Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
Our Town's Third Act
2015 saw the release of a strange anime series called Death Parade, which is perhaps best known for its exceptionally catchy opening theme, "Flyers." The colorful, explosively energetic song was many viewers' (myself included) first encounter with the quirky Japanese band Bradio, and it gained a reputation for being among the most "misleading" anime opening themes in recent memory. Bradio describes their musical style as a hybrid of rock, funk, soul, and disco, and Death Parade's opening features the anime's characters dancing along with one of the band's most upbeat pieces, so the muted, semi-Absurdist show that follows the opening strikes many as discordant with the opening's tone. The positivity is, however, thematically in-keeping with Death Parade's message, and it serves as a reminder throughout the show that for all its dreariness Death Parade is not a fundamentally cynical show.
Death Parade has a number of interwoven thematic ideas (any number of which could make for full posts), but the most interesting to me is the way it echoes Thornton Wilder's 1938 play Our Town--and particularly the play's third and final act. A central contention of Our Town is that most people do not fully appreciate their lives as they live them, a truth the play's central character does not realize until after her death. Not only does Death Parade echo this theme, but it also echoes Our Town's execution of this theme, right down to the structure of its climactic moment.
Billiards in the Afterlife
Death Parade's basic premise is fairly simple. It follows a man named Decim who runs a bar for the recently deceased. His job is to place people in psychologically trying situations in order to determine whether they are worthy of being reincarnated. The first several episodes are largely isolated in nature, showing individual examples of the judgment process and exploring the role of compassion in justice--one of the major themes I'm not planning to address directly today. As the show progresses, though, the focus shifts to the woman serving as Decim's assistant, who is revealed to be a recently deceased person herself. Decim was unable to judge her within the typical time frame for such decisions, so he temporarily employed her in order to monitor her over a longer period of time.
Decim's role is comparable to the Stage Manager in Our Town's third act. He serves as a guide to the black-haired woman just as the Stage Manager serves as a guide to Our Town's Emily. While the premises are somewhat different--Our Town's afterlife focuses on moving on, while Death Parade's afterlife is centered on reincarnation--there are tonal similarities. Our Town is a fairly calm and slow-moving play, meant to replicate the pace of life in a small town, and despite Death Parade's higher stakes it tends to strike a similar tone. Death Parade's relatively colorless and minimalist setting--the majority of the show takes place within a single room--mirrors the way Our Town is usually performed, with no set or props. In both, the focus is entirely on the acting, on the people. There is drama, but little action.
From Surrealism to Hyper-realism
Our Town's three acts each focus on different moments in time, and the third and final act takes place shortly after the death of the character Emily. The act is set in the town's cemetery, and it features Emily talking with the town's other deceased, as well as with the Stage Manager. The scene is oddly surreal, especially following the relatively mundane portraits of daily life that are the former two acts. Towards the end of the act, Emily is given the opportunity to revisit a day in her life. She is warned against doing so, but she chooses to do it anyway. In David Cromer's 2008 off-Broadway interpretation of the play, this return to the past is accompanied by the sudden reveal of a hyper-realistic set depicting a period-appropriate home, complete with the smell of bacon cooking. This sudden sensory overload associated with being brought into something intensely real from the relative abstraction that is Our Town's depiction of the afterlife creates a strong emotional response in the audience, and it causes Emily's despair when she realizes how she and the people close to her squandered their time together to resonate quite strongly.
Death Parade's climactic scene is almost identical. After spending a great deal of time talking with the black-haired woman in the stagnation of the bar, Decim allows her to return to her home--albeit in the present, after her death, rather than to a point at which she was alive. The effect is largely the same as Our Town's. In place of the unchanging, abstract scenery that is Decim's bar, the viewer is suddenly presented with a heavily detailed, highly realistic portrayal of a standard Japanese home. As she walks through the house, the black-haired woman sees flashbacks of her life with her parents, including--just like in Our Town--a family meal. She approaches her mother and tries to speak with her, but Decim informs the black-haired woman that she cannot actually interact with or change anything she sees. The realization of what she has lost, and how little she appreciated what she had, washes over the black-haired woman, and that emotional response is, somewhat paradoxically, what leads to her accepting her death.
While the specific details are slightly different, these two climactic scenes mirror each other quite closely. Decim is the Stage Manager, and the black-haired woman is Emily. In both scenes, the mother character prepares a favorite food for the daughter--though in Death Parade's case, it's an offering to the deceased. Both Emily and the black-haired woman desperately plead for the attention of the living even after being told it is futile, and both characters ultimately conclude that they did not truly appreciate their lives when they were living. In both cases, the sudden shift of scenery strengthens the audience's response to the scene.
Modernism and Noh
There is, of course, no way of knowing whether this is meant to be a direct reference to Wilder's play--it may just be that Death Parade is influenced by modernist theatre more generally. Watching Death Parade feels in many ways more like watching a play than watching an anime, largely due, I think, to the central set piece. Decim's bar itself resembles a Noh stage in its structure, featuring a long hallway connected to a central area where most of the action happens. The hallway roughly matches the bridge on the side of a Noh stage--the bridge symbolizes the connection between the world of the living and the world of the dead, while the bar's hallway serves this function in a literal sense, as the elevator at the end of the hallway carries guests from the world of the living into the afterlife. There is, additionally, a balcony section in the bar where characters occasionally sit and watch the action taking place in the central "stage" area, mirroring the audience's placement around a Noh stage.
Our Town was itself partially inspired by Noh theatre, and Noh influences pop up in many Modernist plays. It may be that Death Parade echoes Our Town as a result of a shared Noh influence, but I think it's more likely that Death Parade's Noh influences are intended to relate to its more modern theatrical inspiration. Death Parade also exhibits shades of Theatre of the Absurd--particularly in context of its take on the concept of justice--in the way it highlights the breakdown of communication among people trapped in a meaningless world. Theatre of the Absurd also tends to draw from Noh (such as in the case of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot), which lends additional significance to Death Parade's interlinked Noh and modern theatrical parallels.
Taken as a whole, Death Parade looks like an attempt to create a Modernist play within the context of an anime. From the similarities to Our Town to the Noh influences to the Absurdist ideas, it almost feels like it was written to be staged rather than animated. It even utilizes certain metatheatrical concepts, such as the occasional presence of an audience within the show or the recently deceased characters being mannequins acting like people rather than actually being the people themselves--indirectly drawing attention to the fact that Death Parade is a performance rather than a reality. In drawing on the likes of Wilder and Beckett, Death Parade strengthens its own arguments and grants itself a weight it might not otherwise have. If nothing else, it results in a type of story that's fairly unusual for an anime, which is thoroughly intriguing in and of itself.
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A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition