Death Parade has come to an end. It has been finished. Those shows whose credits have rolled come here, to me, for judgment. I, as a reviewer, a critic of anime, will serve as its arbiter here today. It is up to me to determine whether it will fall, be lost forever in the infinite void, or if it will be reincarnated in the perceptions of you, the reader, if you should watch it. I hope you’ll forgive this grandiose opening, but I felt it necessary as, today on The Anime Harvest, a review of Death Parade.
Death Parade started as a twenty-five minute short film, written and directed by Yuzuru Tachikawa, under the name Death Billiards. It was made with the support of Studio Madhouse for Anime Mirai 2013, and gained a lot of clout. The film was about two men, Otoko and Rojin, who died at the same time, and arrive at the Quindecim bar. They have no memories of their deaths, and are told by the bartender Decim that they are to play a game of billiards with their lives at stake.
Now, obviously, as they are already dead their lives are not actually at stake, but their souls are. Decim is what is referred to as an arbiter. It is his job to push the dead to their limits, see the darkest corners of their hearts, and then pass judgement. The games he has visitors play have no stakes, but their reactions under stress do. After the game is over, typically the players will have realized that they are dead, and Decim will chose one to be reincarnated, and one to drop into “the void”.
Tachikawa reprises his roles as writer and director for a full anime series based on this concept, Death Parade. And given that Death Billiards plays out almost exactly like a standard Death Parade episode and introduces the core concepts of the show’s world, I like to consider it as an unofficial episode zero, and thus part of the series. If you do decide to watch Death Parade, or at least check it out, I strongly suggest starting there.
As for the rest of the series, it’s largely episodic and follows the same structure as the short film. Most episode introduce two characters confused about where they are or how they got there, they agree to play a game, and throughout the game they regain snippets of memory and are push into extreme situations which test their character. By the end they leave, and the afterworld goes on. What links these together into a series rather than a bunch of standalones is the recurring cast, Decim, other arbiters, and other strange people.
In episode two, a character is introduced who, for the majority of the show, is just known as the black-haired woman. It is her who first notices that Decim has made a mistake in his judgement. Initially the mistake seems pretty stupid on Decim’s part –I noticed it at least, and I probably shouldn’t be responsible for people’s souls- but it makes sense as you learn more about Arbiters in the later episodes. The black-haired woman, who I’m just gonna call Wednesday Adams because she is, knows nothing about where or who she is. She joins Decim for the time being, and the judgements continue mostly as normal.
In animation… it’s Madhouse. Do I have to say it? It looks good. It looks great. It has a bit of style. It’s got way to much bloom for my taste, but I still love it. There are only a handful of settings, and most of the show takes place in the Quindecim. But because of that, the Quindecim is beautifully and intricately designed. A gothic atmosphere hangs over the place as if being manipulated by invisible wires.
The soundtrack is always a tough one for me, and Death Parade makes it no easier. There are several orchestrated pieces which suit different moods but none are grand enough to stand out on their own. Of the memorable tracks, I can’t really pin any one genre to any of them but they all have a jazz-like sound. The main track though, for me, is Moonlit Night, a subtly dramatic little work dominated by the ring of piano keys; I can’t help it, I just love that sound of a piano. Across the board, it’s a fine soundtrack that does its job in setting every mood.
As for the intro, I’m very torn. On the one hand, I hate it. The party-rock song is tonally disconnected from the show. Portions of animation and the colour pallet are likewise. And it just doesn’t give you much of an idea of what to expect or prepare you for the show ahead. I said in my Second Reaction that it was skippable because of all this, but the thing is, I never actually skipped it.
I wanted to watch this intro before every single episode, and then some. The appeal of it is in the characters, and really just the character designs. They’re all very beautiful and unique, and have that Soul Eater charm of gothic aesthetic conventions with personality accented by bursts of colours. And Death Parade’s opening presents these deigns in more interesting and, to my mind, more moving ways than the show itself. It would make a fantastic outro, but as beautiful as it is, it fails to serve its primary purpose.
