The Winter 2015 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Death Parade ?
Rating: 3.5 (of 5)
Review: Death Parade is an extended and expanded version of a concept first brought up in the 2013 Anime Mirai short Death Billiards, in which people are sent to a Purgatorial bar (although they don't necessarily know that it's Purgatorial) named Quindecim upon their death (although they are not necessarily initially aware that they died) and their fate in the afterlife is determined by a bar-type game that they must play. In the original work, it was a game of billiards; in this episode it is a game of darts. Supervising it all is the passive, proper, white-haired bartender Decim, who only really tells his “guests” the bare minimum and is, for some reason, constrained from prematurely revealing crucial facts like this being the afterlife. In this particular instance, a recently-married couple are the guests after (we later learn) they died in a car accident. Their dart boards are rigged so that hitting various numbers causes pain in various parts of the body – for the other player. Although they initially start missing to avoid harming each other, some lingering issues of mistrust gradually come out (which was probably the whole point of the activity), and things turn ugly by the time the game finally resolves.
Based on the first episode, Death Parade is one of the rare titles these days specifically aimed at older audiences and possibly even intended to have an audience beyond otaku. Almost all of the character shown so far have clearly been fully-mature adults, and the issues raised during the cruel game are adult issues. The artistic style is also indicative of this, as there is nothing cutesy about it and its use of a generally darker color scheme implies a somber, serious tone rather than just being “dark” as an affectation. The overall artistic effort by Madhouse, in support of director/original creator Yuzuru Tachikawa, is pretty strong, with an impressive-looking depiction of an elegant underground bar, good character designs, and what looks like a significant animation budget. The musical score is also quite effective.
The story, though well-timed and well-constructed, is more typical and definitely not original; while the bar games is a newer twist on the basic concept, stories about some kind of trial for being judged in the afterlife, where buried secrets and resentments gradually come to the surface, have definitely been done before. It does tend to be overly dramatic, but such is also a common flaw of series like this. Unclear at this point is whether the first episode is meant to be just an example of what goes on at Quindecim or indicative of a true anthology approach. Given that several other characters are featured in the incongruously-energetic opener, and two of them show up in the episode's epilogue after apparently having observed the dart game from the background, my guess is the former. Either way, at least one more episode is going to be needed to get a lock on where the series is really going, but the first one is good enough to pique interest.
Death Parade is currently streaming on Funimation.com.
Count on Madhouse to swoop in and rescue an anemic season. I don't have enough good things to say about Death Parade, the full-length followup to the excellent Anime Mirai short Death Billiards. This first episode tells a full story in twenty minutes, introducing our premise (a mysterious bar where trapped patrons are forced to fight for their lives) and weaving a fast-paced tale of love, suspicion, and betrayal between a newly married couple. The couple are forced to compete in a game of darts where each strike of a dart attacks a corresponding organ in their bodies, and by the end of this episode, all their secrets and sabotage are laid bare, leaving questions of what the bar has decided and what betrayals were actually fabrications unanswered.
The story is melodramatic, “who can you really trust” excess, and the execution sells it with polish and flair. The dramatic shifts in narrative are matched by equally energetic direction, with shots varyingly set for ominous ambiguity, intensity, or simply to show off the beautiful backgrounds. The animation is just as good, featuring a mixture of stellar pans that combine CG background details with traditionally animated characters and pure, breathless character animation. The physical and emotional descent of these characters is depicted in beautifully animated detail, to the extent where portions of this episode barely feel like TV anime - if Death Parade can keep up this level of animation throughout, it'll be a thing to see. Every element of this show's production gleams with polish - it may be a gleefully trashy, almost Saw-esque melodrama, but it goes about its story with the narrative and aesthetic focus of a master craftsman.
If there's anything negative to say about this first episode, it's that its pretensions don't yet seem to extend beyond telling sordid dramas in beautiful detail. But the hints of the fantastic opening song indicate even the employees of this bar will have their own tales to tell, so I'm not terribly worried by that. Overall, Death Parade offers easily the most consistently well-executed first episode of the season so far, and an engaging story all by itself. This episode is a very hard sell.
Death Parade is available streaming on Funimation.com.
Death Parade is a rare kind of anime property in that it's based off an original animated short, "Death Billiards," now expanded into a full series premise. So I guess it should come as no surprise that this first episode almost feels more like a short film unto itself. More specifically, this episode feels like a "TV pilot," a dream of a premise that emphasizes its execution and grand potential more than diving right into the underlying story, characters, and worldbuilding. (Such things are likely to change between the production of the pilot and the greenlighting of a full series, after all.)
