Anime-Breakdown: Death Parade (2015) Series Review

Spoiler Warning: My review will spoil the entire series of Death Parade in order to explore its story, and go into detail as to why its writing fails even at obtaining the bare minimum for a working story. Ending up as a collection of ideas that failed to work in a cohesive manner because not enough thought was given to either the story nor its characters. Obviously with that being said if you still want to continue reading (regardless if you’ve seen the series or not) you have been warned on these spoilers.

“We are all just dummies Nona, and that includes me” Oculus from Episode 12 of Death Parade

No better quote from the anime Death Parade better sums up the series than this sentence. Everything Death Parade presents to the viewer serves to further question why the story is bothered to be told in the first place. A good simile would be reading, or watching a courtroom drama with the story being told establishing nothing about the court system or how it runs. Such fine details would be needed in order to discuss a number of ideas especially if attempting to tell a “change the system” story. When Death Parade has these issues the lack of characterization, and unbalanced narrative structure become far more noticeable due to it.

A simple abstract idea like a realm whose inhabitants determine if a deceased person gets resurrected or send to the void (a bottomless pit basically) would have worked just fine as is. The afterlife itself, and the question if such a thing exists would lead to a never-ending discussion, but when attempting to give functionality similar to the real world to an abstract idea it attempting to cover far more than it is capable off in the short amount of time it has.

Broken: Story with no thought put into it

Death Parade first episode is the best in the series. If only for the sole reason none of the major issues are made apparent from the onslaught. However, it does suffer from an Spanish soap opera style of storytelling in its first episode. Making every twist unintentionally hysterical. It’s also the only other episode (the other being episode 7) whose tone, and execution is carried over from the anime’s intro. Though, you’ll have a hard time trying to consider an anime dumb fun when the first episode has a man indirectly killing a fetus inside his fiancée womb. With this being how the anime starts you know you are in for a fun ride when a dead fetus is in the first episode.

In episode 2, it is explained the whole purpose of the death games is to exhibit human reaction by creating tensions by making the participants think they’re in a worse position than death. Before getting to the games let’s focus on why this judgment system is broken. Immediately after the anime explains the purpose of the games it doesn’t addressed what precautions Quindecim has in place to those people who know they are dead. In the first episode, Decim says that the game will have the player stake their lives on a game without both knowing that they are dead. If both participant know their dead, or simply refuse to play the game what other methods do the arbiters have to providing judgment to souls? Luckily the anime avoids bringing such a scenario to the center opting to ignore the essential details. It’s not like this omission is plot breaking, but the lone fact that I have to accept arbiters never come across this issue, or mention an event where it has happen causes further suspension of disbelief that every person who arrives at Quindecim is oblivious to the fact they die when they arrive. So, Death Parade is telling me there’s possibly millions of people who went through these judgments, every single one was willing to participate, and didn’t know they were dead virtually every single time.

Another thing about the world is those being judge come in pair. Except for the special case of Onna (a main character/plot device) who arrives alone in Quindecim in episode 5. This episode explains why Onna is a special case; she appeared alone in Quindecim, and could remember that she died. Raising some interesting questions like why did Onna appear alone in Quindecim? What happen to the other person who was meant to arrive with Onna? What could have caused the problem in the first place? All of which, and more Death Parade is happy to ignore providing an explanation for.

When an explanation is provided it hurts the series more by bringing to mind other things that need to be address. In episode 7, all that is shown about training is Decim and Ginti (just one of many unimportant supporting characters) is pressing a button to complete their training to be Arbiters. Nothing is mentioned if the two have read books on human psychology, or if they studied video recordings of previous judgments. If Quindecim has the technology to include elevators, and a machine that can track the deaths of people on Earth how come none of it was shown in the training process. For that matter, if the Arbiters jobs is to judge people how come they are forbidden to have emotions. It complicates matter when they aren’t allow to understand emotions the one element most crucial to their judgments. If the judgments are meant to be held from an objective point of view than how come the games themselves are rigged to favor one of the participant at a given moment. Fabricating the scenario along with the original emotions of those participating in these games of judgments.

