Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Two people enter a bar. They don't know how they got there, and even when asked by the bartender, their last memories are hazy, vague. All they know is what the bartender tells them - that they are there to play a game, and until they do, they will not be allowed to leave. And so they spin the wheel, embarking on a journey that will lead to salvation or damnation, proving the worth of their life or condemning them forever to the void. The stakes are high and judgments final here in Quindecim, and even victory may not be enough to save you.
Released as part of the 2013 crop of the Anime Mirai young animator project, Death Billiards had a very simple premise. Two men find themselves in a strange bar, Quindecim, where they are told they must play a game of pool before they can leave. Eventually resigning themselves to this game, they soon realize there's far more than victory at stake, and that their own health and very lives might be tied to the state of play. As tensions rise and plays are made, memories surface that paint a grim picture for each of them, and it's ultimately revealed that this is far more than a game of pool - this is a game to decide the fate of their very souls. They are both already dead, and this bar is their final sentence, with the bartender Decim standing in judgment of their lives and actions. It is up to him to decide if they earn reincarnation, or if their souls will be consigned to the void.
Death Parade picks up right where Death Billiards left off, expanding the concept of Quindecim to an entire post-death bureaucracy and pitting lost souls against each other in a variety of games of skill and chance. The first episode reestablishes the premise with a simple game of darts, where a married couple slowly dissolve into bickering and betrayal as the darts they throw stab at corresponding organs in their partners' bodies. Arbiter Decim and his mysterious female assistant watch in horror as the tension forces people to reveal their own worst selves, and the show slowly builds in scope to articulate and question the entire system of judgment, offering new games and vignettes with a variety of engaging doomed souls.
I was frankly somewhat skeptical when it was announced Death Billiards was being expanded into a full show. I'm not a person who enjoys violence or tragedy for their own sake, and it'd be easy for a show with a concept like Death Parade to descend into voyeurism and shallow misanthropy. “Look at how terrible humans are when they're pushed to the edge, look at the darkness inside all of us,” etc. The first episode mostly supported my misgivings - the show's newlywed protagonists dissolve into a series of soap opera betrayals, all while Decim stands wide-eyed, marveling at the depravity of human nature.
Fortunately, Death Parade pretty much immediately subverts this fear. That first episode is easily the show at its most nihilistic, and that's part of the point - with the initial expectation of a show like this established, Death Parade then proceeds to spend its running time alternating between ruminating on the complexities of human nature and the “value of life,” exploring the characters and system that would lead to and engage in a system of judgment like this, and offering a series of death-game vignettes that almost universally succeed in illustrating vivid characters in single episodes. Attempting to judge people through these reality show games is a fool's errand, and by acknowledging and moving beyond that, Death Parade ultimately arrives at a great moral complexity while remaining deliciously entertaining all the while.
A great deal of that entertainment factor comes down to the show knowing the limits of its own structure. The fundamentals are established in the first episode - two characters must engage in some kind of competition, that competition generally involves some kind of morbid twist (such as the darts being linked to the players' organs), and as the game proceeds the characters will recover more and more of their memories, slowly assembling the events that led to their eventual deaths. Death Parade complicates this basic dramatic structure by spreading its vignettes across a compelling variety of genres - there's a romance episode, a comedy episode, and even a two-part murder mystery. The show understands genre story structure well, and the mix of in-bar scenes and well-chosen flashbacks make each briefly glimpsed character come across as a distinct person. You root for these characters, in spite of their failings and violence. You want these souls to succeed.
The impressiveness of the balancing act required to make that investment work really can't be overstated. Death Parade is ultimately in large part about how its judgments aren't a fair judge of character - for example, that murder mystery two-parter actually doubles as an interrogation of the idea of emotionally removed judgment altogether. In order to work on both an emotional and thematic level, Death Parade has to create stories that demonstrate the impossibility of judging a life in a few scattered moments by proving the opposite with those very moments. We in the audience have to know and care about each vignette's characters enough to think that the arbiters don't understand these people, and don't have the right to judge them.
