Today I’m going to be reviewing an anime I’ve been looking to acquire for a long time, Angel Beats! Guns? High school comedy? Emotional? Sign me up!
So, was it all I hoped for? Well… let’s find out, shall we?
Angel Beats is the story of an amnesiac named Otonashi, who wakes up in a high school courtyard near a girl with a sniper rifle, with no idea how he got there. Turns out, he’s totally dead, and the world he woke up in is a limbo for students who still have attachments to the living world.
Gun girl’s name is Yuri, and she’s got her sights set on an innocent looking silver-haired girl on the playing fields. Not being a man who is keen to see pretty girls get shot in the face, Otonashi opts to talk to her instead. Unfortunately, he ends up getting stabbed in the chest for his trouble.
To his surprise, he wakes up in the school infirmary without a scratch on him, before being recruited into Yuri’s band of merry hangers-on, the Shinda Sekai Sensen (or Afterlife Battlefront to us gaijins). They are trying to fight the silver-haired girl – who they call Angel – and beat the system of their limbo. With guns.
The rest of the 13-episode series follows the gang through their trials, tribulations and zany schemes, usually involving their subsistence tactics, like hosting a rock band to steal meal tickets from the artificial students that inhabit the school.
You see, if they behave like good students, then the system wins and they are ‘obliterated’, disappearing for good and moving on to the next life as Buddhist scripture dictates. It makes for some interesting set-ups and, naturally, some dramatic moments. We don’t want to see these characters vanish, because they’re so well characterized and unique.
We have TK, the mysterious music enthusiast; Matsushita the Fifth, a heavy-set martial artist; Shiina, a female ninja or kunoichi; and Yui, a pink-haired puckish rogue.
Unfortunately, this is exactly when problems with the formula of the show emerge. Angel Beats has an extremely large cast (so many characters that I often forgot their names), and the problem is that they are just TOO interesting! With only 13 episodes and a main plot thread to explore, there just isn’t enough time to effectively explore character backstories. Normally, this might not be as much of an issue, but these characters are dead. We want to know how they died! Even more annoying is that some characters are asked how they died and they just dodge the question. Worse, it goes past infuriating when characters don’t get any backstory whatsoever. Did those characters I described above sound interesting? Well, too bad. Apart from Yui, we are never told who they really are or why they are in the limbo world.
I would love to say that the characters who are explored have really great backstories, but lamentably this just isn’t the case. Yuri’s backstory in particular stands out as a personal lowlight, a bombastic display of atrociously overblown writing for the sake of a cheap, manipulative “BE SAD” moment. Did I mention it’s never explained how she died, other than “I didn’t kill myself”?
It’s clear to me that Angel Beats was originally pitched as a longer series that had to be cut down for whatever reason, which led to the writing suffering substantially. Particularly near the end of the season, plot points come out of nowhere and feel extremely rushed, almost to the point of incomprehensibility. Not that I would ever call Jun Maeda a bad writer, but there was potential for so much more from this story.
Whew. That was quite a venting session, even for me. Well, I’ve gone through a lot of the negatives, so lets get to the positives.
I know I say this a lot in my reviews, but Angel Beats is an absolutely stunning anime from a visual perspective. Environments and characters are beautiful, with bright saturated colours and warm tones. This lovely style comes through particularly well in the Blu-ray release, which is definitely a worthwhile investment for enthusiasts.
The English dub is similarly up to par, and is mostly made up of actors who have participated in other Jun Maeda penned projects like Clannad and Kanon, including Brittney Karbowski, Blake Shepard, Emily Neves, Hilary Haag, David Matranga and a great (if brief) performance from the chameleon-like Luci Christian, playing rock chick Iwasawa – one of the few characters in Angel Beats to get a great backstory.
The music in Angel Beats is also great, with a strong opening theme performed by Japanese artist Lia called ‘My Soul, Your Beats!’. Aside from that, the show includes a wonderfully minimalist score that sets the tone perfectly.
Another major positive to be found in Angel Beats is the very last episode of the series. Despite several unresolved – or worse, unintroduced – plot threads, the final episode is incredibly powerful and nearly overwrites all the problems from earlier in the series. Jun Maeda describes his style of writing as ‘the crying game’, and cry I did. Episode 13 of Angel Beats stands as one of, if not the saddest epsiode of anime I have ever watched. It’s very effective, and very affecting, as expected with Jun Maeda.
But where does that leave the review? Well, much as I like the last episode of the series, Angel Beats has a lot of problems. It’s by no means perfect, nor ‘the greatest anime ever’. What it is is enjoyable entertainment, that tells the story it wants to tell. Yes, I wish there was more. Yes, I wish some of it was better written. There are an awful lot of fighting scenes, and I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if they were entirely written out – would the show be better or worse? Would it have left more time to explore backstories and philosophise on the nature of the afterlife? We may never know, though I hope somewhere down the line Angel Beats will (like Kanon) be remade, this time with the longer runtime it deserves.
Angel Beats is full of problems, but is immensely watchable, with real humor and likable characters. Though some ’emotional’ moments feel insincere and forced, when they hit the mark they hit hard. Cautiously recommended.