Now the games themselves are not designed to do what they are meant to do. For starter, in episode 3 a pair of teenager play bowling. In Death Bowling, you can feel the other person’s heart when you grab the bowling ball. That is all there is to Death Bowling. When the bowling ball hit the pins nothing happens. There’s no consequences in getting points, or getting a gutter ball in bowling. Now compare Death Bowling to the first episode where a couple plays Death Dart to amplify the huge contrast. In episode 1, every point that was made hurt the other person in a specific body part depending on where their dart landed on a board. There are consequences playing against your opponent in Darts unlike in Bowling. It would be like hovering your hand over a hot stove versus placing your hand on the hot stove; clearly one scenario will cause more harm than the other. Death Dart will cause a greater emotional reaction because its participants are being harmed while Bowling due to no consequences to players the participants are simply relaxed enjoying a good time.

As a collective whole all the games require hands eye coordination over the usage of mind. In order to compensate for this issue the Arbiters can also mess around with the contestants while they’re playing the games. Creating an unfair advantage for both sides at any given moment defeating the purpose of the games. If the point of the games is to draw out the dark side of a person then if the game favors a player whose good at that game of course only one person will be frustrated. Demonstrated in episode 5 elegantly. You have a single mother who never played a video game going up against a loser who locked himself in his room all day playing video games. From the onset the loser has the advantage. Add onto that Arbiters ability to interfere at any given moment you’ll get a single mother smashing her opponent head on an arcade cabinet.

In episode 2, rule three is established, and it says Arbiters cannot feel any emotions. Now this rule isn’t always in use, but there is an exception to it only for every episode in the series. The opening intro for example shows the Arbiters showing a wide range of emotions when they’re dancing happily. In other episodes our main Arbiter of interest, Decim, is shocked in the second episode when he failed to take the action of lying into account in the first judgment of the anime series. When giving some thought you have Arbiters who are created not to feel emotions trying to judge souls that have emotions? So if the Arbiters can’t feel emotions it misguides the judgment. Usually how it’s done in the world of the living is the more you know about a subject the better you understand it (hopefully). Not the less is more approach in a scenario that requires you to decide the fate of people’s souls!

Death Parade biggest pitfall is the terrible world building. The more it reveals about Quindecim the more questions that are left unanswered. Including those needed to simply understand character motivations. Its establish that the arbiters are immortal, and provides no reason as to why they continue to judge souls. Nor does the anime care to explain what kind of payments would want to make immortal beings want to keep on judging souls for all eternity. Among other things that the writing fails to address is the creation of this “Middle World” when it is casually revealed in episode 12 that the Arbiters/Dummies, and the world itself are made up of souls that got send to the void. So exactly how did this “Middle World” come into existence if there was no humans at the beginning of time? Did these the Arbiters/Dummies judge Dinosaurs souls, but that would also bring to question about its creation? How exactly did it come into existence if it needs souls that get send to the void to be formed in the first place? The answer is simply a paradox. Also, awful world building, and horrible writing would have also been another acceptable answer to the question.

Bad: Weak main cast and interesting supporting characters that leave after one episode

Due to the narrative format attempting to be both episodic, and tell a continuing story it in turn hurts the characters. More so than just being poorly developed, but being unable to be seen as anything other than tools. Onna, whose one of our main character, is mostly use to guide the viewer into the world to explain certain aspects of it. She can’t remember her name, but spoiler her name is Plot Device. Okay not really, but it might as well be since if she wasn’t in the series than Death Parade would be a series of just episodic judgments. As explained in the previous paragraphs the writing simply refuses to have a functioning story. However, despite being a tool to progress the story she is also the best written character in the entire series.

