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Angel Beats! PDF Print E-mail
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Friday, 08 June 2012 00:00
Angel Beats!From the masters of shameless emotional manipulation, Visual Art's / Key, comes... something a little different, if you're used to the likes of Air or Clannad. Yuzuru Otonashi finds himself caught in the afterlife, in the midst of a war between those who refuse to go quietly into the night, and one whose job seems to be to make sure that they do. But all is not as it seems...

Yuzuru Otonashi wakes to find himself in the grounds of a huge school, and is told by the girl next to him - the girl packing some high-powered weaponry - that he's just arrived in the afterlife. Her name is Yuri, and she's keen for him to join her fight against the malign god that she believes has trapped them in this place - and against his representative at the school, Angel. At first disbelieving of Yuri's explanation, Otonashi approaches Angel himself - and gets a pointed demonstration that Yuri appears to have been telling the truth, when Angel runs him through with her hand sword. This being the afterlife, though, such a "death" is just a minor inconvenience, and Otonashi soon finds himself waking in the school's sickbay, back to his normal self. His experience is enough to convince him to join Yuri's "Afterlife Battlefront", though - but as time passes, Otonashi begins to realise that the purpose of this place may be rather different from what Yuri and her allies believe it to be...

A disclaimer: I have watched and rewatched Angel Beats! more times since it aired in Japan around 2 years ago than any other anime TV series I can remember. And I've seen a lot of them. This was my 6th pass through the series - a stat that on its own should tell you that I hold it in rather high regard - and it's gone up in my estimations every time, although I have to be honest and admit that it does have its flaws. There are several reasons to love it, though. First up, its cast - it's a large one, many of whom only get passing appearances, but the series focusses in on a few key members, each of whom have found themselves in this place because, for one reason or another, they've died while feeling that something was missing or unfinished in their lives.

If I mention that Jun Maeda was largely responsible for the series, then Key fans will know where this is going - the backstories that the lead characters are given are, in different ways, tragic, and the old Key tugging-at-the-heartstrings is in overdrive in places. One character saw their younger siblings murdered before them during a burglary; another was paraplegic, never knowing what it was like to lead a normal life and never believing that anyone could look past their disability and accept them for who they were. Two came from abusive households, although their stories are very different; another carries the guilt of being at least partially responsible for the death of their little sister. You get the picture. Backstories are revealed as and when the story requires it, and I'm man enough to admit that I did blub in places (clever use of the soundtrack and background music helps ramp up the emotional manipulation to a point where it's hard to resist). I have in the past given Key shows a hard time for this, particularly in Clannad, but somehow here it feels more natural and justifiable than in some of their other titles.

That's perhaps because the heavy emotional content is something that the show does, when needed to explain something, rather than what it's about. At heart, this is more of an action / comedy than anything else, with Yuri leading her Battlefront through a series of unlikely missions in unlikely locations (you have to wonder who designed the Guild, for example, an underground stronghold protected by a variety of elaborate and deadly traps), and Angel being initially presented as a walking war machine before eventually turning out to have far more to her than that. It's lighthearted, loud, and really quite funny - except that every so often it does a stylistic turnaround, slaps you around a bit with some heavy emotion, and then carries on from where it left off while you're still wondering what just hit you. Potentially, that could have led to the series being a complete mess, but it treads a fine line with its two competing faces and manages to balance them as well as possible. There is a sort of disjointed feeling about it all, but it's not so bad that I found it annoying.

There's another aspect of the show that deserves special mention, and that's Girls Dead Monster. Officially the Battlefront's 'diversion squad', they're an in-show all-girl rock band who are really rather good. Music plays as much of a role in Angel Beats! as it does in, say, K-On! (that is, it's mostly there in the background, but when it's brought to the fore you can't help but go along with it), and for my money GlDeMo (as the name is often shortened to in-show) beats Hokago Tea Time any day of the week. There have been several GlDeMo singles and albums released since the series aired, and if you're so inclined they're well worth tracking down.

Flaws? It has a few, and sadly not too few to mention. As already mentioned, switching modes between comedy / action and emotional comes with some mental gear-grinding while you try to keep up. The story feels rushed, and could easily have handled being 26 episodes instead of 13 - word is that that was initially the plan, but that may well be urban myth. The 'bonus' 14th episode is mind-numbingly stupid and is best ignored. Angel, even once her true nature is uncovered, suffers from a lack of personality that makes the ultimate revelations about her a little hard to buy into. One or two characters - okay, one in particular - gets far more screentime than they deserve and are as annoying as hell. But I found that these were all things I was able to overlook, simply as I was having so much fun watching everything else that was going on, and following the progress of the characters that I did like - which is the vast majority of them. A series is definitely doing something right if it can persuade you to overlook its flaws in that way.

Overall, then, highly recommended. Even after six viewings, I'm still spotting little things here and there that I'd missed on previous viewings, and that make rewatching worthwhile, make the story seem even more well put together. While the emotional impact of the lead characters' backstories does lessen with repeat viewing, the fun you have watching them go about their battle against 'obliteration' doesn't. Well worth watching.

Rating - ****