Anime Reviews: Death Parade
In the afterlife, the souls of the dead must be judged. They are either reincarnated and allowed to experience life once more or sent to the void, where they will fall endlessly in a sea of darkness and despair. The decision is entirely up to 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. The actions they take during these games will determine their fates. It is in these moments that the true essence of a person's soul is said to be revealed. When all is said and done, the arbiter must confront his guests and make a decision.
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.
Quick Series Info
- Title: Death Parade
- Genre: Drama
- 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.)
This is exactly the kind of series that feels like it was handcrafted just for me. There is Studio Madhouse, memorable, if sometimes questionable, character designs, a high stakes narrative, and gripping tension! And there is not a motherfracking high school to be found! 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. It turns out none of this trepidation was deserved. This is the last anime I've watched for my 2015 spree, so I've decided to review it just now. It's pretty freakin' great, and I'm going to tell you why it is.
To start, Studio Madhouse has always been a consistent force to be reckoned with when it comes to creating visually appealing anime. 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 was the almost iconoclastic art style the series employs. It's hard to describe precisely, but the way the faces are proportioned here is very different from what anime has done before. It really 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 the design of Clavis, the elevator bellhop (Why is his hair three different pastel colors?!) That issue is a personal preference and not really a knock against the show. Clavis aside, I think the character art is pretty great.
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. The warm, incandescent glow of the chandelier feels 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. The rusty, dirty browns drowned by the shadows of the Information Bureau where Quin works creates an unsettling, almost chilling atmosphere of decay and neglect. This contrasts 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 top-notch 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 within 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. 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 the story of that episode). 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, the series 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 a gamut of emotions is experienced 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. There are some extremely powerful scenes later on in the series that left me with my jaw on the floor.
Reincarnation is signified by a white, feminine mask over that person's elevator at the end of the episode. Getting sent to the void is signified by a red, demonic mask. The fact that the final judgement isn't always obvious means that, along with the suspense of the death games, the suspense of learning the eternal fate of a character is just delicious. When the show sticks to its core premise and its central conflict of whether the arbiters are fit to judge, the series is monolithic and outstanding. Some of these episodes, particularly the superb third and ninth episodes, have demanded many rewatches from me. They are easily among the most compelling television I've seen in 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 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 five focuses on fleshing out some of the other arbiters, like Ginti and Nona. That's all well and good, but it feels like a monumental letdown after the emotional rollercoaster of the previous episode. Episode seven gives us a little bit of info about the Nameless Girl, but also spends way too much time with Nona, Quin, and Oculus. It establishes a side plot that, by the end of the series, 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. Having two entire episodes spent not focusing on the series' brilliant concept is a major disappointment. They're not bad episodes, 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 been conducting with these past few reviews. Titles like this one and Sound! Euphonium have continued to reinforce my belief that great anime is not just a thing of the past. Many essential series are still being made today. Death Parade happens to be one of those very flexible kind of shows that I can recommend to just about everybody, so long as they can handle some of the darker material the series covers. If you find this little gem out in the wild, you'd only be doing yourself a favor by snatching it up as quickly as possible.
Final Score: 9.5 out of 10. Despite a few average episodes here and there, Death Parade is a powerful drama anime that boasts atmospheric visuals and memorable characters. 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.