The Winter 2018 Anime Preview Guide Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody
How would you rate episode 1 of
Death March to The Parallel World Rhapsody ?
What is this?
Ichiro Suzuki is a 29-year-old programmer for Orbital, a game production company. Though every day of dealing with bugs and fickle decisions by clients can seem like a death march, he at least takes pride in being productive and useful. One night after finishing a major project, he goes to sleep in his workplace and wakes up in a setting that looks like a blend of two games he has recently been working on. Though he can see game-like displays, the threat posed by some lizard men he encounters feels real, as do the Meteor Rains he unleashes to deal with them. It all feels like an exact reproduction of a feature in the game he was just working on, but it does allow him to skip ahead to level 310, which makes him superhumanly powerful. Though he's still not certain if he's dreaming or not, Ichiro uses those abilities to rescue a young sorceress from the side effects of her defense against a wyvern attack, and that's where the real adventure begins. Death March to The Parallel World Rhapsody is based on a light novel series and streams on Crunchyroll, Thursdays at 11:30 AM EST.
How was the first episode?
Death March to The Parallel World Rhapsody's first episode puts me in the odd position of wishing this show were just slightly better: a little better paced, less obvious in its narrative progression, and most importantly, far less of a visual mess. There is nearly a show worth watching here, and Death March possesses a number of qualities I'd like to see in future isekai shows, but I don't think this one quite gets there.
Let's start with the good, though. Death March immediately distinguishes itself through the circumstances of its protagonist—our hero Suzuki is twenty-nine years old, and the titular “death march” is actually crunch time at his desk job. Suzuki spends his days working on derivative mobile and browser games, fixing bugs and handling crises and generally enduring the slog of perpetual programmer grind. The first third of this episode spends far too much time introducing us to Suzuki's life and includes a number of scenes with no real purpose at all, but I appreciated the choice of saddling us with an adult protagonist who actually knows about game design in a professional sense, as well as how Suzuki's perspective makes it easier to understand the everyday adult tedium that can make the escape of a mobile game seem so enticing.
Things perk up considerably when Suzuki is thrust into a game world. The episode's second half allows it to demonstrate its greatest strength: its uniquely thoughtful approach to life in a video game. Unlike many shows in this “trapped in a game” subgenre, Suzuki's new world doesn't just feel like a fantasy universe with a couple game-like embellishments. Suzuki first survives in this new world by exploiting the starting items he himself chose to add as a band-aid for the game's difficulty curve, which he soon learns totally wreck the expected leveling momentum of the game. When Suzuki wants to hear what someone is saying, he first has to invest a series of skill points into aptitude in their language. When Suzuki runs across the terrain, he is constantly assailed by tiny little pop-up windows, likely explaining his various inconsequential achievements. From the prevalence of menuing to the ways mastery is articulated to the physical setup of the world around him, everything in Suzuki's world really does feel like a game.
Unfortunately, once we account for the somewhat unique protagonist, potential thematic articulation of the adult grind, and pleasantly convincing game world, things start to get a lot more dire. Death March's biggest problem is that it looks terrible. The show's backgrounds are unimpressive, and its compositions are constantly blotted out by heavy shadows, ill-placed soft focus, and unappealing browns. Its animation is minimal, and any scenes involving crowds rely on low-rent CG models. This episode also lacks much sense of momentum and dithers in a variety of scenes that don't add anything to the narrative. And outside of its uniquely grounded world, there's no real hook beyond the opening and closing segments' threat of a future harem. The embellishments here are interesting, but the basic story is as rote and poorly paced as can be.
On the whole, Death March is certainly compelling enough that I'd recommend it to isekai fans, but not strong enough that I can give it a general recommendation. I'd like to see future shows explore the possibilities of adopting Death March's uniquely realistic video game worldbuilding, but Death March's own qualities just aren't strong enough to keep me watching.
I've never been a fan of the isekai genre of light novels and anime, save for some rare exceptions such as Re:Zero, which at least explored some of the psychological ramifications of having a man-child suddenly thrust into the life or death circumstances of a swords-and-sorcery realm. While I absolutely understand the appeal of the genre, (who wouldn't want to be the hero of a story that resembles their favorite anime and games?) too often I have had to sit through series that fail even engage with the novelty of the isekai premise, much less innovate on it. Instead, they simply function as thinly-scripted wish-fulfillment, which is to say nothing of the often slapdash nature of their world-building. So it's fair to say that I did not go into the premiere of Death March to The Parallel World Rhapsody with lofty expectations, and yet the results still managed to disappoint me.
