Angel Beats is a show that, like its ghostly protagonist, seems caught between worlds and at first not entirely sure what to do with itself. Is it a slapstick comedy about a bunch of dead kids trying to get by in a high school environment? Is it a badass adventure about rebellion against higher power and religious philosophy? Is it a contest to see who can come up with the most tragic backstory for a character? Is it a rock band anime??
To give it due credit, Angel Beats is in the tragic camp of projects that got their funding cut before they could finish, leading to the series being half as long as it was apparently intended and feeling pretty semi-baked because of it. Not to say it doesn’t have its moments, but those moments hit your heart with dart-like precision in a sea of wishy-washy mishandled potential. There are so many cool things at play here: the idea of a digitised afterlife-limbo for souls who lived unfulfilled youths, the way the savvy characters manipulate the unreality Matrix-style by bending its rules and programming their own superpowers and weapons, the cast deconstructing the clichés they seem to embody and being able to rest in peace as the end of their character development arcs… alas. The saddest thing about this show is not its heartbreaking story content but the fact that it’s merely good when it could have been amazing.
At first, it seems like it’s leaning on every trope it can grab to hold itself up—propelled along by a hapless, amnesiac hero who wants to do good by everyone, who wakes up with as much idea of where he is and what’s going on as the audience (conveniently) only to be informed that he’s dead and subsequently invited to join a small band of gun-wielding rebels by a potential manic pixie dream girl. Her foil is the girl they’re supposedly fighting, the ‘angel’ that runs the place with a tiny, adorable body and a robotic (lack of) personality, who politely stabs Our Hero at his joking request to prove he’s really dead.
None of the souls in this world (which takes the form of a high school for reasons that actually do surface) can properly die since they’re already in a pseudo-afterlife, leading to all sorts of comical hack-and-slash among the rebel brigade and everyone dying in various hilarious ways at least twice each over the first few episodes. The rebel brigade seems to be made of parodies of anime character tropes (intellectual glasses guy is actually really buff, stoic ninja girl likes cute things, happy-go-lucky ship-teasy goofball is actually heartbroken…) until they kind of stop halfway through and leave most of them rather two-dimensional. The ones that do get character development have it crammed towards them rather clumsily at first, and it’s quickly established through narrated flashbacks (that aren’t always flowed into seamlessly) that everyone has a tragic backstory. It’s like the entire cast has been visited by the Oprah of tragic youths.
This is not a bad thing on its own, and the content of the stories themselves was painful in nature, but the execution, if you’ll pardon the pun, was not always as delicate as it could have been and didn’t always win me over. One arc culminates with the villain breaking down after a few words from the hero (who only remembers ‘Otonashi’ as his name at first, and otherwise has little going for him but an endearing sense of good will and other protagonist powers) and flashing back into the horrible story of his younger years, with one thing after another progressively going wrong until his death. After which, he has a bit of cry, and then joins their team. I love a bit of villain conversion and playing with dynamics, but the order to feel bad for him was pressed on me so hard and fast I think I still have bruises.
Otonashi’s memories are revealed with more tact, gradually over a couple of episodes where and when it’s relevant. The final arc and scene of his life was what first genuinely punched me in the gut about the series—I won’t spoil it for you in case you’re reading this scouting for an ahead-of-viewing opinion, but let’s just say it involves claustrophobia, injury and earth-shatteringly ironic bad timing. And it remains relevant to his character development and the story, whereas a lot of the other flashbacks appear and fade out within an episode and don’t tend to explain an awful lot about the characters anyway. Staring open-mouthed at Our Hero’s tragic end, I had to wonder what an emotional wreck I would have been if the rest of the series had had that weight and energy to it.
I really, really like the concept of ghosts and unfinished business, okay. I think not only does it trip off a very instinctive human interest (we all like to think, I suppose, that we and the people we love will be able to achieve peace when we die) but it’s an excellent device for character exploration. Not to mention the inherent opportunities for feels and warm fuzzies. After the third episode, where you learn the harsh past and death story of the band’s lead singer and watch her fade away happily after fulfilling her dream of singing from the heart on stage, I thought that was what the whole series was going to be—heartwarming escapades fleshing out the cast of caricatures into characters and showing Otonashi’s heroic side as he helped them all find peace and pass over. And in that, the question of what he needed to do to find his, and the questions of why the brigade is fighting in the first place, and dynamic clashes and relationship development between the Angel and the leader…
But again, the cake I received on that front needed more time in the oven and no amount of adorable, life-affirming-love-story-pulled-out-of-almost-nowhere frosting could make up for it. I wanted Kanade’s backstory in less than a sentence at the very end. I wanted a proper, slow-burn development of her and Yuri’s rivalry into awkward understanding and then friendship instead of them just hugging at the graduation. I wanted to know what the hell was going on with TK, because just because he beatboxes and speaks all in chance English phrases doesn’t mean he can’t have depth, damn it. Shows like ToraDora! demonstrate that you can have a cast based on anime tropes and still have them be characters, and you can still use those tropes and an associated amount of ridiculousness for humour as well as having heavy elements of drama.
Because Angel Beats is ludicrously funny in places. Like, occasionally I’m-not-even-sure-why-but-this-is-brilliant-and-I’m-weeping funny. It will make you laugh and cry, but sometimes the change between, like the poignant backstories, isn’t as smooth as it could be and you find yourself kneading mood whiplash out of your neck. One minute we’re learning that someone spent their whole childhood paralysed and feels a huge emotional debt towards their mother for taking care of them, or that the angel’s doomed to be alone because anyone who becomes her friend disappears, and the next someone’s catching a giant fish or getting rocketed into the ceiling in the middle of class.
With an anime that presents you immediately with colourful-haired characters swinging large weapons around, you float into the happy place that lets you absorb and accept a certain amount of ridiculousness. Angel Beats achieves this quite nicely, but also has a good knack for bringing you back to earth and feeling sombre. It just… doesn’t always cross the bridge in the most delicate steps.
Sadly, I think it would have benefitted from being drawn out to its full intended length, and I feel bad for the writers who had to cram their ideas into 13 episodes and tie them all together when they could have made a more successful slow-burn story that built tension much more effectively and got the audience more attached to the characters beside the main ones. With a character developing and moving on every few episodes you could have built to a much more nail-biting finale given that the brigade is dwindling in numbers, and Yuri would be forced to face the climax alone rather than haphazardly telling everyone to leave so she can have her solo heroine fight.
Knowing and liking the characters more would have made the graduation scene 100% more effective, and made it feel half as long, and the kick in the gut of finding out the truth about Kanade right before the end not as cruel. So if you ask me if the ending of Angel Beats made an emotional mess of me like it’s gained notoriety for, I would say yes, partly because ouch oh well played, Key, well played, but also because I mourn how much more awesome this show could have contained. It didn’t even need more time, necessarily, just a tighter direction and maybe less characters to fit the short series format. Alas and alack, here we are, just like the hero, with a bunch of loose threads and a hole where our hearts should be.
But hey, the music was bitchin’.