Very few television programs can claim to be as prolific or influential as Rod Serling’s 1959 series, The Twilight Zone. Though it wasn’t the first show of its kind to be a science-fiction/fantasy anthology, The Twilight Zone’s presentation and the quality of its writing and acting, elevated it to a level that has had undeniable impact on numerous programs and people since its original airing.
In 1961, The Twilight Zone aired an episode entitled, “A Game of Pool.” The premise of this story was rather simple: a young man named Jesse is an incredibly accomplished pool player whose reputation is matched only by the late, great, Fats Brown. Jesse would happily give anything to play a game against Fats in order to prove he’s the best that’s ever lived. Sure enough, Jesse gets his chance as Fats Brown appears from the afterlife to accept Jesse’s challenge. If Jesse wins, he can indeed claim that he’s the greatest. However, Fats tells him that if he loses, he’ll die.
In 2013, a short animated film entitled Death Billiards was made as part of a Young Animator Training Program. The success of the film would be great enough to later have its premise expanded upon into a full series, the almost similarly titled Death Parade in 2015. As for the film’s story, like “A Game Of Pool”, it too was also rather simple; a young man and an old man find themselves mysteriously trapped within a mysterious bar and lounge. Despite being trapped there they are told by a man behind the bar and his female coworker that they’ve been chosen to play a game of pool against each other. He also strongly advises the two of them to play as if their life depended on it.
Though some elements of the stories are already apparently different, there’s a startling similarity in how both stories place men of opposing ages in a seemingly life or death game of billiards. One of the hallmarks of The Twilight Zone was that the episodes were never quite what they seemed to be at face value; the stories either had a twist ending to them, or the themes presented in the story had a hidden, deeper meaning that became evident by the time the show was over. Death Billiards not only follows this trend, but does it so well that it could easily have been mistaken for an episode of The Twilight Zone (if it wasn’t, you know, an anime, and made 52 years later).
In “A Game of Pool” Jesse does indeed accept Fats’ challenge, but the story becomes much more than just a billiards match between two men. Fats begins to reflect upon his own life as well as Jesse’s. The younger man’s entire life has revolved around pool; it was something he discovered he was not only good at, but superior to others in. Fats on the other hand took time out to live for more than just the game, he experienced life, love, excitement, joy, and was able to separate himself from billiards. Jesse interprets this merely as Fats trying to distract him from the match, a match which ultimately has come down to one final ball that either man can sink to win.
Fats takes his shot and not only misses, but makes the mistake of having the cue ball wind up in a place where Jesse could easily hit the ball in for the win. As Jesse prepares to take the shot, Fats warns him that being the best at something carries with it a tremendous amount of weight and informs the younger man that he may be getting more than he bargains for if he wins. Jesse ignores the warning, makes the shot, and revels in his victory. Fats concedes defeat, thanks Jesse for beating him, and fades away. Jesse on the other hand calls Fats a sore loser and prides himself on how his name will be remembered forever. The episode concludes years later as Jesse is in the afterlife and being paged to report to a pool hall in Ohio to face yet another challenger who claims to be the best.
Death Billiards is similarly not actually about who wins. Though the bartender known as Decim informs the two men that they need to play as if their lives are on the line, he never actually tells them that the penalty for losing is death. The young man fears this is the case though, and as the old man prepares to sink the winning balls, the younger of the two completely panics and in a fit of desperation begins to savagely attack the older man with a cue stick. Much to the young man’s surprise, his older opponent is incredibly adept at defending himself but youth ultimately prevails when a strong punch sends the old man backwards against the glass of a large water filled tank, shattering it and seemingly killing the elder gentleman.
The young player is directed by Decim to finish the game, which he does, only to find that the old man is not dead. The old man rises to his feet, thanks the younger player for the game, and reveals to him that while he was on the ground he’s remembered that he is in fact, already dead. The old man was in a coma for some time and upon finally passing on, wound up in this place. This revelation similarly jogs the memory of the younger man who also realizes he too is dead, having been stabbed by a girlfriend he cheated on. The point of the game was never about life or death or who won and lost, but about how the men conducted themselves and whether their souls would ultimately wind up in heaven or hell.
Unlike “A Game of Pool,” Death Billiards never reveals the ultimate fate of the two men. Hints are given that the young man may be a good person despite his deceitful love life and his violence against the old man, while the elder gentleman is hinted at being more sinister than his outward appearance let on. The final glimpse we have of the two men is as they both board separate elevators; one of them going up, the other going down, with no visible hint shown to us as to which went where.
Both shows however demonstrate that the point of their respective stories wasn’t about the actual competition, but about the quality of the souls of the characters involved. Jesse was obsessed with being the best to the point that it not only limited his experiences in life, but also doomed him to a hellish afterlife. Meanwhile the young man from Death Billiards became so fearful for his own life that he allowed himself to savagely attack another person and in the process, may have damned himself to hell.
It’s also worth noting that the events of both stories are set in motion by unknown forces. Fats notes after he tells Jesse that he may be getting more than he bargains for if he wins, that he was required to tell Jesse that; the implication being that there are rules Fats has to follow and orders he has to carry out. Meanwhile, Decim the barkeep is presented not so much as a god-like figure, or arbiter of fate, but more so as a facilitator or overseer of the game. Just as Fats is doing his job as directed, Decim is doing his.
There are specific details in each story that distinguish them further; for example in Death Billiards each of the balls is marked with a picture of a bodily organ. Though the players are informed that they’re purely symbolic, each time the young man has one of his balls pocketed by his opponent, he receives some sort of physical pain and a seeming loss of his senses. None of this appears to happen to the old man however, leaving it up to the viewer to decide if the young man’s pain is real, or just a byproduct of his increasingly pronounced fear and desperation.
“A Game of Pool” is far less mysterious though as Fats has a complete working knowledge of what he’s doing and what Jesse’s in store for if he wins. And Jesse at the very least knows what the penalty for losing is and is warned about the consequences for winning, even though he ignores them. It’s also worth noting that “A Game of Pool” benefits greatly from having two incredibly talented actors in the main roles, with Jack Klugman playing Jesse, and Jonathan Winters as Fats. This isn’t to say that the voice acting in Death Billiards is anything less than well done, it just makes “A Game of Pool” that much more memorable an episode because of the incredibly strong acting.
Unfortunately without asking the writer, creator, and director of Death Billiards – Yuzuru Tachikawa – it’s hard to know for sure if the short film was indeed directly inspired by The Twilight Zone. What can be said though is that each story bears its own stamp of originality despite some of the similar elements at play. The true magic however is that because both Death Billiards and “A Game of Pool” are so strongly written and performed that you can go from watching one to the other and not even realize that these stories were written 52 years apart from one another. So if you’ve seen one, it’s time to watch the other. And if you’ve seen neither, then there are worse ways you can spend an hour of your time than watching these two seemingly simple stories with deceptively deep “pockets” of depth.