Could you be an arbiter?
“Where am I? Who am I?”
“You’re an arbiter, made to judge the souls of human beings. The game you will use? One known as life, capable of revealing the greatest darknesses and greatest glories of the human spirit.”
Allow me to suggest that we all possess, in varying degrees, a desire to be an arbiter of the people who surround us. That there is an inhuman, unsympathizing Decim within each of us who seeks to judge—fairly or not—on the basis of our unavoidably limited experiences with other individuals. Yet, fortunately, we all also possess the capacity to emulate Chiyuki and her desire to reach out and understand the humans who are at once laughably simple and impossibly complex.
In unpacking Death Parade [Madhouse, 2015], it’s critical not to get bogged down in the details of the show’s universe. While the anime certainly does discredit the arbiter system for the inherent injustice of compressing the entirety of a human person into a cluster of memories and one harsh situation, the system itself is not Death Parade‘s real target. There’s no point to that! Creating a fictional situation only to point out how unjust the fictitious system is would be an empty, pointless endeavor. Shouting into the void of fiction, if you will. No, Death Parade merely uses its created system to point to an even more fundamentally wrong element: judging human beings in the first place. That’s right, the only thing Death Parade truly condemns is judgment itself.
The temptation at this point is to distance oneself from that message, to keep “judgment is wrong” in the abstract or even to contradict it—”what about courts of law?”—but to do either of those things misses the point. Death Parade specifically and intentionally implicates the viewer in the judgments at Quindecim; we’re not allowed to simply stand by in watch like Decim’s dolls, nor are we free (as Decim is initially) to make judgments without consequences.
In the early episodes of the show, there was a big ruckus about the final decision of the judgments and over which character was sent to the void and which character was sent to be reincarnated. The commotion struck me as missing the larger point of the episodes, but it also demonstrated a certain level of audience engagement with the judgments. In other words, viewers were actively taking part in the judgment of the characters, carrying their concern into the question of “who went where? who was judged to be wrong?” Death Parade‘s deliberate ambiguity as to the answers for those questions in those episodes was an early clue to what the show was all about, and its second episode was critical in establishing a relationship critical not only of the arbiter system, but of the audience as well.
In episode 2, entitled “Death Reverse,” we’re introduced to the black-haired woman we’ll later come to know as Chiyuki and again watch the same judgment game as in the first episode, this time from Chiyuki’s perspective, rather than Decim’s. By the end of the episode, Chiyuki has suggested that the judgment made in the first episode could have been an error, that Machiko could have lied in order to save Takashi’s soul. No definitive answer is given by the show as to the accuracy of her suspicion, aside from Nona’s assertions of Takashi’s fault (which, incidentally, opposes the results of Decim’s verdict), calling into question not only the rightness of Decim’s judgment, but also the audience’s willingness to accept his judgment in the first episode as correct. Decim was not the only one possibly in the wrong, but we who tacitly agreed with his decision, as well.
As Chiyuki’s doubtful influence begins to permeate the show and the illegitimacy of the judgments is made more explicit, the show’s ability to implicate the audience through tricks like this fades. In their place comes the more uncomfortable existence of the arbiters, specifically Decim and Ginti. They may be dolls (albeit one with imbedded human emotions), but they are, for all we can visually tell, indistinguishable from other humans. Their inhumanity is not demonstrated through their outward appearances, but in the cold way they relate to the souls that come to them for judgment. Of course, the extremity of Decim and Ginti’s behavior provides the audience with a certain amount of distance from the two arbiters, but the point remains: their distinguishing characteristic, the thing that makes them most inhuman, is that they are arbiters, beings who judge.
