Angel Beats borrows ingredients that are achingly familiar and mashes them into something miraculously entertaining. The series cheerfully rips off Suzumiya Haruhi's titular character, adds her to a Sunrise-inspired ensemble cast, and plunks them into a rehash of Haibane Renmei's basic premise. There's an all-girl rockband, a shy warrior angel, and even a dude who hypnotizes people with his creepy eyes, Code Geass style.
And somehow, this messy mismatch of borderline cliche isn't horrible. Part of this inexplicable success can be attributed to smart storytelling. The pacing is brisk but coherent. More importantly, even though Angel Beats varies wildly in tone (hard not to, when you are ripping off so many different works!), these disparate scenes tend to work in the way the writers intend. While there's an unmistakeable cynicism on the writers' part when it comes to combining manipulative angst with school comedy, the show's execution is executed well enough to overcome it.
Only the atrocious final two episodes prevent a full recommendation, which ensure that every plot thread is wrapped up in the most predictable and ordinary way possible. Watching Angel Beats' ending made me long for the open-ended finales of low-budget shows like Haibane Renmei. Rather than risk leaving anything open to interpretation, Angel Beats blugeons the audience with explanation after explanation, with mind-numbing results. There is also a lengthy and unnecessary sequence in the final episode that could have been removed from the show entirely.
After the dust has cleared, we're left with a reasonable narrative that could have been called ambitious were it not for its awkward plot holes, borrowed everything and unsatisfying conclusion. Ironically, the undeniable savviness in pacing and development only widen the disappointment, suggesting that a superior storyline could have been crafted if the writers had just lived a little.
The overwhelming quality of the animation represents a shift in priority for studios. Thirteen episode series used to be seen as a low-budget alternative to the "real" 26 episode works. Haruhi has done a lot to change that, showing that there is serious money in high budget one season shows. Put bluntly, this is among the best conventional animation released this year.
Everything is flawless, from the appealing character designs to the masterfully frenetic action scenes. By the time you get to the orgasmic rock band sequences, which sparkle with all manner of lighting and particle effects, it feels like the animators are just throwing money at you. Indeed, the superiority of the animation seems to explain the derivative plot - this is a series too big for the creators to risk an original storyline.
Well-produced (albeit generic) J-Pop mixes with a deep library of high quality background music. The voice acting is stellar, with high-profile seiyuu in even the minor roles. These seiyuu add a surprising level of depth to the otherwise cookie-cutter characters. It is to Kana Hanazawa's credit, not the writers, that I eventually cared for the hackneyed trope that is the "Tenshi" character. The natural charm of the seiyuu's delivery does wonders for the character's limited dialogue.
While the characters lack originality, they tend to be better executed than most mainstream shows. I expected the massive cast to prevent any real characterization, but this is not the case here. Instead, the show carefully separates the myriad of characters into those who develop and those who do not. For the "developed" characters, the series takes plenty of time (indeed, maybe *too* much time) to trace back several characters' backstories. While these flashbacks tend to be a little heavy-handed, they at the very least make the characters distinguishable from each other, and in some cases make them sympathetic. Because of this, the developed characters are unoriginal, but not overbearingly so. The remaining undeveloped characters remain purely as comic relief, which is perfectly reasonable treatment; all things told, these side-characters inhabit the story without cluttering it.
The technical elements of the show are nearly flawless, but ultimately, this series is better suited for relative neophytes of anime than experienced viewers. A newbie won't notice all the tiny instances of plagiarism sprinkled into the series, and will more readily forgive the botched ending. For the rest, there is less derivative fare that you could be watching instead.
Death and reincarnation are inescapable, but what happens in between? Without warning and without his memories, a boy who only recalls his last name - Otonashi - wakes up next to a girl named Yuri who offers him a gun and tells him to shoot an angel. Assuming it must be a misunderstanding, Otonashi is then almost killed by the angel and is drawn into Yuri's army to battle to delay the beginning of his next life. Immortality is within reach, but if Otonashi remembers how he died, will he keep fighting or allow himself to vanish?