Upon receiving the news that Angel Beats! is going to be screened at my local anime society soon I’ve convinced myself that it’s finally time for me to try and write down my thoughts about it. You see, the first time I watched Angel Beats! (just under a year ago) I really loved it. It was just after I’d started getting back in to anime and at the time I considered it one of the best series I’d ever seen. Despite this I doubt I will be going to my society’s screening of it.
The problem is that recently when I rewatched it I responded to it quite differently to when I first saw it. I still liked it, but it’s an anime that now makes me very conflicted, so much so that trying to figure out how much I like it can verge on exhausting at times. There are problems I have with the show that I could just about see out of the corner of my eye when I first watched it but I happily ignored them as they didn’t really bother me, but rewatching the series has made them so much more evident and irritating.
Angel Beats! takes place in a high school, an afterlife of sorts which teenagers who have died on Earth are brought to for reasons that only become apparent later on in the series. In this high school you can still feel pain and die, but you soon awake in the high school again with no injuries. Otonashi is one such teenager who awakens in this world having recently died. He has no memories and ends up joining Yuri and a bunch of other teenagers in the SSS, an organisation that has been made to fight against God for the misery many of these individuals were afflicted with when previously alive on Earth. Much of the series concerns itself with letting us know about the SSS member’s pasts and how they manage to get catharsis, revealing information about Tenshi a seemingly supernatural being who fights the SSS, revealing to us why these characters are in this other world, and also in showing us the day-to-day lives of these characters (and the comedy that results).
As with most Key productions there is a combination of laughs and tears. I have a big, big problem with quite how the series combines these things though. An example: in one scene we’re shown a very distressing (to the point where I cried) flashback of a character recalling how burglars killed her three siblings in the space of thirty minutes whilst she desperately tries to locate what they demand her to find in order for them to stop, and within less than a minute of this flashback having finished we’re already back in to very comedic territory. Yes this sort of mood whiplash can (and in this case probably does) provoke more extreme emotions from viewers, however regardless I think it profoundly undermines the emotions of the characters themselves. It’s disrespectful to the characters to follow up such emotional intimacy almost immediately with laughs, and in the case of the example I quoted it’s almost disturbing that the writers thought it was honestly a good idea to have light-hearted, silly humour so soon after a serious scene of children being mercilessly killed.
Taken as individual elements I have nothing against the humour or the emotional content of the show. The thing I have a problem with is how these two things are combined. In fact, taken individually both these elements are impressive: the humour is often laugh-out-loud and very enjoyable (if admittedly a tad tiresome at times), whilst the emotional content makes me cry A LOT (two particular occasions late in to the series have had me bawling my eyes out, all the more impressive because neither of these two occasions are actually straightforwardly sad but instead are happy and bittersweet respectively). Part of what I appreciate about the series is the breadth of emotions it explores, I just wish it could work it all in to a more tonally consistent whole.
Another problem I have with the series is its plotting. The issue here is how contrived things can feel at times. I’ve heard complaints about Key (complaints which I’m sometimes tempted to agree with) saying that often their series feel like they’re written specifically to force you to feel certain emotions, and there is at least one incident - the conclusion of Otonashi’s back story - which I would absolutely accuse of this where the plot abandons logic and anything even vaguely resembling likelihood just so that it can make you cry.
For another example of the weak plotting, for me the series explained far too little about the Guild. The Guild is an organisation in the SSS which mass-produces weapons deep underground. The issue is that from soon after the Guild was introduced I was wondering quite how they could exist. Here you have a massive group of people (that far, far exceeds the ten or so members that make up the main section of the SSS) and many of whom look noticeably older than the teenagers which are supposedly meant to awaken in this world, and here they are quite some distance underground which is reached via long tunnels and all this was somehow dug out supposedly by the SSS (after all why would the creators of this world leave such resources lying around). It just makes no sense, and makes the whole existence of the Guild feel like another contrivance. And yeah, the writers of the anime may have an explanation for all this, but no such explanation is even so much as hinted at in the anime and so as an element of the anime it doesn’t convince at all.
On the other end of the spectrum Angel Beats!, near the end, explains too much. In its penultimate episode the show seems to try and answer questions about why this world exists. Unfortunately the explanation is thoroughly unsatisfactory and muddled and seemingly unintentionally raises questions without really answering any. The existence of this world is something that doesn’t need to be answered as we were told to accept it from the first few minutes of the first episode: it’s part of the premise, and so part of our suspension of disbelief. So if the show is going to try and explain why the world exists then it has to do a damn good job, and for me it really, really didn’t.
Considering quite the number of complaints I have with the show, it probably seems a bit excessive of me when I say I do like it quite a bit. The thing is, despite these complaints, I do think there are many things the show does very well. Despite the emotions of the show being undermined they still hit home with incredible force. And despite the contrivances in and occasional sloppiness of the plotting, the actual ideas the show addresses (to list a few; how people rebel against concepts of god due to misery existing in the world, trying to find catharsis after a life of sadness, living for others and how some people continue being able to live because they live for others, using music as an escape from sadness, high school and its potential role in people’s lives, loneliness, how people’s intentions can be completely misunderstood due to communication difficulties on their part and how this can lead to people being aggressive towards them) are looked at with clarity and what feels like earnestness.
In fact when I think of the show I tend to think of it in terms of it using its plot simply as a means to explore a spectrum of different emotions and a lot of different ideas and feelings. I feel like I’m cheating – to an extent excusing the show of its faults - when I decide to look at the show this way, but I find it to be a more rewarding way to look at Angel Beats!. Because despite the many things that irk me about it – that prevent me from wanting to revisit it any time soon and that make me feel a certain amount of awkwardness in saying that I do still like it – there are also things that are very easy to love about it too.