Saturday, June 3, 2017

[Anime] Death Billiards

Death Billiards – 8/10

Death Parade is one of the most heartfelt anime I have had the honor of reviewing, although at times against its own wishes.  I am completely enamored with its core themes and bittersweet portrayal of life and death, but its insistence on incorporating superfluous characters and details obscures the power of its message.  Death Billiards, the OVA that preceded Death Parade, is the distilled essence of that series.  It is able to reach the same conclusion in 25 minutes that Death Parade takes 12 episodes to approach.  However, paradoxically, I cannot find it in myself to rate it higher.

The problem comes from its very strength: in being succinct it is also less impactful.  This can be seen most clearly in the difference in the characters between Death Billiards and Death Parade.  In Death Billiards Decim is a compassionate observer, willing to embrace and support a man who realizes that his time is up.  He is a fully realized arbiter: having seen so much suffering and pain, while knowing that he never had to experience it himself, all he can do is offer comfort to the fallen.

The woman in black, by comparison, is his bored and jaded cohort.  When the old man has his head smashed into the glass, all she does is grimace in disgust and exasperation, as though to say, “What a mess this is for me.”  She demonstrates no empathy or surprise.  Her relationship with Decim is clearly that of the subordinate; she is familiar with him, and is genial with her interactions, but there is no doubt he is the deeper personality.  But, like Decim, she is “complete.”

"I'm going to have to clean this up."

In Death Parade we are presented with a very different duo.  Decim is cold and distant, a personality not much more animated than the marionettes he controls.  Because of his aloofness, he is unable to fathom the multifaceted nature of humans.  His method of judgement, to place people in extreme duress and analyze their reactions, only serves to bring out the worst in people.  It is a cruel approach that ultimately fails.  It is up to Chiyuki, a pure lost soul under his temporary care, to help him find the compassion required for a proper understanding of humanity.  But she herself is also a work in progress: suffering from amnesia, she lacks a clear sense of herself and is casting about for answers.

Starting out this way, Death Parade in a sense takes a step back before it takes two steps forward.  Its characters must originally be incomplete in order to undertake their journey to fullness.  In this process we are able to observe firsthand Decim’s growing regard for Chiyuki’s kindness, his appreciation for her as a person, and the ultimate failure of his method of judgement on her.  Conversely, Chiyuki comes to remember that she committed the worst of crimes against herself, and that what she has done inflicted untold suffering on those that loved her.  Unlike Decim, however, she does not follow the arc that would lead to her Death Billiards self.

Using their mutual journey, and despite being burdened with unnecessary detours, Death Parade is able to reach the same place as Death Billiards but with more import.  It is also able to address the conundrums that Death Billiards sidesteps.  When Chiyuki asks Decim what happened to the two in Death Billiards, we are denied an answer.  If the OVA uses the same signals as the series, then the masks over the elevators indicate that the old man was sent to hell smiling while the boyfriend was reincarnated in total disarray.  This would seem strange in light of the events, and has spawned a number of theories.  Did the old man’s last whisper offer to exchange himself for the younger one?  Were the flashbacks of the old man’s life, which hint that he may have been something of a swaggering bully, indicate that singular instances of adultery and desperate violence are not nearly as reprehensible as a lifetime of arrogance?  Or similarly, did he grin because he thought he had out-witted Decim: by playing the kindly old man did he sell himself to be reincarnated?  Is this lead-in to Death Parade’s theme about the incoherence of judgement itself?  Ultimately there may be no answer.  This lack of resolution is artful on the part of Death Billiards; by leaving such loose ends it is able to expand its impact beyond the allotted time and offer good food for thought.  It is at the same time unsatisfying, without the strength of message contained in Death Parade.

"Come at me, boy."

One final confounding factor I must remark on is the interference of previous knowledge.  Going into Death Billiards blind, I suspect it is much more biting, for as a viewer you don’t realize that both men are already dead.  The “reveal” is no surprise at all to veterans of Death Parade, and so it loses some of its potency through no fault of its own.

If you liked Death Parade then Death Billiards is worth the watch, and the same is true the other way around.  I suspect there will be fans on both sides, since each has its strengths which are not entirely shared by the other; they are sibling works, not direct extensions of each other.

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