Death Billiards was a short film created by Madhouse. It was part of a project for young and upcoming animators to learn under major anime studios. This same project is where Little Witch Academia first started as well, and now both have had sequel TV series come out. (In fact, both Death Billiards and LWA were both made for the project’s 2013 results.)
Thus, Madhouse (along with NTV and Vap, a Japanese TV station and a DVD producing company) came out with Death Parade in early 2015. I, however, didn’t take the chance to watch it until a year later, in January 2016, and I wish I had earlier…
Knowing where you go after you die has always been one of humanity’s biggest mysteries.
This anime puts forth the idea that when a person dies, their soul is sent down to this special supernatural realm, where beings called arbiters judge them, and decide where they go from there. Any human soul has two possible destinations: reincarnation (being brought back up to the living world – with no memory of your past life), and “the void” (a bottomless pit where souls marked irredeemable are doomed to be constantly falling in forever).
Arbiters decide a soul’s destination by a rather interesting manner: by having them play a game. Souls come down in pairs of two, most commonly, with only some memory of who they were, but absolutely no memory that they themselves had died. These soul pairs find themselves, confused and lost, in a mysterious bar, where the arbiter acts as bartender. The arbiter strong-hands the two into playing a game; as they play the game, their memories begin to return to them, and they begin to show their true nature – who they really are as a person. Things tend to turn really emotional as the visiting souls realize they are dead and what is really going on here. Once the arbiter sees enough of the souls’ true selves, he (or she) can make the judgement, and decide where each of these souls will go.
The anime mainly focuses on one particular bar with one particular arbiter: Decim, of the bar Quindecim (and his name is pronounced like “De-keem”). He’s a relatively quiet and polite person, standing up straight and sticking to his role and his rules, and never beating around the bush. His boss, a girl named Nona, assigns to him an assistant, who we’ll call “the black-haired woman”. Strong, fierce, and full of emotion and ideas, the black-haired woman has no memories of who she is, nor even what her name is.
All in all, this starts off the ride of an interesting and unexpected adventure, and Decim, unknowingly, is at the center of the stage.
The Plot and Characters
As the black-haired woman becomes Decim’s assistant, she offers her critiques and thoughts on the situations in later episodes, sometimes even directly intervening with the other characters to keep them from going too far.
When it’s all boiled down, this anime is all about the question of “is this the right way to be doing these judgements?” All of the protagonist characters here, whether you see it on the surface or not, are trying to figure out their own answer to that question. For Decim and the black-haired woman, she helps him by exposing him to new, different trains of thoughts and expanding his views on how things can be done.
While Death Parade does provide some sort of answer to that central question, the final episode seemed a bit more focused on finishing the black-haired woman’s character arc, more than accomplishing anything else. It still felt dramatic though, and wasn’t unsatisfying, but I do wish they there was a bit more about the arbiter business side of things. The character who’s been built up to be the antagonist of the series, honestly, seemed like he was gibbed, not really getting much time to shine. Overall, the overarching plot could’ve used a bit more meat to it, but it was not underwhelming.
That all being said though, the storytelling isn’t bad here. For Death Parade, it’s great stories are in the individual episodes. Each episode has a start, middle, and end of its own, and a lot of them feature a game and judgement. We get to meet and react to a number of fascinating characters, and see them break down and show their true colors to Decim and the audience. It’s rather cool.
However, during the big climaxes of a lot of these episodes, the characters talked a bit too vaguely (using metaphors and vague words) for me to really understand what was being said. That is, unless I paused the video and thought through the words, which resulted in these scenes not coming across quite as impactful for me.
Each and every episode always seemed to be over before you’d ever expect it. When you sit down to watch an episode of this, the time just flies right by. It really sucks you in, and it’s hard to resist clicking that “Next Episode” button once you finish one. It’s said to be one of the best things one can say about a show: it leaves you wanting more. Say what you want about anything else in the show, but it’s certainly very entertaining to watch.
The visuals for this show are nothing short of impressive. It’s clear that Madhouse had put the most effort into the 1st episode, trying to sell people on the show, but even so, the animation and art quality throughout the entire show was overall outstanding. There was a lot of fluidity to the motion, and a lot of the special effects, coupled with some pretty cool audio effects at times too, really helped make it really stand out. One of my most favorite things was the billiards table where the billiard balls were actually the planets of the solar system (and the moon), and the sun was the cue ball.
I rather liked the character designs for the visitors because of their clothing; it just really hits home that these people came from the world of the living to me. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I really liked them.
For the characters of this actual realm, they were also good, but not anything really outstanding. That being said, I liked the hair on the black-haired woman, and the cross shape that is in each of the arbiters’ eyes was pretty cool (I do wish they looked a bit more glossy though, but it’s frankly more of a nitpick by this point). I also liked the design for the smiley elevator guy (who’s apparently named Clavis, according to Wikipedia). He doesn’t receive too much attention throughout the show, but he recurs a lot, and I like him.
The show utilized various color schemes for its various settings. Quindecim has a lot of dark purples and blues, which looks cool, but also tends to make it seem a bit more mysterious and creepy, where I may have expected something a tad bit warmer. In stark contrast, the bar of another arbiter, Ginti, who gets shown a few times, tend to rely on bright reds and tans, and it looks cool in a different way, and also seems more inviting. Other places in this realm tend to go with a greenish-blueish thing and occasionally a yellow or orange. Overall, the whole place has this cold, damp, eerie look; I can’t say it’s not befitting, because it kind of is, but there’s still… just something to it I’m not enamored with.
I watched Death Parade in Japanese, and I generally liked everyone’s performance except the voice chosen for the eventual antagonist; he either sounded bland or creepy (in a pervy old man type of way) which I don’t think fit. If he sounded more quirky or something, I would’ve liked that better. My other issue is with Ginti, but really an issue with the character himself. The show’s mythos states that arbiters can’t feel emotion, but yet, Ginti tends to sound (and look) angered or annoyed a lot; that just seems contradictory. This character going against the show’s stated rules stuck in my mind a lot throughout the series.
The other great thing about this anime is its music. The opening song is great, and infectiously easy to get stuck in your head, with a rather cool opening animation to match. The background music for the series was also really great, and rather unique. It fit this series really well and just sounds awesome. I’d love to listen to that music on its own.
I’d gripe over the fact that they play the same 5 or 6 cool tracks over and over again, but frankly, the series is over before the music loses its feeling and edge. The ending song was alright, in comparison; for some episodes, they showed scenes from the visiting souls’ time among the living or other points while the credits played, and I liked that a lot more than the standard ending animation.
Final Remarks / TL;DR
Death Parade does a lot right. It provides an interesting premise, has great animation and music, and provides really cool drama and storytelling. That being said, I’d say the thing that suffered was the overarching plot, sadly. The individual episodes on their own are absolutely wonderful, and you just wanted more after you finished each one. However, the relatively small issues I have with this show keep me from calling it a “masterpiece”.
Honestly, if you haven’t seen this show, do so as soon as you get the chance. I highly doubt anyone will walk away disappointed. This will especially work well with people who really like character-based stories. No matter who you are and what you like though, I think you’ll find something to be entertained with down in Quindecim.
Recommendation: Put This On Immediately
+++ great animation and music, individual episodes are awesome, black-haired girl
— eventual antagonist doesn’t get his time to shine in overarching plot, Ginti as a character seemed to mess with the show’s own mythos, dramatic scenes sometimes a bit vague