Aug 19, 2013

Anime Review: Angel Beats!

angelbeats1For a show that garners such universal acclaim, I had perhaps worked up a bit too much hope for Angel Beats! before finally sitting down to watch it. I try very hard to resist even looking at much marketing/hype stuff because I genuinely want to give shows a fair shot — at least, as much as I am able. I don’t think I was particularly all that enthused, though; rather, it was simply that the constant praise and gushing accolades heaped upon the show since its airing had not gone unnoticed to me over the months. Countless people had chimed in to say it was their favorite show, on their top 5 or top 10 lists, or “I didn’t really care about anime until I saw Angel Beats!”

Clearly, Angel Beats! must possess that rare quality, right? I figured I should, eventually, see what all the commotion was about.

The concept is actually not that bad. Guy wakes up and doesn’t remember much (I know, typical lazy amnesia gimmick) but is told he is in a sort of afterlife and he must have died with lingering regret. In this world, a rag-tag resistance faction battles angels for survival as well as revenge against God for the various cruel fates the rebel fighters each died from. So: afterlife, angels, and revenge. Not a bad mix so far!

Looking through a sniper scope at a school girl at night

So it is especially distressing when the execution is riddled with clichés, clumsiness, and missed opportunities. The amnesia thing, which is usually a writing cop-out anyway, ends up being the best part. (But seriously, Key? We need to talk. It’s time to stop relying on the amnesia crutch for every single one of your damn stories. Please?) Even though it is an afterlife, everyone is around 16 and of high school age (of course!), in a world that exists only at a school that cannot be left. So, basically it’s your standard high school setting. Not like there are a zillion of those already, so the “afterlife” angle becomes something spoken about a lot but doesn’t really manifest itself in any meaningful way. You’d be hard-pressed to guess if they hadn’t said so multiple times. Save for one single difference, the afterlife world they exist in is indistinguishable from normal life: no halos, no transparent ghostly appearance, no flying, no spirits of any kind, no odd clothing, nothing of the sort. Instead, we have a generic looking cast in your typical jacket-and-tie for the guys and blue-and-white sailor outfits for the girls. Squandered potential, indeed.

A crowded principal's office with students sitting and standing about, but no actual principal

Now, because it is the supposed afterlife, the solitary difference I mentioned is that injuries are felt but not actually fatal. Everyone sort of returns to normal after maybe fifteen minutes despite whatever gruesome injuries they succumb to. The show likes to remind us of this frequently, as I guess it feels like this is a “cool” aspect. Really, though, it only serves to eliminate any possible tension or risk during any of the handful of gun fights, hand-to-hand battles, or trap-invested adventures. All of the “missions” the resistance engages lose any sense of danger when it doesn’t really matter if anyone is killed because they won’t actually die, more they are just temporarily disabled. Despite this, the show is determined to treat all of this as if it were serious and high-stakes. It would be laughable if it weren’t just plain dumb.

Oh yeah, I mentioned angels right? Well, sorry to spoil it a bit, though it won’t be much of a spoiler since they tell you the answer to this outright in the very first episode: there aren’t actually any angels. They just call the soft-spoken deadpan girl an angel because… well, we’re never really told. Anyway, the resistance fighters? They’re basically just a bunch of school kids, a mix of loud, obnoxious, and forgettable. There are so many characters introduced (just watch the intro, they attempt to name everyone) that it gets really hard to tell some of them apart and remember who they are. Likely, you won’t care about anyone but the protagonist Otonashi and the girl-called-an-angel, and only then because the story puts them center stage a lot. Most of the back-stories are revealed as straight flashbacks, mostly feeling like the exposition dumps they are but much too late. By the time you get them, you’ve either stopped watching or, like me, stopped caring much about the specific character they finally decide to flesh out (I’m looking at you, Yuri, the resistance leader girl). After that, it’s just a bunch of random episodic antagonists and outings for the most part. Occasionally, it remembers it was trying to resolve plot stuff.

An angled shot from the feet of a girl leaning back in a chair with her legs propped on a desk, arms crossed

Lastly, there’s the revenge aspect. I mentioned that. I know I did. It’s too bad the show forgets about it most of the time, preferring to focus on episodic tangents and filler. Most of the twists and reveals are confusing or simply not very compelling. If that weren’t enough, the writers throw in a lot of other things they must think people will like, to the point that it becomes a jumbled mess. Did I mention there’s a band and several musical numbers? Yeah. I’m not sure why, either, other than they are loud, flashy, and “cool”. Also, despite the fights, deaths, weirdness, and all that, it frequently attempts humor… and by humor I mean tired slapstick routines, mostly, or characters yelling at each other. Hilarious! Don’t even get me started on the lolwut that is the character TK. The last few episodes are more than a little confusing and rushed and the finale wants to be so much more heartfelt than it can be or is. Shame, too, because they really seem to think they had a very neat twist at the end, and maybe it would have been in the hands of a more skilled team. Instead, it manages to be limp and distracting due to all of the questions it creates and questions it doesn’t answer. That, and there’s the incredibly cloying cop-out “reveal” in the last moments of the final credits that you won’t be surprised by at all if you were paying attention to the preceding “tear-jerker” scenes.

All of this is so frustrating because it isn’t like there’s nothing good or promising here. The animation is top notch, courtesy once more by P.A. Works, but while it has technical quality it lacks something… that personal touch or style, skilled cinematography, or truly artistic talent (like, say, what Trigger was able to produce). It manages to look really good in still frame but feel kinda soulless (ha ha, I know) when in motion. While a lot of incidental and insert songs are so-so, the intro and ending are pretty damn good, the voice acting is fine, and the sound work is very good too. It’s a big budget show, and it, well, shows. Even if it is missing that extra something, it is still a frequently gorgeous and eye-candy filled experience, no doubt about that.

An all-female band plays on a red-lit stage before a huge crowd, scene from just above the drummer's head looking out

And it isn’t like you can’t have a good series filled with unoriginal stock school kid designs. Plenty of other shows manage to do this by falling back on something else, be it romance, comedy, character development, drama, you name it. Angel Beats! seems like it wants to be flashy and different, what with the guns, medieval weapons, non-permanent-but-frequent deaths, sci-fi mental blades (guard skill: hand sonic!), and other exciting stuff. Hey, angels! It’s the afterlife, too! And yet it shackles itself within a school, with school-aged kids as its entire cast (I don’t think any person over the age of 17 has a speaking role, ever). It’s like they wanted to do something cool but then reeled it back in to the tried-and-true territory that so many anime occupy and seem afraid to tread beyond. As an original story, not an adaptation, it’s not like they had any source material to be faithful to as an excuse.

I wanted to like this show a lot more than I did. It isn’t terrible but it’s more frustrating than good. There are so many interesting ideas behind it that it left me constantly wishing they had executed things differently, because the promise of a really cool story is there… somewhere… an afterlife for kids who had horrible luck in life to either fade into obscurity of the purgatory they inhabit or to overcome their regret with an epiphany and move on into true spiritual rest. Of angels, cruel gods, and emotions. There’s a really great story in there somewhere. Instead, we’re stuck with Angel Beats!, with its lack of cohesive direction, themes, or substance. It is a fancy looking shell of a show that appears to be really good and might even fool the casual observer (and indeed has), but this angel has a hollow center devoid of any soul.

As of this writing, you can watch Angel Beats! for free on Crunchyroll.

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