Death Parade: Moral Ambiguity and the Judgment Analogy

Given the multifarious excellent reviews on Death Parade and me being late to the reviewing season, I have decided that I will not add another generic-sounding review of Death Parade of mine (though no doubt in good praise) to the aniblogging mix. I apologise for my tardiness to the party, but instead of just another review, I hope to add a little something of my own to the blogosphere by drawing an analogy from the themes in Death Parade. For clarification’s sake, this essay is spoiler-free (as with all my pieces, at least to the best of my ability and knowledge.)

There was a strange tingling feeling in my spine when I saw that the entire concept of Death Parade was based on a morality judgment that determines whether a person should be sent to the equivalents of ‘hell’ and ‘heaven’. This judgment process is predicated on certain behaviour that the individuals display in their ‘past life’ and their ‘present’ instinctive reactions to a certain set-up (a ‘game’), which are cumulative factors taken into account for the final decision. In other words, the arbiters take on the role of the judge in evaluating the persons brought to Quindecim and whether they deserve to be reincarnated (hence ‘heaven’) or whether they should be sent to the void as a punishment if proven to be relatively evil. The latter can possibly be considered as a manifestation of ‘karma’, a religious concept.

A typical episode of Death Parade starts off by welcoming of two different people into Quindecim, whom the audience (and the people in question) are equally clueless as to their identity, the latter having being wiped clean of memories from their past life. They are then made to play a game, which reveals slowly, piece by piece of their own memories, and in effect also the kind of person they were. Like peeling off the layers of an onion, the audience then proceeds to form a value judgment on who should end up in ‘hell’ or ‘heaven’. We corroborate our judgment with Decim (our MC arbiter), leaving an trail of uneasiness as to whether Decim made the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decision.

In all its captivating brilliance, Death Parade revels in the confusion that ensues. While the interwebs (or who am I kidding, just a relatively small cross-section of the anime community) explode into arguments about the morality of the cheating wife who repents versus the husband who refuses to believe in the beauty of regret and insists on believing his version of the truth, or, the boy who never appreciated what he had versus the woman who sold her soul to provide for her family, the only image that comes to my mind is that of a grinning villain who has succeeded in his/her secret ploy to conquer overwhelm the universe.

For Death Parade has succeeded in what it has set out to achieve – to portray the complexity of human nature.

The sole message of Death Parade is to show how impossible it is to judge human beings ‘fairly’ and why the practical realities of pursuing ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’ in life are difficult to achieve.

I now come to my main point: how Death Parade strikes me as a rather genuine reflection of the realities of the judicial system.

To the common man, the law exists so that justice would prevail and win over all that is evil. The purposes of adjudication by a neutral body of government that is separate from parliament, who makes laws, and the government, who carries out the laws, is to ensure that each case is heard in a fair and just manner, away from political influences. The judicial power derives constitutional power to secure constitutional freedoms, which differ across jurisdictions, but often include, amongst others, the right to equality and the right to a fair trial.

Yet, adjudicative considerations do not center only on justice, even assuming that the judicial system is truly free of the influences of political lobbying and the vices of corruption, nepotism, and related concepts. Justice is never the single determinative factor in any case, given that its execution is riddled with uncertainty. This is because other possibly overriding considerations can also take center stage, depending on the situation. After all, law also serves to give effect to public policy, to correct inequalities of bargaining power, and to provide guidance in shaping social behaviour. In fact, the major important factor is that even though justice is an ultimate broad goal, the intricate rules that develop to execute justice in all areas of governance do not unfortunately work out the same way. This is because there are conflicts between the interests of private individuals and broader concerns of society which make the balance exceedingly hard to strike.

To illustrate this further by providing specific legal considerations, an example would be that law has to develop in a principled manner, or at least for common law jurisdictions (like the USA, UK, Canada, and Australia). As such, the adjudicator (or judge) cannot base his decision on his own conscience every single time. For what are the moral grounds for his own conscience? What about ambiguous cases where it is not clear for whom justice is to be given, and from whom punishment or compensation is to be sought? Also, law has to be certain – which means that it cannot change its position every time, which is bound to happen if it is simply tied to the factual circumstances of each case. This is because uncertainty of the law provides loopholes for the unscrupulous. To quote an extreme example would be the Nazi reign in World War II, where the word of the Dictator is law and changes every other time according to his whims. This resulted in terror amongst the ruled as nobody knew when the ‘law’ was going to change.