For starter, Onna is the only character whose goals are clear. She’s trying to remember who she is, and what happened to her. All the other characters in the series don’t have goals, and if they do because of terrible world building those motives become muddle in the process. Another reason why Onna character works is because she is expressive throughout the series. How she views life is narrowed, but brings a personal attachment to judgments. She explains in some episodes to Decim how she came to her conclusions on certain people, and why Decim methods were wrong (which they are) or what he overlooked. Providing a showcase of her thought process. However, she is a plot device which means once her story comes to an end the anime has no time to improve after she’s gone. Also, Decim interaction with Onna reveals whatever characteristic was written in him to Onna. If you read the subtitles or listen to the English dub then you’ll know the entire finale solely dedicated to Onna judgment is entirely pointless, and contradictory to Decim character. At least Onna has a completed arc which is more of a miracle than anything else. Minus the resolution in the finale where she was given a large amount of time to reflect on her action unlike the other participants in the series.

Sadly our main character is Decim who is the worse of the bunch since he’s intentionally written to be terrible at everything he does. Now let’s forget about every issue I brought up to this point. This character is also the main reason why the series fails to accomplish anything meaningful. Decim is given the position of emotionless character gaining emotion by the end of the story. Problem is with no background on Decim acceptance on rule three which states Arbiters cannot feel emotions, for they are mere dummies, how he benefited from gaining emotion goes unseen. One of the final shot in the finale is Decim smiling, and that’s it. No episode dedicated to showing how this change improve or monologue from Decim to express how this new change in him changes his approach to judgments. As a character his journey is meaningless because the cause of his conflict isn’t explored nor is the aftermath of his change shown.

It’s established in the anime that Decim likes people who live fulfilling lives. A characteristic that instead of being used to developed an emotionless character serves the opposite in making him look bad at performing his job. For starter in episode 4, one of the people Decim has to judge is a single mother who had her life taken away from her. A single mother who made mistakes, but has given her all to improve herself as well as provide for her family. Next to her is a loser who simply wasted his time playing video games, being a shut in, being rude to his parents, and committing suicide. If the writing was competent there wouldn’t be an episode 4 written the way it is. Decim likes people who lived fulfilling lives so when a person who commits suicide is sent for him to be judged the outcome should have been obvious. However, according Decim the single mother who had her life taken from her would get sent to the void, and not the loser who committed suicide. Instead of making a good character with this established trait it is instead implemented for shock factor. It throws viewer off, while at the same time breaking whatever semblance of character consistency in Decim.

The participants of the games have aspects of their life reveal to the viewer through flashbacks. Usually displaying specific aspects of their life before hitting the bucket. Sadly one episode isn’t enough to get viewer to care for these characters, but they do provide an idea of how these participants were in the world of the living. A miss opportunity to these participants is a failure to touch on delicate subjects, and having characters present the grey area in life. Most of the participants either died naturally or because of an accident which were out of their control. Placing participants in good or evil category without much grey being presented. One example of a difficult judgement could have a doctor who performs dozen of Euthanasia on patients consent. Where would such a person go if Decim was judging this doctor since not only does it go against Decim personal claim of his likes for people who live fulling life, but it’s a case where taking life wasn’t without cause. A grey zone in some of the participants would have provided different perspective of people’s lives showing the world is filled with both complex and simple individuals not just one category.

The closest the anime gets into the grey area is in episode 8 and 9 when two killers are being judged. One character is a young adult searching for certain people to kill while another is a detective gone mad. Now what’s the problem with this before the episode begins? It’s not justifiable murder since Decim likes people who live fulfilling lives, so therefore the young adult will clearly be sent to the void. Given this series track record it’ll fall into good or evil category. Regardless of what category the person falls in they’ll immediately be sent to the void. Now, the detective gone psycho is revealed by the end of episode 8 to also be a killer. So, yes, you’re going to sit through two pointless episodes, and a pointless judgement when it is obvious at this point. Okay, if we took out these issues these two episodes don’t delve much into subject of justifiable killing (assuming it tried to go for that), or even questions if there is such a thing. The psycho detective shows no regret for killing, and the other despite having second thoughts commits to killing because of a personal trigger in his life. If this character learned his lesson than that would have been a dynamic moment. Except, this is Death Parade where it is more than happy to remain static.

