Is it possible to be a truly good person? How can you do it? The Ghouls talk about the thrilling, horror-anime Death Parade where the recently deceased's morality and goodness are put to the test. Gabe explains why the Arbiters cannot be trusted and that their tests are very flawed. Kat explains the complexities in the human experience and how philosophy broke her brain.
Sources in this episode: Death Parade is a Bloody Anime Version of The Good Place
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Death Parade (2015) Director: Yuzuru Tachikawa
Summary by IMDB: After death, humans go to either heaven or hell. But for some, at the instant of their death, they arrive at the Quindecim, a bar attended by the mysterious white-haired Decim.
Death Parade: An Afterlife Bar Reveals the Darkness in Our Souls
by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Show Synopsis: Death Parade explores some philosophical ideologies that have you questioning your own “goodness.” In Death Parade, we follow Decim, a bartender and Arbiter. This monotone, softboy holds games for the folx who’ve just died. Strangers, sometimes lovers, sometimes long lost friends, arrive at the underworld bar and are forced to play a game. They can range anywhere from darts, arcade games or Old Maid and there’s even a hint of DDR from the opening sequence. They only know they need to play to win, they are told their lives are on the line. However, through the journey of the games the person’s true intent, who they were in the world, and whether they are worthy of a second chance are revealed. Tensions run high and you truly don’t know what to expect. This show does a phenomenal job of skewing our expectations of what is good and begs you to ask the question, “What would you do to survive?”
The truth is there is no heaven or hell. Participants are already dead. They don’t remember they’ve died or what happened before the elevator doors opened on Quindecim. The games do put their “lives” at risk however. There is no Heaven or Hell, but there is Reincarnation or the Eternal Void. You might be thinking, “I never asked to be alive once, why would I want to be alive again?” Well, the alternative - the void - is not only endless nothing, you are a soul without a body forced to exist with only your sadness, pain, and anger to keep you company...for all eternity. That sounds horrific and worse than Hell in some ways. Makes you wonder, what kind of awful person could warrant such a traumatic end (or continuation, I guess)?
Throughout the season, we are introduced to new people (contestants) who are to be tested. We only get an episode (two, tops) to spend with these characters. Over the course of whatever game they’re playing, we see pieces of who they are emerge. Each person is complex, having lived a full life until their death. They all have regrets. They all have people they miss. They all have secrets. They all want to continue living.
It's a thrilling show that has you guessing as to whether the characters are reliable. What kind of life did they lead? Will the darkest parts of their souls send them to the void? I love the flow and the exploration of morality in the show, but this part - the darkness of the soul - didn’t sit well with me. So let’s get into the nuts and bolts of how one’s morality is judged, their fate decided.
Problem with Arbiters:
Arbiters are beings, humanlike in appearance, that host and manage the games. Like a GM would in an RPG, they set up the scenario, generate challenges, and calculate your outcomes from a distance. They are not telling the story, they’re simply helping the participants navigate the world to get to the story’s end.
The Arbiters have 3 rules (a 4th is later revealed). 1. Arbiters cannot quit making judgments, for that is the reason why they exist. 2. Arbiters cannot experience death, for that would bring them too close to being human. 3. Arbiters cannot feel emotion, for they are merely puppets.
The show’s throughline story seeks to explore this puzzle. Can beings that do not have emotion, have not lived and so cannot truly understand the impact of death, judge the lives of humans? Decim has a new assistant to help him with his judgments, the dark-haired woman who cannot remember her name. It is revealed later that she is named Chiyuki and is a human that Decim previously failed to judge so he is given more time with her. With her alongside him, he is shown how barbaric and cold the method to which these judgements are made can be. The Arbiters have a device they use to further agitate and stress the players of the games. Some of the games include pain that is inflicted on the players to instigate their reactions further. This is with the intent to “bring out the darkness of the soul” so they can judge the human’s true nature.
Darkness of the Soul/Morality is a Gray Area:
In an article on Kotaku titled, Death Parade Is About Life, Death, and the Darkness of the Human Heart by Richard Eisenbeis the writer asks, “Is it right to judge people not at their best but at their very worst?” Decim and the other Arbiters are tasked with judging the darkest parts of people while they themselves lack the full understanding and depth of human emotions and experiences. It’s later revealed that Decim can feel human emotions, an experiment by boss-Arbiter Nona, which is a catalyst for Decim’s minor rebellions and later, emotional breakdown. Eisenbeis goes on to say, “it’s clear from the start that there are some serious flaws in said system. Despite being granted a portion of their guests’ memories as part of the game, the arbiters are nonetheless left unable to digest the data in any but the most objective—i.e., emotionless—way. And as the games only bring out the darkest and most emotional parts of people, this can lead to incorrect judgments.”
