Yuzuru Otonashi has a problem. He’s just woken up on the ground outside of a strange school, to find out that his unconscious body has been guarded over by an even stranger girl wielding a gun that’s bigger than she is, and the only thing he remembers is his name. But before he can ask what the hell he drank last night, she explains that he’s dead. And she says this… while aiming her gun at another girl. She goes on to explain that this other girl, an apparent angel, is the mortal enemy of her and the group she leads… The Underworld Battlefront. Or the “Like Hell I’m Dead Battlefront,” depending on what version you’re watching.
Believing this story to be bat-shit crazy, and who could blame him, the boy shrugs off her story, and decides to approach the other girl, who echoes the first girl’s claim that he’s no longer among the living. He asks for proof, so without hesitation, she stabs him through the heart, killing him. He wakes up in bed later on, his bloodstained shirt serving as a definitive reminder that he’s not in Kansas anymore.
He’s not in Oz, either… Probably. He’s in some vaguely defined computer-based version of Purgatory where teenagers end up whenever they die unfulfilled. You can’t die in this world no matter what happens to you, you can magically build inanimate objects out of dirt, and if you take school too seriously, you’ll disappear. This is a lot of nonsense for our hero to take in, but it’s all real, leaving him no choice but to take his circumstances at face value.
If the aesthetic of this series reminds you of famous Kyoto Animation titles such as Kanon, Air, and Clannad, you’re not too far off… Angel Beats was designed by the same people who created the original visual novels for those other shows. That’s where the comparison ends, however, as the animation was done by a company named PA Works… It’s a company that has a very small, but very impressive, production history. True to form, Angel Beats is right at the top of my list of the most well produced anime I’ve ever seen, and I’m not just talking about the visuals.
If there has ever been an anime that I rushed to buy the soundtrack to, it’s this one. I haven’t heard an anime soundtrack that was this beautiful since Bastard. The compositions are diverse, inspired, and in many cases, you can tell exactly what scene a tune is from just by listening to it with your eyes closed. It’s that good, and it’s that memorable. The opening theme is probably one of the least skippable I’ve ever seen, with a mind-blowing piano score set to our title character rocking out on that exact instrument. The ending theme is also great, as it has a very melancholic tone, and the way it ties into it’s video won’t really be made clear until the end of the series. But the heart and soul of the music… As well as the heart and soul of this series in general… Is the fictitious anime band Girls Dead monster, a pulse pounding rock band formed by a handful of the students. This band has it’s OWN separate soundtrack, and trust me, they deserve it.
When talking about the animation, the comparison to Kyoto Animation must once again be brought up… Angel Beats clearly had just as high a budget as the Kyo-Ani classics, with endlessly smooth and graceful movements from the characters and environment, but unlike most of those shows, it doesn’t waste it’s money on mundane slice of life activities… Oh no, they do SO much more with it. This show goes so all out with it’s big, epic Sci-fi action moments, smoothly blending CG with traditional visuals, that it even puts the first season of Haruhi Suzumiya to shame. Even the background characters… AKA the NPCs… Are well animated, and I’ve seen a ton of shows that didn’t bother to go that far.
As for the characters? Well, I guess we should start with the title character. Angel… Or, as she comes to be known, Kanade Tachibana… Is a very problematic character, as some of the greatest flaws in the series revolve around her. She has a really unique motivation behind her actions, I’ll give her that, but it doesn’t make her a well written character. I can’t really delve too deep into my problems with her without going into some pretty heavy spoilers, so I’ll be saving my comments about her for my much more liberal post about this series next week. As for her co-star, Otonashi, well, I also have some mixed feelings about him… He’s not your typical Key lead, as he doesn’t make a habit of getting involved in other peoples’ problems, but he also doesn’t really do anything else to make up for it… Aside from commenting on the crazy things all the other characters do, his only role in the story is to form a relationship with Angel so he can pass on what she knows about this world to the Battlefront, but that wouldn’t be an issue if she had ever just told them herself… Which she totally cold have done at any time. Having said that, the development of their relationship is one of the better aspects of the show, so I can’t complain too much.
Yurippe Nakamura(The girl with the gun), on the other hand, is a very compelling character. She’s active, she has clear motives supported by one of the cast’s most hauntingly tragic backstories, and she’s by far the only character who ever takes the initiative towards moving the story forward. She bears some similarities to Haruhi Suzumiya, both in her appearance and her attitude towards her followers, but she’s also a much more reasonable and intelligent character than Haruhi ever was. She’s strong and perceptive, and has quite possibly the best character arc in the whole show.
