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Anime Reviews: Angel Beats!
Angel Beats! is a lively, attractive series with great comedy and drama alongside a plethora of likable characters, although its narrative stumbles at times.
Title: Angel Beats!
Production: P.A. Works
Series Length: 13 episodes
Air Dates: 4/3/2010 to 6/26/2010
Age Rating: 13+ (mild violence, mild language, dark or disturbing thematic elements)
Summary: On a cold, concrete surface below a darkened sky outside of a seemingly-normal high-school building, a young man wakes up to see a girl aiming down a plaza with a sniper rifle. The girl's name is Yuri, leader of the Shinda Sekai Sensen (or Afterlife Battlefront, SSS for short), and she tells the young man that he is dead, they are in the afterlife, and that he must be ready to fight or risk annihilation. Yuri is aiming her rifle at an unusual girl with platinum-colored hair, whom she refers to as "Angel." Suspicious of Yuri's claims, the young man casually approaches Angel and tries to corroborate Yuri's story, asking for proof that this is the afterlife, causing Angel to reluctantly stab him in the heart with an otherworldly blade. Hours later, the young man awakens yet again in the infirmary--still "alive" and without even a scratch on him. And yet, the man cannot remember his death, nor even his own name, but now he has a choice to make: Wander through the afterlife aimlessly, or join Yuri's Afterlife Battlefront and get his answers...
The Good: Vibrant visuals and spectacular songs; interesting premise; attaching main characters; mixes amusing gags with powerful drama well
The Bad: Many side characters, while still likable, get zero development; setting and plot fall apart under scrutiny
The Ugly: I wanted more TK!
So here's a title I wasn't expecting to like as much as I do, let alone at all. I already knew this was a Jun Maeda story, and while I loved his work in Clannad ~After Story~, I was never really a fan of his other works. Sappy melodrama only works for me when it's in a plausible, mostly-real-world scenario (like NANA!), which worked well in After Story, but left me ice-cold in his other big titles, Air and Kanon. In fact, I didn't pick up Angel Beats! for any reason in particular--I just chose it at random, really--and I most certainly didn't grab it because I had any faith it would be good. It was just a "This show's kinda popular, let's check it out!" kind of impulse. But you know what? Sometimes impulse titles are disappointing, and other times (like this) they're tremendously refreshing. Angel Beats! was not only not terrible, but after two viewings, it's a serious contender for one of my favorite shows to come out this decade.
To start things off, it just wouldn't be a Jun Maeda production if the artwork wasn't bright and vivid and appealing, and Angel Beats! is no exception. This series was actually one of the first major titles produced by P.A. Works, and lemme tell ya, what a strong way to start! The fluidity of the animation may not be anything special, just typical TV anime stuff, but it's the attractive character art and the wonderful lighting that really catches the eye. Some of the scenes that take place at sunset or dusk were just a joy to behold, and the character designs just pop out in the best way, giving every character a distinct and unmistakable look...well, except for Hinata, who kept psyching me out by making me think Tomoya from Clannad was making a cameo. Oh well. He still looks great, though! All in all, while it's not a mind-blowing feat of animation (like a certain series named for an inexhaustible supply of sword-like creations), Angel Beats! aims to impress with its beautiful artwork and, many times, succeeds.
Now, what would a Jun Maeda creation be without great music? I don't know, because it hasn't happened yet! As per usual, the man infuses his work with masterfully-written music appropriate for the setting, and special mention must be given to the series' opening theme, "My Soul, Your Beats!" which starts off with a lovely piano melody before morphing into an exceptional pop song that I could never bring myself to skip. Early in the series, we even get a neato pop-rock version of it, too! The ending theme, "Brave Song," is another fantastic tune that puts a lot of focus on Yuri's character in its lyrics, and as such is a perfect track for the series. Another unskippable song. The other majorly-notable tracks are "Crow Song" and "Alchemy," which are performed by the in-universe school rock band, Girls Dead Monster. The vocalist-slash-guitarist also gets a solo acoustic tune called "My Song," and it is spectacular. All the background tracks are perfectly fine, as well, but they just get utterly destroyed when compared to the insert songs. Truly remarkable stuff.
