The Unpredictability of Angel Beats

Yes, the filename is descriptive. This is my current desktop wallpaper.

There are two types of people in the world: those who like Angel Beats, and those who don’t… which, of course, completely ignores the third type that haven’t heard of Angel Beats, let alone seen an episode, which constitute the vast majority of the world’s population. Either way, there’s one thing common across both types of viewers: whether you’re a fan or not, no one is completely sure what’s coming next. I’m sympathetic with Angel Beat‘s decriers to the point that I can see that the execution is fairly shonky, but its ability to constantly surprise and usurp expectations is the thing which keeps me engaged.

To me Angel Beats is a distinctly post-modern work. Whether by coincidence or design, there are so many elements that mirror things from other anime. The setting and premise, both strongly alluding to death, bear a resemblance to Haibane Renmei. On a surface level, Yuri looks like Haruhi, but more importantly P.A. Work‘s Angel Beats seems to place a similar emphasis on attractive aesthetics and character art and eye-catching visual flair as KyoAni‘s Suzumiya Haruhi did four years ago. There’s been a baseball episode (Suzumiya Haruhi and Clannad), an all-female four-piece rock band (Suzumiya Haruhi and K-On!), a story of identity-swapping twins (H2O: Footprints in the Sand) and a story of a girl with an illness (take your pick of any Key/KyoAni series).

The sense of humour is typical Key, but it’s been spiced up as the writers have taken advantage of the bizarre set of rules that underlie this universe. Key works have always been known for their melodrama, but I think the humour, which is generally fairly over-the-top, is just as important an element in their stories. Clannad is the funniest of the Key adaptations to date. It’s filled with jokes about Sunohara’s questionable sexuality, Kotomi’s violin and Fuko’s gullibility as she (and several of the other girls) fall victim to Tomoya’s mischievous manipulation. There’s not much subtlety to Clannad‘s humour, which is also true of the drama; when it wants you to laugh, it’ll let you know. While Clannad was, in my opinion, funnier, the purpose humour serves in the overall narrative of a Key work is much more obvious in Kanon 2006. Yuuichi made it his business to tease almost all the girls he encountered, and in all honesty, they were pretty easy targets because of their moe personalities. But what was happening in the meantime was that he, along with the audience watching their antics, was building a rapport with these girls, so that when their respective stories became serious, both he and the audience were emotionally invested in the characters and cared about what was happening to them.

Angel Beats takes the Key brand of humour and says “OK, death is now on the table, how can we be frivolous with it?” Schadenfreude is, to a large extent, the order of the day, and director Kishi Seiji has also infused a tone similar to that of his previous anime, random comedy, Seto no Hanayome, into the show. It’s interesting, given that death was such a vital source of drama in Key‘s previous series, how the tables have been turned and now death serves its purpose as a punchline. Instead, it’s life which has been treated much more solemnly. With one exception, every episode since the second has expanded on one character’s backstory in a serious manner, and each time, themes of regret and existentialism continually pop up.

It’s hard to completely nail down exactly what the show is trying to say about life and, more importantly, the lives these characters lived, in the face of some many ambiguities and unanswered questions relating to how the high school purgatory works. I think this is where the sticking point is for a lot of Angel Beats‘ critics. On one hand, it evidently wants us to care about these characters and be deeply concerned about, firstly, the regretful circumstances leading to them arriving at this world, and secondly, the fact that when they do finally come to terms with their life, they disappear into the unknown, leaving their friends in the SSS behind. However, we still don’t know the full details of what causes someone to disappear, and where they go when it happens, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that both we and Otanashi are being misled, either by Yuri or some other set of circumstances. From this point of view, I can see why people say Angel Beats wants to have its Mapo tofu and eat it too. It’s trying to be a poignant character driven drama about people facing existential crises, as well as a mystery about a strange world where the laws of death don’t apply (and both of these on top of a schadenfreude-fueled comedy), but the way it’s executed right now, it can’t really be both.

