Doing the Danse Macabre to Death Parade

Back when I saw Death Billiards for the first time, I thought it was a fantastic little oddity that had a lot of mileage in its premise and storytelling. Even so, the cynic in me was resigned to the fact that it didn’t have enough guns and tits to have broad popularity outside of the Anime Mirai project and be a serious contender for a full TV series; despite it ticking all the boxes for being one of those things that has me personally grinning like a loon for twenty-five minutes and wanting to write about it afterwards. I’ve come to realise my tastes are a little weird sometimes.

A wonderful place where you’ll never miss last orders

In this case however, the TV Gods were merciful and this quirky little thing was given a fighting chance and its role shifted to being that of a pilot for its TV incarnation, Death Parade. I never did get around to writing about Death Billiards, but after two episodes of its spin-off my opinion on it hasn’t changed: it’s bloody brilliant. I just hope that enough people share my admiration for it.

Although it’s very different stylistically, the premise reminds me rather a lot of Hirokazu Koreeda’s masterpiece After Life (originally titled ワンダフルライフ, or “Wonderful Life” but presumably changed to avoid confusion with that well-known Frank Capra movie) in which a halfway house between the realms of the living and the dead processes ‘newly-dead’ souls before they embark on the next stage of their journey.

Without falling onto cultural stereotyping too much here, Death Parade’s and After Life’s setups are a combination of spirituality and bureaucratic procedure that feels very, well, Japanese. It’s interesting to watch the people who are tasked with dealing with the dead souls, as well as learning the stories of the deceased themselves. They’re imperfect systems that suffer from unusual incidents every now and then, so the very human admins are required to use their own judgement to intervene and keep the supernatural production line running.

As in Koreeda’s film, Death Parade is also an in-depth examination of issues that face people at the end of their time on Earth when they look back and reflect on what they’ve achieved during their lives, and how their thoughts and actions affected those around them. In both cases, it’s not really morbid: it’s all about their lives overall, and the decisions they made. There’s a goldmine of philosophical arguments to be tapped into here, using the end of life to look at the time that precedes one’s demise more clearly.

Death Parade’s first arc for example puts a young married couple side-by-side and through a game of darts in which a double top could be very painful indeed, with the deepest and darkest secrets of their relationship and respective psyches being brought shockingly to the surface. After Life does it a little differently, using each deceased soul’s happiest memory as a way of studying their whole lives, but the end result is similar and similarly fascinating.

There’s also a little smattering of Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s psychological thriller style of storytelling that makes use of competitions and games to ramp up the tension and put the characters’ mindsets under the microscope while the judgement is taking place…and the said tension helps you forget that it’s a bit weird to be deciding the fate of someone’s life over something as trivial as pachinko or darts. “Zawa zawa” indeed.

I still have a few questions about the mechanics of the deceased pairings and their judgements though. For instance: since each ‘match’ decides who gets reincarnated and who is consigned to the Void, it makes a lot of sense when one of them is more at fault than the other, especially when their lives – and deaths – are connected. What if couples of similarly good or bad morality, such as two criminals or two decent people,  come down in the lift together? Presumably, the slightly less douche-y criminal will be reincarnated, but a reasonably good person will end up in the Void if his or her competitor is a complete saint! It doesn’t seem very fair to me, although we’re not told who or what the supposed winner is reincarnated *into*…

Fortunately, Death Parade is already taking the time to introduce the employees of the dead soul processing establishment so I’m confident that it will be explaining this too as the series progresses. It appears that this arc pre-dates the billiards match of the pilot, because the unnamed assistant is a new starter and is only just getting acquainted with her new job and the Ginko-esque Decim who runs the place.

On a subjective personal level, the opening theme segment is tremendous fun and this nameless lady is I’ll admit sort of my type, so I have absolutely no objection to watching and listening to her adventures every week. On a more objective level, she’s the rookie whose experiences are the ideal way for the viewer to explore the worldview and ask the questions that we the viewers are all asking.

I don’t like to jump to conclusions about a TV show from the first couple of episodes (Yurikuma Arashi, anyone?) but I feel pretty confident in having high hopes for this one. It’s a psychological character study in a beautifully-realised setting, delivered with real suspense and Tim Burton-esque black humour as well as being a shining example of what the Anime Mirai project can do…plus it stars a mysterious sort with a hime cut and an enquiring mind. What’s not to like?