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Death Parade (2015)

Who says we all die alone?

Death Parade is a 2015 anime based on a 2013 short film, Death Billiards. It follows the solemn work of the “arbiters” of Quindecim – a purgatory-like place where souls go to be judged as fit for reincarnation or “the void.” This “judgment” takes the form of pitting two souls against each other in a game – pool, cards, darts, etc. But the goal isn’t to win: it’s to strip away the pretence of human socialization to reveal the “darkness of the soul.” The main arbiter we see in action is Decim, whose small world is complicated when he meets his mysterious, amnestic assistant.

The series begins in a more or less episodic form, introducing one-off characters who struggle to earn their way to the good place while revealing the tragedies that molded them into exactly the kinds of people that deserve the bad place. But a series-length narrative quickly emerges involving the political intrigue of celestial beings (but notedly not god), the journey to discover what “judgment” really means, and how exactly the assistant came to find herself by Decim’s side. In 12 short episodes, the story remains contained while offering many avenues for further exploration. The show’s characters, world, and themes could have spun wildly out of control, spawning years of content that eventually fizzled into mush. Death Parade is solid specifically because of its strength to end, even if the end feels slightly premature.

The series focuses around a few key thematic questions that tie together the emotional thrust of the story. As the name Death Parade implies, these immortal beings tasked with the work of judging humans tend to treat their jobs with flippant nihilism: arbiters (and others with similarly arcane jobs in the Afterlife) are prone to lives of excess. They drink, play, chat, and even entertain themselves with the suffering of their “guests.” The aesthetic of modern glitz and glamour and fun, established by the show’s energetic and stunning OP, sets a tone of frivolity. Viewers are immediately invited to see past the serious focus of the work. We are left to determine for ourselves if the work of these arbiters is, in fact, completely arbitrary.

Only Decim and his assistant seem interested in the inner lives of the humans who pass through. While the assistant seems to intuitively understand the complexity and enigma behind each person, Decim observes as an outsider, desperate to learn what makes humans tick. A humanoid learning how to love or feel is an old story, so much so that even storytellers who use this trope often forget to make it feel unique and authentic. But Death Parade genuinely wants to know what makes human beings the tragically lonely species it so often is. A painfully real exchange between the two main characters in the climax makes this trodden thematic ground feel new and impactful.


That said, not every trope in the show’s bag of tricks works so well. There is a default toward a sort of anime-esque mania that makes characters unbelievable. I am certainly not someone who believes that naturalistic acting is the only way to convey emotions. Sometimes being big and over-the-top is exactly what a piece calls for. And certainly in a show about people screaming for recognition and understanding and empathy in the face of an unfeeling system, it makes sense for characters to push their emotions as far as possible. 

Sometimes, the way characters lash out is quite good: in one particularly brilliant episode, a woman who has only recently escaped an abusive relationship to experience a happy and successful life with her children tries to win the game by physically attacking her younger opponent. The assault is long, stretching out for several seconds, as the young man she attacks is powerless to stop her (and far be it from the cool-headed arbiter and his assistant to intervene). When she comes to her senses, she realizes how monsterously she behaved. This extreme form of expression is precisely the point of the episode: we see how these horrific trials create antisocial behavior rather than revealing an individual human being’s capacity toward being antisocial.


At other times, however, we wish the show would just take a Xanax. In particular, its use of violence towards women often feels both callous and lazy, and ultimately draws attention away from its more rigorous intellectual questions. In the lead up to the climax, the show introduces us to two men who die while in the act of taking revenge for violence done against the most important women in their life, including a murder and a sexual assault. Even for 2015, this flippant invocation of violence against women, both as an act so mundane the story finds it barely worth examining and as an act so deeply cruel it can justify any poor behavior taken by the men to whom the violence actually effects, seems outdated.

There is much to say about a nearly ubiquitous discomfort with femininity and female sexual agency in anime. For a girl who has nothing to watch except shows about boys punishing women for their behavior or about women being punished for no reason in particular, sexual or gendered violence is itself cliche: it’s so mundane, it’s more deserving of mockery than ridicule. 

However, it should be noted that the show has some truly wonderful recurring women characters. The assistant forms a short but powerful friendship with her mentor, and through her self-exploration, the themes of the story are brought into sharper focus. Decim’s boss, Nona, is a smart, charming, crafty manager who leads with a gentle hand and big ideas.


One wonders if someone at production studio Madhouse has a bit of a morbid fixation on the afterlife. The studio’s most famous title, Death Note, is iconic for its static, gray, and deeply unsettling view of death. And, of course, meditates on the inherent problems with judging another person. Like Death Note, Death Parade has a sort of fluency with metaphorical imagery that drills its themes into the viewer, bringing us uncomfortably close to some of the scariest and darkest sociological conceptions of death. In contrast to the bombastic and vaguely spiritual energy of the OP, the ED depicts the motifs of unfinished lives, the mental prisons in which we all live, and the ultimate absurdity of seeking meaning with excruciating poignancy.

Death Parade touches the darkest parts of the human condition with the ultimate goal of defanging them. Concluding the series, I felt at once a profound sense that I must never forget that I am going to die, but also that there is no wrong way to live a life. As in the show itself, the fundamental flaws do not detract from the overall quality of the experience, and the eternal ambiguity that pervades all aspects of being is just a part of being alive.


Death Parade humanizes big existential questions with a well-tailored setting and complex characters. While some of the least charming anime-isms often break emersion, particularly in some of the story's biggest moments, Death Parade manages to build up to a strong, and unexpectedly intimate conclusion.


Shain Slepian is a screenwriter, script consultant, and content creator with a life-long love of animation and media analysis. Their work can be found on MediumLeft Voice, and on their YouTube channel, TimeCapsule. Shain's book, Reframing The Screenwriting Process, is available on Amazon.