(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

In my last post, I wrote that the sports anime genre is home to many great, and at times bizarre shows featuring games big, small, and just plain weird. While Haikyu! represents that genre at its purest, this week we’ll look at one of the stranger, yet equally as beautiful shows about playing games.

Two people enter a bar, without knowledge of how they got there, or even what their last memories are. What they know is only what the bartender tells them – they’re here to play a game, and they won’t be able to leave until they do. These are simple bar games, like darts and air hockey, but the stakes are as high as the difference heaven and hell. Indeed, Death Parade is kind of like NBC’s The Good Place, only they’re stuck at the medium place and the games will decide where they end up in the end.

The bartender is, in fact, an arbiter: an all-knowing being without emotions tasked with judging the souls of the two humans who enter the bar at any one time, and deciding if they should go to heaven (or rather, if they earn reincarnation) or hell (their souls get sent to the eternal void). What starts as a high-stakes sports anime becomes a deep exploration of what makes us human, how and why we judge one another, and the value of life.

What Makes It Great

The first thing to notice, and likely the first thing to pop up if you google Death Parade, is its infectious, totally banger of an opening theme – “Flyers” by Bradio. Like “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis” from Neon Genesis Evangelion, it’s an excellent song that gives the absolute wrong vibe for what’s to come. The song is a hilariously weird and energetic jazz-funk number accompanied by a musical number where the cast of emotionless arbiters dance their hearts out. Its tone and visuals make no sense, yet it will easily make you want to stand up and live life to its fullest…which ends up being the whole point of the show.

After you finish getting the song out of your head, you’ll notice the beautiful animation by studio Madhouse (One Punch Man season 1, A Place Further Than The Universe). Though not an action anime by any standard, the animation in Death Parade is just as stunningly eye-catching as that of the more blockbuster-type anime out there. This is largely due to the use of colors for the Quindecim Bar (the judgement room of the afterlife), which may not be the happiest place on Earth for its visitors, but becomes a warm and welcoming place due to the contrast of colors. Speaking of stunning visuals, episode 11 contains one of the most beautiful scenes in an anime in recent years. It deals with a main character simply ice skating, with choreography so fluid it blows most of the moves featured on Yuri on Ice out of the water while also serving to give us deep insight into one of the main characters thanks to masterfully placed flashbacks that give meaning to every flip and every edge jump.

Though not a horror anime, the show also has some pretty disturbing imagery, so be prepared to be spooked…which sounds about right for a place that sends people to the void. 

What makes Death Parade stand out is its narrative format. This is a rare anime that, in many ways, is an anthology. Nearly every episode consists of two new people entering the bar and being forced to play a game while we witness the darkness in their souls. Then a judgement is placed and they leave. You know from the get-go what the show will be about. Yet Death Parade isn’t afraid to throw a few surprises your way, with some episodes exploring different genres – there is a romance episode, a comedy one, and even a murder-mystery in two parts. By mixing flashbacks with the in-bar game scenes, the show becomes a series of character studies. Some guests are as harmless as they appear, while some are wolves in sheep’s’ clothing, yet the majority is a mix of both, and that’s where the series gets interesting.

What It Brings to the Conversation

When I compared Death Parade to The Good Place at the beginning of this column, I was referring to the way both shows deal with the idea of judging humans, and how our actions ultimately lead us to the afterlife – whatever form it may take. Throughout 4 seasons, that recently concluded NBC show dealt with the question of whether we can become better people, and what exactly should be the baseline to determine if you were good or bad. Death Parade takes a similar approach, yet it focuses on a different part of the question. 

As the show goes on, we start to learn more about the arbiters that cast judgement on the guest of the Quindecim. We learn that they are being created entirely for this purpose, and they have a set of Asimov-like rules about how they are not meant to get close to humans, or experience death or human emotions, for that would bring them too close to being human and taint their judgement. But we also see that the games are specifically designed to break its players and draw out the darkest parts of the soul. The arbiters that start out as cold machines become cruel gods toying with humans (and literally playing billiard with the planets of the solar system) that don’t care about anything other than the bottom line.

The question then becomes how can anyone properly pass judgement upon others without empathy? The arbiters believe their lack of emotions makes them fit to do their job, but the games start resembling torture sessions as the show goes on, with a character questioning whether the arbiters are revealing the darkness inside the guests or simply creating it. 

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

Death Parade features stunning animation and a story that is simple enough that anyone can follow and be enthralled by it, yet it becomes a deep exploration of what it means to be human, and what it means to live life. Despite your actions, the show’s ultimate question isn’t about reward for living a good life, or punishment for the sins we commit. Instead it’s a show about the question of “is life worth living?” And based on the absolute banger of a song that both opens and closes the anime, the answer is a resounding yes.

***

Watch This If You Like: The Good Place, It’s A Wonderful Life, Death Note.

Death Parade is streaming on Hulu.

 

 

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