The show manages this in the only way it can - by being extremely good at what it does. The writing is graceful, and lines are often more telling to us in the context of the specific flashbacks we're given than they would be to the arbiters judging the players. Excellent shot framing hammers in how much each of these characters loved and suffered in the difficult lives they led - one shot of a long-suffering mother bickering with her agent tells us more than pages of exposition might, one look of fond gratitude as a detective opens his wife's birthday present offers a clear measure of the man. Great character animation reveals every tired crease and new sadness each character must suffer, while clever match cuts create poignant visual parallels to tie their stories together. Death Parade's storytelling allows us to see the characters both as human beings and as targets for arbiters who don't understand human nature, who want to reduce it to simple metrics like Saved or Damned, Appreciated Life or Squandered It. By giving us these reductive moments, the show manages to demonstrate that you can't reduce people to these fragments. That we all contain multitudes.
Which is reflective of Death Parade's ultimate warmth, a surprising feature in a show ostensibly about death games. This is demonstrated through the show's vignettes, but also through the persistent characters like Decim and his assistant, who over time demonstrate great individual personalities and a wonderful joint relationship. Initially, the peeks behind the judgment curtain are some of the show's weakest moments - the afterlife being constructed here is a very arbitrary one, more designed for the necessities of this story than due to a particularly strong underlying logic. Because of this, many of the show's explanations of arbiter rules and the process of reincarnation can drag, because it doesn't feel like you're learning more about an internally coherent place. Decim and his assistant stand as the exceptions to that weakness - their slow-building relationship ultimately becomes the poignant heart of the show, with the lofty question of “how do we properly judge a human life” ultimately becoming less important than the nature of these two specific characters. The wondering of how you'd evaluate a life becomes secondary to the why, with the show ultimately rallying behind our deeply held desire to understand each other in spite of our endless complexities. The resolution of these questions is just some altogether first-rate storytelling, so I'm warning you now that the next paragraph will contain end-of-show spoilers as I briefly gush before getting back to the evaluation. Again, brief spoilers ahead!
In the end, all of the show's emotional and thematic pieces tie gracefully together in the relationship of Decim and Chiyuki. It is difficult to understand others, but important to try, and only an unconditional embracing of human nature can bring us to mutual understanding. We all have regrets, and the complexity of life and human behavior means that any life could be framed in a positive or negative way, meaning that Death Parade's systems of judgment are really self-fulfilling prophecies. The arbiters ultimately aren't divining truth - they are dictating the ways we come to terms with our lives, or whether we do so at all. Knowing that the arbiters themselves are the ones deciding the pace of the death games, the meaning of reincarnation versus the void is put into a new perspective - it's not about reward or punishment, it's about whether you've come to cherish living itself, both through reflecting on your life and through what you've come to see in the judgment process. And ultimately, Decim wants to become the kind of arbiter that helps people learn to celebrate their lives, to see death not as something to fear, but as a necessary balance to what they cherished in life. It's a hell of a final message.
Sorry about that. That's Death Parade at its best, and it rarely falls too far short of that, though there are definitely some narrative potholes. The early worldbuilding episodes have a tendency to drag, the background story is never quite as engaging as either the vignettes or two main characters, and the larger conflict never really comes to a full resolution. Additionally, not all of the vignettes are equally strong - the third episode in particular is somewhat below par, making for a bit of a rough opening stretch. But overall, Death Parade tells an engaging and heartfelt series of stories with a nuanced and uplifting central message. The show is often loud and dramatic in its execution, but this isn't the same thing as not understanding subtlety - Death Parade simply knows when to hold back, and when to swing for the fences.
On an aesthetic front, Death Parade demonstrates a maverick young director (Yuzuru Tachikawa, responsible for the concept, direction, and series composition) with all the power of one of anime's greatest studios behind him. As I said before, the strong character animation and shot framing does a great deal to elevate these stories. Vignettes often use layered framing to paint multiple scenes at once, or create visual echoes to draw parallels between characters without spelling things out. Characters are framed by drinks or highlighted in shadow, shot in soft bar lighting or the harsh spotlight of their own self-assigned judgment. The show has rich colors, unique sets full of clever afterlife-focused visual motifs, and very expressive character designs. The music is less of a standout, but offers an appropriate mix of low-key jazz and more theatrical orchestral pieces to match the show's aesthetic. And the opening song is hilarious, a wildly energetic jazz-rock number accompanied by the whole cast dancing their hearts out. Overall, Death Parade is an entertaining and surprisingly moving ride, rewarding on a visceral, aesthetic, and intellectual level. It shouldn't be missed.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : B+
+ Strong aesthetics and a compelling story make Death Parade rewarding on a variety of levels; both entertaining and emotionally rich.
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