My, I’m watching a lot of Key Visual Arts adaptations this summer, aren’t I? I just need to actually get through the entire moe-fied spunk blob that is the KyoAni Kanon, and my tour through the Key anime adaptations will be 100% complete. Stay tuned for my inevitable mental breakdown as I review it with the fury of a slightly disgruntled anime blogger, but read my Angel Beats review first for the only Key adaptation that I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish. Well… from start to nearly finish.
Yes, that’s high praise considering the middling opinion that I gave of their prototype adaptation Air, my similar opinion of Clannad, and my outright loathing of Kanon and I don’t say anything like that lightly. Yes, Angel Beats is a departure from most Key fare, centering more on action and delinquents not giving a flying fuck than romance and delinquents pretending not to give a flying fuck. Okay, so there’s still romance squeezed uncomfortably in there in places, but when it is used, it’s used to its fullest. There’s also the obligatory overwrought drama, but it’s compacted to a more manageable, enjoyable form.
In a world beyond life that’s designed like a regular Japanese high school, a group of students led by a charismatic girl named Nakamura Yuri (Known as Yurippe by her subordinates) is fighting valiantly to avoid disappearing into nothingness. They vandalize, they shoot, they steal, and they make attempts to kill the terminator-esque student body president, dubbed Angel, with oftentimes hilarious results. If they stop fighting and join the regular student body comprised of what are essentially NPCs, they disappear forever and are presumably reincarnated in the next life as barnacles or some other lowly life form. At least that’s what they presume.
One day, a new arrival named Otonashi Yuzuru wakes up in the middle of a battlefield in a skirmish between Angel and Yuri’s crack team. After a misunderstanding he’s stabbed, brought back to life, stabbed again, and then brought to Yuri to join her team. From there, it’s the wretched spawn of many anime genres, but ends up the better for it. It plays the part of the jack of all trades, master of none, except all the parts are executed well enough so as not to make it noticeably lacking in any one area, arbitrary romance aside.
Much like Fate/Stay Night, it has something to please everyone: Fun, fluidly animated fight sequences for the action fans, romance between several characters for those who like that kind of thing, straightforward hinting at bisexuality between two of the male characters for the yaoi fangirls, and a girl accidentally hanging herself with a microphone stand for those watching for serious drama.
Compared to the other adaptations that are essentially borderline harem affairs with an undercurrent of the supernatural, Angel Beats is a full on supernatural affair with a tinge of remorse and fear of losing oneself to the status quo that is all too real. Each of the characters, from the mysterious Angel to the equally mysterious and incomprehensible TK have something that they regret from their past lives leaving them in this boarding school beyond death, ready to move on once they’ve made peace with their pasts. The character archetypes cover all the bases imaginable, even the nerd who secretly loves working out and the hypnotist student body vice president.
Despite the rampant comedy vibe, especially in the first half, there’s always that feeling of melancholy that belies it. Everyone in this afterlife has suffered in some way, Yuri’s death being the worst. Yet it doesn’t reach true Key proportions until the very end after a few tearful farewells that have more impact because of how little they’re drawn out. Just a fond farewell and the person’s gone forever, having moved on to their next life. This actually hits pretty hard in the last episodes once everything’s getting wrapped up.
But as I said, there’s also that comical first half that contradicts any sort of drama that follows and levels out to a fairly amusing, if slightly mournful mood throughout. In the beginning, this ragtag collection of students makes themselves out to be heroic sociopaths, preying on the student body for their own selfish gain. They also get stabbed, shot, maimed, drowned, crushed, and go through all kinds of pain for the sake of comedy. Since the characters are immortal and spring back to life with a slight headache soon after, this is less heartrending and more side splitting.
And it’s this that it runs with for five straight episodes before characterization really kicks in, and it’s wonderful. After episode five, it starts to get a little more serious in tone, but not completely at the expense of the silliness. The drama stumbles a bit in some places and doesn’t get developed properly in others, especially between Yurippe and Otonashi, but overall it’s passable and occasionally moving. Of particular mention is Otonashi’s regaling of his death, which, despite how over the top clichéd and cheesy it was at times with his total selflessness, was pretty well rendered.
Visually, it’s pretty damn good for PA Works (Got the studios mixed up earlier. Cookie for any of my astute readers who noticed.). As such, the color pallet is rich, the characters look fantastic (No more overly squished female faces! New ground for Key!), and the animation has very few hiccups. It’s a fantastic looking show, and it’ll be imprinted on your brain long after it’s through. Sound-wise, the voices are good, especially TK’s fluent if fragmented English. There are none that really stand out as bad, the music’s standard J-Rock except for the boring OP and ED… yeah, it’s good all around.
I really wish I could come up with plenty of criticism for this, but it did so many things right that all of my possible complaints will be subjective affairs and not flaws with the presentation itself. I wanted to make this a negative post, but there just weren’t enough negatives aside from occasionally spotty characterization and shoehorned in romance for me to tear apart. And if there were less anime series with that, I’d be out of the job. And… that’s it. Most of my complaints are standard for what I have against Key and everything it stands for. Saccharinely sweet in many places with too much monologuing at the end to justify a perfect rating, Angel Beats has some small blunders. When added against the quality of the rest they’re hard to take into consideration, but they’re there.
With a stellar first five episodes and a mostly admirable everything else, Angel Beats is a series that melds several genres into one successful, cohesive blend. Despite having several Key Visual Arts hallmarks, it keeps most of the tropes to a condensed minimum. Much like Last Exile, the quality’s high all around, but that doesn’t make it a classic. But it doesn’t seem that it wanted to be anything but a fun little romp with the occasional sober moment, so I can’t hold that against Angel Beats as a whole.
If you’re a fan of Key’s other works, you’ll find plenty to like here. And if you’re not, it’s worth a glance if only for the hype that surrounded it that, for once, is quite well deserved for the most part. And again, the one conspicuous moeblob hangs herself with her microphone stand completely by accident. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Total Times ‘Key’ has been used in this post for those curious: 9