In its first episode, Death March commits the worst sins that any bad anime can commit; it's incredibly boring, and it's hideous to look at. At least series like Knight's and Magic had the good sense to limit their “real world” exposition to only a couple minutes; Death March decides to take the entire first half of the episode detailing protagonist Ichiro Suzuki's mind-numbing job as a game developer. It would be one thing if the characters and events of this prologue worked to flesh out Ichiro as a compelling protagonist, but his work life is so tragically banal that the only thing we learn about Ichiro is that there is nothing interesting about him whatsoever. While that's clearly meant to contrast the so-called “death march” of his daily grind with the excitement of his life in the game world he drifts to, it also makes for absolutely terrible television. It's the anime equivalent of a random person taking you through the minutiae of game programming in excruciatingly boring detail.
What's worse is that even when we do shift to Ichiro's new life in another world, things are just as lifeless as they were in his regular existence, and I cannot imagine that this was done on purpose. The army of lizardmen that Ichiro does battle with are rendered in terribly amateurish CG, and this newfound world of MMO-themed magic and wonder is communicated by having Ichiro make his way through endless fields of rock and grass with no distinctiveness or grandeur. Most damning of all is the unnecessary attention to detail spent watching Ichiro flick through game menus and monologue about game design choices, even when he's in the middle of a battle. When you combine all of these baffling artistic choices with choppy animation and a drab color palette, you get a show that's absolutely no fun to look at.
When I was a child, I had a friend who would often invite me over to his house, ostensibly so we could play video games together. Instead, I usually ended up sitting there in silence, bored out of my mind, while he made me watch him flick through the menus and battles of low-budget JRPGs. While the slavish attention to the details of its unique game-design aesthetic might be enough to intrigue and entertain some viewers, Death March to The Parallel World Rhapsody just gave me flashbacks to those many wasted hours of my childhood and little else. This is a hard pass.
(Okay Jake, you can do this. You can think of a nice thing to say about this show! Just something gentle to ease the review along before falling into a bottomless well of negativity. No problem.)
So! Death March to The Parallel World Rhapsody is...!
Well. Uh. ..........(cough).
So! The controls look way more like a real MMO UI than most of these light novel anime ever manage. The animations and notifications sure do look like I'm playing some Phantasy Star Online-alike on my PC! I mean, the way most anime depict this stuff, it would be needlessly taxing on your PC's memory and too distracting during a skirmish when you have eleven windows open anyway! So even though he gets kind of a dull dashboard, the situation in which we find our adult-programmer-hero-who-got-turned-into-a-teenager-with-ridiculously-overpowered-stats-in-a-world-that's-just-like-an-MMO-but-with-harem-options is much more...believable?
Okay. From the garbage-tier CGI to the tired premise that's stretched out way longer than most isekai anime bother to bury the lede, this one's a real stinker. Lousy animation, generic protagonist, laughably transparent power fantasy gimmicks that are almost In Another World With My Smartphone-level lazy, and a plot that moves so slowly that it feels like it hasn't even started. Again, the nicest thing I can say about this mess is that the lead's demeanor and the mechanics of his new world feel closer to a real average nerd transposed into a real video game than most stuff of this ilk, but loathe as we are to see them over and over again, sometimes heightened anime stereotypes can be a good thing because they're based on what holds your attention, repetitive though that may be. I can't appreciate elements of realism in a genre that's meant to be as unrealistic as possible, which makes this potentially unique element of the series just a boring burden when the narrative turns out to be "Isekai_Power_Fantasy.txt" all over again. Death March is exactly what the title implies—a dull slog to a dispiriting destination. Hard pass.
Oh, and the opening theme song is one of the worst I've heard in a long time. Now somebody get me out of this bottomless well.
Death March to The Parallel World Rhapsody is not nearly as serious as its title sounds, and that's unfortunate. Not because there isn't room in the isekai genre for light and fluffy, but because the initial premise the show is built on is serious, like really serious. But Death March is more interested in falling into line with the status quo, and that's just the first of this production's numerous problems.
Our lead Satou is a 20-something game programmer for a company that's woefully understaffed, and its employees are sleeping at their desks after going upwards of 30 hours without rest and three days without a bath. The audience is lead to believe that Satou has likely died from overwork before being inexplicably transported within the game he was programming. Dead at your desk at 30 is no life to live, but Death March is quick to write out the injustice of it with damaging work ethic stereotypes that frankly aren't cutting it anymore for the underpaid workers in the anime industry.
