A newly-wed couple, Takashi and Machiko, emerge from an elevator, both confused. Neither can remember actually getting in the elevator or anything that happened beforehand, but it’s taken them to a fancy bar called Quindecim. The bartender there, Decim, tells them that they must participate in a special game, and are unable to leave unless they do so. Unfortunately it’s a game they must ‘stake their lives on’, there are even worse penalties for refusing to play, and try as they might, they are unable to exit the bar. With no choices left but to accept the whim of what they now assume to be a madman, Takashi and Machiko find themselves playing a game of darts. The first person to get their score to zero- or whoever gets their score the closest to zero – will be the winner, but the catch is that each section of the dart board is labelled with a different body part and landing on them causes an enormous amount of pain in the corresponding body part of the other person – and the higher the score, the greater the pain. Not wanting to hurt each other, Takashi and Machiko opt for intentionally missing the board, but things soon go wrong with their plan. Very wrong.
As the horrible game continues, they slowly begin to regain their memories and the true nature of Quindecim is revealed.
Well, wow. I went into Death Parade not knowing what to expect, and I’m really glad I did. If you’re at all interested in watching this show, and also haven’t seen the short Death Billiards it’s based on, I advise you to do the same. Stop reading this review after this paragraph (maybe you can quickly scroll down to see what I graded it first, although I’ll save you the trouble, I gave it 4.5/5) right now, unless you don’t mind me having to spoil the major ‘twist’. It’s a lot more effective when you don’t already know it, because you get to experience it from Takashi and Machiko’s point of view – you have no idea what’s happening at first and then the details will begin to fall into place. There’s this brilliant ‘oh shit, I get it’ moment where the penny drops just before they realize it themselves. The thing is, I’m sure this important detail is part of the plot summary of the show itself and it feels silly to treat something revealed in the first episode as a ‘spoiler’, per se, but I’m just saying that it’s definitely better when you don’t know. Needless to say, the gradual reveal and sharp twists in how we perceive both Tadashi and Machiko, not to mention how they perceive each other as their memories slowly return, was impressively done. If you want an example of the antithesis to the dreaded info-dump ‘tell and barely show’ light novel trash that comes out every season, this is it.
So, now with this next paragraph that you’ve decided you don’t care if I spoil it, I just want to add that plots like these, especially in anime, are not uncommon. In fact, had I heard the synopsis of the plot before I watched it I would have been less interested, but it’s incredible what an atmosphere and good direction can do. It’s obvious from the beginning that Quindecim is not an ordinary bar and that there are supernatural elements in place, but the gradual clues masterfully build up throughout the episode until it becomes clear: Machiko and Tadashi are dead. They were killed in a car accident on their honeymoon and then ‘woke up’ in the elevator to Quindecim – a place of judgement where the souls of two people who died at the same time find themselves. The game of darts – which determines which of their souls will reincarnate and which will go to ‘the void’ is less about skill than how the two play it, and how it causes them to react. The breakdown from loving couple to bitter enemies as they begin to remember things while their distrust and paranoia grows really impressed me, and I was surprised at how belieavable it actually was. It also has one of the most frightening depictions of complete and utter rage that I’ve seen in animation. Obviously, this is not a particularly happy show, but it’s incredibly compelling and the tantalizing way in which the story unwinds had me on the edge of my seat. I’ll admit, as soon as Decim told the couple that they would ‘stake their lives on a game’ they couldn’t refuse I kind of inwardly rolled my eyes a bit, because this is fast becoming a cliche in so many anime, manga and games, but Death Parade may be the best implementation of such an idea I’ve seen yet.
My main concern, obviously, is that now that I know the gimmick it’s going to be hard for future episodes to capture the impact this first one had. While this one is mostly concerned with Machiko and Takashi, the end of the episode reveals some other characters that seem to work at Quindecim, one of whom may be a newbie. I’m assuming the second episode will focus on them, which I’m interested to see. This episode’s game of darts was also the result of a roulette, so seeing what other ‘games’ can happen between a newlydead pair also gives me a reason to want to continue. I feel like it’s going to be tough for the show to follow such a strong opening act, but if it does, I may have just decided on what I’ll be blogging this season. While the way the plot unveils itself was the thing that made the biggest impact on me, I also can’t ignore the beautiful animation, atmospheric lighting and impressive voice acting.
And that opening, mood whiplash from the show itself it may be, is also a definite contender for the eventual 2015 awards post.