Lest the conclusion I’m driving at be a bit ambiguous still, let’s take another example: the detective Tatsumi, who appears in episodes 8 and 9, “Death Rally” and “Death Counter.” In contrast to his competitor Shimada, Tatsumi is markedly calm and logical about their unknown state, calmly assessing the situation using his detective’s mind (invoking comparisons to Decim’s personality). However, as the game nears its conclusion, we watch Tatsumi degrade into a wild, terrifying, psychopathic beast—a monstrous portrait of a man who has lost his humanity (a condition that aligns him more closely with Ginti). Hung up by Decim’s wires like a doll, Tatsumi describes himself as “shockingly dispassionate” after getting over the emotional distress of his wife’s murder through revenge and, furthermore, labels himself as a judge over other humans, divinely called to dispense vengeance at the sake of allowing others to be victimized. It’s a profoundly disturbing and profoundly inhuman stance—and it clearly draws the line between judgment and a lack of humanity.
Those who judge…are inhuman.
1. Arbiters cannot quit making judgments, for that is the reason why they exist.
2. Arbiters cannot experience death, for that would bring them too close to being human.
3. Arbiters cannot feel emotions, for they are dummies.
4. Arbiters cannot work hand in hand with life, for that will ruin them.
The second and third laws or the arbiters make clear the necessary connection between inhumanity and judgment. If an arbiter takes on too many human qualities, their ability to judge is compromised.
Reverse this statement and we arrive at: those who are human cannot judge. But if not judgment, then what? How are we supposed to relate to the people around us—the good people, the bad people, the people who are both, as most are? The act of attempting to understand, Death Parade, suggests, is enough.
I write “act of attempting to understand” with purpose, for there is no real way for humans to ever truly understand each other. Why does it take Decim so long to understand Chiyuki and Chiyuki to understand herself and those around her?
At age 77, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the long-time advocate for women’s rights and the first president for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, resigned from her position as president of NAWSA and gave “The Solitude of Self” as her resignation speech, an intimate and solemn reflection on the self-contained nature of the human being. Born out of her personal experience as an isolated housewife in the days before her activism, the speech concludes with these lines:
And yet, there is a solitude which each and every one of us has always carried with him, more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea; the solitude of self. Our inner being which we call ourself, no eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced. It is more hidden than the caves of the gnome; the sacred adytum of the oracle; the hidden chamber of Eleusinian mystery, for to it only omniscience is permitted to enter.
Such is individual life. Who, I ask you, can take, dare take on himself the rights, the duties, the responsibilities of another human soul? 
I have somewhat co-opted Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s words from their initial context, but the point she makes here is incredibly relevant to the reason it is so difficult for human beings to connect to each other and the reason judgment of them is ultimately impossible. Human beings do not even understand themselves; how can they possibly understand each other? There is no way, not even by sifting through the memories of someone, to fully reveal the essence of a single person. In the words of Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, “No one can tear down his own dungeon; no one knows who inhabits the next cell. Conjecture can grope its way from man to woman, from child to adult […] Beings are alien to one another, even if they do stand beautifully by one another […] Variegation pays the price of a bitter separation.”  Balthasar’s (and Stanton’s, as well) point here is that the individuality of human beings is the very thing that separates us from each other.
You cannot understand another person because you are not them.
Our experiences of others are but snapshots of a human being. They are fractured, fragmented visions of separate existence’s nature, inherently incomplete. Just as the arbiters only see pieces of the judged souls’ lives, we only know what we know about those around us.  The solitude that afflicts each of use similarly affects all those around us as we all live in our cells, out of which we glimpse only short impressions of the thousands of humans who surround us in cells of their own.
The final line of Stanton’s speech is an arresting challenge to the concept of judging another human being. Whenever judgment, whether by arbiters or by us, is imposed upon another, we are taking upon ourselves the significant responsibility of that verdict’s accuracy. In light of the extreme limitations on our knowledge of others, do we dare to take on their rights, duties, responsibilities, strengths, flaws, goodness, and badness? Likewise, do we dare the arrogance of attempting to understand an existence entirely separate from ourselves?
Death Parade and I agree on this point: yes, we ought to dare. As Chiyuki says, reneging on her earlier, self-centered assertion to the contrary, “I’m sure it’s not wrong for people to want to understand each other. And even if it is, I want us to understand each other.”  This is why Chiyuki cannot press the button. And this is what ultimately pushed the inhuman Decim into the realm of humanity. Unable to bear the sorrow of the pain he’s caused Chiyuki with the sham reality in an effort to understand her better, he truly does come to an understanding of what it means to have sorrow.