The similarities to Death Parade surface when we consider the judgments made in considerations of value judgments attached to the behaviour of the ones being judged. These value judgments are based on morality considerations, which are only broadly parallel to legal considerations, but which are undoubtedly more formless and subjective than their legal counterparts. It is precisely because there is no point of reference except to the arguably vague concept of ‘the human conscience’, which (mild spoiler warning) was purposefully omitted in this context (end mild spoiler) that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. Similarly, there are often no ‘just’ or ‘unjust’ outcomes in adjudication except in clear-cut criminal cases (even so, infanticide till recently is considered to be ‘legal’ amongst the Eskimos, so they do not consider it a ‘crime’).

The impossibility of covering all grounds in the process of adjudication, termed as the ‘truth-seeking’ process, is also highly relevant for the purposes of this essay. The fork in the path between the judicial system and Death Parade appears here. An adjudication process commences on the grounds of an indictment and consists of processes of fact-finding to determine as complete a picture on the factual matrix as possible, and together with application of the law, seeks to arrive at a substantively just outcome. An argument would be that the circumstances in Death Parade are quite different since the arbiters in Death Parade seek to pass judgment on a person’s entire life and character based on a disproportionately small amount of life experiences captured in the form of memories, and his or her reactions to situations stimulated to force them into making tough choices.

Admittedly, the flaws in Death Parade’s adjudication system are more blatant. But it is arguable that it does not detract from the overarching point that the process of determining what is ‘right’ is morally ambiguous in itself, which means that the ideal type of ‘justice’ that the common people, or the parties involved, would like to see may very well often not manifest itself in the way that we would like it to be. Death Parade may not be the closest or most perfect analogy in this sense to the realities of the judicial system, but it certainly provides many relatable anecdotes that serve as food for thought for further examples transposed into a context where legal principles are involved. Ironically however, it is interesting to note that what is fatal to such any system which tries to enact justice or ‘karma’, the Death Parade equivalent, may very well be the addition of the human conscience or presence of emotions into the equation, which is the precise message that Death Parade is trying to convey.

Ultimately, ideals like justice and the concept of enacting karma are not simple to achieve, simply because human beings are complicated and complex. The difficulty of attaching weights to considerations of morality are akin to those encountered in ascertaining legal concepts like the objective intention, and motive in the case of crimes. The choices we make as individuals may not be commensurate with our ultimate end. But I suppose, as with many things in life, you can’t have your cake and eat it – and I believe that this subliminal message is one of the things that make Death Parade such a memorable series in its parting.

In trying to not end up writing a length that amounts to a research paper, I have simplified many concepts and arguments, but of course it will be a never ending debate if I didn’t attempt to circumscribe this topic. Also, the link between the law and morality may be highly debatable in itself, but I have not touched upon this too due to length constraints.

I also thank whoever has the patience to read this to the end for what may seem like a dredgy topic to most. For the people who would rather read something fun, I also have good news for you – this may be the last of the more ‘tiring-to-read’ posts for a while since the demands of school are becoming increasingly attention-seeking and I won’t be using too much of my brain capacity on blogging in line with my energy conservation principles. As such, do expect reviews, award nominations, personal posts, and more informal language!

Of course, any type of comment is greatly welcomed and valued. I would love to know what anybody has to say about this! 🙂

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19 thoughts on “Death Parade: Moral Ambiguity and the Judgment Analogy

  1. Great piece as always!
    I also had some of these thoughts while watching it, but I feel that it was a very blatant criticism on society, rather then just on the judicial system.
    All of the people who go to Quindecim are inherently flawed and both we and Quim judge them based only in these flaws, when we shouldn’t be trying to do so, as humans are complex and flawed beings. More than just a criticism to the judicial system, it criticises the way society works, in which everyone everyone is judged base only in one single moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, I absolutely agree with your point. I guess to me, I stopped short of extending that message to how people are judgmental because I felt that there was a spectrum of judgment that could be dealt with here. What you refer to relates more to interpersonal relationships and interactions or news reports, where people get a one-sided perspective of the person/party in contention. DP had more of a system in place or at least some guiding principles, though it still functioned in a largely arbitrary (pun unintended) way and hence lots of flaws. Meanwhile, the law and the judicial system are established, verified but still constantly debated systems further down the spectrum of the ‘principled’, which proves that even with a ‘better’ system, there are times where human complexity is too much for it to handle. And that is the point that DP sought to convey, and hence the origin of the judgment analogy in relation to it.