If you can glaze over that nasty bit, you'll find that the series is mired in other plot setup problems, namely turning the wish fulfillment up way too far. Satou is dropped squarely into a fantasy world, so it's a good thing he's over-powered to the point of banality. There's a reason stories like to cast an underdog as the main character. The journey of watching them come into their own, gather their skills, and overcome obstacles feels relatable. A character that's perfect at everything from the get-go doesn't create any tension. So here we have Satou, the guy who jumps to level 310 in the first episode, gets all the skill points a newbie could want, and an array of magic items for his inventory alongside heaps of gold.
So what's the point? Well, Death March is setting up a perfect fantasy vacation for dead Satou to mingle with fantasy girls without any hardships. It's supposed to be the ultimate break from his previous life, but it makes for a downright boring viewing experience. Coupled with questionable art design that I couldn't quite put my finger on, (was it the CG backgrounds or the strange line art?) and I found myself wholly uninterested in Satou's little excursion.
We were about due for this season's isekai series, weren't we? That genre, as well as the oft-overlapping genre of fantasy worlds grounded in game mechanics, is so voluminous right now that a series of either or both types has to do something special to stand out. Based on the first episode, that might be an ongoing concern for this new offering.
Basically, the first episode is trying to have its cake and eat it, too. It makes the protagonist older but has him appear as a younger version of himself in the game world. It starts him out weak but gives him an avenue to immediately jump up to an overwhelming power level, with the only real constraint on him being that he hasn't yet figured out how to use all of his abilities and skills. Hence he is still going to have a distinct learning curve, but since he is 250+ levels higher than the strongest creatures around him, he isn't really in any danger. On top of that, he has a full inventory of earned loot and a massive amount of gold plus plenty enough points to max out whatever skill he needs. Can't understand the local language? No problem! Just dump a full 10 points into the Languages skill. All of this was gained for comparatively minimal effort, too. The opener and closer also indicate that a passel of cute girls is going to gather around him, too, and he's going to journey with them, so he'll effectively have his own harem. In other words, this is looking like one of the most full-bore power fantasies that we've seen in recent years.
I have not read the novels, so my hope here is that the series will eventually do more with the concept than just that. The first half of the episode, which shows what goes on at the game company, was, frankly, the more interesting part for the details it delves into, such as how some might sleep at work for multiple days while on a deadline. It doesn't help that the alternate world's visuals are heavily based in not-cutting-edge CG; if that was done intentionally to give a further impression of being in a game world then that might be interesting, but I suspect that isn't the case here. At least by keeping the “is it a dream or not” option alive, the series provides itself an out if it gets too ridiculous.
Being creative or different certainly isn't everything, as the best shows are sometimes the ones which take a standard concept and do it well. However, so far the only thing which stands out about this series is its captivating name.
Death March to The Parallel World Rhapsody is one of those series where I enjoyed the first novel, if only for its differences from other similar books, and then quickly lost my enthusiasm. That latter is sadly what I'm feeling after watching the first episode – a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Largely this stems from the fact that what worked pretty well in novel-format just isn't translating all that well, with the result that this episode feels like watching someone else play an RPG after watching them sit at the office all day.
The base conceit for this iteration of the isekai tale is that a twenty-nine-year-old programmer falls asleep after thirty straight hours of debugging and other programming tasks that are truly thrilling to watch. When he wakes up, he's fifteen or so in body and appears to be dreaming about one of the games he was working on, complete with controls (except log out, naturally) that he can manipulate with his mind. Cue what feels like most of the episode of Satoo (née Suzuki) leaping around from plateau to plateau in giddy abandonment as he tests the limits of his new power, which he achieved by accidentally activating the beginner cheats he programmed before going to sleep. Given that he's gone from level 1 to level 310 with the metaphorical pressing of three buttons, that's some serious overpowered wish-fulfillment.
At this point Satoo is still fully convinced that he's dreaming. While we veteran consumers of isekai tales know better, it's hard to fault him for his gleeful reaction to suddenly living inside a game world, especially after the potentially literal death march he just went through. Unfortunately it's also easy to blame the episode for being really very dull – the battles are largely done via meteor, so with minimal viewing interest, and when Satoo does stumble upon a real fight (soldiers vs wyvern) at the end, it's less than exciting due to not-great art and animation. The constant stream of “game” information in little windows on the screen is also incredibly irritating, in part because they're hard to read (Japanese language notwithstanding, the print is tiny), but also just because they're more jarring than helping to realize the kind of world Satoo is in. He's more than established that this is a game-like world; the show needs to trust us to remember it.
Things may pick up when there are more characters, as is due to happen next week, and we start to see the disconnect between Satoo's appearance and his actual age. But right now this isn't feeling like a smooth transition from the page to the screen, and in fact is making me question whether I really enjoyed that first novel after all.
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