There's also an unresolved romantic conflict. It remains to be seen whether either of Otanashi's relationships with Yuri or Tenshi will evolve into something more.

Perhaps it could be if the execution was better. The plot is evolving at a reasonable pace (in fact, I’d say the mystery, along with the comedy, are the show’s two strengths), but the fact that each character is getting vignettes of five minutes on average in which to tell their serious stories, at the rate of one an episode, severely limits just how much of a rapport the audience can build with them. This is probably why Ayato’s episode has probably been the weakest in the show to date. No one liked Ayato, and I’d be surprised if anyone cared about what happened to him, because it was only in the previous episode that we were given any indication that he was at all important.

The mood swings in Key stories have always been extreme, but the pacing has been different, and better at maximizing impact. Both Clannad and Kanon would have several consecutive episodes of comedy in a given arc, followed by several consecutive episodes of drama. Angel Beats has been making the same extreme swings between comedy and drama, but doing so two or three times an episode. Don’t get me wrong, as much as I recognize the show’s flaws, I’m still a fan. I’m just more engaged by its mystery than I am by the character stories, which to me, feel undercooked. For a show which comes off as a mish-mash of different elements from so many other anime, it’s surprising that Angel Beats manages to stand on its own feet, with its own distinct identity. Almost every episode has offered a surprising plot twist, and I daresay that this will continue right to the very end. Its relationship with the audience reminds me a bit of Code Geass R2, except on the smaller scale. It continues to be surprising and unexpected precisely because we’re told so little, and so much of it makes no sense. As a plot-driven mystery, you’re engaged because you’re so desperate to find out what happens next, and to get the bottom of an explanation for the events. However, as a meaningful character-driven story, it’s underwhelming, because it’s not succinct and clear in what it’s trying to say about these people, and the overall message it wants to pass on.

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19 Responses to “The Unpredictability of Angel Beats”

  1. The execution of the latest few episodes has been pretty flawed. The first few episodes were alright, and built up expectations that Otonashi would have had to face a choice between sticking with Yuri and the SSS, or leaving them for Kanade. Ultimately, he didn’t have to make such a choice, and that really disappointed me. Jun Maeda’s favorite theme is family, and I felt that a conflict between Otonashi’s “beloved” and his “adopted family” would have been, well, pretty sweet.

    Kanade’s the most interesting character on the show, and it pains me to see her just be so complacent to Otonashi’s demands. She needs more of a personality if she is to be a strong female lead.

    Ayato’s story is completely implausible. It’s as if the storytelling simply fell apart after episode 5, which is extremely frustrating, since the show was doing pretty well before then.

    Angel Beats still has six episodes left to fix itself. I’m looking forward to what Maeda does with the rest of his time.

  2. Judging from the way people have been reacting to Angel Beats, I’d think that this show reminds me of Sora no Woto; it’s not about the show, but more of how it impacts the watchers. I’m not a fan of Angel Beats – and obviously not the only one – but I can’t ignore it either (neither can almost all anime viewers). Every episode sets people talking, just like how Sora no Woto raised so many questions and possible theories after each episode.

    Both Angel Beats and Sora no Woto has that “hook” to make sure that viewers stay put with the show. For me, Sora no Woto is underwhelming because it raised so many questions and yet its solutions or resolutions aren’t satisfactory. This is not to say that Sora no Woto fails but it’s kinda wasteful to see how the show didn’t realize its full potential. Angel Beats seems to be going down that same path and at this point, I’m not sure if it’s able to address AND satisfy all the curiosities it raised from episode one (funny, unpredictability plays both the roles of narrating the story and clearing all its doubts if it wants to).

  3. Not many people seem to be in the mood for stuff like House of Five Leaves or Tatami Galaxy, but they’re sure enthralled by Angel Beats and Arakawa. These are the kinds of shows that have just enough to keep you watching while they air, but you’re pretty much guaranteed to forget about them shortly thereafter (unless they’re the first “half-decent” anime you’ve ever watched). Sora no Woto hadn’t crossed my mind in weeks until AC’s comment above.

