Having only watched Lucky Star, a fluffy show lacking any real impact, I set out to watch something a bit more narrative reliant. If I recall correctly, I took to forums and discussions in an attempt to branch out from my first show. My love for complex and hard-hitting stories clearly hit home here as Angel Beats! still remains one of the strongest shows I’ve seen. From its hard hitting narrative, dark undertones and incredibly inventive soundtrack, the strength of each element really come together to build a genuinely impressive story. That being said, this series isn’t without its flaws and my ignorance definitely affected my views on the show at the time.
GIRLS WITH GUNS, MORBID LAUGHS AND MY FIRST EMOTIONAL ANIME EXPERIENCE
SUPERNATURAL, DRAMA | ANIMATED BY P.A WORKS | AIRED: SPRING 2010
How I encountered: Angel Beats!
As I mentioned before, following the cutesy show of Lucky Star, it was definitely a jump to a show like this. In addition to the venture into a more gruelling narrative, it was unbeknownst to me that this would spark my admiration for P.A Works. Although they’re not the most perfect studio and eventually ended up pushed aside by the powerhouse of Kyoto Animation, if not for this show I have no idea whether or not my passion for anime would run so deep. On top of that, it’s quite amazing to me that I was able to go into this show completely blind given the method that I found it – through online forums on websites that probably don’t exist anymore. This series isn’t exactly one of multiple plot twists, but there is an element of shock that comes with this show that I won’t reveal anywhere in this review for the sake of readers that haven’t experienced this show for themselves.
That insanely hectic First Episode blew me away
If any show in my time of watching anime drew me in purely as a result of its first episode, it’s this. Incredibly well-written introducing a multitude of main and supporting characters, this series wasted absolutely no time in revealing its hectic structure. Although it may not be the best example of this, Angel Beats was the series to show me that anime isn’t an art-form that is restrictive to only one genre. Having only experienced easygoing forms of anime, watching this show for the first time completely changed my outlook on the medium. I’ll never forget my initial reaction to the show pictured below: a cute anime girl holding the most ridiculously exaggerated sniper rifle I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s very much that of the main character, pure bewilderment with a hint of admiration. It seems so trivial now, writing about it years on, but it hadn’t even crossed my mind that fantasy shows like this could exist.
Part of this is due to my perception of “Kids anime vs Adult anime” at the time. So going into Lucky Star, it was advertised to me as this hybrid show using childish themes and characters to create a series that became popular with teenagers upwards. Digesting that at the time kind of divided certain genres and established series to me. Something animated in Japan that I was already aware of, Pokemon was a kid’s show (and in comparison) this new anime I could find online would be for teenagers. Getting on my high horse about what is for children and what is for adults is probably my least favourite period of time and I feel sorry for anyone who talked to me at that time. Anything that seemed remotely childish or even just stylised in such a way that would lead me to believe so, would be ignored entirely. Angel Beats to me, seemed like this show for teenagers, a play on the “kid’s shows” adding cool edgy teen things like guns. Thankfully, it still holds up even if I adore the series for completely different reasons now.
Still the High School Setting I’d Become Used To
It would take me a while to watch an anime that actually dared to venture outside of the classroom and set its story in somewhere more imaginative. Even from the very beginning, I had a fascination with the Anime High School setting – because it wasn’t anything like actual school. From my personal experience in a British high school and what I’ve learned through countless documentaries on the Japanese school system, anime is nothing like reality. While there are plenty of shows that do utilise the real aspects of school, this isn’t one of them. Angel Beats presents an incredibly dark narrative and merely uses the school setting as a base for that storytelling. Not only a familiar place to unite all of our disconnected main cast, but it’s also one that viewers don’t have to spend episodes comprehending.
The most noticeable thing about this show after re-watching it now is the incredibly fast pace. This series prides itself in being a solid comedy show revolving around characters that really don’t deserve what they’re put through. As always, I’ll do my best to keep this spoiler free while still discussing the narrative – because it really is the gemstone of this series. Memorable sequences like “the gauntlet” where characters are separated one by one, in my mind took place near the end of the season. But I was mistaken, it popped up a few episodes in and it baffled me how they could create such a memorable scene in such a short amount of time. Upon further thought, it’s all down to its pacing and emphasis on keeping all of these characters in the audience’s face. Not only are the Opening and Ending songs’ visuals all about showing off the entire main cast, but the series follows suit. By setting the show’s deep, complex and thought provoking narrative in such a simple and digestible setting is what makes it possible for Angel Beats to present such a connected main cast in such a short amount of time.
A Densely Packed and Emotional 47 Track Soundtrack
Angel Beats taught me the importance of Soundtrack in all media, not just in anime. With the exception of a show that’s coming to My Anime Journey very soon, this is one of the largest influences on me when it comes to analysing media. Music is the most powerful aspect to emotional cinema, in my opinion, and is without a doubt the reason this show is as powerful as it is. Not to mention that the show’s first emotional moment is triggered through music and stands as my biggest surprise in anime to this day.
