Notes from Sunday, 11/26/17
*This post contains many spoilers for Death Parade*
This afternoon I finished watching this short anime series and while it has its faults, all in all it was not only thought provoking but also rife with symbols and allusions that made me want to take the time to try and unpack what I can. Prior to starting this, I searched for other analyses and could only find a few, all of which were generally short, touching on some symbol but not going further in seeing how that symbol functions in the story. Other than that there were lots of anime review type blogs, which can’t go deeper in analysis due to spoiler precautions. While I would love to do an in-depth, well-composed, post, for now I just want to get down my thoughts before the immediate inspiration fades.
Chavvot and Chiyuki: Limitations of Human Communication
Given the overarching plot is centered around the relationship between Chiyuki and Decim, a foil setup that unfortunately blossomed all too fast in the last couple of episodes, the show introduces us to a strange fairy tale titled “Chavvot” where a young boy named Jimmy sees Chavvot playing outside in the snow. Jimmy tries to talk to Chavvot, but she is deaf, and merely smiles back. Jimmy goes outside and, despite Chavvot being deaf, they can communicate with smiles and gestures and find happiness despite the barrier. One site notes that this is not an original story but a Russian tale.
Apparently Chavvot was based in an old Russian legend about a man and a woman. The man’s name is Death and the woman’s name is Life:
Death falls for Life and constantly calls out to her but because of the realms dividing them and their differences Life cannot hear Death. One day, Death stumbles upon a frozen boy in a pitfall. Instead of taking of the boy’s life he spares the child, and it is then when Life appears before them, finally able to hear Death. Together they revive the boy, with Death promising only to take the boy when his time naturally comes to die. Life and Death fall in love and eventually have a child named Hope who mediates and judges who goes where. “For even in life and death, hope can arise in both situations.”
The original story is so peculiar I plan to look into it, but as far as the function of the adaptation in the anime is concerned, it is primarily used to demonstrate the limitations of communication. Despite the fact that Chiyuki and Decim (parallel to Jimmy and Chavvot), a human and an emotionless reanimated marionette, eventually come to understand and change one another, Chiyuki originally uses the story to demonstrate that even with the multitude of dimensions humans are granted when it comes to communication, there is never a way to truly know someone. Chiyuki’s background of having skating, the most important aspect of her life, taken from her, and none of her friends or family being able to understand how she might feel, is a great example. I found myself similarly moved by the revenge story in the arc prior, which tells the story of a boy who takes on jobs and single handedly cares for his precious sister, only to have her assaulted and hospitalized by a stalker. As much as I can theoretically understand the rage that would possess someone in that situation, I felt a tinge of guilt in knowing that I can’t truly know without a set of experiences I cannot willingly take on.
In its explicatory scenes, the series wavers a bit between acknowledging the complexity of human nature and, as Chiyuki cries out in frustration, “People aren’t as complex as you think they are!” She says something along the lines of humans being dominated by emotions over simple, sometimes petty things we have no control over. The anime does well here in balancing simplicity and complexity, as it answers in a similar manner the question of how we might understand one another despite the limitations of the mind as contained in a single individual. When asked to press a button in order to kill a random person (out of 7 billion people) in exchange for being brought back to life, Chiyuki realizes that she can’t, that even though she won’t know or care intimately for the person who is killed on her behalf, she can’t help but understand the pain of loss and grief that others related to that the person and those around her. Just as it is simple enough to say that humans are neither entirely good nor evil, we have spent the past ten episodes learning not only that they can be one in the same, but that they can also be entirely absurd (one air-headed character, for example, dies slipping on a bar of soap).
Just a short addendum to the coexistence of simplicity and complexity is one of my favorite observations and drawings in the series, where we see that Chiyuki first enters Quindecim with tears and a smile as she asks “How did I die?” Later, as she is being sent in the elevator for reincarnation, she is seen with the same expression. The emotionless Decim notes that smiles convey happiness, and tears usually grief, but what does it mean when we see both? Of course there are tears of joy but when this combination accompanies the question “How did I die?” the situation is both simple and complex, the former because we are human and understand, and yet the latter because it is difficult to explain emotions to someone who lacks them.
One final observation I wanted to make is the theme of snow both in “Chavott” and Chiyuki’s ice skating scene. The skating is reminiscent of The Things They Carried , at the end of which (spoiler alert) Tim imagines skating with Linda, a childhood friend who died of a brain tumor:
Sometimes I can even see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I’m young and happy. I’ll never die. I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.
I wonder if snow is used here for imagery of ephemeral purity (I feel like I’ve heard that’s the case in Japanese culture, likening snow to the sakura blossoms in the spring), but Tim O’Brien’s metaphor of skating over history, a tenuous boundary between life and death, feels fitting.
Nona and Decim, Threads and Marionettes
This blog did a good job pointing out the connections with Greco-Roman roots, especially in the names Nona and Decim, two of the three Parcae or Fates (the last being Morta, death). Nona spun the thread of life, Decim portioned it, and Morta cut it.
Likewise Nona in Death Parade is among the most powerful in the place of judgment, either injecting Decim with human emotions or merely bringing out what is latent by facilitating his relationship with Chiyuki (Death Parade tends to fall apart in these inconsistencies). Decim is an arbiter, but one Nona purportedly wants to be just in a way that an emotionless judge cannot — she hopes to find one that is both sensitive to humanity yet beyond mortal reason.
I found the marionettes to be an incredible symbol throughout the series, particularly in the way Decim, an animated marionette, began gaining human emotion (we see this in his eyes and the fact that we can only see both his eyes when Chiyuki hugs him), and the way Chyuki, a human, starts turning into a marionette when she stays too long in the halls of judgement. The idea that we are all merely players in an absurd universe is powerfully conveyed by marionettes, the baldness of their anonymity a cruel manifestation of the understanding that death is the great equalizer. It is all the more poignant when we find that Decim’s hobby is not cruelly playing with marionettes but respecting them, dressing them up as those he passes judgement upon, keeping their memory alive in his bar even if he forgets the people as soon as their judgement is complete. This human desire for memory, for the affirmation that life is not all for absolutely nothing, can be fulfilled if at least in the slightest in this way, even if Decim actually forgets. I found that to be profound and representative of the way literature and art is woven into our lives: we keep objects to remind us of other people, and even if we die we hope that the object still has meaning even if we forget (I hope this makes sense, but it’s definitely an idea to explore more in depth).
Given I have stayed up too late writing this, I must close with the impression Chiyuki left on me when she says that it’s a shame we don’t realize the meaning of our lives until we are dead. Everything we know about Death generally turns to cliché, and while mantras like memento mori and carpe diem are somewhat taken seriously, I do often feel guilty about not heeding them more fully. Humans really do act as if we will live forever, and, as the anime says, in our final moments try to cling to it and give it meaning. It’s an eerie warning we would all do well to keep in mind everyday — that is not to say live in morbidity but to be mindful of the fact that it is in our nature to believe we are immortal.