    I think it’s simply because the majority of people don’t have the time to watch a bunch of anime at once. They’re just more likely to choose Angel Beats – it’s a mixed bag, but a mixed bag of a lot of different stuff. So if you’re alright with just teasers and taste tests, then Angel Beats is probably good enough.

  4. I love the surprising factor. It makes me interested and at the end of the day, that’s what keeps me from dropping an anime.

  5. Angel Beats is kind of odd since it’s chock full of derivative tropes but still very watchable. I’m not sure that I would compare it to Sora no Woto like AC since stuff actually happens each episode, but there has been a large lack of the “wow” factor aside from the animation.

  6. When I finally finished this article, I realized I’d written about half of what I wanted to say. I’d say there’s a decent chance this won’t be the my last post on Angel Beats.

    Strangely, last time I looked, ANN only had Maede credited for the scripts of the first four episodes. I’m not sure if it just wasn’t up-to-date at the time. I mean, someone must have written those last three episodes. My opinion is that these stories could have worked with better execution. I wrote earlier that the biggest pitfall Angel Beats was facing was mixing their disparate elements in a way that didn’t gel well. They were able to get away with it for the first five or so episodes, because each of those elements were still engaging. But the character-related stuff has slipped right away. Interestingly, I still like a lot of the characters, particularly the female ones. Yuri, Tenshi, Yui and Shiina are all interesting and/or fun. Maybe their stories will be more engaging. Like I said, no one really cared about Ayato, and Otanashi’s story unfortunately wasn’t the shocking/amazing reveal that I think people were expecting given how it was built up (although it does explain his attachment to Tenshi.)

    Like Sora no Woto, it suffers from some identity problems. This, I think, is a common problem when you’re borrowing aspects from other anime while trying to define your own unique identity. I’d still suggest that Angel Beats is unique, and for that I give it kudos, but unique doesn’t count for as much if you can’t do it with good execution, and here’s where Angel Beats is, admittedly, struggling a bit. If, like Sora no Woto, Angel Beats can’t satisfactorily explain its intriguing setting, then yeah, I’ll be disappointed, because at this stage, the mystery is the biggest hook.

    I’m not sure that’s fair. Like I said, Angel Beats is distinctly post-modern, in that it’s a strange amalgam of lots of different elements and tones, but I wouldn’t say that makes it cheap, of itself. No doubt that House of Five Leaves is much more heavy-hitting and at this stage (up to what I’ve seen), it’s a superior anime because it’s not plagued with the same execution problems. But Angel Beats has its place. As for Arakawa, I haven’t seen the latest episode, but the word is that it just did something to expand its scope massively, and it now has the potential to be almost as memorable as Bakemonogatari. Angel Beats has seven episodes left, and in that time it may well do something similar.

    Yeah, what’s surprising is just how surprising Angel Beats has been. It’s an “extent” thing… I’m reasonably convinced that no one knows for certain what’s coming next, and the people who manage to pick it will do so mostly out of luck and good guessing. But is staying one step of the audience for the sake of delivering constantly surprising plot twists really, in fact, good storytelling? That’s probably open to debate.

    Other than the animation, I’d still say the plot twists have been “wow”-worthy. But whether they’re at all meaningful is still open to debate.

  7. @Shadowmage

    Whether stuff happens or not in every episode is not the point. Nothing actually happens for most of the episodes in Sora no Woto because the writers want it that way (and if you think about it, it has no plot because of it’s slice-of-life nature).

    Sora no Woto and Angel Beats both raise many questions but the questions are different altogether. Sora no Woto’s questions pertain to the surroundings: what the hell happened to the world, why the world seems to be from a different universe, etc. Angel Beats’ questions pertain to the plot: what’s going to happen? What are they fighting against? Why are they even fighting for?

