Creating by far the most accomplished animation in the world for a wide audience, the variety of Japanese anime should come a surprise to no-one, nor should the idea that it can often deal with quite serious, relevant topical subjects in a subtle and mature fashion. Sometimes the educational subtext is evident and tends to overshadow the actual entertainment value of a series (as in the exploration through finance, banking and economics in the recently released fantasy series Spice and Wolf) - but at its best (in a series like Noein or Eden of the East), it can cover relevant subjects relating to a generation of youth seeking a purpose in life, growing up in a rapidly changing world of modern technological developments, seeking to use their potential rather than have it exploited. Sometimes however, I admit, I might just be reading more into some anime works than is actually there. Such a case is Angel Beats!, a fabulous, energetic, violent and sometimes manic series, with a great central concept that on the surface appears to offer nothing more than a variation on a shoot-em-up video game. Could there really be a deeper subtext at work here?
Whether there is or isn't, the most important thing about Angel Beats! that will hook you from the word go is the brilliance, immediacy and originality of the central concept. By my reckoning the main character, Otonashi, dies 102 times in just the first eight minutes of episode 1 alone. And not only that, but it seems he was already dead in the first place. You need to learn fast to be in the Not Dead Yet Battlefront or the Afterlife Battlefront (the Shinda Sekai Sensen), and Otonashi is understandably a little bit slow in coming to terms with the fact that he is dead and that so is everyone else in his new afterlife High School. He's also starting to realise that there are worse things than being dead and that being 'obliterated' won't give him a way out of this mad world, unless he's particularly keen on taking the chance of being reborn as a water flea or a barnacle. Yep, there are definitely worse things than death...
Fortunately, he has encountered Yurippe, the young leader of the rebel Battlefront, and she soon appraises Otonashi of the situation that he - with no memory of where he came from in his previous life or in what circumstances he has died - now finds himself in. The most important thing he has to learn is that if he doesn't want to end up as an amoeba, then he has to join the bunch of strange individuals who make-up the rebel Shinda Sekai Sensen faction in the school. Fitting in and conforming to the rules along with the other NPCs (non-participating characters) is a sure way to obliteration, and rather than that, the Battlefront ensure that rules are broken on every occasion during school hours, while at night-time the struggle is a more violent one that pitches them in frenzied armed battles with Angel, the Student Body President. Despite having access to a huge hoard of bespoke weaponry secretly manufactured for them by a Guild working in hidden lairs deep beneath the school that are protected by lethal traps, Angel's powers are vastly superior, and the Battlefront can't help but be gradually picked-off one-by-one to suffer horrible and sometimes self-sacrificing deaths. They'll eventually be resurrected to fight the endless battle again, but that doesn't make the experience of dying any less painful.
With a concept that seems to be lifted from a particularly violent shoot-em-up game-play, with knowing references to NPCs and the characters having multiple (unlimited?) lives, to say nothing of a set-up that hardly resembles any real-world high school experience, there doesn't seem to be anything that suggests that there might be any deeper meaning or thoughtful subtext within a series that includes an exclamation mark in its title. If there is any real-life commentary in Angel Beats!, it would seem to be a rather tasteless comic spin on the relationship between game playing and the phenomenon of high school massacres, where discontented and non-conformist teenagers take guns to high school, viewing their classmates in their disturbed and distorted view of reality as nothing more than non-participating characters to be picked off on their mission. Along the way however, once the initial concept is put to one-side and Otonashi starts to remember where he came from and tries to really come to terms with what is involved in this unusual high school experience, the series starts to reveal wider aspects of the nature of growing up. If Otonashi fits in, conforms and becomes a good normal faceless student, will his own personality, dreams and ambitions be 'obliterated', or is there a way to come to some sort of accommodation?