Of course, this is still a first episode proper for Death Parade, (whereas the "Death Billiards" short might be seen as more pilot-like,) but that feeling of watching a promotional showcase for someone's larger passion waiting in the wings is undeniable. The show's recurring characters (previewed in the opening theme) are barely present, and the real "stars" of this episode are a newlywed couple who have landed themselves in Purgatory Bar and end up forced to play a game of darts to determine their afterlife fate. It's not much of a spoiler to say that no matter who wins or loses the purgatory game, we won't be seeing these ex-lovebirds again in this world between worlds. Very little is revealed about the Purgatory Bar or the rules behind it, and even the rules of the game the couple is forced to play are explained poorly, by the bartender's own admission.
The couple is first told that they are "playing for their lives," unaware that they are actually already dead and playing for their "afterlives." Then they are given a game of darts that they must win by reaching 501 points with only seven darts, a mathematical impossibility that the couple (and audience) is too panicked to even realize is completely rigged. The bartender certainly doesn't bother to inform them that the game is impossible, and so they slowly begin to turn on one another, as memories from their past not-so-perfect relationship begin to cloud each of their minds with doubt about their spouse. (It doesn't help that every section of the dartboard is marked with a part of the body that will scream out in pain when hit by a dart, forcing the couple to hurt each other physically as well as emotionally.) As in any good parlor o' sin, The House is dishonest, because The House must always win. The only remaining question is why.
Now, that thing I mentioned earlier about the dart game being impossible from the beginning really speaks more to the quality of this episode than anything else. It's fascinating to me because, well, I didn't notice it. In fact, out of several critics and many dozens of commenters, only one comment from a dart enthusiast in ANN's own forums pointed out it is impossible to get 501 points with seven darts. Surely there are more math-competent individuals watching this show than that, so what gives? The give is this: the episode is so immaculately animated, impeccably directed, heart-pounding, disturbing, and even just plain bombastically ridiculous, that it has the same effect on its audience that it did on the victimized couple. We were too busy worrying about the outcome of the game to realize that it was a dirty trick from the start. It takes masterful execution to pull off that kind of misdirect, and Death Parade's cinematic grandeur delivers completely, even if the story it's building to and the world of the Purgatory Bar is still a complete mystery.
Ultimately, even the outcome of the game we were so concerned about doesn't matter, though I won't spoil how. This episode intentionally plays on audience expectations to make them equal victims of misunderstanding alongside its starring couple, even as we judge the two mean-spirited lovers in our own heads, and I think that's pretty fantastic. It'll take a few more episodes to see if the world of Death Parade can sustain its promise, but this made for one hell of a "pilot" outing!
Death Parade is available streaming on Funimation.
Rating: 5 (out of 5)
Here's a fun fact about jellyfish. While the average lifespan of a jellyfish varies based on its species, its environment, or a handful of other external factors, there are at least three species of jellyfish that are essentially immortal. Instead of dying, they revert to a juvenile state, where they can regrow into a new adult. Call it rejuvenation or reincarnation, it's borderline miraculous, at least until scientists figure out how it happens, and what triggers it. (Ancillary fact, the only scientist who's been able to sustain immortal jellyfish so far is a Japanese scientist named Shin Kubota, who often appears in Japanese media to talk about his ongoing project.)
In any case, scattered amongst the many fictional set items in the first episode of Death Parade is an aquarium, which features prominently behind one of the characters during a pivotal scene, as well as the scenes to follow. It's filled with jellyfish, who pulse rhythmically despite the chaos outside. The rest of the mysterious room is filled with jellyfish imagery, including the crystal chandelier, and even the glistening tendrils that pick up another character later on. It seems fitting, considering the episode prominently features themes of death and rebirth, and perhaps the endless cycle in between.
Then again, maybe my interpretation is completely off. When I search for "jellyfish symbolism," the internet tells me that jellyfish can also mean balance and acceptance, understanding, and clarity. Again, it works, with so much of the episode's events centering around the revelation of truths, be it about the mysterious bar that the characters find themselves in, or the life events they've tried to hide. Perhaps it's a little of "all of the above," inviting open interpretation from everyone who has the privilege of joining in on the journey.
