt empty and the comfort by her loved ones felt false and meaningless. Driven into a depression, she committed suicide. Regaining these memories of her past life and her death frustrates Chiyuki in the present and she desperately seeks to return to the living world once more, regretting her decisions; Chiyuki felt as if her life was meaningless, but upon visualizing her death, she realizes the opposite is true. Indeed, nearly every visitor to Decim’s bar who arrives from death changes their opinions of the world and of their purpose after their realization of dying, including the couple in the first episode discussed before.
In this, Death Parade presents the idea that reality is, to some extent, subjective and constructed from the mind. We define our motives and beliefs in a reality that we construct from experience. But as soon as we learn that that reality is expandable (to say, a place after death), our motives and beliefs change. This is exactly the case in Christian religions, where a belief in the afterlife and eternal judgement for mortal sin (an expansion of the mortal reality into an afterlife) modifies the way people think and act towards others—actions like abstaining from excessive alcohol and sex, and putting faith in God as examples. This is also analogous to the emergence of new social justice movements: we imagine the world as we see it, with the “sum total” of human suffering not exceeding what we already know about. But when are confronted with new social beliefs, moral questions, and scenes of suffering (in the news, from our friends), we are forced to rethink and expand our minds appropriately.
OFF also addresses this idea of a subjective and changing reality, but from a darker and more nihilist perspective. Despite its surreal appearance, the world of OFF is not merely fantasy: it contains many elements of the real world. There are areas resembling libraries, post offices, and factories; skill elements like meat, sugar, plastic, and metal; and the dialogue of the game reveals the history of a fallen nation, reconstructed into the current three Zones according to a somewhat socialist ideal by a mysterious Queen and the three Zone leaders. Throughout the game, the player makes connections from the world of OFF to the real world and—probably more than once—ponders their possible relation. As the Zones are purified by the Batter, the player imagines the world being slowly erased. Additionally, the ending of the game gives the player two choices, one of which completely eradicates the world, as if it never existed. Disturbingly, this is the “true” ending that was a part of the original game (before more endings were added).
At the end of the game, the player might ask, If the world of OFF is a representation of reality, is this possible in the real world? Albeit the surreal imagery and unrealistic art style, OFF suggests that, perhaps reality is not so “real,” or that if it is real, it is not as stable or permanent as we’d like to believe.
Trying to relate these concepts to real life is a bit harder than doing so with the ideas of ambiguity presented in the last section. One can approach this from a philosophical and/or religious perspective.
Humans are subject to certain cravings and negative feelings, some more primitive (like hunger and unsatisfied libido) and others more psychological (like boredom, guilt, or sadness). We attempt to avoid these negative feelings and fill our lives with positive ones, surrounding ourselves with friends, eating tasty meals, helping others, and occupying our minds with music and images (like anime). However, we can never completely “banish” negative feelings, thus there is always an intrinsic unhappiness with the world, based on the way our minds are designed. Many philosophies and religions address this unhappiness. Christian religions suggest we should endure it and not indulge in worldly temptations so that we may achieve true peace after death. Buddhism and the Hare Krishna Movement (as well as other Eastern philosophies and religions) describe that reality is mainly an illusion and the world’s unhappiness emerges from the ignorance of the illusion. By accepting the falseness and unhappiness of the world, one may attain Nirvana (or Bhakti, in the case of Hare Krishna) and become truly happy in spirit, mind, and body.
Death Parade addresses the first part of this paragraph: that reality is influenced by the mind and how we perceive the world depends on our state of mind, implying that each person is living a different reality. OFF leans more towards the perspectives offered by the mentioned Eastern philosophies: that the world is illusory and easily changeable by realizing this. However, this would suggest that the Batter is perhaps truly helping the people of the Zones by disposing of this illusion through “purification,” Or, perhaps, the people themselves are illusions and nothing really matters.
SUMMING IT UP
To draw together this overly complicated analysis of these two media,
Death Parade is an anime that brings up questions about the inherent ambiguity in making judgements on morality and life and death. It presents situations where the viewers cannot accurately decide the “goodness” or “evilness” of the characters. Death Parade also describes death as an extension of reality and considers this in relation to human thought, suggesting that the mind plays an important role in the construction of reality.
