How glorious it is, when a series with great expectations delivers on them in full. Even in a good season I’d have placed a lot of emphasis on Death Parade, given how much I loved the Anime Mirai short it’s based on, Death Billiards. But in a season with remarkably little on the schedule that seems even interesting, much less potentially great, this show is carrying a huge load. And while it’s only one week, the early returns suggest it can carry it.
I loved everything about this premiere, starting with the incongruously upbeat (both visually and aurally) OP by BRADIO. If you watched Death Billiards (if you didn’t, you should) you know the basic premise here. We have a gorgeously post-modern bar called “Queen Dekim”, wherein works a mysterious white-haired bartender (I always thought he looked a bit like Ginko) named Dekim (Maeno Tomoaki). Visitors arrive via the elevators (that there are two is significant) remembering little of their recent past. It’s soon clear that this is a place of judgement, and that Dekim is an arbiter.
If there’s any caveat I would offer in my optimism for this series, it’s that we don’t know exactly what we’re going to get long-term. Because this episode very much follows the form of the OVA, we don’t know if the entire series will do so, or whether there will be more focus on continuity and the supporting cast (we meet pixieish Nonaginta (Okubo Rumi) and Onna (Seto Asami) in the premiere). And if it’s the former, it’s impossible to say whether that episodic style can remain as effective over 12 episodes as it is for one. Might this formula grow a bit stale over time, or the darkness a bit overwhelming? It’s possible – but I can say that over the course of one OVA and one TV episode, it’s a knockout success.
Make no mistake, this looks as if it’s going to be a very dark story – which you know if you watched DB. “Man’s inhumanity to man” – and sometimes specifically those close to him or her – is an obvious recurring theme. In this episode the ante is upped from the OVA, as the visiting pair is a husband and wife. Takashi (Nakai Kazuya) and Machiko (Kawasumi Ayako) remember little except that they’re married, and were just on their honeymoon. They appear to be devoted to each other, and as Dekim explains the situation in his usual cryptic fashion Takashi immediately assumes a protective role towards his wife. But – and one can bank on this always being the case with Death Parade – things aren’t quite what they seem to be.
The game chosen to decide the fate of the fufu is darts – the game of 501, to be specific (which, like billiards, is one at which I’ve spent many hours in bars and pubs). There’s a quite sadistic element to this contests based on the first two we’ve seen, and this one is especially insidious – each player is given seven darts, and the board is composed of parts of the opponent’s anatomy. As the game progresses each player seems to remember more of their past life – including Takashi recalling his conviction that Machiko was cheating on him (based at least in-part on an overheard conversation between two of her friends at the wedding). That’s when the lies begin – and in what I’m certain is going to be a recurring pattern, the cruel fun as a viewer is going to be in trying to figure out just what the truth is.
There’s a lot of deep psychological analysis going on in these first two stories, and a rather pessimistic (though not entirely fatalistic) view on human nature. Is Machiko in fact lying about the friend “Matchy” being the topic of the overheard conversation – or about her pregnancy? Might she have later lied about her true feelings – and infidelity – in order to convince Takashi to win the game and save himself? We’re left to puzzle over this as events spin out of control, but in the end it appears that the real lie was Machiko’s professed love for Takashi, and indeed their marriage itself. But of course, the fate of the participants isn’t determined by who wins the game – it’s determined by what the participants reveal about themselves in the process of playing it.
If I have any quibble about the first episode, it’s that we’re flat-out told what happens to the players – Takashi is sent out for reincarnation, and Machiko is sent to eternal torment. That’s what I guessed (as with Billiards, the Noh masks seem the key), but I think it’s more effective if the result is left to our imaginations. Apart from that, though, it’s a masterpiece – vastly superior to any premiere so far this season, and likely to be one of the best in 2015. This material is perfectly suited to the Madhouse aesthetic, and writer/director Tachikawa Yuzuru has now validated the promise he showed in DB and stamped himself as a potential superstar. The show looks fantastic – the art-direction is top-notch, and it blends 2D and CGI as well as any series I’ve seen in a long time – and the writing is smart, biting and incisive. This is a glorious vindication for the Anime Mirai program – giving a talented creator a chance to step up and take control of a project is exactly what it set out to do. The results with Death Parade are spectacular, and this looks as if it has a chance to be one of the best series of 2015.
ED: “Last Theater” by NoisyCell