Watching Death Parade is a thrilling, intense, and absolutely terrifying experience. From the opening notes, which utilizes the classic "characters wake up in a strange place with no memories" setup, to the uncomfortable reality of the Seven Darts game, it will have you squirming uncomfortably in your seat. Some of the magic is in the tension itself—watching the characters prepare each throw feels unbearably long—while much of it is in the incredible performances. As the characters roll through their emotions and unveil their dark secrets, not only do their faces contort, but their voices change as well. Previously pleasant characters howl with jealousy and bitterness, punctuated by the ever-serene face of the bartender.
Death Parade is a beautiful and scary experience, and I cannot wait to see more of it. It invites viewers to be present in the moment, but also lingers in your mind to give you plenty to chew on. I can already foresee this being my must-see show of this season.
Death Parade is available streaming on Funimation.
Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)
Huis Clos by Jean-Paul Sartre. Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin. The film Beetlejuice. If you are familiar with any of these titles (you might know the first as No Exit), you'll know what is going on almost as soon as Death Parade's first episode starts, but that likely won't stop you from watching. While it isn't treading any new ground in terms of afterlife stories, its dark color scheme and slow reveal of all of the details is very well done, making a show that is both good and dark, but not necessarily one that is good because it is dark.
The basically stand-alone first episode starts with newlyweds Michiko and Takashi getting off of separate elevators and entering a dimly lit bar. Neither of them can remember what they were doing before – our first big clue – and the bartender welcomes them to Quindecim, which means fifteen in Latin. He tells them that they cannot leave until they play a game, which will be chosen at random. Eventually the couple accepts the condition, and thus begins a very dangerous game of darts that will determine their fates in the afterlife. As the episode goes on, details of their lives are revealed with numerous misdirections as it makes us wonder what the truth of their relationship really was. While the final revelation isn't totally surprising, the episode itself, which relies much more on voice acting and emotion than actual action, is riveting to the point where I forgot to take a screencap. Put another way, just because you know where the story is going, it doesn't make its unfolding any less fascinating.
The art is far more realistic than most other shows thus far this season, and body language is especially well animated. The crosses of light in Decim's eyes are almost certainly symbolic beyond being another hint as to where the couple has found itself, and are really the only truly supernatural-looking element in the story. This fidelity to reality in the art and understated animation helps to keep our attention on the screen and keeps the story grounded, which it needs in order to make the point that it wants. While this can at times detract – it is very difficult to discern each organ on the dartboard apart from the heart – it mostly works well and allows us to focus on the characters' decisions, which have just as much to do with Decim's final verdict as where the darts actually land.
Every decision, this episode wants to imply, and every small thought has an impact on where we ultimately end up. And like in the Satre play, finding the exit may not always be a good thing.
Death Parade is available streaming on Funimation.
Quindecim is a bar in purgatory, the place where people go after they die but before they reach Heaven or Hell. The bartender, white-haired, blue-eyed, stone-faced Decim, grimly carries out his task, which is to determine where in the afterlife his barflies are headed. Enter Takashi and Machiko, a newlywed couple whose honeymoon vacation met an abrupt end, and now they're here - forced to play a fatal game of darts with a board that's linked to their vital organs. A winner must be determined, and the sad truth behind Takashi and Machiko's life will be revealed.
Well, I wasn't expecting this!
I'm not sure what I was expecting - nothing, I suppose, since I never saw the original Death Billiards Anime Mirai short this is based on, but this is a Twilight Zone-esque anthology series about Decim (De Kim? Funimation's spelling it Decim in the subtitles) determining who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell, all through games of chance and skill that unveil the twisted lives of his patrons. This first episode is just fantastically entertaining and incredibly handsome - Madhouse is working at their peak, with super cool character designs and background work that just ooze macabre style. The animation is a marvel, too - this thing is intensely well-made and I couldn't get enough of the careful, fluid and slick character animation, especially near the end when everyone is just going bonkers and screaming at eachother. It's walking a tightrope when it comes to tone - there's a playful streak in here, just a glint of mischief, even given how dark the story winds up being.
Special mention has to be made of the outstanding opening credits, which feature the show's cast dancing and singing to a high-energy pop song that sounds like it's straight out of a comedy flick from the late 80s. I replayed those credits a few times before getting to the rest of the episode - they're that much fun.
Death Parade very quickly went from "what's that?" to 'WOW GIVE ME MORE OF THIS RIGHT NOW', so I'm calling it the biggest happy surprise of Winter 2015. Thumbs way up.
Death Parade is available streaming at Funimation.com.
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