When people die at the same time in the real world, they must be judged to determine whether their souls should be reincarnated or sent to the void. In order to do this, arbiters are given their memories and observe their behavior as the guests play a game- without knowing yet that they are dead. Thinking that outcome of the game could result in their death, guests are put into tense situations in order to draw out the darkness of their souls so that they may be judged. Decim, one of these arbiters, faces many tough decisions when these dark truths become exposed.
Death Parade is fantastic for its complexity: judging a person’s entire existence is not something easy or simple to do. As such, despite the fact that arbiters have memories and are neutral judges, they are unable to fully understand each person that comes through within the time that they have to judge them.
This is a problem exasperated by a simple fact: arbiters are not and never will be humans, and thus have no first-hand knowledge of life and death or even human emotions. As such, the judgement can be... wrong. It’s this flaw that is one of the most philosophical concepts within the show: can it really be allowed for a flawed system to be the ultimate decider in such a critical decision?
What It Means to Judge
There’s another inherent problem within the system of arbitration: what does it mean to judge? In putting humans through traumatic experiences in an attempt to draw out the darkness in their souls, the system forgets that as complicated as humans are, they are also simple.
“Death Parade explores human nature to a far deeper extent than most other shows I have seen.”
Sometimes we act out of sudden anger or fear, but that doesn’t mean that our behavior in that small moment constitutes for what we are. By questioning this, Death Parade explores human nature to a far deeper extent than most other shows I have seen, and not only does it in an engaging and multi-faceted way but also integrates it seamlessly into the conflicts.
All of the philosophical debates and intelligent themes would only be able to carry Death Parade so far if it wasn’t for the conflicts themselves. When you place two humans in a ‘life or death’ scenario, especially one with as much importance as judging the deceased, it makes for an incredible opportunity for suspense.
This is an opportunity the writing capitalizes on frequently. Each arbitration is so engaging that I would not be able to pause it even if I really needed to. It’s also worth noting that because of such a great ability to draw in viewers, Death Parade is a wonderful anime for people who don’t normally watch anime. I’m able to make this claim speaking from experience because it has had a 100% success rate when I introduce anime and non-anime fans alike to it in my friend group, and every single one of them has liked and continued watching it after seeing the first episode.
One thing Death Parade is surprisingly good at is developing characters. I say surprisingly in the sense that even characters that are only in the show to be judged for one episode are developed, but when you think about it it makes sense; in the drastic situations that each character is presented with, their development is pushed rapidly as their true nature is revealed. I felt a certain degree of attachment to almost all of the guests judged by Decim, and that attachment is definitely something that helped the suspense felt as I wondered what more would be revealed and what the final judgement would be.
The guests aren’t the only characters that are developed though; the primary inhabitants of the judgement facilities, the arbiters, see some development as well. Throughout the show, more information about Decim and his assistant (whose name I won’t use because spoilers) are revealed, and due to the outcomes of Decim’s judgement decisions and the behavior they witness in their guests, they both grow immensely as characters.
An Overarching Plot
One of my primary concerns with Death Parade at the beginning of the season was a general concern over whether it would squander its premise’s potential. This would be mostly likely caused by the writers either taking the wrong direction or being unsure of which direction to take, such as structuring the plot in a poor manner.
Thankfully, this was not a problem. Death Parade uses a combination of episodic stories with an overarching one as well to craft a tale that is both isolated to individual captivating stories per episode and is an all-encompassing story. While oftentimes individual episodes will focus on a specific set of two individuals that are being judged, there are episodes that focus on the arbiters outside of judgements and the character development during the judgements themselves helps push the story during the non-arbitration episodes. In the end, the result is a compelling narrative that also has great rewatchability.
Death Parade also has a wonderful soundtrack that is both technically impressive and utilized wonderfully within the show. Everything from suspenseful moments to calm discussions is aided by the music, and the added effect serves almost as a sort of cap for the show’s overall quality, sealing the other positive contents with wonderful sounds.
The soundtrack itself isn’t the only musical advantage the show has however; the opening and ending themes are both absolutely amazing yet accomplish different things. The opening theme, Flyers, is a significantly more upbeat tune than the show itself but serves as a good draw-in and an almost ironic beginning to each episode. The ending theme, however, has a tougher job as it follows the end of the suspenseful and often unhappy results of each episode. Fortunately, it pulls off a darker tone wonderfully and serves as an appropriate conclusion.
An Appropriate End
On the topic of conclusions, Death Parade managed to pull something off that only a couple of shows a season do for me: it ended in a way that I not only enjoyed but found completely appropriate for the series. I’m very picky about endings, even more so when I enjoy the rest of the show.
Without spoilers, Death Parade ended by concluding the overarching plot appropriately with a mix both of sadness and happiness while also remaining open in the potential interpretations it could have, much like the original concept, Death Billiards. It also managed to be open enough plot-wise to be both a satisfying finale and a potential opportunity for a second season. A series is rarely able to pull off all of the ideas I just described above, and although I’m certain that not everyone will agree with me since this can be an especially subjective area of opinion, it is very technically impressive writing. For me this was an ideal ending, and I would hazard to guess that I am not the only one who thinks so.
A Weaker Middle
If there was one great flaw in Death Parade, it would without a doubt be its middle section. The problem towards the middle is that while the show is able to mix an episodic and overarching story together very well when looked at as a whole, if you just examine the middle portion it actually stumbles slightly.
I know a couple of people who got behind watching it mid-season due to this, and the symptom of the writing problem is simple: for a couple of episodes in a row, the suspense that is so engaging otherwise isn’t quite up to snuff. What I will say to potential viewers: if you have some trouble getting through episodes 6 and 7, I highly recommend sticking with it until episode 8, upon reaching it you will be unable to stop and will realize that it was all worth it.
Death Parade is an excellent show. It manages to mix intriguing philosophy with engaging characters and matching suspense and even makes an episodic-feeling overarching plot. Needless to say, not only is the concept of judging two deceased by putting them in tense situations interesting, it is also capitalized upon almost perfectly, with a small exception towards the middle of the series. I would highly recommend this show to anyone that doesn’t have a problem with darker anime, as I think that there are very few anime fans who wouldn’t find something to like.
I also would like to note something: this is the most positive review I have ever written for a show, I cannot recommend this series enough.
Death Parade is available for free and legal streaming on FUNimation.
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This is the second in my series of reviews for the Winter 2015 anime season. Here’s the full list (I will link them as they release):
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