Building from the point earlier, all of the characters are constantly in the foreground – but not necessarily the focus of dialogue. In doing so, it doesn’t matter how little time you spend developing a character, the audience are used to seeing them there. So when you take that away, it’s inherently going to result in an upset – reductive change is never good to a spectator. Things are happy as they are, let them stay that way! Let this be another Lucky Star and show me more fun times with these characters! But no, Angel Beats doesn’t take prisoners and it hits like a truck. In this sudden (and unexpected) moment for first-time viewers, everything becomes faded. For me, I’d never expected to feel genuine heartbreak though anime. Sure, I’d expected to get upset in the same way I would for an emotional moment in a TV Series like The Walking Dead, but not like this.
That’s when it swoops in, the whining of a full orchestra booming at full volume. Whether it be the swift and abrupt performance of the Violins in “otanashi” or the bittersweet pleasant sounds of the piano in “nocturne of the afternoon”, every scene feels moulded around its music. Even with some of the action oriented sequences where bullets are flying and characters are shouting, tears have come just through the masterful execution of sound. Especially in the sequence with Yuri where she has a powerful monologue surrounded by Monitors in a darkened room. Combining the absolutely flawless Voice Acting, intense and memorable dialogue and awe-inspiring soundtrack made this the most impactful scene of the entire series. If not for such a solid, well-rounded and heart wrenching soundtrack, it’s a wonder how this show would pry out such a plethora of emotions from its viewers.
An Utterly Beautiful and Soul Crushing Narrative
Of course, I have to talk specifically about the story that is told within Angel Beats so skip ahead to the conclusion if you don’t want spoilers. Where do I even begin with this fifteen episode roller-coaster? Well that’s a good way to start I guess, this show somehow accomplishes the task of making me burst into tears five or six times in the span of fifteen episodes. That in itself is an achievement second only to one. Something I’ve barely touched on is the writing of this show and how it incorporates an immense amount of subtext in seemingly simple dialogue. With Angel Beats in particular, compliments are constantly thrown at the original Voice Actors (the English dub is fine and actually how I watched it those years ago) and they definitely deserve such praise. Not so much is given to the writing staff behind the scenes who were able to cram in an incredible amount of character development across a very wide cast. Even down to the small nuances in how specific characters interact with one another are some of the lighter details when it comes to polishing an excellent script.
On top of that, assessing the show on a macro level is even more impressive. Angel Beats is a show of tragedy, innocent characters thrown into a dark and scary world upon an untimely death in their own. That’s the soul of Angel Beats. Innocent people, each with their own lives and past all gone in an instant. This concept of innocence coming together with an unfair world really is the crux to the story. Conceptually, the most efficient way to evoke sympathy is to create an innocent character, throw them into an unjust world and watch them suffer. The sheer amount of pain, mental and physical, is staggering for a show this short which is how Angel Beats can provoke such a response. As a viewer, you crumble at the series of events in the final episode. Much like the ever present theme of death and release in this show, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s seriously cruel how much hope in instilled in the viewer in the final episode, only to be shredded in front of your eyes.
At this point, the average viewer has bonded with the main character and feels exactly what he feels, and that’s not what the viewer wants in that moment. Pure, unbridled sadness as the only thing bringing light into his world vanishes in an instant. Especially in the shot next to the stairs as below, the facial expressions tell you everything you need to know about the thought process of each character. Otanashi’s unwilling to let go and Kanade’s stoic gaze as she knows what’s coming next. As do we! Collectively, as an audience we know what’s going to happen but we become Otanashi and push it to the back of our minds. No matter how loud the soundtrack is getting, it’s been raised to 200% now but we still refuse to believe what’s going to happen. Then, it just, changes. No dramatic flare this show is known for, no audible queue, nothing. Just the trickling of the fountain. Life goes on as if nothing ever happened, and we’re left stranded confused and alone. Exactly where we’re at in the very first scene of the season, only now the world feels so much more empty.
Just know that “Ichiban no Takaramono” will never be on my iPod while I’m out and about.
So, what’s the final verdict?
If the last three paragraphs didn’t detail it enough, Angel Beats has imprinted itself in my mind and my heart. One of the core emotional series in anime for a reason, this show provides a hearty helping of comedy, witty writing and entertaining characters. More obviously, it’s emotional. More so than anyone ever expects, myself included. With its beautifully timeless soundtrack to keep the fluidity of this hectic and out of the ordinary series following a life after death, this is one of the most unique shows using a bunch of generic tropes. Its ability to spark some new ideas and a genuinely fascinating narrative into such a drawn out setting is incredible (though of course I didn’t know that at the time). Not only does it still hold up, but my love for this series actually escalated – and I already loved this show to begin with. That being said, it’s not exactly the most emotional show I’ve seen…