Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Anime Review: Death Parade

I immensely enjoyed Death Billiards when it aired as part of the Anime Mirai (Young Animator Training) Project a few years ago (it was the same year as Little Witch Academia for reference) and I remember that just a few months after it came out I had some hits on my post from a forum where someone was citing my post as proof that a full season was coming. I would like to take credit for announcing this season before even the director himself probably knew, although when the show popped up on the winter charts just a couple of weeks before the start of the season I wondered if those bloggers might be confused and it was a spring show again, or worse with such a late announcement that maybe the show wouldn't be finished on time. Thankfully both of these worries were wrong and this show helped make the winter anime season a surprisingly good one.

Death Parade

Welcome to the Quindecim, a bar in limbo where departed souls come and their actions determine if they are reincarnated or cast into the void forevermore. Since humans cannot judge humans the bartender here is the dummy Decim, although he's gotten a new, human assistant recently which could tip into action a larger plot involving the entirety of the afterlife.

Much like Shirobako, Death Parade is a story of two parts and the first part is the setting itself. The world is delightfully fleshed out, both visually and contextually, and there's a real sense that Decim and Onna's story is just a smaller part in a heavenly game of pool. I saw some complaining over the info dumps but I thought that the information was disseminated fairly gracefully, most of it does occur when an episode focuses on Decim's boss Nona instead of within one of Decim's games but since Decim and Onna are never aware of their larger roles that's to be expected if not impossible to get around. I found the set-up rather fascinating, there's no explanation for how system of judgements things first started, other than a few vague lines that imply there was once a God who is now absent, but the subplot of Nona and a few others orchestrating an experiment to see if it could bring about change was interesting not because of what it accomplished but rather because of what it implied. The idea is that judgements are hard for many reasons and one is because of how removed the arbitrators are from the people they judge so why not go agains the laws and see what happens when a dummy is more human?  

As the reader can guess, Decim is the subject of this but even though he's supposed to be "more human" than the rest of the arbitrators he's very emotionless and when he exhibits some emotion (doubt, confusion, sympathy) it's the same thing we see even more of in the other arbitrators. So what makes a human then if it's not emotion or memory? The show never elaborates on that idea, which I do think is it's biggest failing since we could have used just one or two succinct lines to better understand how Nona's plan is supposed to work, but it does come down very hard on the idea that you can judge something wholly impartially and expect to come to a "right" judgement on it every time.

While there's plenty of material for a second season of a show in terms of the "myth arc", I'm not sure I'd want to watch it since the heart of this show was about the people who came through the Quindecim and how their stories ended up affecting Decim and Onna (and also paralleled in fellow arbitrator Ginti's own judgement bar). Onna is his new assistant, a young woman whose eyes show that she's human and, like the rest of the humans who parade through the show, she's without her memories but she still manages to understand human actions and emotions from an entirely different stand point from Decim's (I'm calling her "Onna", woman, for the sake of this review, she doesn't have a nickname in the show). Death Parade also seems to argue that even without memories people have personalities as pairs of people arrive each episode with no idea of how they died, or even that they did, and yet each person approaches this strange bar and game that is forced upon them differently. I think it's almost cruel for the afterworld to start these people out with no memories only to have them slowly regain them as years of hard life affect them in an instant. 

Despite having some truly despicable characters and bad situations, the story never goes anywhere near nihilism (which would be very easy to do to create a "dark and edgy" tone) and manages to maintain a positive view about humanity which left me feeling almost relieved (they even handled suicide deaths better than I expected since I know those are still taboo or were taboo very recently in many cultures, American culture included). Onna's personal story both dovetails with this perfectly and also felt a little out of place, her character changes once she remembers all of her former life and some of her statements feel completely at odds with what she's been advocating to Decim the entire time. But at the same time, having your optimism waver in the face of a personal experience is still entirely believable, maybe if the story had given her more to doubt earlier on then that moment wouldn't have felt out of place at all.

Aesthetically the show  The scene where two characters play a game of billiards with balls that look like planets is one of my favorite scenes this year based on the visuals alone, it's a neat idea to start with and the framing and composition of the shots make it look effortlessly cool. The show also had a great grasp on how to use it's color schemes, you can look at the Quindecim, Ginti's bar, and Nona's outdoor gardens and immediately know they all came from the same show, despite being dominated by completely different parts of the color wheel and having different lighting schemes, because of how well the tons and even the saturations match up with each other. None of the animation quite matched the thrilling climax in Death Billiards but everything looked great and the show did have a rather wonderfully choreographed ice skating scene in it which looked as nice as any real world skating competitions that I've ever seen. Plus, the silliness of the opening sequence was just plain fun, mine and I think everyone else's favorite of the season and if you have a chance you should look up the even more insane music video that the band did for it.

In conclusion, yes I obviously loved this show and do recommend it for anyone who likes stylish anime or wants something with just a little bit of deep thinking (oddly enough I keep thinking that if you like this series you should also check out Mushi-shi and vice versa, slightly different focuses but they approach people in the same way). I don't want to call it a "deep" show since none of it's conversations or ideas are the kind of ground-breaking I associate with the word "deep" but as I said earlier, it's smart enough to avoid the "people are inherently bad" train of thought and use it as a way to indulge in being dark and edgy (which makes the half second Death Note cameo even more hilarious) and I think that was for the best. Funimation has the show and this is one of their simuldub projects so if you're a member on their site you can catch that each week or if you aren't you can find the subbed version on their site and Hulu. As of writing the Death Billiards ova is still unlicensed but I have my fingers crossed that Funimation puts it on their eventual physical release, if you haven't seen it yet it's not required viewing (there is a small crossover, the lady from the Old Maid episode is the wife of the older man from the OVA) but if it was legally streaming I'd recommend people check it out as well so interpret that as you wish.