Review: Angel Beats!, a unique and heartwarming action-fantasy

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I like to think that every geek has one of those friends who goes all-out into their nerdy hobbies and interests. The friend who is always talking about and recommending all sorts of movies, games and shows, so much so that you just end up going, “uh-huh. Yeah, sure. I’ll check it out.” It was through my friend and fellow anime nerd Sarah that I first heard about Angel Beats!.

“Mike, you’ve gotta check out this show. You’d really, really, like it.” She kept insisting.  I would just reply to her on autopilot “mm-hmm, ok.”

“C’mon Mike, have you checked out Angel Beats! yet? I know you’d love it. The story is deep, characters developed, and it’s so fun to watch!” After about two or three weeks of this, I caved and bought the show. As usual, she was right and I am so glad I listened and picked it up!

Angel Beats! easily wins best anime series I’ve seen so far this year, and that is an honor not to be given lightly. It’s funny, has some action to it, and is strangely heartrending. Over the course of its thirteen episode run, (fourteen if you count the OVA,) Angel Beats! manages to say a lot for a shorter series, and pulls off everything it sets out to do and say well. It’s not just one thing that makes it stand out for me; it impresses the viewer on nearly every level. Animation, story, characters, music, and acting, Angel Beats! exceeded my expectations in all of these categories.

Angel Beats! takes place in a type of purgatory for teenagers set up like a high school. People in this purgatory are supposed to attend classes while trying to live a semi-normal life. The idea behind this is that doing so helps people with lingering regrets and emotion to move on. Many of the students follow the rules and proceed to be reborn. However, one group is united in defying the rules and regulations of this world.

This group, The Afterlife Battlefront decides to remain in the purgatory and fight against transcendence. They view the lives they were given as cruel or unfair and decide to rebel against purgatory, and by extension rebel against God. Their main enemy is the student body president; a girl the Afterlife Battlefront dubs Angel. Whenever they try to break the rules or cause mischief, she comes to stop them and bring them down first by peaceful and then violent means. In the purgatory of Angel Beats!, the citizens do not age and cannot suffer permanent deaths, so the fights between Angel and the Afterlife Battlefront are full of energy and action.

The story is told from the perspective of Otanashi, a boy who wakes up in the purgatory campus with amnesia, only to find the leader of the Battlefront, Yuri, trying to shoot Angel with a sniper rifle. After the socially inept Angel proves to him he is indeed dead, by stabbing him in the chest,) He joins forces with the battlefront to fight against Angel and rebel against god. These missions vary  including stealing meal tickets and trying to get Angel removed from her post as Student President through both fair, forceful, and scandalous action.

As the story progresses however, Otaniashi struggles with regaining his memories and becomes curious of Angel and the ethics behind Battlefront. Is she truly an Angel? Why does she enforce the rules? How come she never initiates the conflict with the Battlefront? And where, if he exists, is God? These questions help to advance the plot beneath the surface antics and keep the viewer engaged.

The plot was written by Jun Maeda, the head scenario writer of the production group Key, creators of hit drama series such as Kanon and Clannad. As with his previous works, the story is top notch. There’s always something going on and moving the story forward, and the characters all grow and evolve all throughout the show. The characters themselves are creative, and a blast to watch. The individuals who drive the story are multilayered, deep without being mellow dramatic or stuffy, and grow as the story progresses. They have rich, intriguing backstories that tie into the plot well, strengthening it.  The supporting cast is good, quirky, fun and helps keep the story from being overly serious or depressing without being blatant comic relief. The story does have a great sense of humor that keeps a balance between serious overtones and simple comedy. The show often utilizes the fact that the characters don’t stay dead to unleash some hilarious physical humor and gags.

The dubs for both the English and the Japanese versions are very good. The acting is realistic and believable; it’s emotional when it needs to be and over the top when called for. If you watch the English dub, you might recognize a few of the voice talents. Sentai Works snagged some seasoned voice actors to contribute their talent, and it was a good decision for the studio to make. Two of the actors that really stand out for doing great jobs portraying characters with wide emotional ranges include Brittney Karbowski and Blake Shepard, who voiced Yuri and Otonashi respectivley.

The Animation in Angel Beats! is nothing short of top notch. The characters designs (done by NA-GA, another member of Key) are appealing, expressive, and fit the personalities assigned to them. The animation itself is beautifully vibrant and sharp. The colors in everything from the trees in the background to the clothes characters wear are crisp and vivid. The movement is so fluid it actually took me out of the show a bit. I’d be watching the action scenes and would just be in awe of how fluid things were. I wouldn’t be surprised if some special animation methods were involved.

The music is enjoyable and never felt out of place or annoying. The opening theme “My Soul, Your Beats!” was on my iPod long before I finished watching the show. The background music is pleasant and catchy but never steals the scene. Part of the Afterlife Battlefront in Angel Beats! is a separate diversion group that consists of an all-girl rock band called Girls Dead Monsters. Whenever Yuri and her crew need to clear out an area for a mission, the rely on this diversion squad to set up a surprise performance away from the action, drawing other students away from the fights. Throughout the show, Girls Dead Monsters releases several real singles that play at various times throughout the show. This music is awesome. It’s got a good jam to it and is a nice overlay to the action. Even the main ballad they compose is touching with raw emotion and ties into major plot points of the series. If you lie J-pop or J-rock, this is a must listen.

If you are a fan of Anime in the realm of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya or enjoy strong, intricate, plots, flashy visuals, or realistic fantasy, you really owe it to yourself to pick this one up. It’s got a little bit of something for everyone, and it does each “something” everyone likes really well.

 

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