This is review number four hundred and thirty five. This anime is part of the Winter 2015 lineup, and it’s called Death Parade. It’s a twelve episode anime about a bunch of dead people playing bar games. It’s a really good show.
The anime follows Arbiters as they decide among two people who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. The two people play a friendly game decided by the Arbiter, and this helps in their judgement. Of course, nothing is ever that simple and the plot thickens as the game unfolds. Did you live a life good enough to send you to heaven?
Taking the Pants Off
I remember there was a Young Animator Training Project short called Death Billiards that featured the same bartender. Apparently, the idea was expanded into a series called Death Parade. So basically, it’s more than just billiards. You’ll get other games as well as they parade them in the many episodes. That sounds pretty fun. I never got around to watching the YATP short, because I got busy around that time, but I was pretty excited to try this anime. Death Parade is a really interesting show. It’s kinda hard to explain what the anime is really about, but it’s one of those shows that will really get you thinking. A lot of the individual stories are actually open for interpretation, and I wish I could’ve written episodic reviews of this one because I could write long paragraphs about each episode. It’s just so well written, so thought provoking and so open for debate that it makes you want to rewatch the show over and over. I love strongly written shows, because I always like to get my mind tumbling when I watch something. Be it a movie or a series or even a simple short, if it’s tightly written with a clear direction then I would smile excitedly. You rarely come across them, so I always welcome shows that really try hard. Death Parade checks all the boxes for me, so you can just stop reading right now and go watch the anime if you haven’t already.
Welcome to Purgatory
The first two episodes are really where the anime lays out the exposition that serves as backbone for the entire series. It also serves as the first course to whet your appetite, or overwhelmingly confuse you. I’ll explain that later. For now though, the first two episodes explains the main premise. We follow two people that came out of an elevator, discovered they’re stuck in the floor, and the bartender explained that they’re going to play a game. The first episode focuses on the two people and the game they are playing. It’s a pretty straight forward game, but the plot thickens as they near the completion of it. We discover more things about the characters, we understand why they are playing the game and we now wait while the winner is determined. So basically, the players are in a weird purgatory zone and they are now being judged for their past actions. One person goes to Heaven while another goes to Hell. It’s simple as that. The bartender adjudicates the entire thing, and he makes the decision afterwards. As viewers though, the show encourages you to play judge as well but there’s a small twist. The judges already know the stories of each player and the game just helps in their decision. The audience is more like an invited viewer like the many mannequins littered in the first episode. They just watch on as the game is played and they remain quiet. You discover details as it’s presented to the players and you try to make your decision as well.
Personally, I couldn’t really make a decision because humans are pretty complicated. I try to decide who goes to hell, but I really don’t want to. Instead, I look on as the judge makes the decision. Here’s the fun part about the anime: the judge got the answer wrong. The show acknowledges this, but the judge is completely unaware though. It displays early on that the system isn’t perfect, and decisions are still as subjective as they can be. The judges may not be human, but they’re not really supreme beings that can make the correct call as well. They try to put a person in either the black or the white, while not fully realizing humans are a collection of many different colors. And at the end of each episode, you are invited to think back, who would you have sent to hell? And can you stand by that decision?
Ah damn, see. I wrote two long ass paragraphs just discussing the first episode vaguely. That’s the beauty of the anime. It’s just rich with so many details to discuss and uncover. The second episode focuses on the events of the first episode, but the point of view is in the eyes of the judges. Basically, the process of judging someone is explained here. It’s a fun take on the first episode, since a lot of the smokes and mirrors were slowly uncovered. More importantly, the world building is established here. The judges are some sort of puppet, and there are a lot of characters that are introduced. These recurring characters help establish the world of this weird purgatory, and it also slowly implants the main story of the anime. Yeah, despite the episodes focusing on people playing games, there is one over arcing story the anime focuses on bits and pieces at first and then dives into as the show ends. It basically involves this chick:
I’ll explain the main story later. For now, let me gush about the world building of the anime. This show doesn’t do a lot of exposition and it’s a double edged sword for the series. For me, I love it. You just slowly walk into the world the characters live in, and you slowly understand their roles without anyone explaining it. There is one character that you can call gawd, but the show itself doesn’t really establish it. You are left to explore and uncover the world on your own. Again, I love it. The way the games are done, the way memories are uncovered, the various floors that the elevator opens into, and the various characters living in this world are just all smartly established. Nothing really feels forced, and you easily buy into the fantasy elements of the show. It just oddly works and you just sit back and enjoy the spectacle of it all. This is how world building should be done. You create a solid world and you slowly uncover parts of it. This is really one of the main aspects of the show that I really enjoyed. With its laidback atmosphere, the world of Death Parade just feels very natural.
