Studio: P.A. Works
Angel Beats is among the best known and most well-regarded drama anime of the 2010s. Expertly balancing absurd cartoonish humor, Breakfast Club-esque high school shenanigans, over-the-top action sequences, and an emotionally resonate premise – Angel Beats is a wonderful anime both for those who only dip their toes in the medium or veteran viewers.
A teenager named Otonashi wakes up and finds himself confronted by a schoolgirl named Yuri peering down the sights of a sniper rifle. He has no memories, no clue where he is, and just wants to know why this girl is trying to shoot her classmate, an angelic presence they dub "Tenshi" (Angel).
Turns out our protagonist has awoken in a purgatory exclusively for Japanese teenagers who have died with unfulfilled youths or are trying to accomplish one final task in order to attain inner peace. The school acts as a kind of hegemonic process whereby if the dead were to fit in and go to classes and clubs as normal, they would be “obliterated”; in essence disappear from purgatory and reincarnated. Additionally, if the dead teen were to fulfill some specific item they wanted from life they never got to experience, they can be “obliterated” that way.
The Battlefront, led by the firecracker Yuri, fights Angel because they think she’s specifically trying to force them to conform to school life, and thus reincarnate. As a sentient being surrounded by friends who have become like family, and knowing you’ve all died miserably, it’s understandable that few in Battlefront want to pass on, having found comfort in these new friends. Also, the fact they could be reincarnated into literally anything makes for a compelling reason to be afraid of passing on.
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So they fight Angel using guns that they created through sheer willpower (the afterlife operates like a computer program where it can be altered with the right software—to a degree), and in their war, realize who Angel is, who the real villains may be, and begin to understand that finding peace and starting life anew may not be as bad as they once thought.
Angel Beats works because it deals with heavy subject matter in a way that isn’t hitting you over the head and has that spark of humanity so rare in anime. The characters are, in essence, mostly idiots. But they also have their specific quirks, dreams, and areas of expertise, becoming more than just the cardboard jock or nerd character. Though the series is too short for full investment in any particular character, the way it is able to still make you care about the cast as a whole makes the show special among its peers.
My biggest problem with the Angel Beats is that the romantic threads don’t get the build-up they should. For instance, one character, a paraplegic in life, wishes to have a man who would want to marry her despite the fact she needs to have someone always taking care of her. The character who steps up to the plate and offers her a marriage proposal (in an admittedly cute and moving montage) has been around her for much of the series, but the status of their relationship is never established. Without some bedrock to go off of, it comes across a little artificial. And the same goes for the central romance – which also suffers from questions of how purgatory works on a temporal level.
It’s still cute though. I won’t deny the ending may have made me shed a tear. And I knew what was coming having watched it ten years ago. Which, by the way, remembering a single episode of an anime a decade later when I can’t remember what I did a week ago, means a lot.
Or it means I have comically pathetic selective memory.
A decade on and Angel Beats has earned its place as an anime classic. While it does underperform in some aspects of its drama – it excels in combining disparate elements within a depressing premise to make something both joyful and heartfelt. The main cast, and even some of the side characters, will stick with you long after viewing. If you can get past some of the anime-ness of it all, you’ll find a series that is the epitome of why this medium is so great.
RATING: 4/4 STARS
Angel Beats is currently available on Netflix and Crunchyroll.