Welcome to Quindecim, where death is only the beginning of each story. And much like roulette, it varies in terms of enjoyment.
Let me start off by saying I love the original Death Billiards OVA. It had stunning presentation, consistent pacing, seamless tonal shifts, captivating atmosphere, distinct characters, and one of the most original concepts to come out of anime in recent years. We saw survival games and after-life stories before, but never did we see the two mesh into such a natural combination like this. Not to mention it knew how to make a good mystery work, providing just enough information for the audience to guess before crushing those preconceptions right in front of us. Sure the short time limit led to some arbitrary plot points and missed character development, but much of this could be excused under the assumption that it was part of a larger story. And for the most part, Madhouse seems to have answered that assumption with confidence.
Aside from bumping up the consistency of the already stunning presentation, practically every aspect of the OVA has been expanded upon to fit the length of a show.We get more games to play with and a wider variety of game contestants, each with their own twists and stories. Meanwhile the details on how the bars deal judgement reveal a flawed, but constantly tested system that keeps track of the entire world and sorts out which souls are still salvageable. It basically leaves the bartender in charge of judgement solely based on their memories and actions, then ranks them on their performance. And while this method proves to be unbiased and accurate, it practically labels them on based on their past and whatever actions they make. Because while these bartenders seem to have human traits, both their godlike status and reliance on black-and-white cores means they fail to see the shades of grey.
These lead to the most unexpected additions to this concept; a human perspective and a central cast. After the first episode, the show introduces important details through others working throughout this system including bosses, death trackers, and other bartenders. Not only do they each have distinct personalities and roles to show, but their interactions between their games fleshes out a sort of office community that lightens the mood once in a while. Meanwhile our emotionless lead Decim is partnered with a woman(referred to as Kurokami) who not only came alone to the bar, but already knew that she was dead. With no other way to judge her, she serves as both an apprentice and, possibly, a moral compass for our emotionless box. Needless to say, it’s a combination that really keeps the games from becoming repetitive. There’s always a sense that these two are learning from each other every time they finish supervising a game. Kurokami learns about how instilling desperation in participants is required to judge their cores, and Decim learns about the importance of considering motivations and human attachment. It’s this double-sided development and colorful community that makes the business of death seem alive.
Having said that, the actual entertainment value is as inconsistent as any other episodic show. I’ll give the show credit for offering something new each episode despite following the same formula, but it becomes painfully obvious when certain episodes reached higher. It’s a lot like Space Dandy in that way; each episode shares the same basic standard, so it becomes a contest on which remained unique. From my experience, the most memorable episodes consisted of odd numbers and the even numbers were predictable. The first episode works due to the mystery and shock value present behind a tragic story of a broken relationship. The third episode works as an anti-thesis to the first episode, offering a bittersweet romance formed too late to last. And the fifth episode directly betrays the formula in favor of world-building, character introductions and minor development.
Meanwhile, the second episode strips the mystery of the first in an anti-climactic behind-the-scenes situation, offering only confirmation for an assumption that bartenders can mess up. The fourth episode offers two utterly shallow characters playing an arcade fighter starring themselves and leaves on a predictable note made special only by how both supervisors and participants tried to rig everything. The sixth episode is probably the best out of these 3 even with shallow characters, considering how aggressive Ginti’s techniques are compared to Decim and how goofy the situation is compared to previous episodes. It’s over-the-top, melodramatic, and mocks everything about the concept for the sake of fun, which fits the upbeat tone of the OP song better. On it’s own it’s quite good, but even this was overshadowed by an actual deconstruction of the concept just an episode earlier.
Regardless of whatever faults it has though, the overall experience has been nothing short of excellent. It’s full of interesting personalities, oozes with style, and plays around with death like few anime have ever done. If anything, this shows demands your attention simply based on how original it is. The last time I held this much respect for an anime was Ping Pong, which means this is already a clear contender for Anime of the Year.