#1 The Quindecim’s style
Death Parade is largely set in a bar called The Quindecim. It’s a strange place that sits on the very edge of life and death. A place where the recently-deceased pass through as a final stop before they reach their ultimate destination.
Before any of the anime’s actual plot came into motion, I already found myself captivated by The Quindecim. It’s an enormous and classy establishment. Stained glass windows, a wooden bar top, moody lighting, a jellyfish aquarium, and a piano in the back. It’s incredibly atmospheric. Certainly a place I wouldn’t mind having drinks at myself, though something tells me I probably couldn’t afford it.
The décor lends itself to plenty of striking compositions that keep Death Parade visually interesting. The bar can even change to accommodate different activities, with walls mechanically shifting to reveal unseen side-areas. All this and the occasional peek behind the curtains prevent The Quindecim from ever feeling stale, even though its the only place you get to see for most of the anime’s runtime.
#2 “Death Game” as a personality test
The point of the Quindecim is that it’s the place where humans are judged. The barman, Decim, is actually a creature known as an “Arbiter”. An emotionless, undying person who observes his guests and decides whether they will be allowed to reincarnate or vanish into nothingness.
To do this, Decim forces guests to play macabre games designed to fill people with fear. A game of darts where each segment of the board corresponds to a body part that is pierced upon hit. Or a round of bowling where the balls contain the other person’s heart. As the players realize the stakes, it draws out their “inner darkness” as Decim says. He observes how this manifests, how the players treat each other, and decides whether their soul is worthy of reincarnating.
Usually I find death games and battle royales unsavory. I see why it’s a popular trope, but dislike how this usually leads to edgy stories and cheap violence. In Death Parade the characters are already dead though, even if they don’t always realize it. The high-stakes games aren’t actually grim battles for life and death, they’re a vehicle through which we learn what makes these people tick. We’re gradually treated to flashbacks of their lives and how they came to pass away, while seeing how those events shaped the person that’s now playing.
With that in mind, it becomes fascinating to watch each episode unfold. The audience is as much an arbiter as Decim himself, observing these people, learning about them, and deliberating on their morality. I watched the show with a friend and we had plenty of discussions about what we felt should happen. Meanwhile, Decim’s judgments often go unexplained, leaving you to wonder what he saw in these people.
#3 How Arbiters relate to Humans
What makes Arbiters like Decim interesting is in how they view human actions. They are emotionless and have never experienced life nor death, so there is a fundamental detachment between them and the people they have to render judgment on.
The overarching story of Death Parade is largely about exploring this disconnect. Is it fair to tempt people into showing their most intense emotions, if these are then weighed by someone that could never feel anything like them? There is a lot of discussion about what it takes to understand a person, which leads to some good philosophizing in the latter half of the story.
To provide a different angle, Decim is joined by a young woman. She is Human and often has a very different view on the people that come to Quindecim. While Decim watches neutrally, she gets swooped up in the emotions and conflicts of the guests. She is also outspoken, berating Decim for his fabricated sympathy and occasional deceptions. She is powerless to change his judgments, but begins to slowly affect how Decim views morality. Something that not all of his co-workers approve of.
#4 Largely adult cast
Being that the story revolves around people that are dead, most of the cast consists of adult characters. This ranges from young adults in their early-20s to middle-aged people and even the occasional elderly. It makes for a nice mix of people from all walks of life.
If you know anybody who is skeptical about anime or who resents the usual tropes, then Death Parade could be a fun anime to introduce them to. The story may be dramatic, but in ways that feel appropriate for the characters and their respective age groups. Feuding couples, a struggling single mother, lovestruck adolescents, or a police detective who has seen too much. There’s the odd outlier, but nothing so eccentric that it sours the anime’s mature appeal.
#5 Emotional punch
I also have to praise the stories that are told through these characters for their emotional punch. The writers do a great job at swooping you up in the stories of its episodic characters, in turn making the tragic twists very effective.
While I’ll refrain from spoiling anything, I was particularly invested in Yousuke. He is a hikikomori; an archetype not unusual to anime, but which Death Parade explores in a way that I didn’t expect at all. It’s more about the tragic circumstances that led to him secluding himself, culminating in a strong, emotional pay off.
The fact that the characters are all dead lends such a tragic touch to their stories. There’s no way back for them. You learn about their regrets, their families, their unfinished business, and there’s nothing to be done about it. There’s no magic fix, only the next adventure or the void.
There is also the overarching story of Decim’s development and the fate of his unnamed assistant. I can’t get into any of it without spoiling, so all I’ll say is that it was really good. It’s a great storyline, very emotional, crying is permitted (and recommended).
More like this…
Catherine: Psychological story revolving around a bar.
Mob Psycho 100: Character-driven story with directing by Yuzuru Tachikawa.
Love is Like a Cocktail: Sweet, delicious alchol.