Humans are complex. None of us are all good or all bad, we are a plethora of experiences, emotions, and desires. Throughout our lives we are put through challenges that can alter who we are. We see in the show how certain traumatic events can turn a hero into a villain. We see how love can influence us to do reckless, hopeless things - such as lying to relieve someone of pain even if that results in your own soul being banished to the void. In an article on SlashFilm titled, Death Parade is a Bloody Anime Version of The Good Place by Rafael Motomayor, they go on to explain how the conditions these games are in negatively impacts the intended neutral effect the Arbiters are setting out to accomplish. “The question then becomes how can anyone properly pass judgement upon others without empathy? The arbiters believe their lack of emotions makes them fit to do their job, but the games start resembling torture sessions as the show goes on, with a character questioning whether the arbiters are revealing the darkness inside the guests or simply creating it.”
I have an issue with the test of judgement being conducted after death and not an accumulation of your experiences in life - as if your entire life was nothing. At least with Christianity, you get some redos or at the very least you got a dude up there looking over the book of your life to make judgements. But imagine being put under extreme stress, your life on the line, and whatever you do in that moment determines whether you go to an endless, tortuous void. I don’t know about you but I’ve had some terrible, no good, very bad days and to be judged for just one of those would be insanity. To reduce the human experience to a singular, manipulated event is flawed and problematic. I would argue that Death Parade is not The Good Place. In The Good Place, the people are judged by their lives and though there are issues with that regarding what is considered “good” in Death Parade, you are only ever the worst parts of yourself. Motomayor goes on in their piece to say, “Despite your actions, the show's ultimate question isn't about reward for living a good life, or punishment for the sins we commit. Instead it's a show about the question of ‘is life worth living?’” Furthermore, it's about how desperate we all are to go back and do it again. The trick here is, if you want it too much then you’re doomed as we see with one character who has done nothing but fight for her life only to meet her void-driven demise in Quindecim.
Many of the decisions angered me. Frankly, all but one of the people who came through seemed to deserve the void. And with that person, it was clear his life traumas so greatly affected his outlook on life that it influenced how he operated in the afterlife bar.
Is it really Horror?
The topic is definitely horrifying but is it “horror.” Absolutely. The first game of darts has participants throwing darts at a board where the sections are connected to their competitors body parts - causing pain whenever you score. There are hideous and unsettling mannequins that represent the people who’ve come through Quindecim. There’s the disgusting former leader, Oculus who sports a flower goatee and ponytail that UNRAVELS AND SUCTIONS ONTO PEOPLE’S FACES. It’s horror. Not to mention the understanding of the void, the fact that people are dead, and that some of the people committed murder or were murdered (sometimes both).
Season 2??: Death Parade is SO good but sadly is only one season and is only an anime so you can’t even read more! Tragic. That’s the real horror story. There has been a rumored Season 2 for years now. The studio, Madhouse which brought us Death Note, One Punch Man, Hunter x Hunter, and more hasn’t said it’d cancel the series but it has been TBD since 2016, so it’s hard to remain hopeful. If there were to be a Season 2, it’s hard to imagine what it’ll cover since there is no source material and is actually based on creator Yuzuru Tachikawa’s short film, Billiards.
This is such an underrated show. It made me feel things for characters that you only see for one or two episodes. The intro song is a bop. (Flyers by BRADIO will most likely be played at my wedding). It's a treasure.