Now, as far as the meat of the series, I must first point out that the series' premise is quite interesting--it's the afterlife, and it's populated by teenagers who have led horrible or otherwise unfulfilled lives and are now being forced to go to high school surrounded by a multitude of "NPCs," as Yuri calls them. The NPCs aren't real people with souls, but rather filler to make the school feel populated and alive. The world itself operates on weird video game-y logic, as The Guild can craft weapons and materials out of dirt, Angel's unique abilities are programmed into her by a computer (almost like the "Skills" tab in an action game), and death is only a mild inconvenience, as your body simply heals itself back up. The setting does have a few problems, but we'll get to those later; for now, suffice it to say that I found this world to be quite an interesting place.
One thing that definitely goes without reproach is the series' main cast of characters: Otonashi, Yuri, and Kanade/Angel. Otonashi starts off as a typical snarky-but-still-a-good-guy type of character who has amnesia to conveniently allow exposition to happen, but as he gets his memories back, we begin to see a side of him that is truly compelling. Yuri is the stalwart and headstrong leader of the SSS, and she never buckles nor kneels in the face of adversity, despite her almost-comically horrifying backstory. She's not invincible--and she knows it--but she puts on a brave face for her allies, and (minor spoiler alert) her character arc doesn't revolve around or end with any kind of romance! I can't even begin to tell you how refreshing that is! As for Kanade (a.k.a. Angel), I can't go into too much detail without wandering into spoiler territory, but her circumstance is rather tragic and when the true scope of the story is made clear, I felt absolutely sorry for her. These three characters are the most well-developed in the series, and given that they have the most screentime, I have no complaints.
It also helps that the series is very good about balancing its humor with the more serious bits. Obviously, when you want to have palpable tear-jerking drama in any story, it becomes mandatory to contrast it with lighter, often comical material to make the sad stuff more powerful, and Angel Beats! walks that tightrope with finesse. For every moment of soul-crushing sadness, there is a Rocket Chair gag, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Now that I've spent way too many words talking about what makes me love this series (and even then, if spoilers weren't a thing, I could have gone on much longer), it's time that we face reality and look at where the series goes wrong. Firstly, while I love a great many of the side characters with all my heart (including heartfelt songwriter Iwasawa, the bubbly and childish Yui, and the Engrish-spouting dance master and honorary Greatest Joke Character of All Time, TK), it must be said that the development they receive is either A.) delivered in a huge chunk at the last minute, or B.) nonexistent. Like I said, I still love these guys, but not much time is devoted to giving them backstories and motivations, instead giving them quickly-identifiable gimmicks and leaving it at that. It definitely gives them a "bunch of high-school pals" feeling, and that's likely the entire intent of having such a huge cast, but I kinda wish the series was 26 episodes instead of 13, just so we could learn more about all these people.
Also, it should be said (again) that the setting and plot, while thoroughly interesting, has holes you could drive a semi through. Most egregiously, without getting too spoiler-y, the series firmly establishes in its last episode that one character's death occurred way later than another's, yet the former appeared in the afterlife way, way earlier than the latter did. That's not just a plot hole, guys, that's a plot crater! There's also the issue of why the afterlife needs video game-y mechanics in the first place; some fans say it's to contrast the afterlife with the real world (which we see a few times), and there's merit to that argument, but it still feels kinda unnecessary. There are also a few characters (Naoi) and plot segments (the clones, the shadows) that are entirely pointless and serve no real purpose whatsoever, ultimately just wasting the precious little time the series already had.
But screw that! Even if the side characters got little development and the narrative has structural problems, I love Angel Beats! far more than I ever thought I would. I was expecting something bad-to-mediocre, and I got something solidly great instead. Sure it has problems, but the characters, developed or otherwise, are too attaching and the emotional core is too powerful and too resonant to be weighed down by what, in the grand scheme, is just nitpicking. If potent drama, vibrant aesthetics, and lovable characters are what you look for in an anime, then I have no reason not to recommend this series to you. I went in expecting fluff and I came out with yet another piece of evidence against the case that newer anime can't be great.
Final Score: 8 out of 10. While the structural issues with the plot and setting could have been shaved off with another rewrite or two, Angel Beats! still stands tall by virtue of its appealing artwork, wonderful songs, and its resonant story populated with attaching characters.