As for our secondary characters, Hinata is the first person who really befriends Yuzuru, and the dynamic between them is pretty enjoyable, despite the forced “Bromance or Romance?” jokes. He’s constantly insisting that he’s not gay, and in a flashback, he proves it by showing us how terrible a catcher he is. Yui is the fast-talking air-head, and while her hyperactive and sometimes idiotic ways are a constant source of annoyance for Hinata, they do show a genuine affection for each other. Naoi makes for a pretty decent villain when he first appears, but after having his cruel ways changed by the power of fwiendship, he basically just becomes a constant gay joke that never gets a punch line. Iwasama is the original lead singer of Girls Dead Monster, and… Well, despite only appearing in three episodes, you could write an entire paper on her. In a good way.
The rest of the cast barely deserves to be mentioned, if at all. Oda and Shiina make for some good visual gags from time to time, but TK is one of the laziest character ideas I’ve ever heard of. I’d really like someone to explain to me why he’s so popular. Those three included, everybody in th supporting cast is pretty much an interchangeable gimmick with a human face. You could swap any of them out with a girl who likes to skateboard while dressed like a crab, and nothing… Absolutely nothing… Would change as a result.
Monolingual as I am, I can’t say too much about the Japanese dub… Just that it sounded really, really good. It’s leagues better than the English dub, which was written by the infamous Stephen Foster, and yes, it stinks opf all his trademarked awfulness. If you can stomach hearing an awkward line like “I thought you were just some gun-toting girl or something” and not switch languages, then you know less about how people talk than HE does. He takes a lot of unfortunate liberties with the dialogue, he’s probably solely responsible for the mispronunciation of the word ‘suplex,’ and it’s just an awkward time to be had in general. I’ll be honest, though, while I definitely noticed how bad the writing was, it didn’t really piss me off until he rewrote one of my favorite Yurippe quotes near the end.
Having said all that, I can’t condemn the dub completely…. Like with most of Foster’s work, the writing may be awful, but the acting overall is actually pretty decent. Likewise, there were a few really impressive performances. Luci Christian is at the top of the class as usual. She’s made a career out of being one of the best emoters in the business, and even though she only gets a single episode of screen time as Iwasama, she still lets her veteran instincts bleed through with every word. Hilary Haag puts her signature hyperactive energy into her role as Yui, forcing me to wonder just how versatile her insidiously high pitched voice can be. Brittney Karbowski owns the role of Yuri, and as I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, she’s always a joy to listen to. David Matranga takes the subtle, humorous edge that he gave to his character in the lead role from Clannad and carries it over to Hinata, to stunning effect.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows… Blake Shepherd is the flat out terrible lead role, and for the life of me, I can’t wrap my head around why they trusted him with it. Emily Neves, in the role of Kanade… Um… Well, she doesn’t do a bad job, it’s just sort of mediocre. I mean, if you have three of the best voice actresses in the company in your cast, and give the ‘lead role’ to an actress who’s career highlight at that point was getting booted off of American Idol, it’s not a very flattering comparison. I would have placed this role in the hands of someone more capable, like Jessica Boone or Taylor Hannah, but to be fair, Emily’s talent HAS grown by leaps and bounds since this role. And TK shouldn’t have had an English voice actor at all, since his entire schtick is that he says nonsensical one-liners in Engrish.
Personally, I’d recommend the sub, but if you’re a hardcore dub fan, then the acting in the dub should at least be satisfactory.
The meat of Angel Beats can be difficult to talk about, so I think I’ll open by saying it’s an anime that you’re supposed to watch with your heart, and not with your head. It’s full of intense passion, strong emotions, and just enough gripping characters so that any viewer will find at least one to relate to and root for. The romantic melodrama and tear-jerking tragedy of this mysterious world is designed to grab you right by the heart and hold on for dear life, because if it should ever fail to keep that part of you engaged, you brain would kick in, and you’d notice right off the bat just how much of an unholy mess this story really is.
One of the first things Yuri tells Otonashi is that he should just go with it, and accept things as they are. I’d like to think this advice goes double for the viewer… Turn your brain off, because this story doesn’t make a lick of sense. Now, don’t get me wrong here, a fictional story doesn’t have to make sense to our universe. It has to make sense according to it’s own universe. With nearly every single story element, we get an explanation of what it is, an explanation of how it works, and a direct contradiction within three episodes time.
