Otanashi is dead. Well, at least that’s what he’s told by the very brash female student Yuri upon waking up on the grounds of a school with no memories of how he got there or anything of his life previously. Before he can grasp his situation and get used to his new ‘afterlife’, he’s asked to join the Not So Dead Battlefront where a group of teenagers fight against God and a mysterious student by the name of Angel by preventing themselves from being ‘obliterated’, or in other words, pass onto the next life. Otanashi is reluctant at first as he fails to find Angel a threat. But as he gets to know his new friends and the new limbo of a world he inhabits, it becomes clear that he was brought there for a reason. Is Angel really as evil as the battlefront makes her out to be? Why is Otanashi hesitant to regain his memories? Will recovering them cause his own obliteration? Whatever the answer is, he cannot die, so has plenty of time to uncover the secret of his new way of life.
So how does one exactly describe Angel Beats? Is it a high school comedy with a large cast of quirky characters? Is it an action-packed battle for survival set in a bleak world with no end in sight where death is only the beginning? Or is it a drama that takes a look at how our choices and regrets define who we are? In a way, it’s all these things and at times chooses to be one over the other. The strength of the series however lies in its themes of humanity; it becomes apparent very early on that the lives that the various students led before coming into this limbo were not exactly happy ones. They’re all had lives of hardship that no one would really consider a ‘happy childhood’. They’re not overused cliché’s such as ‘my father abandoned me’; they all have unique tragedies that will strike a chord with the audience on different levels. You don’t learn everyone’s backgrounds (which is a real shame) but the lives shared are done in great detail enough to drag you in and feel great empathy for these poor souls. It’s this side of the show that is tied up nicely at the end of the 13 episode run, and there’s no denying that the final episode is a heart wrenching one; giving all the major characters an emotional but fitting departure.
But that is only a small part of the programme; although the character’s self acceptance are giving an episode or 2 dedicated to them, the rest of the series is filled with explosive action scenes, the battlefronts constant attempts against God, various comedy moments and more. Sadly these other elements don’t always add up or even given a fitting conclusion. For you see, Angel Beats is a magpie series; it sees a bright shiny new idea, charges at it at maximum momentum, but suddenly drops all focus the moment it sees another new shiny idea in its view. Consider this for a minute; the Battlefront has a massive underground base which is multiple floors deep underneath the school, filled with traps to prevent Angel from infiltrating; the underground base is supposedly there to build great weapons for the whole team including cannons, grenades and guns. What do they do with those weapons? Nothing. You see the team holding generic hand guns and one with a halberd but no other resources are used. Do they make or do anything else of this great magnitude? No. Instead several episodes later the battlefront decide to take down Angel by sabotaging her exam grades so she would fail them and look bad in front of the school. It’s this dramatic change in tone from one extreme to the next that affects the bulk of the series. Angel Beats flips from wanting to take these emotionally damaged teenagers into a fight with the all-powerful God, to suddenly having them perform pathetic tasks that even Excel Saga would find ridiculous. This goes towards any major plot developments too; one episode a student steps up from the shadows declaring himself God with (unexplained) hypnotic powers looking like he’s the next big threat, only for the next episode to push him aside to a comical foil role that happens to have a soft spot for the main protagonist – a role which was already being filled by another character. Sadly it happens far too often; a supposedly game changer idea comes along then deflates in front of your eyes just as fast. It’s very hard to get emotional invested in a series or take any of the dramatic plot developments to heart when you just know that Angel Beats is just going to drop it by the next episode. Sure the action scenes are fun, yes it made me laughs in places, but mixed together and it really doesn’t work, especially as half the cast are only defined by their one-note jokes. The guy with the halberd I mentioned earlier; he’s grumpy a lot of the time but that’s all you learn about him, then there’s a girl who claims that everything is stupid. I fail to recall their names because the cast is so large and we learn about only a handful of them. Funny thing is that half the time it didn’t need to be. Only 5 of them get a decent flashback montage to flesh them out and probably less than that are actually involved with the overall plot.
I could go on to say how the limbo world they inhabit starts to crumble the moment you ask questions as to why this and that happens, but suspension of disbelief is the least of this series’ problems. It had the potential to be a great anime, it had good ideas behind it but sadly it struggled to follow any of them all the way through. You could’ve fitted all the character’s back stories into the short 13 episode structure if they had more focus, but that’s not what we get here, which is a shame.
Music plays a very important role in the series; luckily it’s a very strong soundtrack with great J-pop/rock tracks to compliment it. The piano-led opener will pull you in immediately, but you’ll quickly notice that nearly all the episodes have a lyrical track in it, mostly thanks to the in-series all girl rock group ‘Girls Dead Monster’. All the tracks are catchy, lyrically fitting for each scene they’re in.
As expected of blu-ray releases; the picture is crisp, vibrant colours and of perfect clarity. Too bad however that the actual character designs aren’t anything to sing songs about; the whole school environment and the students aren’t anything unique to the series, you could point to any school-driven series and see duplicate shots. Only the slightly different colours of hair define most of the characters but that’s not exactly unique to this series.
Extras are formed of clean opening and closing, disc credits and the OVA “Stairway to Heaven” which apparently takes place between episode 4 and 5. However, according to Wikipedia, there is an ‘alternative epilogue’ that’s noted as a BD/DVD exclusive but I can’t seem to find it on my copy of the discs so I assumed it wasn’t included.
Angel Beats is a very ambitious title with lots of good ideas but sadly doesn’t follow through in its execution. Like a child it pelts into a grand idea full of energy and charisma only to lose interest just as we build to a climax. You can’t get completely emotionally attached to the series because you can’t guarantee the thought will be continued into the next episode. I admired Angel Beats for it’s ideas but found myself continually bothered by its lack of focus. Worth a look for its uniqueness, but not for it’s frustrating handle on them.