  8. I wonder why people think otonashi will have some relationship with yuri other than the fact that she was the first girl he meets.
    it has to be yuzuru and kanade since yuri seems just like a smart and tricky leader and doesnt really show much interest in getting close with yuzuru.

  9. My big issue with Angel Beats is that I just do not know how it wants me to feel about everything. There’s nothing to really ground the viewer because 1) The world is inherently mysterious, so we don’t really know what’s going on there, 2) There’s all these (underbuilt) dramatic moments and 3) There’s lots of jarring (but mostly funny) comedy.

    It feels as if the focus is being torn in several directions, because there’s no real balance to anything right now. The drama and comedy are drawn to such extremes — and used so evenly — that I’m not even sure I should be taking the show seriously. There are times when Angel Beats feels like Key satire, and there are times where it feels like I should be taking it seriously … but those feelings are never unified. Everything feels discordant, and it’s difficult for me to say whether that is deliberate.

    Really, it has me wondering whether the show is poorly written, or if I am just looking at it from the wrong angle. I’m not sure I should be reading it like I would a “normal” type of series, but at the same time, I’m not sure any reading could justify how ep6 and ep7 were written, haha.

  10. I’m going to have to knock on Angel Beats’ mystery direction because the way it’s doing it isn’t quite what I’d call effective. The execution sets up a false sense of mystery because it leaves the world hanging, not because it presents these mysteries for us to observe. We’re given parameters in the very beginning, but without really raising or dropping any questions as it build upon the mystery, Angel Beats abruptly ends each and every conflict by the end of the episode and brings up a new one. As such, we’re expecting each conflict or question not as an event within the story but as the next plot point, something that we’re expecting because we’ve been cut short from getting anything that can be well analyzed. There may be underlying themes, but they’re never dealt with tactfully and always give way for the next little segment of drama. That’s not good mystery; it’s more akin to making stuff up along the way.

    As for schadenfreude, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can indeed pepper a dire event like death with a lighthearted atmosphere and take advantage of it, but an important point needs to be made about these situations: your gut feeling should be that of horror or something similar if this situation was not executed in a frivolous manner. For that to hold any semblance of legitimacy, the converse needs to be true: that events with a more dramatic atmosphere must in some form be ultimately amusing, or else the effect that schadenfreude has falls flat. Angel Beats takes its drama parts too seriously and its comedy parts not seriously enough.

    Perhaps the one thing that keeps me attached is the premise itself. As a big fan of Haibane Renmei, I was very much intrigued by how a series that is more likely to cater to the meta tropes of anime would deal with similar themes. Alas, I feel it hasn’t met expectations yet. But in an amusing way, episode 7’s more mundane expedition led me to believe for the most brief of moments that maybe, just maybe, the moral of Angel Beats would be the existentialist idea of “There is no God. Life is what you make of it.” And then I remembered Maeda was at the helm and that we still had five to six episodes to go. So, more drama it is!

  11. @edru
    Remember the scene in ep 2 where Otanashi was “climbing” Yuri. Sooo much sexual tension. I think there’s something there.

    There are a few theories about that Angel Beats is a satire, but I’m not convinced. I still think that if it were better paced, and there was more spacing between the really funny bits, and the really dramatic bits, there’d be a much smaller chance we were having this conversation.

    It’s a bit like Lost (which, in all honesty, I gave up on after season 4). I can see why people say it feels contrived. But I still want to give it the benefit of the doubt, which is why I think the reveals, especially towards the end, are almost going to be make-or-break.

    We’ve talked a lot about mystery, comedy and melodrama, but one thing that’s been kinda passed over in this conversation has been the characters. I still think that characters are absolutely the most important thing in any anime (or any fiction, for that matter), which is why I put an emphasis on interesting and/or likable characters. Angel Beats, IMO, still has a handful of these… they’re just not the ones getting the attention at the moment. That’s why I’m really looking forward to hearing Tenshi’s story, or finding out more info about Yuri (since she seems to be hiding quite a lot).