As for the actual outro, it’s not bad. The music is a little Three Days Grace for my taste, but at least it fits some of the darker points in the show. The animation varies. Certain episodes get a bit of special treatment and use the ending credits as an opportunity to expand a bit on the episode with some still frames, which is rather nice and I wish a lot of other shows would try the same thing since, if we’re being honest, not a lot of EDs are all that memorable anyway. The rest of the time, the ED is met with some very creepy imagery of crumbling mannequins, which is actually very relevant to the world Death Parade is set in.
The heart of Death Parade is its characters. Despite most of them only appearing for an episode or two before they’re gone forever, the direction and writing makes the most of that time and ensures that they leave an impact. Each one of these episodic characters, who, as far as the plot is concerned, don’t really matter in the long run, is better developed than a lot of anime protagonists.
Also, lots of credits should go to the character designs. As soon as they show up, the show has only so much time to communicate who they are and why we should care, most of which has to be done before the flashbacks start. At first glance I already have opinions about most of these characters, and an interest that carried over long enough for Death Parade to makes its point about them.
While the show is about judging these people to be good or evil (at least, relative to whoever they happen to get matched up with, which is kind of a messed up system) and judgement is indeed passed by the end of most episodes, it is very good at moral ambiguity. For the most part, no one ever seems wholly deserving of either judgement. They all come off as deeply flawed and deeply human, and the writing for this never feels contrived or forced. You get a real sense of empathy for them, but never sympathy.
Without getting into all the details, sympathy is generally a stronger feeling than empathy. If you want someone to understand a character, you go for empathy. If you want them to relate to the character, you use sympathy. Death Parade also stuck with empathy, at least in my experience. For the most part that’s fine, as sympathizing with all of the characters the show goes through would be emotionally taxing and extremely depressing. But towards the end there are points where sympathy would really be more effective in getting across the show’s message, especially when Decim himself moves from the empathy required for judging into full blown sympathy.
As for the recurring cast, there’s not much to say and that’s by design. One of the “rules” of arbiters is that they don’t feel emotions. But despite what the subtitles say, I don’t think “emotions” is the right word (after all, Ginti is constantly angry), but they definitely lack some sense of humanity. They are meant to be soulless, we’ll say, in order to handle their work objectively. And for whatever that’s worth narratively, character wise it leaves you with little more than personalities, and at least on that front I can say I like them.
There are some exceptions to this, but that seems to be for season two, and I don’t want to spoil anything. For now we have Wednesday, who plays the role of the audience surrogate. She is or was human, and operates as a moral compass when thing get particularly dark (though she doesn’t have the power to affect much). Hers isn’t the only perspective we have, but it is the main one and acts as a decent counterbalance to Decim’s… Ayanami-isms.
I mentioned a season two earlier, and sadly, Death Parade really does need one narratively. Thematically, the ending is satisfying, and throughout the whole final episode I didn’t expect to be able to say that. It begins touching on some deep shit (please excuse the highly technical philosophy jargon) like the meaning to life, and barriers that exist between people (AT fields? There’s actually a lot of Eva here).
This is something that bugs me about a lot of anime. Some of it is full of philosophical genius (see Ghost in the Shell), but a lot of it just isn’t. Death Parade stays mostly in the latter category, and I find it frustrating when it alludes to these things but doesn’t have much to say on the matter.
What made me like the ending turned out to be something completely unrelated to what I was hoping to get out of the ending. A shot right at the end, the final frame before the credits; it just brought so much together after a harsh emotional roller-coaster.
Death Parade is a great anime, that doesn’t give all it has. There’s more to it that’s obviously been held back for a second season, and while this first season was good, it doesn’t work as a stand-alone. Too much has been set up and foreshadowed, and until a definitive ending comes out, I cannot recommend a show regardless of its quality.
That said, the strength of the character writing and aesthetic attractiveness of Death Parade are more than enough for me to give a provisional recommendation, if a second season comes out and if it is good. And of course whether you do watch Death Parade or not, you should watch Death Billiards. It does work as a stand-alone, and is absolutely wonderful.
Don’t Lose Your Way