As I’m writing this, we have officially reached the halfway point for most winter anime. The majority have a 12-episode run this season, so now is the perfect time to take a gander at two of the heaviest hitters — Death Parade and Tokyo Ghoul √A. ALERT: Spoilers for the first six episodes of each show ahead! Flee if you must!

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Death Parade

Here’s a quick plot summary from Funimation:

There is a place after death that’s neither heaven nor hell. A bar that serves you one chance to win. You cannot leave until the game is over, and when it is, your life may be too. From Studio Madhouse (Death Note, Black Lagoon) comes a thrilling new series where the stakes are high and the rules are simple: your life is on the line. Series rating: Mature.

So basically, Death Parade is a serial show where two oneshot characters (they change each episode) who died at the exact same time mysteriously arrive at Quindecim, a bar. Unaware that they’re dead, the two characters are told that they have to play a game against one another and that the loser will be killed. The games we’ve seen so far include darts, bowling, a video game, and Twister. These people are placed in situations designed to draw out the darkest parts of their souls, which allows Arbiters to determine whether the person’s soul will be reborn or lost to the abyss.

When I first started Death Parade, I feared that its serial nature meant that the audience would be unable to connect with characters because they disappeared after one appearance. And while that is happening — none of the victims we have met so far have returned — this does not detract from the show. In an odd way, it actually enhances it. Death Parade has tasked itself with two narratives: the larger narrative of the show where we have our recurring characters, and the week-to-week nature where it needs to tell a complete story about two oneshot characters in a very short amount of time. And week after week, it succeeds.

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Do you want to play a game?

A large part of this success comes from the fact that the show understands who its audience is. The show has a Mature rating not so much for violence, swearing, or nudity, but because there’s always a serious air, one full of tension that can either explode or quietly die. Because we as the audience have information that the onshot characters don’t — that they’re dead — we wait for the inevitable moment when they 1. give into the darkness of their soul in their quest to stay alive (remember, they think that they’ll be killed if they lose a game), and 2. realize that they’re dead, and all that implies. The characters are forced to reflect not only on the darkness within, but all that they left behind. And because there are very few gags on the show, the audience is always surrounded by pain.

In fact, the most out-of-place element is a gag that we see every week: the opening. It is by far one of the best and strangest things I have ever witnessed. If you’ve not seen it, please watch it and tell me what you think the show will be about from it, because I guarantee your answer will be way off. The opening is the polar opposite of the show, and in a way, the opening’s silliness better emphasizes the seriousness of the show.

Characters

So far, we’ve seen a variety of deaths: car accident, bus accident, strangled to death, suicide, killed by a bomb, slipped on soap…It’s been quite a ride. If you’re a fan of serial shows like Law and Order, then you know how hard it is to sustain a compelling character-based narrative when those characters will more than likely never show up again. In just 22 minutes, Death Parade must introduce a new character, tell us about their life, show us how they died, and make it ambiguous as to whether the character will come to a good or bad end when their souls are judged. To do this well, Death Parade first makes the character appear flat: they’re either a loving couple, an overbearing actress, a womanizing singer, etc. But because the characters are forced to see the darkness within, we see what caused them to become that way, how they perceive themselves, and how they had to persevere in spite of whatever they were facing.

A few of our oneshot characters so far

A few of our oneshot characters so far

In addition to the serial characters, we also have a number of recurring characters: Decim, the bartender and main Arbiter; the Black-Haired Woman, a human who came to Quindecim fully aware that she was dead and now works as Decim’s assistant; Nona, who is Decim’s boss; Ginti, who didn’t appear until episode 6 and apparently runs his own Death Games; and Clavis, my personal favorite because he’s the elevator boy and is adorable. In the first six episodes, we’ve gotten precious few hints about who these recurring characters are. However, episode 6 seems to mark a turning point because we spend more time with these recurring characters than with the new serial characters. I suppose the biggest questions surrounding this larger narrative (and I call it the larger narrative because of these characters’ constant presence) are why was the Black-Haired Woman able to remember she was dead, why do the Arbiters exist (who do they work for, why were they chosen for these roles), and what is the plot. You know how a story begins when a stranger comes to town? Well, the stranger who comes to town is the Black-Haired Woman, and if her function is to alter the characters’ normal lives, then what change will she bring about? The mystery surrounding the overarching plot is compelling because I don’t know how the show will handle it. It doesn’t seem like the Arbiters lead bad lives or need to change anything, so why introduce an element whose main purpose (storytelling wise) is to initiate change? I think my ultimate verdict on the show will depend on its answer to this question. As much as I’m enjoying the show, I will be extremely disappointed if there isn’t an answer as to why tell this story now.

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I swear this is a serious show

Halfway Mark Verdict

Simply put, this is a good show. Despite its inherent serial nature, this show can tug on your emotions; I 100% teared up during one episode and was 170% embarrassed during another. But I think my favorite thing about this show is that part of its maturity comes from the repetitive questions posed every episode: how can you judge a human life? What are humans capable of when pushed to the extreme? Many anime have addressed these problems before, of course, but Death Parade’s serial approach, combined with a mysterious overarching narrative, make it stand out. I highly recommend checking this show out.

