I was ready to write Death Parade off after the first episode. The show, a 12-episode anime from 2015, opens in a mysterious, ornately-decorated bar staffed by a single, white-haired bartender. The first two ‘customers’ are a pair of newlyweds named Takashi and Machiko with no memory of the events preceding their entry to the bar. They are informed that they must play a game where the stakes are their lives, and are soon throwing enchanted darts at dartboards that inflict serious pain on the other player. As the game of darts progresses, the dramatic stakes mount, with memories of infidelity and distrust bubbling up and transforming a friendly relationship into spite and malice.
Of course, the twist – not much of a twist, given the name of the series – is that this couple is already dead. The purpose of the game, run by ‘Arbiter’ and bartender Decim, is to place them into ‘extreme circumstances’ where their true moral fibre can be ascertained. The real stakes are not whether or not they will live or die – that’s done and dusted – but whether they’ll be sent to the Shinto-Buddhist conception of heaven (reincarnation) or hell (‘the void’).
It’s undeniably an engaging, original premise. In a sea of harem and action anime, something this distinct is sure to stand out. But originality doesn’t guarantee quality, and that was my concern after the relatively disappointing first episode. While the production values were good – gorgeously macabre animation, interesting character designs, reasonable voice acting – the basic thrust of the episode felt too shallow to warrant sitting through another 11 episodes. It was predicated on twists and revelations about a pair of characters I, as an audience member, had no reason to engage with. They were blank slates – deliberately so! – and it made it hard to care which one was telling the truth, which one ‘deserved’ to go to heaven or to hell.
Thankfully, I stuck around for the second episode, and found a spark of promise. Episode two, “Death Reverse”, replays much of the events of the previous episode from a different perspective. Another Arbiter, Nona, accompanied by an unnamed black-haired woman, watch the events unfold from the sidelines and, eventually, criticise the conclusions drawn about who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad.’ The Arbiters, you see, are bereft of human emotion, and can’t necessarily be trusted to make accurate judgments about the moral fibre of their …customers.
Sadly, this promise largely remained unfulfilled over the course of the series. Death Parade is too preoccupied with the mechanical questions offered by its premise to fully engage with the meaty moral questions that should be the focus. The writing regularly feints at immense philosophical questions of absolute morality, judgment and impartiality but returns again and again to simplistic twists and shocks like those found in the first episode.
It doesn’t help that the tone is consistently disengaging. For the most part, the series runs along two tonal tracks, aligning the audience either with the unemotional, deific perspective of the Arbiters, or the oversized melodrama of the participants – who almost invariably burst into screaming frenzies as they become recognisant of their fates. There’s a glimmer of a great idea in Death Parade, but its execution is far too sloppy to make it anything but a unique curio.