I mentioned the lack of exposition for the show to be double edged and that’s because a lot of stuff is really told through the animation. The anime will not explain anything outright. You are required to follow the story as it unfolds. A lot of the individual stories become hard to follow because certain important details are never really explained. They are just flashed in the screen with all of its details told in the animation. A good example of this is the verdict of each episode. The judge won’t say “this dude will go to hell”. Instead, you need to look at the Noh mask at the top of each elevator. The white one goes to heaven while the red one goes to hell. Again, the anime doesn’t explain which door goes where. This is just something the viewers need to pick up on their own. This requires you to really pay attention, because a lot of details are explained by the animation and the still pictures. I believe there was one case where there are two white mask elevators, meaning both players will go to heaven. The anime didn’t focus on the white elevators though. It was just a detail in the background casually informing you of the story. These details are often hard to recognize, and missing a few of them makes the story really hard to follow. Is it a bad form of storytelling though to rely on the animation to deliver exposition? No, it’s not. In fact, it’s quite genius.
I think the main reason for the details being hard to pick up is to encourage the viewers to re-watch the show. The individual stories are quite good on their own, so re-watching the show will help you see details you haven’t seen before. I personally didn’t need to re-watch the show, but it is part of the experience. Certain judgements are confusing, certain actions are hard to explain, and certain motives of the characters are random at first glance, but a simple re-watch will explain that the details are in the animation itself. A good example of this is the fourth episode where one of the players died by jumping out of a window. He basically killed himself, but we don’t really know why. He never explained it, and there was no moment in the story to even discuss it. Through the flashbacks presented in the story though, it’s very clear what his motivations are. It was deeply folded in the animation, but it was there. Actually, the fourth episode is my personal favorite episode because it pitted a guy that committed suicide against a woman that is desperately trying to live with the cards she was dealt with. The verdict is really up to debate, and a part of me wanted to argue with the results.
It’s also personally refreshing to watch a show that doesn’t really rely on exposition to make the story good. I’ve seen too many shows dump out exposition through monologues and long winded conversations, and it’s often tiring to just listen to characters in a moving medium. It’s rare to see a show embrace its medium. To see exposition presented in the moving pictures itself is really a wonderful experience. I really enjoyed it, and I hope people who are tired of listening to explanations can see the beauty of the approach done here too. It’s often subtle. It’s not in your face. It doesn’t demand your attention, and you often have to actively look for it. It’s really fun.
Black, White and All the Colors of the Rainbow
Let’s talk about the main theme of the show. It’s basically about human nature and all the baggage that comes with it. The judges deliver their verdict looking through a black and white lens. Basically, one needs to go to hell and the other goes to heaven. That’s the extent of their job, and the games are designed to help in their verdict. As early as the first episode though, it’s clear that their process isn’t really that ideal. The fact that the show acknowledges the judge got it wrong on the first episode is a big indicator of how imperfect the method is. But I think there really is no right way to judge humans, because humans are just complicated beings. The judges try to look for faults that’ll help decide who goes to hell and I think that just doesn’t make sense. Humans can be good, can be evil, can be good by doing evil things and they can be evil by doing good things. It’s never really cut and dry. As the show progresses, you even discover how some judges just don’t really care. They need to make a judgement, and that’s the end of it. They don’t really give a damn if humans are complex or not. Someone needs to go somewhere, and that’s the goal of their entire existence. The individual stories paint a much more complicated situation though. Certain people aren’t really bad, some of them aren’t good either and some of them just acted in the moment. They aren’t easily categorized into black or white. Some of them can be gray, while some of them represent a whole different color. I love how the anime handled this theme. It doesn’t take sides, and it gives the viewers a chance to give a verdict of their own. While the judges can make a decision with no problem, I don’t think most viewers can. The reason is simple: there is no objectively right answer. Humans, by design, are not objectively good or bad.
The judges claim to be objective though. They were designed to not be human, and they are qualified to make decisions because they don’t represent a slew of different colors. This idea is challenged by the show as well. As the show slowly establishes the characters, we realize the judges aren’t really that clear cut as well. In fact, they don’t really stray that far from humans. Some of them have attachments to humans, some of them care for humans and they can be subjective by design as well. It’s really interesting how the show presents its theme of humanity, because even puppets designed by God are basically as flawed as humans. You can argue that humans ARE puppets designed by a God, so there is really no differences among us and the judges.
There is a main story in this anime concerning a black haired girl that our main judge couldn’t, well, judge. She becomes the character that acts as a window for the viewers. Her reactions to certain events mirror the audiences’ own, and she kinda points it out early on as well that the method of judgement doesn’t really work. Her judgement will eventually come though, and the later part of the show focuses on that entirely. I personally wasn’t a fan of the main story, because I think the show thrived on the individual stories of each episode. The games, the one shot characters and the thought provoking verdict makes the anime fun to watch. For it to suddenly focus on one character doesn’t feel fun. I do understand writing the individual stories can be hard, considering how well written they are. I think the main story also served as a way to possibly entertain another season. It wasn’t just the black haired girl focused in the main story. The judges themselves are also put on the spotlight, and the anime sorta had an open ended idea that could be expanded in another season. I think that’s just wishful thinking on my part though.