Squid Game: When Death is Better Than Debt by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Death Parade does a fantastic job outlining the complexities of the human experience, and the nuances that make judgement of a life very difficult and subjective. This is a concept that philosophers and religions have been working through for most of human existence. There are endless approaches to the concepts of good and evil that can be argued until you’re blue in the face. Ultimately the way in which we experience the world often influences how we view the world, and then further influences our actions within the world. The reality being that many of these concepts are up for debate, and are purely subjective. There are Philosophers that have spent their entire lives trying to make sense of the human experience and behavioral patterns, and then countless others that debate those established view points. If you’re wondering what Philosophy is though, Philosophy is the study of the nature of existence, knowledge, truth and ethics. It involves consideration of the most fundamental questions about who we are, and examines philosophical thought across the breadth of history right up to the present day. There are many minds that have influenced the way in which society has been formed, but because of our patriarchal and racist society, within American Academia, most of the voices that are considered and recognized from an academic standpoint, are the voices of men, and more specifically white men from western society. This is something that has even influenced how American academia recognizes non-western Philosophers, often only recognizing and teaching from other men. I say this purely to recognize that the search results when looking up the word “Philosophers” immediately just showed a long list of western European men.
I point this out not to invalidate the teachings and viewpoints of the men google immediately highlighted as I recognize the great influence each of them has had on philosophical thought, but more so recognize immediately who is not at the table and why. I guess with that, what I would like to propose is that you continue to question and acknowledge the reasons certain information is put above others, and think critically. The study of Historiography was one of the most interesting things I learned in school, specifically because it outlined why history was framed in the way it was, and how it was manipulated as a way of pushing certain viewpoints to become cultural norms. I think it’s also very important to notice the voices that are continuously uplifted and taught within academia that are selected intentionally to uphold the ways in which our current societies operate. Philosophy in many ways can be both a fantastic tool for finding new ways of thinking, as well as justify and solidify old ways of thinking, and ultimately tie back to how your experience of the world influences your view of it.
Who are some philosophers that actively haunt me for the words that they put into my brain? One that really impacted me in my early twenties was Laozi (Lo-ow-tza), and specifically the book Tao Te Ching(Dao De Jing) or “The Way”. The book is described by WorldHistory.org as an anti-authoritarian treatise which posits that the way of virtue lies in non-action (Wu Wei) through a recognition of the natural, universal force known as the Tao. The Tao flows without effort and, like water, goes where it will without striving and effects change and growth. To be virtuous, one should emulate the Tao and engage in non-action (not forcing an effect or outcome). Human-made laws, it claims, cannot make one virtuous and cannot contribute to good behavior, inner peace, or empathy with others because they are not in tune with nature.
It is only by recognizing the Tao, and one's connection to it and all things, that one may achieve these goals.
This hit me in a lot of ways, both from the standpoint of recognizing the ways in which action and inaction can have lasting consequences, as well as understanding the ways in which the society I live in actively disobeys the line of thinking outlined by the book. The American system is built upon superimposing a “universal morality” that deems someone a good person by their ability to function within that society that is capitalistically productive and structurally obedient to certain laws. In many ways, a very authoritarian method of upholding certain values, that ultimately doesn’t encourage internal growth at all, and instead encourages complacency and obedience. In essence the obsession over presenting yourself as what society considers a “good person”, without actually doing the internal work to authentically be one. This in many ways shifted my value system, from prioritizing the meeting of other people’s external expectations of who I should be and how I should operate within society, to upholding what is authentically important to me. It is also why I find it hard to reconcile the pursuits of inauthentic or unnatural things, like stuff, money, and fame. There was another aspect of the book that also really stuck with me in how I approach taking in new information and ways of thinking.
Yield and Overcome: one cannot fully listen to another person's views if one is full of one's own; yielding to another encourages personal growth.
Bend and become Straight: one cannot reach an accord with someone else if one is unwilling to compromise and one cannot correct bad behavior if one is unable to accept criticism.
Empty and become Full: one has little hope of success, in any enterprise or relationship, if one clings to what one thinks one knows instead of opening oneself to new ideas and other views.
Essentially actively recognizing the embracing the natural flow of change and adaptability. Recognizing the ways in which I always have room to grow and change, and that in order for that to take place I need to remain open.
