When two people die at the same time, they are sent to Quindecim, an otherworldly bar attended by a mysterious and otherworldly host, named Decim. Having no memory of their arrival or of anything prior to descending the elevator to this bar, the two humans are told that they must wager their lives on a so-called "Death Game" and that they will not be allowed to leave until they do so. Having no other options of escape from this place, they will invariably do so, a process which thus casts judgement on their lives and determines whether their souls will be reincarnated or sent to the void.
Meanwhile, a woman with no memories awakens in another part of this apparent "netherworld;" Nona, who appears to "run" this world, brings her along to observe one of these judgements, telling her that she will assist Decim with this sinister process.
I have to admit that my synopsis gives away the so-called surprise ending of the first episode, but I doubt it's the only source that might do so. If, for example, one has seen this series' predecessor, Death Billiards, one will see what is coming, and virtually every other synopsis I've come across has made no effort to hide the fact that the people brought to this bar are, in fact, dead souls undergoing judgement. And I suppose that's the case because Death Parade is more a thought experiment as to what the judging of the dead might look like from the perspective of those involved in the "arbitration," as this show calls it, as well as that of an outsider, the nameless woman (or "Onna"), who has the privilege to sit alongside the judges but is not born of their mindset. Death Parade is, unfortunately hurt somewhat by the variable quality of the one-off stories, centered around the people brought to Quindecim, and by the rushed and haphazard handling of one supposedly important side character's arc. Nonetheless, it's a fascinating exploration of what an afterlife governed by a system as flawed as those in the "living world" might look like, and it grapples with the question of what morality might be conceived of if so-called divine beings turned out to have a flawed concept of it.
If one is curious as to whether they would like this series, then I suggest that one watch the first two episodes together. The opening episode, in which a couple is brought to Quindecim and in which their apparent bliss gives way to their built-up resentment exploding over the course of the "game," does effectively establish the atmosphere of the show and the nature of Decim's judgement. Indeed, even if one can predict the "twist" that approaches and even if one isn't especially interested in the fates of the two participants, it is nonetheless fascinating to see Death Parade unravel the characters' memories returning, piece by piece, and how this manifests in their, for example, "accidentally" harming each other out of anger.
It is the second episode, however, that lays out the important content of the series, for it is here that we see Nona and "Onna" traveling to Quindecim through the various parts of the netherworld, showing that this system, in fact, resembles something of a company town (and not an unpleasant one, either). It is here, crucically, that Onna, devoid of memories but still possessing human emotions, catches a mistake in Decim's reasoning that was large enough to send an innocent person's soul to the void. Thus, having established our faith in this system via Decim's stoic arbitration of the couple, Death Parade immediately shatters that faith by proving that "arbiters" such as he, in fact, can make horrible errors, and suggesting via Onna's revulsion that drawing out the characters' anger in such a way is, ultimately, a flawed method of judgement.
And it is the overarching questions regarding the structure of this "arbitration," as well as the development of those who carry it out, that ultimately make Death Parade compelling. While I enjoyed some of the individual backstories of the deceased brought to Quindecim, we almost never spend more than one episode with them. Death Parade lacks the storytelling finesse needed to invest the audience in characters after a mere twenty minutes that, say, Natsume Yuujinchou has, and the backstories are thus replete with terse and dramatic scenes of murder or infidelity, with the present-tense games almost invariably culminating in shouting matches. Then again, this hearkens to the show's central question of whether these "arbiters" can even make good judgements based on a handful of snapshots into a person's life, and whether this process of inducing anger in these people is ethical or even effective. If viewed in this light, the show succeeds, but the one-off characters are still rather forgettable.
Thus, when we find out that Nona, who is by far my favorite character, is undertaking an experiment of her own with Decim and Onna, it provides the purpose that this show needs. Simply, the current overseer of this "company" of arbitration, Oculus, is a decadent old man who claims to be the closest thing to a god this world has. Given his self-indulgent lifestyle and his distance from the suffering human souls, it is readily apparent to both Nona and the audience that the netherworld has grown morally bankrupt. Death Parade isn't a satire in the manner of, say, Hoozuki no Reitetsu, but certain aspects of this afterlife seem sardonically funny until one is forced to think about the fact that the fates of human souls rest on this. Decim's predecessor, Quin, for example, has became so burnt-out from arbitrating that she is reassigned to the department that delivers memories to the bars, where she spends most of her time drinking alcohol illegally snuck in from the living world. An episode centered around another bar, furthermore, reveals that just as impartial justice is a near-impossible dream in our world, it is equally tantalizing here, for while one might be sent to Decim, who treats his customers with respect (if not warmth), one's fate might just as easily be placed in the hands of an embittered misanthrope.
It doesn't hurt that Death Parade is one of Madhouse's strongest visual efforts in some time. Throughout this show, a low-lit, high-class bar is rendered eerie via the emphasis on violet and other cool colors, as well as through shading that makes the edges of Quindecim appear to fade into nothingness, at least until one approaches them, when they instead take on a claustrophobic air. "Claustrophobic" is, indeed, how I'd describe the lighting scheme of Death Parade overall, and just as with another Madhouse series set in a closed-off environment, Texhnolyze, the degree of this does not become apparent until the "living" world is seen in flashback. Though Death Parade is generally subdued visually, the animation is fabulously detailed when called upon, such as the whirlwind scenes in which the "game" setup appears in a dramatic, almost theatrical fashion, contrasting with the otherwise eerily mundane setting. The opening theme, "Flyers" by Bradio, can also best be described as "theatrical," with its an energetic montage of Quindecim's various denizens engaging in circus activities; it might also be described as one of the best and most addictive OPs I've yet heard. The somber rock of the ED suits the (normally) bittersweet ending tone of most of the episodes well, as does the in-show soundtrack, even if it isn't quite as memorable.
Death Parade, ultimately, reminds me somewhat of Mamoru Oshii's Angel's Egg in that it postulates the absence of, or at least the moral decrepitude, of a divine being in the scheme of the afterlife. Unlike that film, however, its outlook is somewhat more humanist and hopeful; indeed, this is how I can best summarize the conflict between Oculus, who claims that he is the closest thing to a god that this universe has, and who somewhat resembles a bodhisattva in appearance, and Nona, who implements a plan centered around Onna, a human operating in a world otherwise run by morally bankrupt divine beings. Although the series is hardly conclusive in the traditional sense, I'd say it's ultimately somewhat more favorable to Nona's side, and the ending is indeed fitting. I can see that as a point at which one's mileage with this show may vary, for I'm not religious myself, and I wonder how somebody who was, in fact, quite religious would respond to this show. Death Parade isn't devoid of structural problems, but it is fascinating, and it's a far deeper show than the mere gimmick of a "bar of the afterlife" that Death Billiards hinted at.
And if you'll indulge me, I'll exhort everyone to put their hands up now.
In spite of some structural problems, Death Parade proves to be an interesting thought experiment as to what a morally decrepit judgement of souls might look like, and I feel it uses its episodes as a fairly compelling argument for humanism; one's mileage might vary depending on one's religious beliefs. The OP alone nearly made me want to give this five stars, I have to admit. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: Teenagers and up. The show isn't especially graphic but characters attack each other, blood is shed, physical abuse is depicted, and sexual assault is discussed on several occasions. There's also some mild fanservice in the form of Onna's (somewhat) skimpy bar outfit, although the show is somewhat equal-opportunity with this (e.g. muscular male characters ripping their shirts off during the OP). I probably wouldn't ever show this to kids, overall.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital Source (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Death Parade © 2015 Yuzuru Tachikawa/Death Parade Production Committee
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