I would bother going into details about the other arbiters, but due to terrible world building the importance of the other arbiters is up in the air. Nona for instance is given the position of boss, and then told in exposition that she’s been boss for 82 years. She’s slow, it took her 82 years to finally determine there’s something wrong with the way that judgments are done. Seriously, there was no other person qualified for the job. Not only that, but apparently according to the bad writing she change the system somehow. Without establishing certain rules how exactly her ideas for changing the ways judgments are done are as just puzzlingly as the fact these people talk about things they should already know. Then there’s Oculus who’s second in line to become God. This guy is so important that all we see him do is play pool, and talk to Nona. Clearly a person burden with so much responsibility. If all the trait you need to become God in this series is being easy, cheerful, and having an unexplained flower beard to become God this world high has some high standard for their judgement business. Nothing, but the worse, I meant “absolute best” can be expected for these individuals.

Good: Madhouse Spares No Expense

Madhouse studio is behind the production of Death Parade, and it’s done well to no one surprise. Death Parade sports a semi-realistic direction. Movement are hardly exaggerated with the cast consisting virtually of adult characters. In episode 11, Madhouse expertise in movements shows during an ice-skating sequence where 3D wasn’t used on a character while she was skating around the ice rink. It’s an impressive feat that three-dimensional movements was done by a drawn, two-dimensional character in the foreground. Backgrounds are given plenty of detail with a muted color palatte where colors aren’t usually bright. Favorably shoving plenty of purples, and blues on-screen. Aesthetically the only time it becomes flashy are during the games or when presenting the platform where the game will be played with speed lines, extreme close-ups, and exciting music to name a few techniques. Other than that, it simply looks nice without any visually interesting thing happening without a game being played. There is a pointless fight scene between two arbiters, but it only serves to fuel the fact that Decim is terrible at his job because he fails a test!

The opening animation is nice to look at, but completely misrepresentative of the series. A baby dies in the first episode, and the intro is happy-go-lucky for twelve episodes. This kills the mood from episode one, and onward when that is one of the first events it wants to show the viewers. Making the intro that much worse for misrepresenting itself. The fact Death Parade wants me to be happy after seeing a fetus die in the first episode is as twisted as creepy stalker idea of love.

Presentation wise the only issue I have, besides the opening, is the execution of episode 10 card game. Madhouse animated a series called “Gyakkyou Burai Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor” whose first arc is a card game of rock, paper, and scissors. The presentation in that first arc is glorious making card games awesome, over the top, exciting, and very intense. Here in a relaxing atmosphere seeing a card game is a snooze inducing experience. I could have done without this boring card game, but that’s a personal issue versus the appropriate direction, and animation choices it went for. Doesn’t excuse the rest of the series issues though.

If you had to choose between the Japanese or English dub voice cast go with the Japanese voice cast. The performances of the core characters are more in line with the series mixed up tone in Japanese. This English dub by Funimation goes for a more straightforward approach where some voice actors downplay certain aspects of their characters. For example, Yoshimasa Hosoya who is Ginti Japanese voice actor gives his character snarkiness which is lost with Robert McCollum who portrays the same character in the English dub. In both languages the voice actors portraying the Arbiters are “emotionless” versus the voice actors who portray human characters. However, the English dub does contain a fantastic performance from Monica Rial in episode 5. Monica Rial does not deliver her usual high pitch, gleeful performance in her only episode in Death Parade. It’s a performance where Monica Rial shows off serious talent to the point she could make you care about a badly written character. She’s absolutely perfect in the role selling every line, while subtly changing into a more emotional state as she goes through a wide range of emotions. For me, it made the English all the more worth checking out, and also why I like it a bit more.

