Somewhere there exists a mysterious bar. When you arrive at it, you are forced to play a game against another person. It might be darts. It might be cards. If you win, you get to leave. If you lose, however, you die.
Or at least that's what the situation appears to be. In truth, it is far different: Players are already dead when they arrive at the bar. These games don't decide whether players live or die, but rather whether their souls are reincarnated or are discarded forever into the void. In fact, winning isn't even important. Rather, each game is specifically designed to break its players — to draw out the darkest parts of their souls. It is then that the bartender judges the players and decides their ultimate fates.
In a lot of ways, Death Parade is an anthology anime. Nearly every episode, we meet two new people and watch them as they are forced to play a game where they are tricked into believing their lives are on the line — mainly because memories of their respective deaths have been purposely blocked.
Because of this, Death Parade feels like a series of deep character studies. Sometimes the people who come through the bar are as harmless as they appear — and are just good people when it comes down to it. Others are revealed to exhibit the worse aspects of humanity — both in life and in death. Yet, the majority of people seem to be a mix of good and bad. A person may be horrible and abusive at work but completely devoted to his or her family at home.
Death Parade is quick to point out that no one is truly angelic. There is some darkness hidden within each of us — be it jealousy and envy or something far more disturbing. And as the characters' memories tend to slowly return as they play the games, we are shown a brief summary of their lives; we see how their personalities and beliefs changed as the perils of life forged them into something less innocent and sometimes even downright evil. The games, therefore, often end in emotionally heated revelations or brutal violence.
This raises one of the series' major questions: Is it right to judge people not at their best but at their very worst? The otherworldly bartender, Decim, has been told by his superiors in the soul-judging hierarchy that this pessimistic outlook on human nature is the correct way to judge people. However, his nameless human assistant (known only as "The Black-Haired Woman") comes to despise this method of judging as the series goes on, causing Decim to doubt it as well.
The relationship between Decim and The Black-Haired Woman forms the overarching plot of Death Parade. Each set of guests that comes through the bar affects the two in different — and often unexpected — ways.
Decim himself is not human. Instead, he is part of a race of creatures whose only purpose is to judge the souls that come through the bars. He is not alive nor is he technically dead. However, unlike others of his kind, he does have the ability to feel emotions. Thus, he is able to judge souls on an emotional as well as logical level — though he is unaware of this.
The Black-Haired Woman, on the other hand, is a human who immediately knew she was dead — making any typical game and judgment impossible. In the most basic sense, the entire anime is the story of her judgment — and her perspicacity with regard to the soul-judging system in general and Decim in particular.
And it's clear from the start that there are some serious flaws in said system. Despite being granted a portion of their guests' memories as part of the game, the arbiters are nonetheless left unable to digest the data in any but the most objective — i.e., emotionless — way. And as the games only bring out the darkest and most emotional parts of people, this can lead to incorrect judgments. The solution to this problem is Decim himself — an arbiter with emotions — though whether he will be able to fulfil his potential is unknown to everyone.
Occasionally, the story follows not Decim and The Black-Haired Woman but Ginti, the bartender of another afterlife bar. He, unlike Decim, looks down on humans and is both concerned and angered by how much Decim cares for them — especially The Black-Haired Woman. Still, he eventually finds himself saddled with his own human girl sidekick. However, his reason for keeping her around is that he is incapable of understanding her or her actions — leaving him completely unable to judge her. This stands as a much needed counterpoint to Decim and shows how most afterlife bars work in contrast to his own. It also gives a much needed view of how the arbiters generally perceive those they are set to judge.
Death Parade is an in-depth investigation of human nature and morality. Beautifully animated and with a unique setting, it builds a fantastical world full of games but devoid of fun. Best of all, it sets the viewer up to be the real judge, forcing you to take these complex characters — be they arbiters or humans — and decide if they are redeemable or are ultimately better suited to a never-ending void.