What happens to us when we die? That cheery question is something the more gullible amongst us may have been pondering last year when the countdown to the prophesied Mayan Apocalypse drew nearer. Mocking the naive aside, speculation of the afterlife is an interesting subject matter and forms the basis for a number of anime shows/movies. One such example is Angel Beats, which takes place at a high school in limbo, were recently deceased youngsters attend classes until they come to terms with any lingering doubts about their life permitting them to pass on. The show is presently available to buy, as a two disc DVD set, from Manga Entertainment containing the thirteen episode series plus a twenty two minute OVA.
Angel Beats kicks off with protagonist Yuzuru Otanashi awakening at the above-mentioned school. Missing all his memories from the time he was alive, Yuzuru is naturally confused about his current location until a purple haired schoolgirl named Yuri Nakamura (who is the spitting image of Haruhi Suzumiya) explains Otanashi’s predicament. It doesn’t take long for the assertive Yuri to enlist Yuzuru to the Afterlife Battlefront, which she leads. Said Battlefront is a group of deceased students who are rebelling against high school life out of fear that compliance with the rules will see them pass on. An eternity in purgatory is after all preferable to potentially getting reincarnated as a water flea.
The Afterlife Battlefront’s rebellion is, for the most part, innocent enough. The group cause mischief in class, break into dormitories, steal meal tickets from the canteen and organize unsanctioned musical concerts at the gym. Things however get serious when class president Kanade Tachibana turns up to quell the Battlefront’s disruptive ways. The softly spoken, silver haired, Kanade is in fact an angel endowed with superhuman abilities. Keeping her at bay is an almost impossible task even though Yuri’s group is armed with weapons fashioned out of dirt.
Generally speaking, Angel Beats is a mix of comedy, action and drama. A lot of the early episodes are filled with slapstick gags, which are in stark contrast to the touching moments found in the later chapters. Examples of the sillier stories, found on the first DVD, include “Day Game” were Otanashi and friends are made to take part in a baseball tournament and “Guild” were the Battlefront travel to an underground base only to get picked off one at a time by their own anti-Angel traps. The jokes made me chuckle, but I found the dramatic episodes covering the tragic manner in which the Battlefront members had died to be far more interesting.
Although strictly speaking not an action show, the skirmishes featured in Angel Beats are well put together thanks to the above average artwork and animation. There’s a good selection of gunfights and melee duels, which are entertaining even though you know that the combatants are already dead and therefore cannot be taken out of commission permanently. Anyone who suffers a fatal wound in limbo simply recuperates a few hours later, no matter how gruesomely they are dispatched. This rule does however change near the end when shadow creatures that can devour souls show up on the scene.
One complaint that can be levied at Angel Beats is that it doesn’t afford its characters enough screen time. The Battlefront’s roster is expansive, but the story only delves into the back-story of a handful of characters. We learn that Yuzuru was learning to become a doctor after losing his sister to cancer and how guilty Yuri feels about being unable to protect her younger siblings from being murdered by robbers. It’s good stuff, which fleshes out their motivations. Unfortunately a lot of other cast members don’t get the same treatment and are relegated to being two-dimensional cardboard cutouts with quirks to be exploited for comedic effect. What’s the deal with TJ who spends every free moment break dancing, Eri the ninja girl who has a soft spot for cuddly toys or Noda who doesn’t go anywhere without his faithful axe? I guess we shall never know. The series would have benefitted from being a complete twenty-six episodes long instead of the mere thirteen we get.
My final rating for Angel Beats is four stars out of five. All in all I am pleased to have this DVD in my anime collection. One minor technical gripe I have is that during the opening theme, of some episodes, there is no sound for the first couple of seconds. This doesn’t affect the story at all, but it’s an annoying glitch that should have been picked up during the authoring process. It robs listeners from enjoying part of the beautiful piano melody ” My Soul, Your Beats.” Perhaps it’s just an issue on some players (the hardware I use is a multi-region Pioneer) but it’s worth pointing out as Manga have been guilty, this year, of bringing out releases to market with substandard subtitles and even missing scenes. I really expect better from the UK’s premier anime company.
As for the content itself, I found that I enjoyed Angel Beats more on a second viewing. The first time, I sampled the show, I would have given it three stars as I unfairly dismissed it as being shallow due to the goofy opening episodes (not my cup of tea, but I am sure fans of funny high school cartoons will eat it up.) The second time round I didn’t dwell on those episodes and became much more invested in the characters, which gives the bittersweet finale much more of a powerful impact. I wouldn’t be too surprised if some viewers end up weepy eyed after the ending twist is sprung on them. I have to give credit to the writers for naturally evolving the series from a flat out comedy to a touching drama without making it feel disjointed. Sniff, sniff. I have to go now… I think I have some dirt in my eye…. waaaaah.