The touching reversal of Decim’s efforts comes as he desperately tries to apologize through his own tears—”I am an arbiter” (remember the first arbiter rule?)—and Chiyuki simply says, “I get it.” She doesn’t judge him, she doesn’t condemn him for making her suffer. She simply does her best to understand the fate of a being designed to judge, forgiving him and reaching into the inhuman to humanize him, giving him permission to try to understand despite the the pain he caused her.
If those who judge are inhuman, then those who seek to understand are human.
So, where does this all leave us? I wrote at the beginning of this piece that we ought to resist the temptation to distance ourselves from the messages of Death Parade. “Let he who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.”  We all have a piece of our soul that is filled with darkness. We all have a piece of our soul capable of producing the most incomparable light. If we judge others, we judge ourselves.
Let us put down the tools of judgment, conceding to the solitude our nature and our inability to ever fully know another. Instead, let us make all efforts to understand each other, even the worst of our species, knowing that we will never entirely succeed, but trusting that, in reaching out to the inhumanity of others and letting others reach out to the inhumanity in us, we may bring peace to each other’s lives.
It is indeed a supremely optimistic and, perhaps, naive quest However, I think Death Parade shows us the small moments of connection are more than worth the pain it takes to get there.
 “Solitude of Self.” Given by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1892. (Source – Library of Congress)
 Heart of the World by Hans Urs von Balthasar, p. 19-20. (Ignatius Press, 1979)
 John 8:7
 One of the prominent visual motifs in Death Parade is the use of eyes. Close-ups, crying, and the unnatural crosses that mark the eyes of the arbiters all draw attention to the organs of the body often known as “the windows to the soul.” How appropriate, then, for the camera to focus on those reflectors of the human person’s inner self, the face’s most expressive way of revealing the truth of an individual’s internal soul. Such a focus prompts us to consider the depth of the person behind those eyes.
14 thoughts on “Snapshot of a Human: Reflections on Death Parade”
Great post, and your Catholicism’s showing. So’s your filthy, albeit admirable, optimism. It just so happens I’m writing another Death Parade post myself, though my previous rant and your piece on the matter of the fallacy of disinterestedly arbitrating humanity pretty much covers the basis of this theme. Another prominent theme of Death Parade is suicide, and I kind of hope my later writing on it will do the show some justice.
Heh, I figured if anyone was going see the underlying Catholic mentality here, it would have been you. I didn’t dive into the whole “God’s the only being who can truly know the truth of the human person” thing as I thought it’d be out of place, but I’m sure you knew I was thinking about that.
I’ll be looking forward to reading your post. I (thankfully) don’t have very much exposure to suicide, so I didn’t really feel like it was a topic I should touch, given how sensitive it is. I did really like what you were tweeting about it earlier, though.
I mean, outside of a direct line from the Bible (which, well, could have been taken from a number of other existing Christian traditions), you specifically quote a Catholic theologian, so that’s that.
I remember having a debate with Foxy Lady Ayame about the issue in the comments section of an old Shigofumi post I wrote (The link being here: https://thereforeitis.wordpress.com/2014/06/24/shigofumi-how-suicide-isnt-just-about-you/) and I remember totally disagreeing with her position of about it, of suicide being a complete matter of personal freedom, and that position reminded me of Chiyuki’s reasons in Death Parade for committing suicide, a school of thought born very much from the philosophical tradition of individualism that we are all fundamentally alone.
Unless you want to judge me (see what I did there) based on tumblr standards of qualifications, I feel my oft-flouting negativity will do me just fine. I may not know a person personally who’s committed suicide, nor have I made a serious suicide attempt, but I’ve stared into the abyss just the same. I’ve felt its chill and whispers. I’ve faced solitude and silence, and I think that gives me enough empathy to write something about it.
