The last few anime I’ve shared are possibly little known, or at least, often overlooked. This weeks offering is in a different spot. It’s not well known, but is very popular. Or at least, it seems to be very popular. With the internet, it’s hard to tell sometimes.
Angel Beats is one of those shows most anime fans either know about or have seen, while most casual watchers have likely missed, or never finished watching because of the really strange premise presented in the first episode. It almost never shows up on any best of lists, unless that list is specifically about underappreciated anime, or specific genres. Even then, especially with the latter, it rarely makes the cut.
Why’s that, you ask? Mostly because no one really seems to be able to agree just what genre Angel Beats actually fits into. Yes, it’s another one of those weird ones that rubs elbows with a bunch of different genres, while somehow managing to be totally its own thing.
I’ll get into that in a minute. First, let’s take a look at what this 2010 series is about.
It literally opens on series protagonist Otonashi waking up in the middle of a high school campus, in the middle of the night, with no memory of how he got there, where he is, or even who he is. Confused, he is quickly called out to by a girl hiding behind a hedge with a giant sniper rifle, who explains to him that he’s dead, this is the afterlife, and if he doesn’t want to get erased from existence, he must fight against the Angel. Almost on queue, another girl shows up, but doesn’t seem to notice them.
Deciding the first girl, Yuri, must be insane, or more likely playing a prank on him, Otonashi goes down to talk to the Angel, explaining that he think he may have amnesia and needs to go to a hospital. Angel explains that there are no hospitals, because he’s dead, and this is the afterlife. Fed up, Otonashi yells at her to prove it, so she summons a sword from thin air and stabs him through the heart.
He wakes up soon after and gradually realizes that Yuri was telling him the truth. He’s dead, this is the afterlife, and in order to not get erased from existence, he must fight to preserve his identity. Reluctantly, he joins Yuri and her motley band of rebels.
Now, while the entire series is set on the grounds of the high school campus, and incorporates many slice of life elements, it is neither a high school, or slice of life, anime. We never really see the characters dealing with the school aspects of their strange lives in purgatory, and most of the slice of life style stuff deals with Yuri’s many bizarre plans to force God to come speak with her.
Yes, that is basically her plan. Force God to come speak with her, because she’s got a bone to pick with Him.
There’s the supernatural element that arises from them all being dead, but aside from the fact they can’t actually die in purgatory, it’s almost never apparent that there is any supernatural element to the show. Nobody has super powers, except maybe Angel, and even that turns out to not really be the case, and nobody can really do anything cool or interesting.
There’s a lot of comedic moments, but the show isn’t really a comedy in any normal way. Maybe more of a black comedy, especially once they start delving into the backgrounds of the characters and exploring why each of them is in purgatory to begin with. When the show does do comedy, it’s often slapstick, and balanced very nicely with the darker, more dramatic elements.
A major aspect of the show is a rock band that holds guerilla performances to distract Angel and the (not actually people) faculty of the school while Yuri implements her numerous crazy plans. Each song the band, Girls Dead Monster, or GirlDeMo, performs is an original piece of music written and performed just for the series, though the series as a whole is obviously not a music anime, either.
I’ll have more to say about GirlDeMo and the music of the show shortly, though, as it is a major part of what makes the whole thing work.
Not content to stop there, there are also numerous fire fights between Yuri and her band of rebels, and Angel. They are very well crafted fight scenes, and pretty intense, but with all the other elements already mixed in here, you’d guess right to say this isn’t really an action anime, either.
Plus, there’s a love story, so we can add romance to the already overstuffed mix. It’s a fucking amazing romance, though. Oh, and a touch of sci fi, just cause.
The thing is, that while there’s a lot of different genres mixed in here, the show never feels disjointed, or like its clashing with itself. It takes what it needs from the various genres, but always stays focused on the story it wants to tell. A story that it tells with masterful skill, by the way.
Trauma, grief, loss, sorrow and pain. These things hold us, locked in place, not allowing us to move on with life, until we face them, overcome them, and force ourselves to take that next step into the future. No matter how hard it is, take it we must, or we are not living. We are simply trapped in a purgatory of our making.
In any other show, that might come across as trite, but in Angel Beats, it is powerful, emotional, philosophical, and thought provoking.
Which is what this show really is, when you get down to it. It’s philosophical. The emotional core of each character is still easy to connect with, though, and this show has more genuinely good tear jerker moments, that are honestly earned, than just about any series ever. All while being deeply philosophical!
The character designs are pretty solid, despite the large cast, making it easy to remember who is who at a glance. The incredibly quirky personalities they give each of these characters makes it much easier, though. From the darkly cynical Naoi, to the hot tempered Noda, to the incredibly weird TK, who only speaks in pop culture references and frequently breaks out into dance. Each character is a real, fleshed out individual, consistently written, with arcs, both large and small, that feel believable.
The back drops and overall animation are lovely, presenting a world that feels so close to normal, it is hard at first to grasp why an afterlife would be so ideal and serene. As the story unfolds, we begin to understand the world setting as much as we do the characters, making it one of the few shows I’ve ever seen where even the backdrop had a backstory. One that is shown as much love and attention to detail as the characters themselves.
The music is really one of the shining stars of the series, though. The opening theme, “My Soul, Your Beats” by Lia is unforgettable, and frequently shows up in the various pieces of background music, creating a strong sense of musical continuity through the show. The same goes for the closing piece, “Brave Song”, by Tadi Aoi. In some of the most emotionally intense moments of the show, the unmistakable strains of Brave Song can often be heard, easily bringing tears to the viewers eyes.
Just as significant is the music of GirlDeMo, though. Two songs in particular, “Crow” and “Alchemy” feature very heavily into the guerilla concerts the band stages. Performed by LiSA in real life, and Iwasawa within the story of the show, they are both awesome rock and roll songs, and animated almost like a music video to be incredibly dynamic when you see them being played.
Then, there’s “My Song”, also performed by Iwasawa in the show, with vocal work from Marina. Incredible, powerful, and moving barely do it justice. Above all other songs, this one continues to be a theme carried through the show, and in the post credit scene of the final episode, changes everything.
Seriously, I want the soundtrack for this show so bad. Every single piece of music is perfect, elevating a good show to greatness.
There’s an English dub of the series, but it’s only just okay, and the show is best watched with subtitles. The original VA’s do an astounding job with the material, while the English version is just somehow lacking the same emotional nuance. Do yourself a favor and watch it subtitled if you can. If ever a show deserved a high quality redub, it’s this one.
There are a couple of episodes around the middle of the 13 episode run that sag a little, but it’s over pretty quickly, and the sharp writing and pacing recovers very nicely. Otonashi’s background is revealed over the course of two separate episodes, and is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen put to film. Iwasawa’s backstory is emotionally devastating, and revealed in the third episode, and will hook you even you had doubts up to that point.
Yuri’s backstory, though, and why she she angrily seeks to pick a fight with God, is both one of the most shocking, horrific tales I think any anime has ever pulled off, purely for the believably of it. The resolution of her story arc compliments that by being one of the most emotionally satisfying.
Really, there’s a lot of back stories and resolutions in this show, and every one of them is incredible. An amazing story, with an amazing cast of characters, set to amazing music. There’s nothing here but win.
Go watch it.