In the month of December, I went to watch a Bollywood movie named P.K with my family. Directed by Aamir Khan, a man who is known to poke at the controversies that plague Indian society, the movie was an immense hit in India. The film focuses on a nameless alien, whose encounters with Indians, leads him to realize the corruption that poisons religious institutions and encourages false propaganda of how to judge people based on their ‘worth’. Priests in India, P.K argues, have taken the basic religious path of Hinduism and other religions, and have manipulated it to serve their own self interests.
At a first glance, Death Parade and P.K seem to hold nothing in common. Death Parade is an illusive show that examines the true nature of a human soul in style. Bathing itself in soft blues and pinks, the show takes place at a casino-like bar, inviting both guests in the show and the audience to think alike that there is nothing but entertainment to feast on. The opening sets a stage with dancing arbiters, sipping whiskey in their shot glasses. Soft clinks of ice against the glass pair up with the chime of an elevator opening as the stage is set: welcome to Quindecim, and enjoy your stay.
But of course, nothing is at it seems. Death Parade masquerades itself well, and a closer investigation shows that there’s clearly more going on than just a couple of drinks and a game that holds your life at stake.
The first thing to notice about Death Parade is the religious imagery that sneaks its way into every corner in the show. While there is a mix of many religious symbols, the ones that caught my eye that I’m personally familiar with were the Buddhist and Hindu ones.
Samsara and the Circle:
Throughout Death Parade there are various items that have a circular shape. Things like the dartboard in Episode 1, to the background behind Decim, to the rotation of the roulette signals when choosing a game to play – all signify a revolving circle. This could possibly play into samsara, which is a form of reincarnation or the eternal ebb of life turning into death and vice versa. Samsara ties in not only one’s thoughts of the past and in the future, but their actions as well. Decim and the other arbiters seem to have the ability to look through one’s samsara in the game, though they are only mere glimpses of the contestant’s life. In Hinduism, a human’s soul is bound by this endless cycle of ignorance and self deceit; in Buddhism, samsara is a cycle driven through repeated mistakes and suffering. Death Parade seems to mix in both meanings for its purpose of interpreting one’s character in the game.
Sentience and the Jellyfish:
Jellyfish do not have a religious connotation in essential Hindu beliefs, but they are generally recognized as animals having the most basic necessities to be sentient. Jellyfish can feel, adapt to their environment, recognize prey from predator, and can communicate with each other. It thus begs the question – can jellyfish feel? And if they do, could they harbor a soul? It’s a question that has plagued a central belief that ties both Buddhist and Hindu philosophies: perception of reality. The Madhyamaka interpretation dictates that the world we see through our eyes is the one we experience; and such, every individual has a different perception of the world around them, despite it containing facets of the same thing (colors, textures, frequencies of light and shadow). The world to the jellyfish is different than the world of a human. But both worlds are simple illusions, or maya, as Hinduism and Buddhism mention.
The Lotus and the Human Self
Death Parade is abundant in lotus imagery. From the opening to the ending, the show is filled with pictures of lotuses. The most common kind of lotus that the show uses however, is the six petaled lotus, which is often recognized as the Svadhisthana chakra, or one of the main chakras in Hinduism and Buddhism. Svadhisthana is associated with the inner consciousness of oneself. In other words, it governs our sensual and emotional self – our hidden, most true desires. By controlling the Svadhisthana chakra, we’re able to gain a better sense of ourselves (or, as, I’ll explain in a bit, Brahman). Many issues in Death Parade are associated with the problems one has with maintaining one’s Svadhisthana chakra: harboring jealousy or rage, blocking self-change, constantly seeking pleasure, and having poor social abilities. Death Parade also uses other types of lotuses from time to time (from 8 petaled to 4 petaled) but these as far as I know do not have any religious meaning to them.
The lotus – along with other forms of religious imagery – is also used to convey the transitioning of the human soul between realms, whether it be for reincarnation purposes or other purposes. As I’ll explain in the next paragraph, from my perspective, Death Parade seems to work more in favor toward Hindu goals and beliefs for its system, but here, the show seems to work with Buddhism, Hinduism and Shintoism, specifically.
Perception of Reality:
Okay, so there’s a lot of cool Buddhist/Hindu symbolism and imagery in Death Parade. But so what? Is the show offering a criticism on religion as an ill-conceived notion of judging others based on their belief system and transparent morality as P.K does?
I think there’s a little more than that. A theme that unites the first four episodes of Death Parade is this: your perception is self-contained. The mind is its own prison and command center; the way you see something is not necessarily the way another sees it. This is one of the fundamental schools of thought in Hinduism; that we all contain a “universal self” (Brahman), a god-like entity that is the ultimate truth. We are our own creators, holding our own multiple realities of perception in different inner worlds. Because we inhabit so many different ‘people’ within ourselves, it’s hard for us to understand who we really are. As a result, we are blind to our own faults, and the brain conveniently fills the gaps with excuses and suffering. The conclusion is that we all live in an illusion (maya) that is fostered by truths such as egoism, desire, ignorance, and facetiousness. The karma and dharma systems thus exist to restrict this hold on ourselves, and allow us to recuperate for our bad actions with the motivation to become better – through reincarnation. All things come as they return; to Brahman. Regardless of whether you are reincarnated into a higher form (and even if you attain the highest form, you are brought back down a level after balancing your happiness with the suffering and bad deeds in your previous lives) or sent to a void (in which you can only go up or remain in the same position), the cycle (samsara) will always continue.
How does this tie back to Death Parade? We see Decim put a couple under intense pressure to ‘reveal’ their inner nature, which contains all of these truths. Both the wife and the husband are fueled by an ignorance of each other’s true selves and the rashness of youthful love. As a result, they end up hurting each other and themselves. Death Parade and Decim almost suggest that in becoming disillusioned, they have broken maya, and thus deliver final judgement. This last call is not a continuation of the cycle however, but is a departing from it – that is, nirvana or moksha. The only way to liberate yourself, moksha dictates, is to truly know yourself. If you are able to free yourself from the walls you have set up for yourself, you can be free. The system Death Parade uses is a malicious, surgical procedure to ‘liberate’ the souls and realize their true potential, in this case. It is a means to force moksha on the person (and sometimes, at the cost of sending another into samsara).
The problem, however, is this. Decim makes a mistake. He is not an ultimate form of Brahman. On the contrary, Decim is steeped in apathy; he cares little for the people he observes, and prioritizes objectivity over subjectivity. And thus, there is an error in the way he sees things, simply because he does not possess an eye toward people’s potential nor their intrinsic positive value. Recollection of a memory is obviously not the only way to determine one’s future. And so, we have not only an existing cycle of samsara, we have a flaw in the pattern – maya, even amongst the people who determine what a life (and death) is worth. The illusion is pervasive, everlasting, immortal – even amongst immortal beings. In Death Parade, Brahman is either a fake, or has not yet been reached for any of the individuals.
So where do we go from here? Death Parade could take many paths, but the one I would be most fascinated with would be the development of these so called arbiters and their transformation to either break down this shallow system or to attain moksha themselves. Because if they get to decide the worth of a soul, well then – who decides their worth? P.K asks the same questions. The message to both should be the same: we can only determine our own potential. No individual has the right to entirely judge another’s life; all experiences are unique. Death Parade has yet to say anything about this just yet, but I’m keeping my eyes peeled to see if it does.