Episodes: 12 | Total Runtime: 5hrs | Studio: Madhouse
Genre: Psychological | English Dub?: Yes
They say “Life works in mysterious ways”; whoever first muttered these words was certainly not wrong. A majority of us tend to not focus on the mysteries of our existence, simply living through the ebbs & flows of lives until we eventually pass on. But there lies a mystery that we all will eventually face; what happens to us after we die? There are theories of reincarnation, heaven & hell, eternal peace, etc. but it’s something that’s near impossible for us to confirm until we reach that moment. A producer by the name of Yuzuru Tachikawa became intrigued by this notion & would turn this into an animated short film called “Death Billiards” back in 2013.
It featured a set of bartenders, set in a lavishly decorated bar & using the game of pool as a means to find out the true nature of their patron’s souls; allowing them to cast judgement & determine their fate. The short film was part of an internal project run by Madhouse, designed to help young animators fund their projects & it seemed to make a good impression internally, as a 12-episode TV series was eventually green-lit. Today, we’ll be taking a look at this very series.
Welcome to my review of 2015 anime TV series by Madhouse; known as Death Parade.
The show takes place in a realm known as Quindecim; appearing primarily as a luxurious bar. Arriving in an amnesic state via an elevator, these humans are formally greeted by a bartender alongside another fellow person in the same situation. While they try to recount their memories, they are asked to participate in a randomly-selected game at the mandatory request of the bartender. They are informed of the rules & proceed to play but as expected, there is more to this than meets the eye.
The bartenders in this establishment are called arbiters; non-human entities, designed by God to assess each human & determine whether they are eligible for reincarnation or to be cast into the eternal emptiness of the void. Whoever wins the game is completely irrelevant; more that they are designed to bring out their true nature, allowing the arbiters to make a more informed decision. Once the game is finished, the patrons are walked back to the elevator where it will take them to their destination; either to be reborn or eternally damned.
The lore of such a premise certainly peaks an interest & that’s even before we delve into the show’s plot & characters. Taking the Catholic church’s view of God’s Judgement & blending it with a formal setting; it’s certainly something I’ve personally not come across in various forms of media & was certainly one of the appealing factor that convinced me to give this series a watch.
The show focuses on its main protagonist, Decim; an arbiter who is well mannered & catered to the role, but becomes presented with an unexpected scenario. A dark-haired lady enters Quindecim as expected, but she is able to recount her death; something that has never happened before. As he is unable to pass judgement on her, he requests for her memories to be wiped by his superiors & formally taken under his wing, as a sort of temporary apprentice. Eventually, Decim will need to decide her fate but with time on their side, it allows the two become more acquainted with each other.
As our mysterious apprentice is of human descent, she provides a different perspective that is primarily unknown to Decim, while he is engaged in his assigned duties. Over time, we see the two form a companionship where Decim becomes more understanding towards humans as a species & our apprentice learns about the mysteries of Quindecim. As a result, we see Decim begin to change and garner feelings towards his patrons that, in itself, put his role in jeopardy. Both characters work very well off each other, as they both understand what awaits them and are both open to interpret each other, despite their personal differences. Their relationship was a joy to see throughout & a personal highlight of the show, but one of the shows other strengths is its causal appeal.
A majority of the show’s episodes showcase different individuals who pass through. Most of these singular storylines are wrapped up in 1-2 episodes & provide a majority of the show’s action & drama. We see first hand how the process works, how the humans eventually recall their memories & how they react to these revelations over time. What took me by surprise was my emotional investment in these singular encounters. We get to see a variety of minor characters that are surprisingly well-built with differing personalities & backstories. Whilst this helps in terms of variety in its episodes, it opens the spectrum of possibilities that the show could provide long-term. One of my favourite episodes in the series involved two childhood friends who became reacquainted at Quindecim. The conclusion of this episode was both uplifting, as well as heartbreaking; something I was not expecting.
One of my main gripes with some TV shows is when its minor characters are not fleshed out, which makes me question their existence & can come across as half-baked. In Death Parade, its patrons are given a perfect balance of exposition that coincided with their limited screen time. They felt worthy of their role in the show, which I appreciated.
However, I wish I could say the same for the other arbiters in the show. Despite their on-screen appearances and personalities, I never felt I truly connected them over the course of the series. I found them to be very likeable, helping give Quindecim feel like an enterprise & a sense of hierarchy was in place but given their non-human status & inherent roles, I personally would’ve personally preferred the show blurred the lines a bit; allow them to have a bit more free will, giving us the opportunity to witness their experiences & lingering thoughts. They must have encountered some judgements that made them curious or question their role. I felt at times, their purpose was like a double-edged sword of integrity over their identity & it was a shame that I couldn’t invest in them more than I would’ve wanted. The shows does invest a little bit of time into some of its other arbiters near the end of the series, of which I did enjoy these moments.
The next unfortunate downside is the exposition of Quindecim itself. It’s linked with an almighty entity, the arbiters have great powers at their disposal & yet we rarely get a glimpse of how or why. I had numerous questions that I wanted the show to eventually answer over time, but a majority remained unanswered when its final episode concluded. It’s a shame because, as I mentioned near the beginning of this review, the concept of the show has such a lore about it & it would’ve been a nice prospect to see this explored.
The problem with Death Parade as an IP is a rare example of a show not based off a light novel, manga or story. Whilst I admire this a wholly unique work of one of Madhouse’s own, the absence of an expansive source material means that any investment in the show could lead to disappointment, if you want more when it concludes. I was in this predicament. Since it first aired 6 years ago, there have been no confirmed plans for a second season & for a show brimming with so much potential, it’s a shame that this is the only season available, as of writing this review. I do hope that Madhouse do reconsider this at some point in the future.
As expected with most modern anime shows, it’s well detailed gorgeous to watch; presenting a range of vibrant colours against its darker environments. On the sound side, the show is sprinkled with a variety of tracks from the slow-jazz in its calmer segments to the more upbeat & tense numbers in its dramatic segments. The opening song for the show is performed by Japanese funk rock band, Bradio, and it certainly earns a place in my Top 10 OPs of all-time. While it opposes the emotional premise of the show, I never felt the need to skip it & even treat myself to a little “sofa-bop” once in a while.
From the voice actors side, there are some great performances. For the English dub, we see Alex Organ portraying Decim & Jamie Marchi as our mysterious apprentice. Both have previously worked together on the show 'High School DxD'. For the Japanese cast, we have Tomoaki Maeno & Asami Seto for the respective roles. In both instances, I felt the two pairs worked very well in their respective roles & projected the emotional value of their characters effectively in both audial versions. The supporting cast of both dubs I also found to be very favourable & there were a number of moments in the show that I felt they did a great job in expressing these moments with great effect.
Death Parade takes the concept of life-after-death & presents it in a unique and compelling manner. Its presentation & premise cement the foundation & lore of the show, proving both casual episodic plots that were emotionally investable & a long-term storyline that is intriguing to an extent. The only downsides to the show are in the reduced exposition of some of its characters & minimal explanation as to why this realm exists. Despite this, there is enough engaging elements for you to enjoy the show, but be weary that any additional intrigue after its concluding episode could lead to some disappointment.
Overall, I believe the show is still worth your time & acts as a snapshot into this mysterious world. Never has an act of human judgement been presented in such as a classy manner.