Most of the Philosophical texts that influence my current ways of thinking stem from this battle between action and inaction, and what ultimately is the necessary direction one must follow. I read the Bhagavad Gita in college and as an adult human and there’s a lot in there in reference to thinking through difficult decisions. That the existence of consequence results for both action and inaction. Specifically in the Gita there is the story of Arjuna, and there is an overview of his dilemma when it comes to fighting in a war against his friends and family. There is obviously a lot more complexity to the story and the work itself that I cannot sum up in a few sentences. Arjuna’s Dilemma for me kind of outlines the dilemmas many humans face when trying to find the “right” thing to do in a difficult situation. There are many different kinds of humans, some that will just act without thinking, act on emotions, or fail to act from the hesitation of apathy. The story outlines the journey of Arjuna in coming to a decision on whether to fight, or do nothing, leaving his position and becoming a beggar. There is a duty (dharma) associated with his status of warrior that in his discussions with Krishna, he is told he is destined to fulfill. There is also discussion around our experiences within bodies, and how that exists separately from the “soul” of sorts that in this line of thinking would experience reincarnation after the death of their bodies. So that in fulfilling his duty to fight in this war, he would not be killing his friends and families souls, but only their bodies. There was this whole discussion throughout on what Arjuna’s dilemma entailed and that the fact that he thought before he acted is what made him a virtuous person. It was an awareness and acknowledgement that he could be wrong in his actions, and the exploration of the implications of his actions that made him virtuous. Ultimately, this situation would be something that everyday people could experience in their own lives, in exploring their impacts on the world around them, and ultimately exploring their true purpose. It kind of ties back to understanding our point of existing and ultimately trying to make sense of the real and horrific ways life happens.
There are many ways that these lines of thinking contrast as well as ways in which they overlap. There is this understanding of remaining open, and able to learn and explore different lines of thinking, as well as this conflict between existing within the flow of nature, and existing within your line of duty to others, your true purpose, and arguably “destiny”. Which is more important?! I DON’T KNOW and it HAUNTS ME.
There are obviously countless ways to explore the world, and our impact on it. There are countless ways of thought that act as a means of rationalizing the human experience that confuse me endlessly. As someone who has studied and studies areas of philosophy as a way to make sense of the world, I find myself in a similar conundrum as Chidi from the Good Place. Chidi is someone who’s overwhelming knowledge of ethics often caused him to obsess over whether even his most insignificant actions were ethical, such as telling his friend he liked his boots when in fact he hated them, even going as far as to admit to his friend months later after his surgery that he was lying. Chidi is often looked at as a comically overwhelmed character, and the show points out the obvious ways in which his way of thinking keeps him from success. In relating this back to Arjuna’s dilemma, while exploring all the possible outcomes of your actions can be positive for living a more thoughtful experience, doing so to the point that you make yourself sick, is less than productive. As someone whose brain actively operates in a similarly exhausting fashion though, I totally get it. I am overwhelmed constantly by all the possible outcomes and implications of every breath I take, that it’s sometimes hard to breathe at all. Essentially the weight of existence being that there are no “good” choices to make, that both action and inaction have lasting consequences that extend past our conscious understanding of ourselves, and that the complexities of human emotions are very difficult, or nearly impossible to predict. That humans in all their chaotic glory will often surprise you by acting in ways that are either inauthentic to their true intentions or feelings, be them compassionate or cruel. Humans have the capacity to be fueled by unpredictable emotions that go against most statistical factors or even logic. Ultimately creating a cycle that will endlessly catch you off guard.
From a neurodivergent perspective, the exploration of philosophy and the human experience is as fascinating as it is nauseating. The process of existing in relation to other human beings is something I find endlessly confusing and I’m often left dumbfounded when an interaction that I practiced 17 times alone in my room, doesn’t go as planned. The endless mental math that goes on in my head where I weigh all the possible reasons someone has for not responding to a message I sent them consumes all my waking hours. There is a somewhat constant hum of my subconscious outlining every and all possible interactions I’ve ever had with a person that could cause them to be mad at me, equally crippled by the reality that there are factors that exist completely externally to my influence that could cause a lack of a response. That person could be in the hospital and now they have like 12 unread messages from me where I have started with “hey”, and ended with “sorry for that one time that I got you the wrong chips, I should have known what your favorite chips were, I am a failure of a friend, please forgive this thoughtless action, and I will try to do better in the future”. Ultimately existence, and figuring out what the right thing to do is really complicated, always, and really hard. The fact that my path of existence is an endless exchange of energy that in nourishing one area, leaves another unfed, ultimately at all moments resulting in unexpected consequences or harm to everything around me until I stop breathing, and honestly maybe long after that sometimes makes my brain want to explode. I have the capacity to be wrong almost all of the time, and at the end of the day, my suggestion for sanity is to forgive yourself a little bit. Try to do what your heart tells you is right, and be willing to understand and accept when it’s not, and learn from those moments to try to do better tomorrow.