Anime Mirai definitely looks like it’s stepped up its game a little in terms of budget, judging by Death Billiards and Little Witch Academia (but then, there’s Arve Rezzle…). Death Billiards is definitely an experimental type of anime, gloriously drawn and animated but with a very dark and mysterious story that refuses to answer any of the questions it asks for the viewer. Perhaps it will suit the tastes of some of the critics who proclaim Madhouse’s demise because so much of their work since the departure of founder Maruyama Masao has been “conventional” (never mind that it’s some of the most brilliant anime of recent vintage in the likes of Hunter X Hunter and Chihayafuru).
Death Billiards seems to be a pretty good model of what this project’s works should look like – it’s the labor of a writer/director (Tachikawa Yuzuru) who’s been in the business for a while and worked on good material, but never in the leading role. Less transparently a trial balloon for a potential series than LWA, Death Billiards seems a project designed to exist for its own sake (though I could see a lot of potential in the premise, should anyone every decide to take it long-term). It certainly seems like the sort of work that would never be greenlit for a conventional commercial enterprise, which is another of the benefits of the Anime Mirai project.
What we have here is a very simple story with some very subtle themes, and no attempt made to sort through things for the audience. Two men wind up in a beautiful, cavernous old bar full of stained glass and wood – the “Queen Decim” – with no memory of how they arrived. The place appears to have only two employees, Hostess (Seto Asami) and Bartender (Maeno Tomoaki). The older of the two men (Hazumi Jun) bums a cigarette off the younger (Nakamura Yuuichi), each of them has a drink, and the bartender and hostess proceed to tell them that they’re going to play a game, randomly chosen by a roulette, and that they should play “as if their life is on the line”. No other information can be given, and the old man responds to this information in considerably more stoic fashion than the younger.
What happens afterwards is utterly fascinating and beautifully executed, though whether it has any deeper meaning beyond the pure entertainment value is going to be up to individual choice. A game of billiards ensues – 8 Ball to be precise, with each ball a representation of some part of the players’ bodies. It soon enough becomes clear that pool has a special meaning for each of these men, and that the older especially is far more than he seems. Each has the experience of having their life flash before their eyes, and what’s most interesting is that the younger man’s runs backwards, while the old man’s runs forwards. The bartender reveals his true identity, and a choice is seemingly made about the fates of the two men – though we’re left in the dark both about that choice, and about what the old man said to the bartender in the final moments of the film.
I’m not a huge fan of the sort of ending Death Billiards uses here, as it can be viewed as a kind of stunt – a bit of a cheap trick – but it does undeniably lead to some interesting consideration and conversation about what really happened. What’s clear for me is that there’s real talent (and a big budget) on display in the production – the execution is superb, as it was with LWA. The backgrounds are gorgeous (I wish I had a bar in my neighborhood that looked like that) and the animation – the billiard game, the brawl that follows, the facial expressions – is fluid and the cinematography creative. I was struck by how much the character designs by Kurita Shinichi (another veteran finally getting his chance to be in charge of the visuals) reminded me of Mushishi – Bartender especially is a dead-ringer for Ginko. All in all, Death Billiards is an impressive piece of free-form creativity and another feather in Madhouse’s cap, and for me it represents (along with Oji-san no Lamp) the high-point of the Anime Mirai project to date.