  12. I truly wonder if anybody has gotten tired of having to excuse shows for having no plot or intrigue by the episode because they have slice of life elements yet. More and more it strikes me as the ultimate get out of jail free card for producers looking to avoid the harshest of criticisms.

    Then again I don’t even really think Angel Beats is a slice of life mind you, just going on what some people are saying above.

    I can tell anybody right now what I’ve found Angel Beats biggest faults to be though and that’s that there’s no way to be sure what direction the show is going in and there’s not enough to hold my interest while it gets to whatever ultimate end is in store. The comedy obviously doesn’t work for everyone because I certainly don’t find it funny the vast majority of the time and the drama seems somehow detached from what’s going on in the show…perhaps due to the fact that there are rarely any lasting consequences due to the nature of the setting. Honestly it’s kind of a mess so far. At least with Code Geass R2 (which Sorrow compared the production to in the article) it could be argued that it always kept things interesting and like they were moving in some direction even as it felt like it was constantly shifting gears and character goals.

  13. what say you now after ep 9? i found myself agreeing to most of your points till the last ep. a few things have been clarified for the slower viewers and a few things have been revealed as well. like the rest(probably not all since this debunks the whole head trauma theory for his memory loss) of Otonashi’s past. i do find intriguing this new prospect that perhaps Otonashi is now “god” since he’s asked Tachibana(Angel) to follow his instructions.

  14. also sorry for the double post, the fault i find most prominent in AB, is that the director is constantly killing the mood. although i like the swinging moods, it would be nice if the parts that are meant to make you cry arn’t just suddenly cut off by some other character’s antics or the characters realization of something. Also even the scenes where they dont change the mood they cut off too early, like Otonashi’s death scene in ep 9, just a second or two longer would have made that scene perfect.

  15. <blockquoteThe execution of the latest few episodes has been pretty flawed. The first few episodes were alright, and built up expectations that Otonashi would have had to face a choice between sticking with Yuri and the SSS, or leaving them for Kanade. Ultimately, he didn’t have to make such a choice, and that really disappointed me. Jun Maeda’s favorite theme is family, and I felt that a conflict between Otonashi’s “beloved” and his “adopted family” would have been, well, pretty sweet.

    Kanade’s the most interesting character on the show, and it pains me to see her just be so complacent to Otonashi’s demands. She needs more of a personality if she is to be a strong female lead.

    Ayato’s story is completely implausible. It’s as if the storytelling simply fell apart after episode 5, which is extremely frustrating, since the show was doing pretty well before then.

    Angel Beats still has six episodes left to fix itself. I’m looking forward to what Maeda does with the rest of his time.

    At this point, he's chosen kanade. His full backstory was also tragic, and I felt that the confrontation with naoi was well done; he became god to deal with his self loathing, and otonashi helped him overcome his self loathing by showing that he did have a purpose, and had been acknowledged. Really, naoi's just a bitter self loathing fuck who needed a lot of counselling to deal with his pain.

  16. Also, he did have to make a choice. and naoi’s choice ties in with regrets.

  17. I actually liked naoi’s story. The reason he wanted to become a god was because he felt his own life had seemingly been worthless. In reality his father had loved him and had acknowledged him for more then being a clone of his bro. He was just so blinded by jealousy (and the rarity of such instances) that he blocked it out. Because his brother was good at the family trade he got all the attention, and naoi believed he would only get recognition by being as good as his brother, a view reinforced by his father paying attention after the bros death. when he failed to live up to it, he felt worthless. Otonashi forced him to see that the reason he felt empty was because he tried to be something he wasn’t (his brother) instead of developing his own skills by making him remember his father. I actually felt it was a movie scene.

  18. I just wanted to say…..angel beats did it’s job. It taught me to appreciate life and I hope it taught u all the same.

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