|An lushly animated, brilliantly told grippingly dark story that ends on an uplifting note that does not come across as contrived or forced.||It's over....|
Some time ago when Anime Mirai came out with “Death Billiards” in 2013 many were struck by the interesting premise and dark, film-noir, gothic’y art style. The premise has been summarized as: “Whenever two people on Earth die at the same time, they are sent to one of many mysterious bars run by bartenders serving as arbiters. There, they must participate in Death Games with their lives on the line, the results of which reveal what secrets led them to their situation and what their fate will be afterwards, with the arbiters judging if their souls will either be sent for reincarnation or banished into the void.”
A little less than two years later the same studio that produced Death Billiards produced a series off of it titled “Death Parade”, where it “…follows Decim, the lone bartender [and hence an “arbiter”] of the Quindecim bar, whose role in judging these souls changes when he meets a curious black-haired woman.” This series aired in the Winter 2014-5 season and this dark psychological thriller was without doubt or even anything close to competition the most powerful new series that aired in the otherwise weak Winter season that is almost now passed.
To say that this series was powerful is an understatement – the series focuses on the judgement of souls after death at the hands of the “arbiters” (of whom Decim is one) and the trigger device that is used to pass judgement is by putting the two visitors up for judgement in extremely trying situations that push the limits of their moral choices by “bringing out the darkness that existed in their souls”. As a result the slice of people we see come through the various tests throughout the series’ twelve episodes often have … unpleasant sides to them shown. In this sense the series shows the viewers pretty deep insights into the aspects of a person’s state of mind, emotions and soul, and more often than not they are … uninspiring.
But interestingly the series rarely outright assesses these unearthings save at the end of the judgement trials, and even then there are very few that seem to be clear cases of where the person’s soul should go next. This series was extremely effective in it’s ability to generate conversations and differences of opinion in the viewers on various blogs, forums and other similar sites, and it masterfully engaged the viewer into being involved and engaged in the trials the souls were undergoing, challenging the viewers psychologically, morally and sometimes even philosophically – and in a way that did not feel cheapened or manipulative to me, but thought-provoking. It made you think … and more than that … it made you think about serious things. Things that are often ignored or shoved under the rug or into the closet. Things that are uncomfortable, but deserve to be seriously considered over a lengthy period of time.
But it is not just the storyline and the characters that are fascinating here – the production values are top notch. Not only does the series have a distinctive “look”, but it the look is beautifully drawn, richly (perhaps even lavishly?) colored and all shot through with painstaking detail. The voice acting is stupendous – particularly the female lead, whose name we learn much later on to be Chiyuki. The inventive and brilliant OP was probably my second favorite of the season (only losing by a nose), and the ED mixed with the visuals near perfectly.
The soundtrack as a whole, though, was both fitting and appropriate to the medium – a curious and inspired blending of older jazz themes and classical music, though perhaps the piece that best exemplified the series for me would be “Moonlit Night”. It is track 10 on the OST (composed by Hayashi Yuki) and in particular played during the richly human and heartachingly beautiful scene in episode 11 where Chuyuki finally remembers her life before dying while ice skating. In almost every way the series shone out, and did so in a way that was almost … noble, yes, but in a “full” and earthly way.
Another of the great strengths of Death Parade in my mind is the world building and story setting aspect of the series. The afterlife is a … well … fascinating yet eerie place, filled with rich and colorful characters who are almost all unnerving in some way – especially so the “leader” or “locum tenens deity” of the … waystation in the afterlife that serves as the location where the story takes place: his name is Oculus. His underlings, including both the arbiters, who judge the souls that come through the office, and those who harvest, organize and process the thousands of souls dying every second, and he himself – they all bespeak a broken system, and a system they are keeping to that someone put in place some time ago. Having a faulty or broken system in place to judge where one’s soul goes after death is NOT a reassuring thought.
Whatever the defects or strengths of it, it seems to have one great weakness in the eyes of one of the main characters named Nona, who is the supervisor of Decim and many others. She feels that the judgement system utilized by the arbiters at this waystation is incomplete and could use improvement, and at present Decim is her testing grounds to prove this. She continues to experiment with him despite rules to the contrary and almost no one else “in the office” being of the same mind. A dangerous gamble indeed, but during the process of which we begin to see that it is not necessarily a question of others being of the same mind or no – her co-workers (and especially Oculus) cannot grasp why she is concerned in the first place. In the final episode this is made clear; the one moment where Oculus jitteringly tilts his head to the side (to the accompaniment of creaking sounds) in puzzlement summed it all up perfectly for me.
At the end of this intense series, though, despite all the darkness and moral, intellectual twistings or deformation we encounter we come to the end of the series with an extremely uplifting final message, but a message that does not feel forced or contrived or fake, yet is at the same time both simple and deep: “treasure and value the time you have while you are alive”. So easy to say and yet so difficult to really bring into one’s daily life (or “grok” as mentioned in one of Heinlein’s sci-fi novels). In short, I thought this series was fantastic. We need more anime of this caliber in my opinion, and we should be extremely grateful to encounter anything like it. Thank you so much Madhouse, for producing this! This series gets an A+ rating from me. Powerful, meaningful and beautiful. What more could one ask for?
As a p.s. – extra thanks to Guardian Enzo from the Lost in Anime anime blog for the screencaps from the series which I borrowed for this post.
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