Angel Beats

(SFX Magazine, Future Publishing – there are also further reflections on the series in an article I wrote for the MangaUK blog.)

Oh, you’re awake. Lie there on the ground for a moment, and listen to me. Welcome to the Afterlife Battlefront. You’ve died, you see. Everyone here has; deal with it. Now, this place may look like the grounds of a high school, but it’s really the afterlife. If you don’t do anything, God will erase you. We in the Battlefront are fighting back, and we’d like you to enlist… Hold on, where are you going? Don’t talk to that girl!

At Angel Beats’ start, bewildered, amnesiac and deceased schoolboy Otonashi doesn’t listen to the gun-toting Yuri, formidable girl commander of the afterlife rebels. Consequently, he’s skewered by the show’s other main girl, the petite, white-haired Angel, who speaks in soft, detached tones and extrudes huge blades from her hands. But afterlife death isn’t permanent. The revived Otonashi signs up with the battlefront – schoolkids like himself – to fight Angel, but his fearful fascination with the unearthly girl takes the story in wild directions.

The show’s wild enough anyway, stampeding between low comedy and extreme tragedy. The second part has a hilarious Indiana Jones pastiche where the Battlefront team go down an underground tunnel of death-traps, being sliced or splatted while the survivors brush past (because death’s not permanent). Then with just Yuri and Otonashi left, she tells him a ghastly story about her past, involving child murder, to explain why she fights God.

It’s like the Gremlins scene where Phoebe Cates punctured the violent muppet slapstick with a monologue about her Santa-suited dad breaking his neck in a chimney. That, though, at least had an underlying sick comedy. Yuri’s story in Angel Beats is just too nasty, though you could take it as a very black meta-joke about the extremes of audience manipulation in heartrending Japanese cartoons.

What makes Angel Beats brilliant is the way it shifts blithely between emotions, and between different kinds of story, making no effort to hides its manipulations from the viewer; and yet it still manages to be charming, touching and heart-rending. It celebrates life’s authenticity and preciousness, while flattering diametrically opposed views on thornier subjects (the existence of an afterlife, social non-conformity, even gender roles). This fence-sitting could be accused of play-safe pandering, but it comes across rather as good-humoured tolerance.

It feels wholly appropriate that Angel Beats is motored along by catchy pop songs, courtesy of the Battlefront’s “diversionary” (!) girl musicians, confirming this is an anime package that’ll throw in anything. More than once, Angel Beats seems to be going nowhere, only to pay off random characters and unfinished strands in increasingly satisfying ways.

On first viewing, it’s an inconsistent watch, with captivatingly good episodes (especially the first three) followed by slacker-seeming instalments; but the show repays repeat views to admire its twisty shape. Like Lost, it packs in mini-stories from the “real” world, from misery memoirs to disaster dramas. It’s also a multiple-ender – its later episodes are full of “final” battles and revelations – though the real last part is a leisurely, valedictory wind-down that Prof Tolkien would have approved.

The show revolves around a boy (Otonashi) and two pretty girls (Yuri and Angel), but not as you’d expect. While the story’s largely from Otonashi’s viewpoint, Yuri is the true hero, seeing Otonashi as a friend and ally but no more. The pint-sized Angel recalls Evangelion’s Rei, another calm, blank, doll-figure, though Angel’s story-arc is lively and surprising, with a Kick-Ass frisson to a tiny girl with Terminator reflexes and a bomber’s firepower.

Otonashi cowers from her as a monster (she killed him!) but still has protective male stirrings (because she’s so little). There’s a reason for that, as we learn when he recalls his past. It’s a very perverse reason, but Angel Beats makes it seem real; certainly more real than the other members of the Afterlife Battlefront, who are introduced by Yuri as ciphers and one-jokes. “He has no speciality… He’s a mysterious guy speaking in nonsense song lyrics…” But even they’re given humour or poignancy when needed, when they’re not being fuel for the lunatic humour (rocket chairs!) and homoerotic gags.

Like Yuri’s killer backstory, Angel Beats’ emotional peaks play up the absurdly contrived scenarios with gusto. One flashback has a character die at the perfect moment of heroic sacrifice. The (final) climax seemingly pastiches the infamous “Architect” scene from The Matrix Reloaded, switching a gutsier anime girl for Keanu. The show’s last scene turns on a jaw-dropping magical sting revelation that even Steven Moffat would scoff at, as a simple goodbye segues into an eternal scream of teen anguish. Darn it but it works, outrageous, bittersweet and among the best endings in anime.