The mystery about the black haired girl is pretty interesting though. Her past life, her death and how she came to be someone a judge cannot judge are all interesting to see unfold. It is as good as the individual stories, and there is a beautiful sentiment to her existence in the show. It ties back to how complicated humans are, and it kinda encapsulates the different colors we represent. I just personally feel a bit unsatisfied with the anime having a main story. I do understand shows like these eventually need to have a main story. I look back to Shigofumi, Kino’s Journey and even Detective Conan who have a main story to serve as a stabilizer for the series. I guess I just really enjoyed the individual stories compared to the overarching main one.
Yuzuru Tachikawa and Madhouse
You can’t deny how good Madhouse is. This show ranks among some of their solid hits. Honestly, this is a bit forgettable but it still persists as a strongly well written show courtesy of a consistently good studio. Yuzuru Tachikawa is the genius that directed and wrote the screenplay for the anime. I think this guy is amazing. Having storyboarded a lot of shows in his career, he displays his ability to create stories in a show that shines with its different stories. His directing is also top notch. Delivering exposition through animation is really hard to do. There’s a reason why most shows dumps it out with one character talking. Employing the moving medium to mold your story is incredibly hard to do, unless you have a good grasp of storyboarding, pacing and writing. I would certainly love to see more of Yuzuru’s works because this guy certainly can do more incredible stuff if given the chance.
Sight and Sound
Character design is pretty decent. It’s not really a show that flaunts it, but each character’s look does compliment their personality. This is no doubt a tie-in to the strong writing of the series. Some characters are dressed formally to represent their straight forward character. Some are dressed colorfully to express their bouncy personality. Even the one-shot characters share this design mentality. There are plain clothed character that masks their true nature, while there are those that are dressed in a more unique manner to help give the audience an idea of their identity. A good example of this would be the detective in episode 7 or the black haired girl of the main story. If you do give the show a re-watch, I can guarantee the character design will be a big indicator of how you’ll remember these characters.
Animation is incredible. I love how much effort is given to a show that relies so much in small details. I particularly love how the anime focuses on the eyes of certain characters. Certain events are often highlighted by a close up of a character’s eye. This is a smart way to actually pace the story, but it’s also a very vulnerable way to flesh out characters. How they react with their eyes is often a big indicator of their personality, and the director made sure each close up is distinct. See, it’s a small detail but it packs a punch. The same goes for the facial reactions. Some of them are so good that it delivers the emotion of each scene. As certain games unfold into something else, it’s often the character’s facial reactions that tell a lot about it. The camera work is also really good. It doesn’t stay still, and you often watch the games in a lot of angles. It helps give each showdown some excitement, and it also compliments the action that the games bring. Yuzuru Tachikawa certainly knew how to make the animation superb without really ruining the pace or the somewhat numb mood of the story. It’s really amazing, and it’s a testament to how talented this guy is.
The games themselves are also nicely animated. I love the variety of the games, and how unassumingly normal they are. The twists added to the games are really inventive, and the animation really brings each game to life. From a simple dart game to more complex ones like twister, the animation never lets up. It stays consistent through and through.
The anime’s OP is “Flyers” by BRADIO. I love this song. It just instantly grabs your attention, and you can’t help but jam along with it. The singer’s voice is just really smooth as it builds into its chorus. I have sung along to the ridiculous chorus a couple of times and I love it. The OP sequence is also pretty great. It introduces the characters in a smart way, and it also drops the small detailed exposition here early on. If you pay attention to background and the way the characters act, you can actually have a good grasp of their role in the show. This is, however, masked with the characters themselves dancing along to the wonderful song. The anime’s ED is “Last Theater” by NoisyCell. I also love this song, because it’s just so stupidly emo. I also adore smooth English sung by Japanese singers. Most of them jab a weird English word in their songs and then sings it in a forced manner. This song is just gorgeous. The ED sequence is apparently directed by Cowboy Bebop’s director, and that’s apparently a big deal. I am not a fan of the ED sequence though. It doesn’t really tie into the actual show, and it feels a bit forced. Now, full disclosure, I am also not a big fan of Shinichiro Watanabe, so maybe I’m just biased to begin with. I do love the dark mood of it and the way the mannequins break, but it still feels like a weird inclusion for the series.
8/10 “It’s smartly written, competently directed and animated wonderfully. It’s three aspect of a great anime delivered consistently by this solid show.”
Death Parade is certainly an experience, and I urge everyone to try it. The writing is strong from its individual stories to the overarching one and even to the world building the show presents. The animation is amazing as it helps bring the strong writing to life, and the experience is just solid through and through. If you enjoy strong writing from your anime, then you’ll enjoy Death Parade. I recommend it.