Angel Beats is what every critic lives to find. While many critics will tear apart and criticize works that they don’t like, they are always looking out for great works. When those works come from creators that have been written off or has spent their careers making what feels like trite garbage, it becomes a magical moment of a talented creative voice finally reaching the heights that every creator has the potential to reach.
Prior to this series, Jun Maeda was a writer who I dismissed due to his previous works. They ranged (to me personally) from barely decent (Kanon), to an empty waste of time (Clannad and Clannad After Story (don’t kill me, I know many think that’s a masterpiece, but I was so bored by it)), to actively the worst (Air). This was made worse by how much of these works were repetitions of the same themes (Maeda is a writer similar to filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Terrence Malick, spending his career returning to very specific themes and ideas rather than actually move on to other creative avenues, making them seem limited in creative scope). Maeda just seemed to be a writer who could only write about specific topics (teenage emotions, first love, vague spiritual elements, cute girls dying in the snow, unknown diseases, dead parents, high school). Well, he can’t, but it took a work like Angel Beats to finally convey what he was trying to get across beforehand.
Otonashi wakes up one day in a school seeing students running around with weapons like they’re in a battle. He’s told by Yuri Nakamura that he’s died, is in purgatory, and that he should join her group in fighting against a girl named Angel, who they believe works directly under God. Otonashi joins, but comes to soon figure out the true nature of this school in which he’s ended up, the club he’s joined, his past, and this mysterious girl who the club is opposing.
There are a few elements that help differentiate this from Maeda’s earlier works. First, this was a story originally written as an anime (his previous works were originally visual novels) and that helps to establish one of the series’ key differences: the protagonist. Where Maeda’s previous protagonists were essentially self-insert characters (they had character traits, but they were bland enough as characters that the viewer or player could easily insert themselves into the role with little problem), Otonashi is his first actual lead character. While Otonashi is not necessarily a deep or complex character, he exists as an identifiable presence in the story, has his own goals and desires, and, most importantly, is not the thing the universe revolves around (a problem more forgivable in visual novels than in anime, but one that all of Maeda’s previous works suffered from).
Another difference is the approach to female characters. Yuri, despite being the female protagonist, is not a love interest. Instead, she has her own story about her reliance on a surrogate family to help push her to questioning God. Angel, while used as a love interest, is also given an identifiable character and an arc not actually tied to romance (well, the romance is tied to her arc, but more as a bonus than as an actual goal). Hell, the only actual love story present where the romance is the point is between two side characters (granted, the two most important side characters, but side characters nonetheless).
Thirdly, while Maeda’s previous works were all melodramatic romances with fantasy elements, this story completely falls head-first into a fantasy scenario and uses the melodrama to shape the story. This is actually where the show stumbles a bit. The purgatory where this show occurs in is given a multitude of worldbuilding elements that end up taking you out of the story (after all, how can you focus on the dread of an unstoppable force chasing you when your attention is being brought to how guns can be built from dirt?). The fantasy elements tend to be hit or miss and the unsuccessful elements can potentially drag down the whole experience, depending on how invested you are in the main emotional through lines.
Luckily, the elements of Maeda that have carried over from his previous works are stronger than they have been before. Maeda’s biggest strength is conveying teenage emotions and in melodrama. As this story concerns the afterlife of tragic teens, the story is full of everything that those strengths would imply. While many of the stories are over-the-top and can come across as them crawling in their skins full of un-healing wounds (this is melodrama, after all), there is some humanity in how these teens are portrayed and the emotions are all genuine. If you can’t stand melodrama, this will completely turn you away, but for everyone else, it’s possibly some of the best melodrama you’ll find in anime.
Visually, this show is a mixed bag. The animation and designs are fantastic. This is early P.A. Works, before they became more known for Shirobako and Kuromukuro, and the character animation on display is fantastic. The designs Na-Ga (who also designed characters for Maeda’s other works) are also great. It comes across as the Key Visual Arts version of Persona characters, but it’s definitely a design I dig (after all, comparing something to Persona is nothing but praise to me). However, the direction is very bare-bones and barely there. The director is Seiji Kishi, who can do very interesting things with direction (see Rampo Kitan, which is quite impressive from a directoral standpoint, though falls apart in other places), but mostly directs on auto-pilot and is just there (see Assassination Classroom and the anime adaptation of Danganronpa for proof). Angel Beats unfortunately falls into the latter category, which unfortunately means that the show, despite featuring great designs and animation, comes off looking quite bland.
While I can’t really comment much on the quality of the Japanese voice cast (sounded fine to me, I can’t really point out when foreign voice actors do poorly), I can say that everyone should avoid the show’s awful English dub.
While the show isn’t perfect, it’s goal is to ultimately move you emotionally. And when it succeeds, it’s quite the experience. I never would have imagined that Maeda had this story in him, but it manages to be an amazing journey, warts and all. If you are at all interested in melodrama and teenage stories, I highly recommend this series to you.
FINAL SCORE: A-
GOOD: Character writing, melodrama, music, designs and animation, really emotionally resonant
BAD: Direction, needed more episodes to make the world-building work, weird plot detours
Angel Beats is licensed by Sentai Filmworks and is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. It’s also available for streaming on Crunchyroll and Hulu.