      Thank you for reading & commenting, I really appreciate it (:

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nope, this isn’t another generic review 🙂
    I haven’t seen this anime yet, but I plan to sometime. You’ve analyzed this thing to the bone it seems, and I like the points you made on judgement that the show supposedly supports. I love reading reviews like this! Meaningful posts about anime are a double win!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This pretty deep. A good lengthy read. I would have to watch again to make a sound judgement.

    To be honest I was puzzled watching the anime. After seeing Death Billiard the short made for the Anime Mirai 2013 (I believe).

    The death billiard on its own was killer the series just made it mwah. Maybe due to having to much characters getting involved. And none really having anything to say. And have the dead pretty much judge each other or rather kill one another just like in real life.

    The bigger question being if we need a god? Maybe?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t actually watched Death Billiards, but from what you said about it, I feel that Death Parade seems to have a similar problem of having too many characters and not much time to develop them.
      I think the question of the existence of a god also pops up in the sidelines as well in DP. After all, DP seeks to show how generally flawed such a way of judging a person can be in the afterlife, something which is similar to certain conceptions of God as a higher being.
      Thank you for reading and commenting! 🙂 I appreciate it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is a pleasure.
        As for Death Billiards it is just perfect as a whole. no development just the game without to much make-up from characters. You will see the DP in a different light after that one.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This is an amazing post! Personally, I would probably never write something so analytical in my blog because I usually save that brain power for my school papers. I’m honestly jealous of your writing skills. If my writing was as good as yours, I’d be getting As on my papers. Please teach me shishou!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha thank you so much! For me, it was because I could see this parallel for this series in particular – Death Parade – so the inner wannabe intellectual in me couldn’t help going down the analytical route xD I usually don’t draw so much real life parallels to anime haha 🙂 Ohhh haha nah my writing is merely a result of reading and um more writing? I guess. I have no idea myself xD xD

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting btw 🙂 I appreciate it! 😀

      Like

  5. Excellent post as always, Shiro! Your posts are always insightful. I haven’t personally watched “Death Parade” and now it’s making me envious of those who’ve watched it. I can’t relate but based on the reviews/write-ups that I’m reading, it’s a very intriguing series. I really like how you connected it with the judicial system. The judicial system is based on laws, and sometimes those “laws” don’t really rely entirely upon morality. Besides what’s moral in one culture may not be in another. Anyway, great post. Keep it up. Looking forward to reading more of yours in the future. Cheers!

    P.S. I finished Season 1 of Code Geass! Season 2, here I come. <== Ahem, ahem. Just wanted to let you know. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooh, thanks for dropping by even though you haven’t watched Death Parade! It is indeed an intriguing series that has much to offer & much to think about 🙂 There are many interpretations and parallels one can draw from it, and mine is just but one of those. Hope you’ll try it someday yourself 😀 Cheers to you as well!
      P.S. ooh, you’re starting Season 2 now? Nice ^^

      Liked by 1 person

      • No problem. I like reading posts about anime that I haven’t watched yet anyway because it gives me an idea of what to expect. And of course I LOOOOOOVE spoilers. Spoilers, Banzai!!! Anyway, we’ll see when I’ll get to watch it but it’s only a matter of time. Like Code Geass. You’ve been talking about it with me for some time now and it’s only now that I’ve managed to watch it. Perhaps it’ll be like that for Death Parade as well. We’ll see. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Best Posts Round-Up of the 1st Ever Fujinsei Blog Carnival | Fujinsei

  7. This is a really insightful post, being the anime noob that I am, I haven’t watched it but I’m now wondering if I’ll be able to handle it. It seems like this anime is full of deep situations and concepts :/ Out of 10 what would you give Death Parade out of interest?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Oh I think Death Parade pretty much appeals to all because it does have a unique concept. Its pretty understandable & I daresay may be quite relatable as well. 🙂 (What I wrote is more of a complex link to more complex real world situations haha) Hmm, I’d give it an 8 out of 10. It was a solid series and can be touching at some point, as well as being deeply reflective of human emotions. Give it a try if you can, I think everybody would have some form of takeaway from it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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