Tokyo Ghoul √A

Tokyo Ghoul was summer 2014’s summer 2013’s Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan). Does that make sense? Both shows started off as fairly obscure manga but exploded when their anime counterpart hit the screen. Given its massive success, it came as no surprise that Tokyo Ghoul got a second season, questionably titled Tokyo Ghoul √A. This season is unique in a major way: it completely deviates from the manga, and the mangaka is completely fine with that. In fact, Sui Ishida (mangaka) even wrote some of the scripts for this season. I’m sure we’re all familiar with our favorite material being changed when translated to other media, so the fact that the original creator has given the changes his blessing is a big deal. The main plot of Tokyo Ghoul √A literally picks up where the first season ended: Kaneki has accepted Rize, eaten his torturer, and is possibly less stable than before (ah, who are we kidding – the poor boy is far less stable than before). The first episode ends with Kaneki deciding to join Aogiri Tree, which is a stark difference to the manga, where he decided to fight against Aogiri.

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He is 100% holding his sanity there

Personally, I think that deviating from the manga was a smart move for the show. Throughout season one, we saw Kaneki struggle with his ghoulish abilities, culminating in his torture and acceptance of his powers. If you want to illustrate just how much Kaneki has changed since his first appearance — and not just through physical changes — then having him morally switch sides is perfect. After all, the mark of a complex character is one who is able to make a choice that they would have been unable to make when we first met them. Think about the Kaneki we met when he initially became a ghoul; would you ever imagine him joining Aogiri? Heck no! So Tokyo Ghoul √A’s decision to have Kaneki make this choice shows just how far he was pushed, how far he is from the Kaneki we knew in season one. Of course, Kaneki likely has some endgame behind everything — maybe he intends to gain valuable information on Aogiri and the Owl, maybe he intends to take them down from the inside — but for now, just the fact that he is out there helping Aogiri is enough to demonstrate just how much Kaneki has altered from the book-loving, awkward teenager we once knew.

More on Kaneki Ken

The first few episodes of Tokyo Ghoul √A have not explored Kaneki’s frame of mind, preferring to instead focus on his actions or the mindset of those at CCG or Anteiku. But in episode 4, when Kaneki gets severely beaten, we’re suddenly thrust into his head, where he refuses to accept defeat because he has something to protect: the people at Anteiku. Despite everything he has been through, Kaneki has never lost his desire to protect those he loves. Kaneki is motivated by his desire to not be weak, because if he is weak, then those closest to him will suffer. This motivation is the catalyst for his acceptance of Rize and his kakuja, as well as decision to join Aogiri. I think that Kaneki is a fan-favorite character precisely because he suffers and grows from it. While that growth may not outwardly be the best thing — he appears to be in extreme mental anguish and is slowly losing control of himself — he refuses to let it keep him down. And, in a way, it’s inspiring. Personally, I love nothing more than seeing Kaneki suffer precisely because I know he will find the strength to overcome his pain.

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Perhaps I spoke too soon

Anteiku and CCG

A lot of what this season has focused on so far is consequences; with the battle at the end of season one, Kaneki’s acceptance of his powers, etc., how are the other characters meant to pick up the pieces and move on? We have a nice juxtaposition between our two main groups: the Anteiku crowd and the CCG. Those at Anteiku seem to rather passive because they’re laying low. Touka is studying for entrance exams and trying not to dwell on Kaneki, Hinami is trying to keep up a happy face, Nishiki pops up every now and then to talk to Touka, and Tsukiyama, Yoshimura, and Uta have more or less disappeared. To be honest, the Anteiku segments bore me a bit because there’s no change; everyone is still just moving along the same path. However, this seems to be the show’s way of illustrating how badly Anteiku was affected by the events of season one and that change is too painful for them right now.

CCG, on the other hand, is actively trying to figure out how to defeat ghouls and are forced to deal with ghoul attack after ghoul attack. Because CCG has been largely reactionary, we’ve spent a lot of time with the members and fleshing out their relationships with one another. Juuzou Suzuya has particularly come to prominence, as the show has revealed bits of his backstory in order to both explain his oddities and how, like several characters, he was a victim of circumstances who grew from the pain he endured.

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Quite an impressive collection you’ve got there

One character who has definitely surprised me this season so far is Hide. Hide was built up towards the beginning of season one as Kaneki’s best friend, and he was part of the reason why Kaneki wanted to learn how to control his powers. However, Hide sort of disappeared towards the end of season one, and I assumed the narrative wasn’t sure what to do with him. Imagine my surprise when Tokyo Ghoul √A decided to feature Hide in a much larger role. Hide clearly knows something is up with Kaneki, and the fact that he’s taken steps to acquaint himself with CCG members suggests he knows Kanki is not only a ghoul, but the Eye Patch Ghoul. How will this factor into the rest of the season? Will he eventually confront Kaneki? This seems to be the direction the show is heading based on the fact that it is clearly giving prominence to Hide, but it’s still too early to see if this will happen.

Halfway Mark Verdict

The first six episodes have been pretty strong, and a lot of that is due to the show receiving a nice bump up in its budget. There are constant bouts of actions, and when the action slows down, we get to see multiple characters trying to cope with the events of season one. I love it when a show seriously sits down to look at consequences, and cycling through so many characters’ reactions has been a treat. However, one extremely apparent and slightly annoying thing that Tokyo Ghoul √A suffers from is censorship. Season two is rated 18+, yet the censorship has been painfully bad; a character impaled by knives has her entire body awkwardly blurred out, and there have been a few agonizing negatively lit scenes used to obscure a bit of blood or weapon penetration. At the same time, some scenes that are far bloodier – I’m talking specifically about Aogiri’s attack on Cochlea – are not censored at all. Season one suffered from censorship as well, but the inconsistency this season is aggravating. As this season is deviating from the manga, I’m not sure where it will end. I assume Kaneki will join back up with the Anteiku folk, but what will the middle steps be? How will he defect from Aogiri? Stay tuned to find out…