(I cannot protect you from the shadows of spoilers that lurk within this essay. All I can tell you is to run and watch the show yourself before even traversing into this uncertain plain. Trust me, you won’t regret it)
In this essay, I will be answering two questions in regards to the show Death Parade. They are as follows:
How well can an judge pass judgments if they don’t understand their subject?
Is absolute impartiality the best key to reach proper conclusions?
I recently finished Death Parade and these questions has been running through my mind since then. The show discusses the human condition, making implicit question regarding the meaning of life and what it truly means to understand the emotions of others. The main plot of the show revolves around the arbiters: beings tasked with deciding the fates of human souls upon death. There are only two paths for the human soul: reincarnation or the void. Their course is usually decided by a random game that brings out the “darkness” within a person through extreme situations. They implicitly threaten death or interminable imprisonment within this purgatorial realm upon loss.
The question concerning the right to judge is constantly brought up within the show’s narrative.As mentioned before, arbiters constantly engage the recently deceased in games to bring out the darkness in their soul. Upon death, people can’t usually recall that they have died and less about the cause until the game’s conclusion. They are made to believe that they’re lives are on the line because the arbiters want to incentivize participation. In other words, it’s an artful misdirect. Though they don’t openly lie about the outcome, they utilize deception in getting to their purpose.
It is important to note that arbiters are not human though they are all given human form. The show tells us that they cannot experience human emotions or really fathom what it means to die. Before each trial, a collage of memories from each respective person is beamed into their heads for review and throughout this process, arbiters show no clear emotion on the lives they have intimate insight into. Arbiters are not really born either. They simply come into being and do their jobs in accordance to the rules that are established by the world.
Rule 1: Arbiters cannot quit making judgments, for that is why they exists.
Rule 2: Arbiters cannot experience death, for that would bring them too close to being human.
Rule 3: Arbiters cannot experience emotions, for they are dummies
And the fourth rule added at the end of the series:
Rule 4: Arbiters may not work hand in hand with life, for that will ruin them
A common theme in these rules is that they seek to create distance between the arbiters and humans. Everything is put in place to ensure that arbiter never walk that line that gives them any emotional resonance with the humans they are charged to judge. For this reason, most of the arbiters on the show don’t bat an eye in making a human suffer throughout the course of the game. They don’t think twice in manipulating a game to make them go off the deep end and, when all is said and done, they don’t really debate with themselves on where to send that human soul upon judgment. Reincarnation or the void–they make their call and roll on to their next subjects. Even though one is virtually trapping a soul in perpetual darkness, to live out their existence in continual free fall.
And yes, arbiters sometimes get it wrong.
One of the central arguments against this in the narrative is the fairness of such trials. Are they really forcing out the darkness in people’s heart or are they putting it there themselves through the extremity of the scenarios? Anyone could be forced to do something against their moral code if the threat of death looms heavy over them. When we’re put into extreme situations, we’re not rational. We are guided by baser emotions, clinging to what’s familiar over something that we can’t truly fathom. This is what the arbiters are banking on when they put the various characters through the games. How far are we willing to go to live? Depending on the answer, are our souls worth saving or would it be better to have it sentenced to oblivion?
Souls aren’t solely judged by lives lived. They’re judged by psychological responses in the moment. There are so many things that go into a life. So many things that influence a life’s trajectory from parents, to education, from genes to class. The arbiters’ job is to weigh these things against the proceedings. Arbiters base their judgment on the complexity of the human soul. They are peeling back the layers of our identities–holding back a mirror to reflect our potential for evil. At the same time, the show argues that humans are simple creatures guided by simple emotions. Simple things can push us over the edge. Simple things can break us. It is hard for an arbiter to mesh these two realities of the human soul–they’re contradictory and make an already messy situation messier.
So the question still remains, how fit are arbiters for the job they are tasked with if they cannot experience anything that fundamentally characterizes a human? Nay, they are encourage in their basic function to delineate themselves from humans.
But actually, this may not be the case at all. The basic assumption of the show is that the line between arbiters and humans is clear. Rule number 3 goes so far as to state that arbiters cannot experience emotions because they are “dummies.” Dummies, in the context of this show, refers to mannequins. Vessels without soul. No matter a human’s fate, they are all turned to dummies. But time and time again, the arbiters show a clear range of emotions that could be said to be characteristically human. Though they rarely display moments of doubt in the early part of the show they do have the capacity to express anger, disenchantment, happiness, even pleasure.
Granted, their display of emotions are often contrasted to that of their human subjects who usually have a very violent breakdown in the middle of their trial as they stay a cool spectator to the mess they created. It would be boring to watch a bunch of emotionless robots going about their day to day without some range of emotional depth.
We learn that one of the main characters of the show, Decim, is an arbiter implanted with human emotions. This is not immediately apparent because he seems to be one of the most deadpanned characters of the show. He doesn’t immediately comprehend human emotions but he does show a desire to better understand them. One of his hobbies is keeping the mannequin remains of all the humans he judges to preserve their memory. But as the show continues and as he grows closer to “The Black Haired Woman,” he expresses doubt about his occupation and starts to feel the pangs of what humans feel. His arc ends when he’s down on his knees in tears, apologizing for putting “The Black Haired Woman” through a fair share of emotional trauma to tap into her personal darkness. By the end, he learns empathy.
It could be argued that this closeness in sentiment actually makes the arbiter unable to properly do their jobs. The show definitely makes this argument (as shown in the fourth rule) but it also posits a new method of better handling the trials. And in certifying that arbiters do indeed feel emotions, it actually validates them as more than just dummies serving out a function.
Decim, in the end, might have reached a new plane of self-actualization. He’s shown a capacity for human compassion and though the fourth rule is created in response to this, the story never implies that he is no longer allowed to do his job. The show is rather open-ended about what lies ahead for the arbiters but it looks hopeful in its outlook. At least in my opinion.
The conclusion I took from the show is the need to not see everything in black and white terms. Everything is messy. Arbiters are messy. Humans are messy. The lines that divide are blurred continually throughout the course of the narrative and bring to question what it really means to be human.
I’m actually really curious about what you all think of Death Parade and some of its central themes. Did you like the show? Did you think the arbiters’ world has been forever altered by the events in the show? Do you think it was for the best?
Please, I would love to hear your input!
Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of a piece originally published under the CreativelyAddled site.