OFF is an indie video game that also addresses the ambiguity of moral decisions through its gameplay and artistic elements. It presents a somewhat nihilistic view of world as a false or perhaps easily-destroyed reality. It connects these two ideas by creating a situation in which the player’s actions slowly and indirectly eradicate the world, questioning (but not necessarily answering) the morality of this.
Looking at the ideas discussed in each media, I’d like to present some of my own opinions.
Reality might not necessarily be entirely fake, but it is certainly something riddled with sadness, suffering, and negative tendencies. However, because reality is (at least partly) constructed from the mind, humans have the ability to change this. Changing the mind to repel the negative tendencies of the world manifests itself on many levels. A direct and powerful way to do this would be to serve as the leader of an entire social movement, like Martin Luther King or Ghandi. A less direct but still as evocative way might be to have an active voice in issues and think critically and positively about your surroundings. Even subtle actions, like being nicer to and more patient with people and giving others the benefit of the doubt, are also important ways to change the mind: although they don’t solve hunger or eradicate disease, subtle actions do oppose negative tendencies like loneliness, inferiority, misunderstanding, and dissatisfaction which are ever-present in society.
However, doing these things is simply hard. Trying to act at any of these levels can be time-consuming, frustrating, stressful, and tiresome. Sometimes, we would rather forget about the world’s unhappiness, which is perhaps one reason why we enjoy anime and other media, as they often provide distractions from these ubiquitous sufferings. Some anime in the drama/slice-of-life genre often concern themselves with these problems and show how they evolve and are solved over time. But distractions can have even more harmful effects on how people view reality. As suggested by the aforementioned Eastern philosophies, the more we distract ourselves from the true (illusory) image of life, the more ignorant and unhappy we become. As we consume more engrossing media at increasing rates (and at younger ages), we become further removed from reality.
One criticism I have heard of anime and otaku culture is that it breeds introverted attitudes and social aloofness. I think this is incorrect and biased, but I do think that this does apply (to an extent that cannot be easily measured) to art and media in general: even if we enjoy books/shows/movies/video games that have positive messages like overcoming sorrow and helping others, how can we as individuals benefit from this if we are unable to apply this to the real world? Media like OFF and Death Parade try to change this because they draw the viewer’s attention to the reality around them and suggest how their ideas relate to the real world, rather than just creating a fantasy setting for us to immerse ourselves in.
One reason virtual reality unnerves me is that it presents a medium through which you can almost entirely engross yourself by essentially creating a new reality. Yet, this second reality is only an illusion and a subsidiary of the current one we are in. We are essentially abandoning our current reality, but instead of seeking a more truthful meaning behind it (moving “upwards”), we are simply creating a new one for ourselves (moving “downwards” or deeper), if that makes sense. It’s kind of like Inception, or other “dream” themed games like Dreaming Mary which suggest that the tendency to move further away from reality is caused in part by fear and ignorance and can be harmful to the mind.
However, new technology and virtual reality can oppose this trend. For example, the application of medical science to the human body has widened humanity’s understanding and acceptance of the world across time. Consider sex-transformation surgery, in which the established notion that people cannot change their sex for life is challenged, broadening our “reality” in the context of human anatomy and culture. In the future, with a better understanding of the brain, we can observe how negative emotions and ideas, as well as ignorance and misunderstanding, are produced so that we may comprehend how to prevent them more directly. Also, because virtual reality can be used to create “new” realities, it can perhaps be used artistically to illustrate the possibility of false or alternate realities, expanding our minds rather than retracting them.
Again harkening to Death Parade and OFF: certain media work to distract us from reality and engross us in fantasy, or discuss specific, negative sufferings, which can be entertaining and emotionally powerful. But the works of art that illustrate universal meaning and concern themselves with reality are special in that they challenge our notions of what is familiar and real and are perhaps the most critical to interpreting what are true happiness and understanding.
Well, that’s it! All 3000 or so words. Thanks for reading this discussion! Hopefully it was engaging and thought-provoking (and not too spoiler-rific) 🙂