Two elevator doors slide open with a familiar ding and we’re introduced to two strangers who seem just as unfamiliar with their surroundings as we are. As they walk further down the hallway, they encounter an expressionless man who welcomes them to the lavishly decorated bar, Quindecim. His instructions are simple but vague, coaxing the two strangers to play a game with their lives at stake.
Death Parade brings you into what I can only describe as a kaleidoscope of human experiences. As a result, each episode differs in tone. We can go from the bittersweet tale of two young lovers who only find each other in the afterlife, to the harrowing tale of a young man seeking revenge for his sister. In most cases, retaining a consistent feel through out the series is near impossible when you’re handling such varying plotlines but Death Parade accomplishes it with grace. As cruel and cold these life-or-death situations may be, they never feel tasteless or manipulative to me.
Death Parade has an earnest desire to grapple with ideas concerning human nature, mortality and the supposed moral center that’s supposed to keep us from being monsters. It almost never comes off as preachy because rather than setting its sights on the larger picture, it concentrates on smaller, more personal tales. These are the stories that are affected by a very flawed system with imperfect judges who can’t be bothered simply because there are just way too many people in this world dying at the same time and they have to do their job as efficiently as possible.
The two leads, Chiyuki and Decim are thrown right in the middle of this conundrum. Decim often expresses a fascination towards humans, and even goes as far as to comfort them when they break down from the realization of their demise. But there’s a visible barrier between him and the people he judges and it’s his relationship with Chiyuki that bridges that gap. The development between them is an absolute joy to watch and is perhaps one of the most fascinating relationships I’ve had the chance to watch unravel in an anime for a very long time. The two of them form a connection that strengthens by each passing episode, magnified by how they interact with the people who find themselves in Quindecim.
In what is possibly the best scene in the series, Chiyuki (who is revealed to be a figure skater) performs a routine and Decim watches her in silence. The whole sequence is beautifully animated, accompanied by Yuki Hayashi’s excellent score and most of all, the context of the scene itself elevate it to near perfection. As Chiyuki skates across the ice, her glimpses of her seemingly idyllic life flood us one by one. Seeing someone so full of life and talent perish so young is a tragedy in itself.
What Decim and Chiyuki share becomes a deep emotional bond and is essentially what Death Parade is all about. Death Parade speaks of the ability of humans to empathize with one another, despite being in vastly different circumstances. It criticizes its own premise and the idea of segregating people based on manufacturing extreme situations. The question of who goes where is rendered meaningless, for the stories of the people we’ve met in the show end when they enter that elevator.
Death Parade is a contemplation on how we value the limited time we possess. It’s unfortunate that its fascination with the primal and the darker side of humanity makes it too loud, chaotic and violent. It’s this chaos that works against the very contemplative nature of the series. That doesn’t mean the series isn’t a triumph though. With each episode I found myself deeply involved with the characters, all of whom feel like real people to me.
Yuzuru Tachikawa’s directing is frequently on-point. It’s a frighteningly good combination of creativity and precision. A fine example of this would be episodes 8 and 9, that are rife with visual motifs and parallels. There’s also this incredibly well timed scene where the brother assaults his sister’s rapist, and the how the struggle happening indoors is contrasted with the quiet shutting of a door. It’s a remarkable scene that has stayed with me long after the show has ended. What Everything feels fine tuned down to the smallest details, it’s almost as if this was directed by someone who has been doing this for years and is a natural perfectionist. What’s even more amazing that Tachikawa himself handled the series composition, turning this into what is ostensibly his brainchild.
Death Parade is an excellent reminder that more often than not, we tell stories to cope with harsh truths, observing them not as facts but as narratives with a beginning, middle and end. It seeks empathy in a hardened world and clings to the vestiges of humanity that persist even in our weakest moments. It’s hard to watch at times, but is ultimately a rewarding experience.