The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

Death Billiards

Title: Death Billiards
Genre: Drama
Company: Madhouse Studios
Format: 1 OVA
Date: 2 Mar 2013

Synopsis: Two men, one young and the other elderly, arrive at a mysterious bar. Both cannot remember what happened to them prior to their arrival, nor can they imagine what will happen next: They are told by the bartenders that they must play a game of pool. The outcomes of winning or losing the game are unknown, and they cannot refuse to play it. There is only one rule for the game: They must put their lives on the line while playing it.

The Highlights
Ambiance: Surreal.
Story: Absorbing.
Lighting: Clever use of hues to render a dreamy setting.
Red herrings: A tad too many, resulting in too many questions.
A game of pool: Has never been so riveting.

Death Billiards is Madhouse Studios‘ submission for Anime Mirai 2013, the continuation of the Young Animator Training Project, which serves as a platform for animators to hone their skills. Since its inception in 2010, the project has yielded interesting works: some engage viewers with their narratives such as Oji-san no Lamp and Shiranpuri, and others wow them with dynamic artwork and fluid animation such as Bannō Yasai Ninninman and Pukapuka Juju. For 2013, Death Billiards captures the audience’s attention with solid aesthetics and, more importantly, an absorbing storyline about two ordinary men in an extraordinary game.

Every submission in the annual project presents something unique to the audience, from the storybook-like crayon artwork in Kizuna Ichigeki in 2010 to the yellowish-white duotones in Shiranpuri in 2011. Death Billiards‘ art style is classic Madhouse Studios at its finest: polished and slick, the show is like an exquisite crystal glass. The combination of purplish hues and glowing effects render the setting in a surreal and dreamlike manner. Different animation approaches are also masterfully used to amplify effects for different scenes, such as slow motion for intense moments of truth to shaky camera jerking during a scuffle between the two lead characters. The anime serves as a prime example of the importance of different visual styles for different occasions.

While the visuals are impressive, Death Billiards‘ real strength lies in its storytelling. The game of pool is a mere theme: the real focus is the stories of two men with very different lives coming from different generations. Through the game, the two individuals’ idiosyncrasies are gradually revealed: one is a selfish and cocky young man who takes his opponent lightly, a person who has lived a comfortable life and becomes rash when things don’t go his way. The other is a level-headed and humble old man who takes the game at hand seriously, a person who has lived a life of hardships and accepts adversity head-on. What start off as a calm meeting between two men sharing a pack of cigarettes eventually becomes a climactic clash of contrasting personalities and back-to-back poignant flashbacks of their contrasting lives.

As impressive as Death Billiards is, there are a few issues that bring the story down a notch. A lot of red herrings are used intentionally to illustrate how the two men would react in a life-and-death situation, but there are too many to the point that many questions are raised. What if everything the bartenders said are false? What if a player violates violating the rules of the game? What if they are no rules to begin with? The story invokes such questions and it distracts viewers. In the end, it makes everyone wonder if everything is indeed a red herring and there is nothing that can be trusted about the story, leaving behind a tinge of discontent for the viewers.

The objective of the Young Animator Training Project is to cultivate young animators, and viewers are treated with captivating works from various production studios. While each impresses in their own way, Death Billiards does it with panache in its amazing visuals and profound storyline. Many questions are left unanswered, but there’s no denying the fact that it does a commendable job of telling an emotional and riveting tale over a simple pool game. Actions indeed speak louder than words, as the old adage goes, but the story demonstrates that more importantly, actions also decide the course of one’s life.

The Rating: 8

Reviewed by: AC

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