Episodes 1 & 2
by Zac Bertschy,
Takashi and Machiko, a newly-married couple who were enjoying their honeymoon, wake up in Quindecim, a strange bar designed entirely in cool blacks, purples and neon blue, attended by a ghostly pale bartender named Decim who informs them that they're about to play a game with their lives at stake and that there must be a winner. The game? Darts, where each scoring area on the board represents a vital organ. The couple are told to play until there's a winner, which brings out the couple's dark past, the memories that haunt them and the tragedies that doomed their relationship. Machiko turns out to be pregnant with another man's child, which sends Takashi into a violent rage - but they must be judged, and Machiko's betrayal sends her to the void, while Takashi's soul ascends to reincarnation.
That's the first episode of Death Parade, which sets itself up as kind of a Twilight Zone-esque series of morality tales with a fun gimmick. The first episode is largely a repeat of the show's "pilot", Death Billiards, which was part of the Anime Mirai project back in 2013. In that pilot film - animated, like this first episode, with an incredible theatrical style that looks so polished it's clear Mad House spent a lot of time making this look right - a young man and an old man, who died at exactly the same time, play a game of billiards with the same basic premise (the billiard balls represent vital organs in that version). There are twists and turns in the memories they recall, Decim observes silently from the sidelines, and off they go to the afterlife. It's a cool, creepy idea, executed really well (I talked about this a little more in my writeup for the Preview Guide), but there was an obvious question that had to be asked: is there enough in here to propel an entire 12 or 13-episode season?
Episode 2, Death Reverse, answers that question pretty thoroughly: Death Parade is an anthology only in that it seems like they'll be dealing with a variety of newly-deceased couples that come through the elevator doors every so often, but largely this is a show about Quindecim's staff. This episode opens with a nameless black-haired woman (who looks a little like One Piece's Nico Robin) who wakes up in what looks like an ancient ethereal garden, watched over by the spritely Nona, who acts as her guide, arriving at Quindecim via subway (with a few other dudes in monkey suits, presumably on their way to other creepy purgatorial bars where people are judged before being sent to the next life). Nona tells her she's onboard as an assistant, and then we basically watch the entire first episode again from a slightly different perspective, with Nona offering tiny little tidbits about the process of judgment that we didn't know before, and with the nameless woman along for the ride.
Once we're done with the recap - which goes on much longer than necessary with not really enough new information being handed out to justify it - we get into the meat that this episode has to offer, which is a look at what happens after the couple are sent to their final resting place. As it happens, the Quindecim staff aren't a bunch of flawless supernatural arbiters that coldly judge your soul and send you to the right place all the time - they make mistakes, they have trouble making sense of human beings, and this entire process is kinda flawed because humanity is a puzzle that requires tension and stress to fully extract all of its secrets. The nameless woman, having watched the game play out, realizes that Machiko's admission that the baby wasn't hers was a selfless act of sacrifice, trying to assuage Takashi's guilt over killing his unborn child during the darts game and sending herself into the void in his stead. Decim realizes he lacked the proper human empathy to recognize Machiko's selflessness - his status as an otherworldly being precluding him from having human emotions - and asks Nona for forgiveness, who, as it turns out, appears to be in charge of the whole shebang. The nameless woman prepares for her time as an assistant in Quindecim, and Nona heads back to that ancient garden, which looks like a representation of Elysium - a sunlit house in the middle of an overgrown ruin, apparently floating in the ether.
I was a little let down by this second episode; most of it is just a recap of the first one, and the new information and character development we're given is pretty meager given that they spend an entire episode just to tell us a little more about the Quindecim staff. I liked what we saw, but there just wasn't enough of it. There aren't any new moments of eye-popping character animation - just repeats of some of the best stuff from last week - and while I'm intrigued by the characters so far (I want to know more about all of these people), if they're already spending this much time recapping things, I'm concerned that the whole "there isn't enough 'there' here to fill out a season" thing is already coming true. It looks like next week we get a new couple coming through the elevator doors (it's bowling time!), which is great, and hopefully the story is going to move forward in a substantial way. It's easy to see where it could go - big flashy exciting death game followed by tiny bits of plot kibble doled out about the Quindecim staff - but I hope moving forward they aren't so stingy with the plot details.
There's one other slight wrinkle to this show that I'm really curious about, and that's the relationship apparently developing between Decim and the nameless woman (I hope they give her a name soon). She reminds him of the concept of 'love' in this episode, and there are all those moments in the opening credits that make it obvious that there's probably a lot more going on between these two than they're letting on. I really hope they don't go down the "WHAT IS THIS HU-MAN "LOVE" EMOTION I HAVE HEARD TELL OF" road to cornball sappiness, but if there is romance a-brewin', I'm rooting for Decim to find it (and for it to be well-written). How can you not love his cadaverous pallor and deadpan delivery? Get out there and LOVE, Decim!
Rating (episode 1): A
Rating (episode 2): B-
Death Parade is currently streaming on Funimation.
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