Death Parade by Madhouse is based on their short film Death Billiards, funded by the Japanese government as part of Anime Mirai 2013, a programme for cultivating young animation talent in the industry. In Billiards an elderly man is forced to compete against a younger man in a game of billiards by a mysterious bartender, with their lives on their line. Despite the simple premise Billiards was an exercise in tension and metaphor.
But what about Death Parade? How is the concept translating into a full series of 12 episodes? The short answer is: very well. This is written just after watching Episode 6.
The bartender, Decim, and his assistant, known as Kurokami no Onna (literally “woman of black hair”), return, though it seems to be set before Billiards (if they’re even meant to be properly connected). They both still operate in the Quindecim bar. People arrive at the bar two at a time without remembering how they got there. Once there Decim forces them to compete in a randomly selected game, telling them that their lives are on the line.
The first episode, Death Seven Darts, sees a recently married couple competing in a game of darts, with the catch being that the organ-decorated dartboard is actually linked to one another’s nerves, meaning they each cause one another pain. This game is presided over by Decim alone. Despite their initial skepticism of Decim’s threat it becomes increasingly clear to both them and the viewer that they are indeed caught up in some sort of life/death underworld system, helped along by Decim letting them know that the game will decide which one of them goes to “heaven” or “hell”, though he admits the phrases are just a simplification to make it easier to understand.
Considering the first episode is literally just two people playing darts its incredibly tense, in a way that very much mirrors Billiards but is perhaps a little bit more upsetting and nerve-wracking due to the higher stakes (the physical pain and emotional ties the players share), and the slightly shorter run-time. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, and seriously didn’t know what directions the story or characters would go in — it genuinely surprised me quite a few times. From the closing I knew this would be one anime I’d definitely have to keep my eye on. The similarities to Billiards are to be expected, as being a first episode it needs to introduce the premise in a similar way.
Death Reverse, the second episode, is even more surprising, in that its a complete dissection of the first episode from the perspectives of Kurokami and Nona (Decim’s boss) who observe from the sidelines. Even though it’s a partly a repeat of the first episode, it raises a lot of questions about the events that happened, as well as teasing quite a lot of the extended world beyond the Quindecim’s walls — though it all remains very mysterious. It’s in this episode that Kurokami is paired with Decim, creating the team seen in Billiards.
Each following episode mixes up the format a little bit. Even the ones that are a straight contest presided over by Decim and Kurokami have something very different to the ones before them. Each episode clearly showcases and explores something else, something different, another aspect of the rules and universe of Death Parade and also the shades of humanity it seeks to reflect. The judgements laid down by Decim, an arbiter of souls, are never clear cut. It’s an anime that not only asks questions, but also forces you to think about them and come up with some of your own conclusions.
Halfway through the series Death Parade is still expanding and presenting new things (including Death Twister!), without any signs of slowing down. But I do have to wonder for all the questions it asks and new avenues it shows, how much of it will feel satisfyingly resolved by the end of it? How will I feel about Death Parade once its over? Just like watching the first episode, I have absolutely no idea. On the one hand that worries me a little bit, but on the other it’s tremendously exciting. One thing is for certain though: I will definitely be watching it until its over.
Check it out!