There aren’t a lot of examples I can give of this without dropping some spoilers… Once again, tune in next week for that rant… But you can take, for example, the Battlefront’s attitude towards Angel. In an early episode, Yuri explains that they have to be careful, and keep all conversations about their plans under wraps, because they don’t know whether or not Angel can hear them. Well, in only a few episodes time, they’re nonchalantly discussing their plans right on the other side of the classroom from her… She doesn’t seem to notice, and for the most part, they don’t seem worried that she’ll notice.
And there are other examples… The other students who weren’t brought here from another life are called NPC’s, and while they’re supposed to turn a blind eye to the Battlefront’s antics, they show up in droves to a GirlDeMo concert, and line up for a monster fish meat give-away. The former of the two examples was pointed out by one of the characters… As a matter of fact, a lot of the inconsistencies in this show are pointed out by the characters, as if the writers thought that making the script self-aware of it’s own flaws would somehow make up for those flaws.
The pacing of this anime is a serious issue. We get plot point after plot point after plot point thrown at us at break-neck speed, and with no build-up or development for any of them, they just fly by without making much of an impact. There’s little to no character development outside of the main cast, and as a result, more than three quarters of the cast go completely unexplored, existing only to spout off their assigned one-note-jokes and occasionally die for our amusement. I strongly feel as though both of these problems could have been solved if the show had a 24-26 episode run, like it was initially supposed to.
We’re introduced to important details that quickly become forgotten or conflicted, plot points that are almost immediately made pointless, and the only explanations they ever stick to are the ones that sound like complete cop-outs. The incomprehensible nature of the world they’re in ultimately culminates with an underground scene between Yuri and some mysterious figure in a room full of computers. This is by far the most insulting moment in the entire series, as several of the questions we’ve asked about it are resolved with lazy answers ranging from “It was like this when I got here” to “The power of love.”
And all of this culminates in a conclusion that’s emotionally powerful, as well as a relentless tear jerker, but upon closer inspection is nothing but a clusterfuck of plotholes… And no, i’m not just talking about the one plothole that everybody knows about. There are deeper, much more destructive plot holes that undermine the entire premise of the show, take the stakes completely out of the climactic final battle, and render the two strongest episodes completely pointless. And once you’ve realized them, they will probably make you feel like the biggest fool on earth for loving it as much as you did. And even as someone who genuinely does enjoy the series, it just can’t be forgiven for writing that lazy.
Angel Beats is available from Sentai Filmworks. The DVD set has been out for a while, and it includes one of the few OVA episodes, which is worth a few good laughs. The set set can be found for a modest sum on Ebay, and at the time of this writing, it’s available for a bit cheaper as part of the Rightstuf.com December sale. It’s not available on Netflix anymore, but it IS still available on Crunchyroll. And as long as you’re a member, and don’t have to put up with six commercials per episode, Crunchyroll’s awesome. There are a handful of CD soundtracks that can also be purchased, and if nothing else,those are worth paying a pretty penny for. There’s apparently also a prequel light novel, but I haven’t read it, because it hasn’t been officially translated yet.
Angel Beats is a very poorly written story that relies entirely on it’s spectacular visuals to distract you from the phenomenal lack of logic or consistency. It works masterfully on an emotional level, and despite the messiness that you’re supposed to overlook, it never feels hollow or meaningless… but the logical side of Angel Beats is just so infuriatingly bad. It’s easier to appreciate for what it isn’t than for what it is, though.. It doesn’t follow any clichés throughout it’s thirteen episode run, and none of it’s characters fit into any of the tired stereotypes that plague the anime industry, so I’m willing to give it some credit for originality and effort. But the talent, overall, just isn’t there.
And do you want to know the absolute worst thing about it? The worst thing about this anime is that it is physically impossible to not enjoy it. It is relentlessly fun to watch, even for some stick-in-the-mud like me who kept his brain on full blast the entire time. There’s a lot of things it does wrong… Embarrassingly so, at some points… But when it does something right, it knocks it right out of the park. The overly complicated plot comes with a surprisingly simple, albeit poorly constructed, story. The humor isn’t as spot-on as it probably should be, but it’s inspired enough to keep you laughing just often enough. If nothing else, you’ll enjoy the hell out of the production values alone. I like to tell people this show is bad, or that I don’t like it, but upon a rewatch(Like, for the sake of this review), I find I just can’t stay mad at it. I give Angel Beats a 6/10.