If the initial set-up is an entertaining hook - a group of students going on a killing spree in a high school of the dead - it would be hard however to sustain that idea over an entire series without some development, so thankfully Angel Beats! manages to add variety to the idea by delving into the previous-life experiences not just of Otonashi, but also of several of the other Battlefront members. Some of these are serious, others less so, all of them however reflecting the variety of responses to life experience, while at the same time leaving plenty of room for other wacky incidents and action sequences. If that were all it did, Angel Beats! would still be an exceptionally good anime series that finds its own unique way of approaching the familiar blend of high school and science-fiction genres, but I'd suggest that there could be other depths here. High School killing sprees may not be as common in Japan as elsewhere, but there is certainly a sense of discontent within youth about "the system" that does manifest itself in other crimes and antisocial behaviour, and I think Angel Beats! certainly draws from that, even if it doesn't directly confront it. Likewise, in a series where both God and Christ appear as characters - albeit not in the form you might expect - in a setting that is clearly a kind of Purgatory, the series also approaches basic existential questions about life, death, the afterlife, the existence of God and the search for purpose and meaning in it all. Again, although it inevitably gets a little sentimental about this in places, it's not over-emphasised to the detriment of the entertainment, but it is definitely part of the larger picture and contributes to the overall richness of the series.
The richness of the series and the questions it raises in relation to life is also reflected in the pacing, structure and the animation itself to a certain extent. The animation is computer drawn 3D - flat 3D in the style of Noein, Eden of the East and Freedom as opposed to the depth modeling of Final Fantasy, 2001 Nights or Vexille - which does seem to lack a human touch, although you could well see this as appropriate considering the context of the world appearing to operate on the level of a video game. Other than being fairly generic, there are no complaints however about the character designs or animation, which looks great and moves along well, and the characters do come to life over the course of the 13 episodes. The sequences featuring the school's in-house indie rock band, Girls Dead Monster, are particularly well animated and their soundtrack adds another dimension to the series.
There's a lot of variety here, rapid changes of pace and tone, from broad slapstick and frankly stupid comedy, to action, violence and black humour, with the odd diversion into weepy sentiment. As an anime series, all these variations in tone can of course be accommodated within a single episode, never mind over the course of the series, but there is a larger picture and the series builds purposefully towards it with substantial character development without ever having to resort to meaningless filler. As the series develops, moving away from its music and action based sequences towards something a little more sedate, it can be a little bit calculated about pushing emotional buttons, but the humour and inventiveness throughout makes it hard not to get caught up with these characters and their personal dilemmas.
I daresay however that it could easily have been stretched to a full 26 episode series, and I'd have been happier to see more of the battle sequences with Angel in the first half that might have made the mid-point turnaround even more dramatic. A little bit longer to fill out some of the other secondary characters would also have justified a longer second half, since the ending also seems to come along much too quickly. On the other hand, all this would do is draw out the series through further repetition and it's hard to argue that Angel Beats! isn't near enough perfect as it is.
Angel Beats! Complete Collection is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Manga Entertainment. The Blu-ray, reviewed here, is a two-disc set, containing all 13 episodes of the series plus one OVA episode, spread across two dual-layer BD50 discs.
3D computer animation is always going to look good in High Definition - although I daresay it will look good on DVD also - and by and large that's the case here. The only minor irritant is the usual one of colour-banding issues, concentric rings of gradation that shift from light to dark tones. These are most noticeable when the image fades out at the end or in at the beginning of a scene, but they can be seen elsewhere. I don't know if this is an inevitable consequence of the encoding of the animation process, but it's fairly common in all the anime I've seen. Otherwise, presented in widescreen 16:9 in a 1080/24p progressive transfer, the image is remarkably but unsurprisingly clean, stable and fluid in movements.
The audio tracks for the original Japanese soundtrack and the English dub are both High Definition DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. Both soundtracks sound fine, though I felt more comfortable with the Japanese voices and only gave the English dub a cursory examination. Soundtracks are clear and, inevitably, come to life most effectively in the surrounds and in the LFE in the action sequences and in the reproduction of the music score. Partial subtitles are provided for signs when the English track is selected, and full subtitles - close to dubtitles - are used for the Japanese track. Both are in a yellow font and are optional.
Extra features. Unless you count the extra OVA episode ('Stairway to Heaven'), there's not much in the way of extra features here. Clean opening and closings are, bizarrely, gathered together for all 14 episodes. Apart from one or two variations, they are mostly all identical.
I recall mentioning in my recent review of Clannad that the Japanese High School drama anime was capable of throwing up some unusual, inventive and thoughtful considerations about the experience of growing up, and Angel Beats!, from the same animation studio, is another superior example of this. It looks and sounds great, it's got an exciting and original central concept, is fun and entertaining and it has other deeper levels there too if you want to consider the implications of what it says about youth, death, the purpose of life and the possibility of an afterlife. You can hardly ask for more than that.