I think that idea of being “fundamentally alone” is why I find Death Parade‘s ideas about connection and the attempt to understand so powerful and also why I find definitely lean towards your position of “suicide isn’t just about you.”
The existential solitude we all experience, the way I see it, is a sort of profound compulsion to seek connection. That certainly is a more optimistic perspective, but I do think it’s pretty self-serving to believe the relationships we have with other people are only valid inasmuch as they relate specifically to us. Again, it’s a matter of trying to understand others, rather that allowing ourselves to languish in our idiosyncratic cells.
“People can have lovers..they can have friends..they can be together..but when you think about it..you’ll see that originally..we’re alone.”
– Nana, Yazawa Ai
This piece on understanding each others resonates with me. I think it is very purposeful of Death Parade to explore and remind us a very often overlooked and taken-for-granted message, “People cannot fully understand each others.”
Consciously or not, we often pass judgement on others on a day-to-day basis, whether its a stranger, a coursemate, a colleague, a friend, a relative, or a family member. When we see people, we put tags on them based on our perceptions on them. Sometimes its just minor judgement and sometimes its a big enough one that affect your own behavior towards them.
Thus, it is not right to simply judge the others based on what we have perceived.
Thus, we cannot have the arrogance to think that we truly know the others.
However, what I liked most is what comes next, “People cannot fully understand each others, but we can make the effort to understand, we can try, and we can have the desire.”
Every time we make a conscious effort to understand the others better, we see more of them, and our pieces of perceptions on them changes, the tags we put on them changes, what we think of them changes, how we interact with them changes, and we ourselves changes.
Decim, through his desire to know more of and to understand Chiyuki, changes. His perceptions changes. His behavior changes. He can smile and cry now.
Through the effort to understand each others better, even though its hard, we become a better person. I think the show and your reflection reinforced this belief.
Yeah, the idea of being existentially isolated by our own individuality can be a pretty bleak one, but I don’t think it has to be. The inability to fully understand another doesn’t necessarily mean that any interaction with other human beings is meaningless. “We may not understand, but we can still impact for the better,” seems to be the idea here. Frankly, I think I like that idea better, like that we can be bumbling around in our own little bubbles and still help someone else. Of course, there’s always the possibility of hurting someone or being hurt, but the risk, I think, is far better than the alternative of just hiding away from the world.
Rule 2&3 remind me of a theme that runs through Eastern story telling that it is bad for Gods to connect to closely with humanity for their own sake(and in their – not our – terms of thinking). The reasoning is summed up most susinctly by the poet Li He. He said “If heaven had feelings, heaven too would grow old”
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Also reminds me of the way the humanity of the Greco-Roman gods often caused them to make terrible decisions, both for the world they were supposed to rule and for themselves.
Reblogged this on compass on my field trip.
Thanks for the reblog! ^_^
Nicely done, thank you!
There’s an irony, a paradox surrounding our pondering of aloneness, of solitude. If were we Orangutans or Pumas, or some other non social creature, solitude might not be something to ponder,being alone for them is as natural as sleep. But since we are social animals, our need for connection to others is so strong that we obsess about that border of solitude that can’t be crossed. It’s likely our social-ness that prompts us to constantly inspect, and pick at that sore of alone-ness.
When lesser, temporary borders are breached , they are epiphanies of connection. Making a friend, falling in love, even getting a joke. Some seek to tear all the walls down, some are always busy building them.
Indeed! Humans are built to be in relationship with others, so there is a paradox at the center of our nature that we are so distant from those to whom we seek to draw near. As always, I find the answer lies somewhere in the middle: a recognition of our aloneness whilst simultaneously not deciding that alone is all we’ll ever be.
When reading your post, I can’t help but think about the connections to the themes in Neon Genesis Evangelion.
– humans fearing being alone
– humans reaching out trying to understand each other
Although I don’t think NGE has themes of judgment. Rather it chooses to focus more on…I don’t know…one’s own purpose, self-acceptance etc.