Anime Reviews: Death Parade
An engrossing rumination on the nature of mankind, Death Parade oozes with dark style and heavy themes, allowing us as viewers to take a long look at ourselves.
Title: Death Parade
Production: Studio Madhouse
Series Length: 12 episodes
Air Dates: 1/9/2015 to 3/27/2015
Age Rating: 17+ (strong violence, mild language, brief partial nudity, dark or disturbing thematic elements)
Summary: In the afterlife, the souls of the dead must be judged. Whether or not a person's soul is reincarnated, allowing them to experience life once more, or sent to the void, where they will fall endlessly in a sea of darkness and despair, is left entirely up to the decision of the arbiters who inhabit the world of the dead. Our bartender, Decim, is one such arbiter. Two human souls are brought into the bar, Quindecim, and are forced to play a game with their lives on the line, and the actions they take during these games will determine their fates. It is in these moments--of playing for one's life--that the true essence of a person's soul is said to be revealed, and when all's said and done, the arbiter must confront his guests and make a decision: Reincarnation, or the void?
The Good: Inspired art style and premise; memorable theme songs; some of the most powerful character drama anime has seen in years
The Bad: Side plots with the other arbiters aren't as interesting
The Ugly: Humanity can be a real downer sometimes
This, right here, is exactly the kind of series that feels like it was hand-crafted just for me: A.) Yay, Studio Madhouse! B.) Yay, memorable if sometimes questionable character designs! C.) Yay, narrative stakes and gripping tension! D.) Yay, not a motherfracking high school to be found! E.) It's just a high-quality series all-around! As with any title that gets hyped up, I went into Death Parade with a pinch of trepidation, but none of said trepidation was deserved; this is the last anime I've watched for my "Taste of 2015" spree, as I've decided to call it just now, and it was pretty freakin' great. And now I'm going to tell you why it's pretty freakin' great!
To start, Studio Madhouse have always been a consistent force to be reckoned with when it comes to creating visually-appealing anime, and Death Parade is no exception. While it's immediately apparent that a lot of effort went into ensuring the animation is smooth and exciting, what struck me immediately was the almost-iconoclastic art style the series employs. It's hard to describe exactly, but the way the characters' faces are proportioned is such that not many other anime have done before, so that already sets this series apart from its peers. It also helps that the characters look very appealing as well as being uniquely designed, though I do have some issue with elevator bellhop Clavis' design (WHY IS HIS HAIR THREE DIFFERENT COLORS AND ALL OF THEM PASTELS?!), but that boils down to personal preference and not really a knock against the show. Clavis aside, I think the character art of Death Parade is pretty great.
But even more than that, the breathtaking use of color and lighting is truly inspired, breathing life into each important character's residence--ethereal light floods Decim's bar with seductive dark blues that give you a sense of calm, with the warm, incandescent glow of the chandelier feeling a bit at odds with Decim's cold and distant demeanor; Nona's expansive villa nestled in a valley explodes with radiance that lights up the greenery and fog to create an otherworldly landscape to stand at odds with her lax, casual attitude; vibrant reds and glittering golds light up Ginti's cozy bar, strewn with traditional decorations and manly accents to perfectly encapsulate his fiery intensity; and the rusty, dirty browns drowned by shadows of the Information Bureau where Quin works creates an unsettling, almost chilling atmosphere of decay and neglect, contrasting Quin's free and easy presence within. In short, pretty colors make the setting feel alive (which is fairly ironic, given the fact that it takes place in, y'know, the afterlife), and the visuals on the whole are A-grade stuff.
Another point in the series' favor is its use of well-written theme songs. Because of course you'd want catchy songs in your show, right? Opener "Flyers" by BRADIO is pretty famous among the anime community, and for good reason--nobody expects a dark and brooding series to open up with a funky 70s-style track like this, and before long, you'll be singing along and telling all your friends to put their hands up, because why not. To heavily contrast the opening, ending theme "Last Theater" by NoisyCell is a very dramatic, mournful hard rock track that accompanies its melancholy lyrics with images of broken puppets and decaying mannequins (though sometimes the mannequin imagery is replaced with images relating to that episode's story), and it's just a damn good song on top of it all. Obviously, with a show like this, the music isn't gonna be the thing that determines whether you see it or not, but good tunes certainly earn bonus points for going the extra mile.
Speaking of going the extra mile, Death Parade certainly doesn't slouch on delivering potent drama. Right from episode one, we're thrown ice-cold into one of the judgements--the pair playing the game is a young newlywed couple--and the gamut of emotions is run throughout this episode. Right before our very eyes, we see both the selfless good and the malicious evil mankind is capable of, setting the stage for the rest of the series. Not only are the individual stories of each judgement endlessly engrossing, but our main characters, Decim and the Nameless Girl who is acting as his new assistant, subtly change over time as they witness (and, in Decim's case, carry out) the judgements taking place, with some extremely powerful scenes later on in the series that left me with my jaw on the floor.
The mere fact that the decision of who gets reincarnated (signified by a white, feminine mask over that person's elevator at the end of the episode) and who goes to the void (signified by a red, demonic mask) isn't always obvious means that, aside from the suspense of the "death games" themselves, the suspense of learning these characters' eternal fates is just delicious. When Death Parade sticks to its core premise and its central conflict of whether the arbiters are fit to judge the souls of humans when they themselves aren't truly human, the series is monolithic and outstanding. Some of these episodes, particularly the superb episodes 3 and 9, have demanded many rewatches from me, and are easily among the most compelling television I've seen in literal years. As I mentioned in the intro, this is a series that was seemingly made just for me, and so it only makes sense that I love love love its core material.
With that said, you know where this is going: The stuff that's outside the core narrative is nowhere near as good. Episode 5 focuses on fleshing out some of the other arbiters, like Ginti and Nona, and that's all well and good, but it feels like a monumental let-down after the emotional roller-coaster of the previous episode. Episode 7 gives us a little bit of info about the Nameless Girl, but also spends way too much time with Nona, Quin, and Oculus, establishing a side-plot that, by the series' end, accomplishes next to nothing. I mean, it's nice to see other characters getting the spotlight and having a little something extra going on in the background, but in a 12-episode series, every episode counts, and having 2 entire episodes spent not focusing on the series' brilliant concept is a major disappointment. They're not bad episodes, per se, but they left me feeling extremely restless and itching to just skip them to get to the next judgement.
So this concludes my little Tour of 2015 that I've apparently been conducting these past few reviews, and titles like Death Parade and Sound! Euphonium have continued to reinforce my belief that great anime is not just a thing of the past, but many essential series are still being made to this day. Death Parade also happens to be one of those very flexible kinds of shows that I can recommend to just about everybody, so long as you can handle some of the darker material the series covers. So, with that said, if you find this little gem out in the wild, waiting to be claimed, you'd only be doing yourself a favor by snatching it up as quickly as possible--you'll never know if you'll live to regret it.
Final Score: 9.5 out of 10. A few average episodes here and there aside, Death Parade is a powerful drama anime that boasts atmospheric visuals and memorable characters, and its brilliant concept not only generates potent drama, but allows the viewer to contemplate their own life and find meaning in the series outside of it, as any great piece of fiction should do.