In both languages both Tomoaki Maeno and Alex Organ play the emotionless character Decim. Neither performance is impressive since the material limited. The only time both voice actors get to break out of their emotionless state is by the finale of the series. Tomoaki Maeno revealing Decim more emotional state is more powerful, while Alex Organ feels more natural. I would comment on the other cast members, but I mentioned in the previous paragraph how each voice role determines what they do. In terms of content the usual changes in the English script are expected from explaining certain Japanese culture to non-Japanese, and changing dialogue to sound natural in English. Aside from that there’s no major changes so nothing became lost in translation.

The soundtrack is composed by Yuuki Hayashi who did a good job. Plain and simple. His music for Death Parade creates a cool atmosphere like it would at any bar. Hayashi’s melancholy tracks are poignant with the nature of games distinct in their uses jazz. Composer Yuuki Hayashi has a better idea of creating emotions through his music than the writing does with characters. For example, “Death Parade”, accentuates its mournful atmosphere through with a bass. As the piece progresses, a sense of doom creeps in and the music grows more ponderous. A momentary halt lets the tension build up, which is released through a tragic air played by saxophones. The weight of emotions continues to build, amplified by the fitting use of backing vocals and chants to pave the way for some heart-rending violin and saxophone solos near the end. That’s some excellent music composition. Death Parade opening theme is “Flyers” by the band Bradio. It’s a jazzy, and cheerful track. It maintains it fiery energy through the very with a catchy chorus. Lead vocalist Takaaki Shingyoji high-spirited singing makes up for the unimaginative lyrics. It’s ending theme “Last Theater” is by artist NoisyCell is a soft rock ballad. It didn’t leave an impression on me because despite it lyrics being about conflicting morals it feels phoned in. The instrumental drown out the vocalist in this ending theme.

Personal Enjoyment: Almost transcended to a different plain of existence where I stopped caring

Death Parade from the get go failed to grab my attention. If it wasn’t for the lone fact that it was an original creation done by Madhouse studio I would have never given Death Parade the light of day let alone a second of a thought. For starter, death is a complex subject and something that couldn’t be done properly by Death Parade narrative style in twelve episodes. It wanted to tell a continuous story, but in that format attempted to combine it with episodic stories that did more to essentially hurt the story and question its existence in the first place. Another reason I failed to get into it was Decim who is a tool. From the first episode I felt he was incompetent at his job. His backstory certainly didn’t help improving my thoughts on him as a character even more so when the story intention was to get across a “change the system” story with an emotionless lead. You know the writer did something wrong when the main character is given a profession, and several elements that serves to be a hindrance to doing his job properly.

Furthermore, while watching the series I kept wondering what the point of it all? If it’s trying to be a series that wanted to discuss the value of a life it fails because there’s no consistency in the judgments done by our leading character. No explanation as to why Decim thinks it’s okay for a man to hurt a woman, but not the other way around which gets women send to the Void. If was trying to tell a story about changing the system it doesn’t work either because the world building is terrible. Adding real world functionality to several abstract ideas wasn’t implemented properly. Especially when wasting time on stand alone stories instead of establishing its setting to its advantage like it wanted. If it was trying to be a fun series it immediately failed because it’s a series where death is always in discussion, and in the first episode there’s a dead fetus. Lastly, just because an idea sounds interesting on paper doesn’t mean it is automatically suited for a series. Death Parade is a clear example of good ideas, but no proper thought put into them to create anything meaningful.

Story: O/3

Characters: 1/3

Technical: 3/3

Personal Enjoyment: 0/1

Final Thoughts:

Death Parade is a series that’s best left in limbo. Not enough thought was given to the anime for a functional beginning, middle, or end when the more it revealed about its own world the more questions it refuses to answer or overlook. It had such high ambitions only to crumble spectacularly for its own inability to carry itself. From a technical standpoint there’s nothing wrong with Death Parade as Madhouse illustrates great care for it. That alone does it not excuse it for wasting my time for what was essentially failed ideas. If I do choose between reincarnation, or the void, I would choose the latter because at least then I know nothing associated Death Parade would ever bother me again.

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