Two men, one elderly and one young, find themselves at a posh-looking bar with no knowledge whatsoever of how they arrived. The establishment's grim bartender and hostess tell them that they will not be allowed to leave until they play a game against each other, the catch being that according to the bartender, they must "play with their lives at stake." Given that there is, mysteriously, no way out of this bar whatsoever, the game of billiards begins....
Death Billiards works as well as it does mainly because its creators, while obviously hoping that they'd have the chance to expand upon this story, appear to have put effort into making this one-off coherent on its own, while using the unexplained elements to trigger the audience's curiosity. One doesn't come away necessarily understanding what just occurred, for Death Billiards is tantalizing rather than remotely conclusive, but nonetheless, its scant 25 minutes of airtime are used effectively.
One aspect I liked about this short is that much of the show's effect is carried out through non-verbal means, an aspect that MADHOUSE has often carried out exquisitely. Indeed, the bar in which the entire episode takes place (barring flashbacks) is ill-lit, home to low ceilings, and colored almost exclusively in murky red-and-violet tones, with the almost-monochromatic scheme of this bizarre secondary world contrasting sharply with any scenes done in flashback. The music, in its sparse and dissonant piano notes, effectively establishes the eeriness of the place to the audience, and this, in combination with the visuals, lends the careful viewer an advantage compared to the two "patrons," who are indeed oblivious, with the younger one pounding uselessly against the wall in a vain attempt to escape from the "game" he has been roped into.
That the audience is meant to have the perspective is supported by the connection between the vaguely macabre connotations of the scenery and the eerie nonchalance of the bartender and hostess themselves; the two patrons may be oblivious, whether in their own zen-like nonchalanace (that of the old man) or in their almost shounen-style hotheadedness arrogance (that of the younger man), and the show positions the audience outside of that attitude. It's a clever move, one that lends more credibility to the bartender's frankly bizarre claims and makes a potentially silly idea compelling instead. This is confirmed when we're fully immersed in the perspective of the two "employees" at the very end (the quotation marks being deliberate on my part), in a dryly humorous scene that establishes the drama we see as something almost normal and mundane, for better or for worse. It's also enough, I think, to make this short worth watching even if one can predict what the outcome will be (which isn't terribly hard, I think); the process is still interesting enough to watch.
I can't elaborate much on the aforementioned ending scene for fear of ruining the film, and indeed, it's near-impossible to discuss the actual plot and themes of the film without spoilers. Also, given that I first encountered this film via its more expansive sequel series Death Parade, it's hard for me to talk about this film in isolation. Certainly, an important aspect that Death Billiards seems to hint at is that this "game" operates by a means more arbitrary than even the bartenders realize, and that its results are thus suspect; this is something more fully expanded upon in Death Parade, and I'm not absolutely sure I would have picked up on this without knowledge of that series. In fact, I'm not absolutely sure whether I would have felt so positive towards this short if I'd not known that it was destined to be expanded upon. Nonetheless, its tantalizing final scenes made me instantly curious as to the "rest" of this world (even though I was already somewhat familiar with it), and that is certainly an achievement.
A well-constructed and effectively atmospheric short that screamed for followup; thankfully, it got it. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: The old man is beaten rather brutally in one scene, and there's a non-trivial amount of violence in the flashbacks; the overall themes, as well as the intensity, probably make this inappropriate for children. The hostess also wears an outfit consisting of a short skirt and a tight blouse that doesn't quite reach her belly button; it's not far-off from what hostesses at certain bars actually end up wearing, but I'd still call it fan service.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital source
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Death Billiards © 2013 Yuzuru Tachikawa/Death Billards Production Committee
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