Note: The following contains potential spoilers. Consider yourself warned.
The opening credits for Death Parade feature an array of bizarrely dressed and coiffed individuals parading various dance moves (e.g., the can-can, ballroom, Dance Dance Revolution) against a backdrop of games (e.g., darts, cards, air hockey). If that was all you ever saw of the anime series, then you’d be forgiven for thinking it was about an alien dance competition set in a pool hall. (To be honest, given Japanese animation’s depth and breadth, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there was an anime title with that exact premise.) But anime opening credits are often less than representative of a series’ storyline and tone — and that’s very much the case about Death Parade, which is about something far deeper and darker: eternal judgment.
The series’ early episodes begin similarly: two people arrive via elevator in a mysterious bar called Quindecim and are greeted by the bar’s enigmatic host, a stoic man named Decim. He questions them about their memories before insisting they play one of the aforementioned games of skill. Confused by their surroundings and told they can’t leave Quindecim until the game is over, the pair hesitantly begins to play. But their’s is no simple contest, Quindecim is not your typical bar, and Decim is no bartender. Eventually, the truth is revealed: They’re dead, Quindecim is a gateway to the afterlife, and Decim is the “arbiter” tasked with deciding their eternal fates in either heaven or hell.Death Parade ultimately caused me to be thankful for a Savior who knows that I am but dust.
Death Parade’s vision of the afterlife has next to nothing in common with orthodox Christianity’s, and if any doubt remains, it’s soon revealed that heaven and hell don’t actually exist in the series’ mythology. Rather, a player’s soul will either be reincarnated and given another chance at life or be cast into the void and lost forever, depending on their performance in Decim’s game. And yet, in spite of its decidedly non-Christian eschatology, Death Parade’s exploration of sin’s consequences and its treatment of justice and mercy are worth considering and even appreciating from a Christian standpoint.
When people arrive at Quindecim, they have no memories of their death or the events leading up it. Over the course of playing Decim’s games, however, their memories slowly return until they finally realize the truth of their current state. The pop singer confronted with his callous treatment of women; the reality TV star who suddenly becomes aware of how she used her children to further her own fame; the young man who remembers the blood on his hands — all of Quindecim’s visitors are eventually forced to confront the lies they’ve told and the sins they’ve tried to hide.
Here, Death Parade poses an interesting question that Christians can appreciate: To what extent do our mortal deeds matter in the afterlife? In one sense, the series lines up with Christianity in that it takes the eternal effects of sin seriously: living righteously and living a life of sin both have eternal consequences. And in Death Parade, justice seems pretty clearcut: those who live a “good” life get reincarnated while a “bad” life gets one tossed into the void.
However, the Bible makes it clear that our eternal fate isn’t merely dependent upon what we do (Ephesians 2:8-9). Furthermore — and at the risk of opening up a theological can of worms — the Bible even goes so far as to state that our salvation is a sovereign act of God (Romans 8:29-30). On the other hand, because we are eternal creatures, that which we do here on earth has eternal consequences. We are not soulless automatons blindly following our programming; we are morally culpable beings. Considering the issue from this perspective, it turns out that our salvation is somehow intertwined with a specific act: proclaiming Jesus Christ as our Savior. This paradox lies at the heart of our faith, and it’s one that Death Parade teases out.
As Death Parade continues, the viewer begins to notice that something is “off” about Decim’s method of judgment. As Quindecim’s guests play their games, Decim occasionally sabotages their efforts to win or requires them to inflict pain on each other through their playing. During one particularly intense session, Decim’s interference is questioned by his assistant Chiyuki, a mysterious woman whom Decim has a difficult time judging because she arrived at Quindecim aware of her death (trust me, it makes more sense within the series’ context). In response, Decim explains that such methods are necessary to reveal the true inner darkness of the players’ souls, which allows him to judge them more accurately. But the more she sees Decim in action, the more Chiyuki begins to dispute his methods.
In an early episode, Decim’s boss states that arbiters must judge without having experienced death themselves; otherwise, they’ll be too close to the human condition to judge effectively. As such, they are devoid of qualities like emotions and empathy, since those will impair their judgment. But as a result, Decim’s arbitration resembles a torture session as often as not, which causes Chiyuki to question whether his actions are revealing spiritual darkness or simply creating it. And if it’s the latter, then are his judgments truly as fair and just as he loftily claims they are? Does he really respect humans as much he claims to?
As odd as it might seem, it was at this point in watching Death Parade that I gained a new appreciation for Jesus’ dual (“hypostatic”) nature as both God and human.
With Jesus, we need not worry about having some “impartial” judge standing over us whose purpose is to simply reveal the hidden darkness in our souls. Or, as the book of Hebrews puts it, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus is fully God, and as such, knows the reality of our hearts: that they contain both light and darkness. He is fully aware of every hidden, secret sin. At the same time, He is fully human and aware of our fragile state and difficult plight because He, too, experienced them in their entirety throughout His life, and especially on the cross. The two aspects of Christ do not negate or limit each other, but rather unite in something glorious and necessary for our salvation — yet another paradox at the heart of our faith.
In one final twist, Death Parade reveals that Decim has, in fact, been given human emotions as an experiment to create a new form of “arbiter,” and Chiyuki inadvertently draws these emotions out as the series unfolds. Death Parade’s final episodes tease out the implications of this as Decim finally begins to judge Chiyuki, putting her through a series of grueling tests to determine her soul’s true condition. The ending is bittersweet and ambiguous, but it’s implied that Decim’s brush with humanity may actually make him a better — and, dare I say, more Christ-like — arbiter. And it might have wider repercussions for the rest of Death Parade’s afterlife.
Death Parade is not without its flaws as a series. At only twelve episodes, it feels rushed and underdeveloped at times. Details and plotlines concerning the bureaucracy governing Decim’s world are tossed out and left undeveloped, and the same goes for information about various secondary characters (like Decim’s aforementioned boss). Needless to say, the series’ mythology is complex and open-ended. While this ambiguity can be intriguing at times, it can also be frustrating and just plain weird, especially for anime newbies. (Studio Ghibli this most certainly is not, if only because of the torture sequences.)
Yet despite Death Parade’s flaws and weirdness, I often went to bed haunted by the episodes I’d just finished watching and the human drama and moral crises that they explored. And despite all of the non-Christian ideas and concepts on display, Death Parade ultimately caused me to be thankful for a Savior who knows that I am but dust, Who has experienced my mortality and shares my experiences. I know He will judge me not only fairly according to my deeds, but also mercifully according to His grace.