I'd like to start by describing what type of show Angel Beats! is, what genre it falls under, and the demographic most likely to enjoy watching. Honestly though, I'm drawing a blank on how I can possibly do that. Angel Beats! is a show that fuses a ridiculous number of different genres, and somehow makes the bizarre fusion work. It's two-parts music anime, one-part action, three-parts comedy, three-parts high school anime, two parts drama... there's even an episode about baseball that embodies the sports genre. So it really wouldn't be a stretch to say that Angel Beats! has it all. And like many a good anime, it wraps it up nicely in one neat, tidy and weird package. See, what sets the students of Angel Beats! apart from the students of other high school animes, is that they're all dead.
The Plot / Setting
Yes. Everyone who appears in Angel Beats! is either dead, or an NPC (non-playable characters). Apparently, the purpose of the great beyond, here, is for the would-be ghosts to fit in and lead "ordinary" afterlives, by going to school, doing tests, and just being students. Of course, the characters of the show take exact opposite approach, in waging an all-out war against the idea of being reincarnated. They discover that as long as they avoid complacence, they will not disappear. Only one character, Tenshi (Angel), is left with any desire at all of moving on from the afterlife they are trapped in. As such, she becomes an antagonistic force to the SSS (a.k.a. The Afterlife Battlefront.) The Battlefront launches many operations to show their defiance towards God; however most of the operations only target Tenshi.
And that's where the show begins: with the main character, Otonashi presumably having died, appearing in the midst of a battle between Tenshi and the SSS. Unaware of Tenshi's direct personality, he demands that she prove to him that he is dead. This results in her impaling him through the stomach. The he does pass out due to the pain, the fact that he is unable to die a second time drives the point home for our hero. And that's pretty much how the first episode goes. When Otonashi comes through, he ends up joining the SSS, likely to avoid being shanked by Tenshi again. And that's how the Battlefront kicks into full-gear.
Generally, each episode is confined to a single "operation." One episode centers on the SSS trying to cause Tenshi to fail a test. Another episode has the Battlefront putting on a rock concert to attract Tenshi's attention, so that they can fire at her with concentrated machine gun fire. It certainly does escalate quickly, but considering that no one can die, the purpose for this isn't exactly clear. In any case, at some point during the series, events occur that throw off the plans of the SSS, and cause them to view Tenshi very differently. Plot development!
The high point of Angel Beats! is its roster of likable characters -- not to be confused with its large roster of characters. With the series' short run-time of thirteen episodes, we never get the chance to have all, or even most of them fully developed. What happens, is that we are left with a number of stock or trope characters, who fall back on a single gag or personality trait that defines them. and we end up using that singular trait to distinguish them from one another. To be fair, some of these characters are still pretty likable, but it seems like wasted potential.
In contrast with the flatter of the characters, we get five or six that have fully fleshed out back stories. Generally, an entire episode will be devoted to showing them before they died, and we are made to connect with them. These are the moments where where Angel Beats! hits all of its chords. Without fail. The back stories are brilliant, and most of them are pretty sad. It's surprising how much you'll end up caring about some of the characters. In fact, there's really only a single character that I hated, and that's hardly a ratio worth complaining about.
Art and Sound
Angel Beats! has extremely high production values, especially when it comes to its music. Music for the series is largely provided by Anant-Garde Eyes, with the exception of the shows fictional band "Girls Dead Monster" -- a band which went on to produce five real-life singles. It's not entirely surprising that the band found success (overlooking the obvious fact that, you know, they were not a "real" band.) Their songs are very good. When Girls Dead Monster performs during episodes, usually as a distraction and to draw Tenshi's attention away from the Battlefront's antics, we are treated to having the entire song performed. It's kind of like watching a music video. I got the same feeling when watching the opening of the show. Instead of going the tried-and-true route of getting a J-Pop or J-Rock song, Angel Beats! took a different route and played a beautiful and chilling piano arrangement. Stay classy.
The show looks great, for the most part. Lines are very cleanly drawn, and there's an excellent use of color, especially when it comes to the special effects resulting from Tenshi's hand-sonic techniques. The one problem that stands out -- and unfortunately its very difficult to overlook -- is that there's a dramatic overuse of lens flare. I couldn't help but feel that a lot of what should have been beautiful scenery was ruined by the fact that everything was glazed by a boring white tint. Maybe three out of five times that Angel Beats! would attempts a fancy cinematic technique, it would turn out to be pretty cool. But the other two times, it would fall flat on its face: and really, forty percent is just too high of a failure rate.
For most of the series, Angel Beats! is enjoyable. It is impressive how many genres it is able to pull off adequately, though the flip side of this, is that as a result it is an unfocused show. The moments of comedy tend to break up the dramatic moments, and neither the philosophical and science-fiction themes are explored very deeply because of the boundaries set by the show's other genres. As a result, it comes off as somewhat mediocre, despite its technical brilliance. However, worth noting, is the ending of the series. Since Angel Beats! is such a short series, I feel justified in recommending it to anyone just so that they might see the ending. It's truly beautiful -- and by "beautiful" I really mean "I almost cried."
Final Rating 7.5 out of 10.0