Angel Beats is an emotionally resonant, distinct series that arguably deserves its popularity and attention, though its a rapid-fire labyrinth of plot points that seem to change at a whim, throwing all logistics out the window, leaving the strong emotional core, though present throughout, unable to be expressed to its full potential.
Plot summary: A group of teenagers whom Yuri is a jerk to are stuck in a sort of Purgatory where they annoy this poor white haired girl. This plot line is dropped pretty quickly.
When the fundamentals of storytelling are considered, Angel Beats is a mess of underdeveloped plot points and characters who, by and large, fail to leave their promised impact. The various plot lines involving a wide range of focal points, like surviving evil clones or going fishing, lack the cohesion needed to flow naturally into one another, reducing the story of Angel Beats to a chain of events instead of a narrative. Rumours that this was originally planned to be double its length are entirely believable, and the visual novel from which this was adapted (the opposite of how Key adaptations are usually done) is almost certain to tell a better version of the same story. Mechanically, Angel Beats is not a good series by any means, and when it’s viewed in its broad strokes it seems like all the positives are undone by the insufficient run time and lack of focus till near the end.
However, despite all the problems Angel Beats has with telling a coherent story, it has such a strong emotional core and it has resonanced with so many on such a deep level that it does not deserve to be dismissed entirely. Angel Beats may be a chain of events, but those links reflect the thoughts of contemplative adolescents in a way that the standard empowerment fantasies and sunshine adventures don’t ever seem to manage. Angel Beats depicts its cast in settings and situations that many young people may be thinking about as they mature and become stronger as individuals. What would they give to help a friend? What would it take to tip them over the edge? If the history were to die at any moment, would they feel like they had lived a fulfilled life? Despite the breadth of themes open to exploration being hamstrung by major narrative shortcomings, when Angel Beats knows what to say, it says it very well.
The majority of the supporting cast are largely defined by their colorful gimmicks, and this is a mixed bag. Naoi, Iwasawa and Yui are all devoted an episode, and the focus on them is dense enough and sufficiently well executed that a real sense of who they are as individuals, and how the adolescent viewers may connect with them, that it’s a shame that few others got this treatment. Amid a maelstrom of changes in direction, around two thirds of the supporting cast feel like wasted potential that are left underdeveloped due to the unfocused plot and insufficient run time, which is an argument difficult to disagree with. On the other hand, this allows most of the focus to be placed on Angel and Yuri, who are strong enough to hold a 13 episodes series on their own anyway. Though more than that, the quirks, catch-phrases, and repetitions which many may consider monotonous feel true as a reflection of what actual teenagers act like; they are inclined to bombastically express something unique about themselves with less subtlety than adults because they themselves feel determined to differentiate themselves as they drift through adolescence. TK speaks in stylish (a polite way of saying broken) English and Hinata carries a halberd everywhere because they want to be instantly recognizable and fear that they don’t stand out. It could be argued that this is a case of using quirks as a hollow substitute for proper characterisation a la Akame ga Kill and Mirai Nikki, though given the age of the cast and setting in question, it’s more forgivable.
Therein lies what brought Angel Beats up to the level of an instant classic beyond the popularity of most of Key’s other works; it speaks to youth in a way that feels neither exploitative nor pandering, but truly and genuinely like it understands them. Though the series is often dramatically heavy, the quantity of tears shed is surprisingly little upon inspection, with many of the characters tragically just accepting their losses and trying to move on. The most emotionally impactful scene in the series is occurs when a character decides to, with their last breathe, give another the chance to survive.
World building is one of the series greatest detriments, with the described video game rules and limitations only being vaguely established. The more basic things are articulated sufficiently through light exposition at the beginning (a lot of the other students don’t have a soul, hence why they’re referred to as NPCs, and weapons may be made from dirt) though the more complex details, like what Angel is able to do, often doesn’t make a lick of sense. The shortcomings in world building become more confusing later on, and for detail oriented viewers who require clarity for emotional connection to be feasible, Angel Beats may be difficult to connect with. Additionally, there isn’t a clear sense of time in this world, which makes the series attempt at one final emotional punch feel more like a head-scratcher than a tear-jerker.
The production values and visual design, however, were much more satisfying and well-rounded. The lighting, particularly for the time in which the series was released, has a broadness and brightness above average, with the anime-esque sugary light blue and purple hair feeling less awkward than in other anime like Chaos;Head. The character designs don’t feel as long-limbed and natural as those in Oregairu Zoku or Hyouka, though doesn’t fall into the pre-2010 moe mould of previous Key adaptations a la Kanon or Air. The eyes are larger than what is anatomically correct for the average person, with the pupils taking on strikingly vibrant and optimistic colors, though they don’t border on uncomfortable. The actual character animation is one of the areas where the presentation is inconsistent, with the concert scenes and fights (regardless of aimless choreography, which ruins any sense of position or momentum) standing out, though the conversations feeling stiffer and less expressive than what is appropriate. Additionally, the nature of the gradients and cell shading applied to characters is often messy, with the tops of many characters’ head looking almost white regardless of the lighting of their respective settings. These hiccups never extend over long periods of time, though this does prevent it from quite standing alongside KyoAni’s work in terms of character animation, at least as far as consistency goes.
However, it exceeds many of Kyoto Animation’s works in terms of background animation and effects work. The school campus is not only very detailed, but also well designed, with the wide shots (particularly in the opening) giving a good sense of structure and relative position; this pays off in the end when characters need to get from point A to point B in a said period of time. There are no shortages of memorable set pieces, from the concerts to the underground “obstacle course”, and if the series treated it’s characters like the set pieces (prioritizing quality over quantity and outlining relationships to each other better), the series would have been much more cohesive. The effects are icing on the cake, coming to life whenever Angel is in one of her fight scenes and the code and particularly in the finale. Most of the aforementioned animation achievements and shortcomings are consistent throughout the series (barring the concert scenes, sadly) resulting in an ultimately good looking series that’s aged fairly well.
Arguably even better is the audio presentation. Of course, the OP is iconic among anime fans, and for good reasons; marrying an soulfully optimistic Lia song with the stellar use of detailed CG backgrounds, lens flare techniques and slow, angelic editing. The ED is also unlikely to be forgotten soon by viewers, not only because of how it stands on its own as a beautiful and soft piece, but it’s comedic application in some of the hilarious death scenes. Both the OP and ED are only made more memorable by the various tweaks made to them, such as how the visuals in the OP reflect the specific events of the upcoming episode (most notably having LiSa replace Lia as the vocalist to represent singer Yui covering the song) and having the ED become deceptively complex by having the character stills’ change posture and reflect the cast in the respective episode. The insert songs are also quite great, from those by singer Iwasawa or LiSa’s “Ichiban no Takaramono” in episode 10, heightening the emotional intensity in a way that feels more genuine than exploitative.
Beyond the vocal tracks, the OST is quite strong, brought out greatly by good timing in both comedic and dramatic situations. When a character tries to appeal “cool” and background music flairs up to reflect their confidence, it plays off key or is cut short to great hilarity by an offhand comment or lack of the intended attention. The wide use of styles here, from Darker than Black style electronic beats to orchestral pieces, fit well in their proper contexts without feeling inconsistent.
Angel Beats is a soulful train wreck that has been subject to strong criticism and praise, and both are well deserved. It is by no means the best version of itself it could be, with shortcomings in the story telling and pacing problems piling up episode by episode. However, with above average audio visual presentation and several scenes that capitalise on its potent setting, the good aspects of Angel Beats may be too good for some to pass up.