In the past I’ve praised shows like Person of Interest for being able to forgo simplistic procedural plots and incorporating more and more complex serialized elements in its story-telling, but today I’m going to do the unthinkable. I’m going to do something different. I’m here to tell you that this show, the 2015 anime series Death Parade, needed to be more procedural. It really, really did and that’s not just because the serialized elements that were there happened to be fairly boring for the most part.
Let’s start by looking at the show’s premise, which is basically about series of high stakes mundane recreational games that determine the fate of ones soul. When someone dies and their soul is in need of judgement, they enter this supernatural bar with no memories of their deaths. They are then coerced into playing a seemingly inconsequential game with someone else that has died and are judged based on their actions while playing the game. The players don’t know the true stakes of the game, but the unsettling surroundings and the circumstances of their playing suggests it’s something that they don’t want to lose. The bartender and lead character Decim is an arbiter, a supernatural and immortal being that judges humans and pushes them into playing the game and draws out their darkness over the course of it. Slowly, those playing have their memories returned to them throughout the game, and the audience gets a look at their lives and their eventual deaths. At the end of the game, the players who are deemed worthy are sent to be reincarnated, while those who have failed are sent to something called “the void”, an empty space of nothingness where souls suffer for all eternity. The stakes are high, the premise is simple, and the stories behind the several people that enter this supernatural bar (the Quindecim) are often interesting and tragic. Unfortunately the show squanders all that by placing an unwelcome amount of focus on the arbiters.
For whatever reason the writers decided it was more interesting to the audience if we watched the arbiters contemplate their role in judging humanity or if they have any right to. A long winded plot that goes absolutely nowhere is centred around this pointless dilemma, as precious screen time of what drew viewers into the show in the first place (and what the pilot was exclusively about) is lost to a virtually conflict-free plot. The thing about arbiters is that they’re immortal beings created for the soul purpose of judging humans, with their chief concern generally being staving off their boredom. By their very design, they aren’t as relatable or as interesting as the humans they judge, yet they take up an enormous portion of focus in this anime.
We get an endless parade of thin supporting characters that serve absolutely no purpose in their boring overarching plots while the humans they bring in for singular stories are far more compelling. There’s the arbiter who likes to drink a lot, the pessimistic arbiter who likes to play pool, and the aggressive arbiter (who might have worked as an occasional alternate to the regular lead if the show were truly procedural). All characters I really could not care less for, and I have even less love for the half-hearted and sophomoric attempts at imparting its themes to the viewers. ‘There are too many humans dying’ one arbiter laments, as the writers in all their subtlety and keen insight into the human condition, try to tell us our foolish ways are causing a problem for these cosmic beings. The stupidity of such a statement however, becomes obvious when you start to think about the actual issues that plague modern society. We have the opposite problem, with too many people being born and overpopulation becoming a huge concern, less people are dying today than they were long ago; which is something that makes the “too many people are dying” problem all the arbiters are facing all the more confusing. Just what the hell were they doing before when there actually was too many people dying?
This is all symptomatic of the show’s biggest problem, the fact that it wants to be something else that it clearly has no place being. The show is served better by its original premise, and the writer’s skillset is definitely more attuned to dealing with more self-contained stories since it’s clear that they are way out of their depth when dealing with long arcs. What the show did with its story is the equivalent of writing Tales From the Crypt in a way that sees the Crypt Keeper contemplate his role as a cryptkeeper, analyze the moral ramifications of telling these grizzly tales, and if he has the right to exist at all. Maybe we’d find out about the Crypt Keeper’s boss keeping tabs on him and there would be a lot of false-tension centred on whether his boss is aware of these concerns that he’s been having. And then we’d get several episodes that don’t contain a single tale, but instead the Crypt Keeper asking pointless questions about nothing to other crypt keepers with paper thin characterizations. Turns your stomach doesn’t it? That self-indulgent nonsense that fails to approach the level of profoundness it’s clearly (and desperately) trying to reach, that wasted potential, that inability to recognize its own strengths and weaknesses… Unfortunately that’s the kind of show Death Parade turned out to be. Oh well, at least its opening credits are amazing.
“Poor Death Parade, it looks like it couldn’t MARCH to the beat of its own drums, and fell DEAD flat! Hahahahahahaha!”
– A Crypt Keeper level sentence filled with the customary terrible puns.