First Aired: January 9th, 2015 – March 27, 2015
Director: Yuzuru Tachikawa
Great premises don’t always make for great stories. Other factors like the execution of the plot, the conceptualization of the characters and the creativity of the setting all help realize the potential that the premise offers. Death Parade’s premise is simple but intriguing – dead people walk into a bar where the bartender will ask them to play a game but unbeknownst to them, the outcome of the game will determine whether their souls’ fate. This set-up offers incredible avenues for conflict and creativity; even without venturing into the philosophical, there is the angle of exploring the conflicts between two humans when only one can ‘win’. It is impossible to explore every such idea but unfortunately, Death Parade goes to the opposite extreme and limits itself to a single focus. Despite being blessed as it is with a fascinating setting and an entertaining, albeit somewhat uninspiring, cast of characters, Death Parade is simply not ambitious enough. It regularly shows its audience glimpses of a bigger picture, of the setting’s complexities, but never attempts to address them. The significantly smaller scope would be easier to stomach if the show had done a great job with the limitations it did set for itself, but sadly, despite its occasional moments of inspiration, Death Parade is largely forgettable.
It began with such promise, though. The idea of humans being judged by the powers that be isn’t exactly novel; it has literally been around since the beginning of our species. Yet, Death Parade’s spin on it had such promise – the humans in question could take an active role in deciding their fates and tension would really skyrocket when the people in question knew each other. So, what went wrong? The trouble is, the tension exists only so long as the audience cares about the characters in question. By introducing new characters constantly, it was hard for the audience to really latch on to characters and form any sort of emotional attachment. Each stand-alone episode would feature a new set of characters, and knowing that we would not see them again by the next week made investing any emotional energy into the characters’ fates almost self-defeating. Perhaps the creators felt that the games themselves were the series’ selling point, or perhaps they felt the primary plotline concerning the main set of characters, (who, to be fair, are not replaced in each episode) could provide the adhesive to string the various stand-alone vignettes together. The episodes themselves were often very well done however; the show is brilliant at introducing the characters, creating tension between them and forcing the audience, despite knowing better, to care about the outcome of the episode. There are plenty of intense moments as the psychological strain on the participants takes its toll but there are also a good number of light-hearted and tender moments as well. In most cases, the emotional response that the episodes elicit are natural and feel organic but there are certainly occasions when the show resorts to downright emotional manipulation. A part of that is due to the sheer time constraint to presenting enough information to present a character’s story within an episode – telling the story of a single mother, for instance, requires time to really take hold of the audience but if rush, feels forced and insincere.
As mentioned, the stand-alone episodes are tied together by the series’ primary and secondary storylines. Without giving too much away, the series’ main characters, Decim and his unnamed Assistant, have an unusual situation on their hands; the Assistant was an anomaly when she entered Decim’s bar (the Quindecim) and as such he has delayed passing judgement on her. The secondary plotlines deal with Decim’s circumstances as well as giving the audience introductions to Decim’s peers and colleagues. At first, it seems like the cast of characters are a fascinating bunch – we see all sorts of characters thrown into the mix, from the white-haired, sassy Nona, to the grumpy, irritable Ginti, to the wise and kindly Oculus. However, despite the characters features so prominently in the show’s opening and being mentioned now and again in the first few episodes, we never really get to meet them and see what motivates them. Decim himself isn’t the most engaging protagonist – he is polite, dignified and seemingly without emotion. It helps that most of the time, he shares the screen with some of the livelier characters like his Assistant who is the colour to Decim’s grayscale. The character’s development over the course of the show is one of the series’ stronger aspects – the constant exposure to both the best and worst of humanity, as expected, leaves its mark on both character’s psyches and although their circumstances are very different, it is interesting to see how they try to change their philosophies based on what they see and experience. Unfortunately, in the end, all that character development doesn’t quite culminate in anything; there is no one moment where the character’s suddenly figure out the solution to their inner conflicts or no moment where they learn a lesson that helps them overcome their immediate situations – ultimately, it feels a little like the characters’ growth was added in for its own sake rather than to drive the story forward in any sense. This would be fine if the story itself was leading to plot based climax but instead it relies on its characters for progress. Yet, while the main characters’ final character resolutions were a little underwhelming, they were nowhere near as disappointing as the secondary characters. The secondary characters are barely present for the most part – they appear in perhaps less than half the episodes and instead of demonstrating any real personality, they are limited to a handful of quirks and eccentricities. This isn’t unexpected; with only 12 episodes, there is simply insufficient time to give these other characters the screentime they need.
Many of these structural decisions can be laid at the feet of director Yuzuru Tachikawa, but at the same time, he should also be credited with tight storytelling within each individual episode. While there were some instances in which he might over-dramatize events, the majority of the episodes were able to introduce characters we had never seen before and sustain the tension between them until the end. His failings in a assembling a more compelling season-long story can be attributed at least marginally to his relative inexperience as a series creator. Between him and the studio, Madhouse, Death Parade enjoyed particularly vivid colours in its visuals and excellent music throughout. Often, however, non-key scenes suffered from very noticeable drops in animation quality, exacerbated in part by the fluidity of the animation in more pivotal scenes. The drop is severe enough to distract from the story at times, something more discerning viewers should be aware of when considering the series. Death Parade is an easy show to appreciate on a weekly basis – Tachikawa ensured that – but its faults seem particularly glaring when the show is considered as an entity of its own. Its premise had tremendous potential but each episode narrowed the setting and story instead of expanding it until, in the end, we were left with a fairly predictable story of self-acceptance and self-understanding. Death Parade was one of the better shows of the Winter 2015 season but it’s unlikely to be remembered long beyond it.