My Heart, Your Soul, Our Beats

by eternal on July 7, 2010


It’s difficult to not talk about Jun Maeda’s Angel Beats. Despite coming from a writer whose most famous works target a relatively niche audience, it’s a fact that Angel Beats is a high-quality production, likely high-budget as well, and it’s earned the attention of most of anime fandom – for better or worse. The show may not have topped Key’s visual novel adaptations in terms of popularity or praise, but it marks an interesting departure from Maeda’s traditional style while staying true to the sentimental storytelling that makes Key what it is. It goes without saying that I’m a fan, but I believe that Angel Beats is particularly noteworthy: not because it trumps the nakige classics, but because it’s a solid drama that helped me identify an aspect of Key’s appeal that I was unable to isolate during the various visual novel adaptations.

To start, I should mention that Angel Beats does a decent job of differentiating itself from its genre by actually having fun with itself. The comedy, while theoretically hit-or-miss, was almost always a hit in my case. Most of the comic relief revolves around the characters’ unusual quirks, sometimes to the point that it treads on parody territory. Comedy certainly isn’t essential to a story like this, but it helps the viewer relax in what would otherwise be a fairly depressing situation, and it explores the group’s personalities without slowing down the pace. It could be jarring to switch between comedy and drama like Angel Beats does but the transitions work for the most part.

As for the show’s technical merits, there’s not much to say other than that the presentation is spectacular. Specifically, Maeda’s background music is astounding, and there’s at least one track that’s making me look forward to the OST more than I’ve ever looked forward to an OST. Wikipedia points out that he was aiming for a minimalist style, which certainly explains the melody-less piano and percussion that accompanies quite a few scenes. Overall, the music stands out as much in Angel Beats as it does in the rest of Key’s adaptations, and some of the piano melodies are just as tearjerking as Nagisa, and maybe even Last Regrets.

Visually, I have nothing to say about P.A. Works other than the fact that the show looks as good as ef, except the beauty is detailed rather than abstract. Everything from the first episode’s GirlDeMo concert to the gymnasium floor make the show look more like a film than a TV series, and the traditional Key aesthetics of dramatic and surreal lighting pervade most of the important scenes. The animation is usually above-average, and it seems to have a good sense of the feeling of each scene. It’s hard to find specific examples of this, but in my memory, I can distinctly see Kanade’s hair blowing softly in the breeze and contrast it with the ferocity of the bullets bouncing off her shield during the fight in the first episode. Most of the important scenes got me thinking that I was watching something that looks far better than your average TV anime. Altogether, it’s prettier than True Tears.

At any rate, Angel Beats might be superficially beautiful, but it’s the familiar emotionally charged story that truly got me. Jun Maeda’s story works on two levels for me: it’s a (melo)dramatic tale of pursuing fulfillment in one’s life, even in death, but it’s also a noticeable departure from the type of work that earned Key its unofficial English slogan.

It’s obvious from watching the show that the universe of Angel Beats is simply Maeda’s version of purgatory. The souls of children whose lives were stolen unjustly, be it through human crime or unfortunate accidents, gather together in paradise to heal their wounds and pass on. The show seems to interpret “passing on” as reincarnation rather than true death, but it hardly matters since the memories have to disappear in the process. As Yuri said, humans have no choice but to accept the realities of their lives, no matter how unfair or unjust they may be. Willfully choosing to abandon one’s memories in favour of a more pleasant existence would be the same as throwing away one’s own life. The purpose of this purgatorial high school is to graduate, but at what cost?

At least, this is the conflict that Yuri is faced with, and it’s the central problem that the characters have to overcome. On one hand we have the optimistic theory of living in paradise to heal the wounds of a painful life, almost as a way to make up for the unfair lives that they lived up until then. On the other hand, the story questions the authenticity of this happiness, stating that it’s effectively just an illusion. Yuri’s confrontation with the Angel Player program – easily the most dramatic scene in the show – summarizes this conflict in a catharsis of gunpowder. The program exists to stop love from blossoming in the afterlife; by doing so, players will be forced to live out their dreams in paradise and eventually pass on. However, while Yuri realized that accepting the paradise as it is and allowing herself to disappear would be a shallow way to end her life, she also couldn’t bring herself to accept her initial desire of destroying God and avenging her family. Gaining control of Angel Player would perhaps allow her to come to terms with her unfair life, but she would be sacrificing the happiness that she built in her present life in the process.

In reality, the catharsis that Yuri and the others desire isn’t something that can be found through shallow goals or illusions of happiness – it’s something that they have to find for themselves, as they experience the love that they never felt in the real world and eventually allow themselves to pass on. She concludes this proclamation by blasting a hole through the system that limits love for the sake of preventing the weak-willed from being sucked into an eternal existence. Ultimately, the ability for the dead to find their resolution and pass on is more important than any fail-safe.

The sheer importance of the scene makes me wonder if there was any intentional symbolism, though it’s always hard to separate thematic motifs from stylistic ones. The sight of Yuri tearing through Angel Player’s mountain of hearts is almost ironic since she was in fact freeing the hearts of the players from control. Perhaps that was the very intention of the scene: freeing the players’ hearts from the programmer’s computer system that branches across the entire world. Either way, it’s a stunning visual motif that packs the dramatic punch that the scene needs. Yuri’s reference to her own tragic past as she pulls the trigger is easily the show’s most triumphant moment.

Of course, if the second-last episode contains the most triumphant moment, it’s only fitting that the last episode overshadows it with the most heartbreaking moment. Kanade’s final revelation ties in all sorts of things, and not just in terms of the obvious thematic resolution. For one, the name of the show starts making sense. I recall hearing someone joke that the name “Angel Beats” could be taken literally because much of the story revolves around literally beating up an angel. It’s impossible to know until the end, but the “beats” refers to Kanade’s heart. The symbol is enforced by the name of the OP (My Soul, Your Beats) and the repeated use of the cardiograph imagery in the OP and the eyecatch. Of course, no amount of clever imagery can overshadow the romantic symbol of Otonashi’s and Kande’s hearts being eternally connected – literally.

Angel Beats is the kind of show that people would praise for being deep and thought-provoking if it were directed by Mamoru Oshii or adapted from a Yoshitoshi ABe manga. Since this is not the case and the story is more likely to appeal to a completely different crowd, it’s worth mentioning that Angel Beats lacks some of the hallmarks of the Key tradition that viewers are familiar with – specifically, the theme of tragic romance. The romance in Angel Beats is implicit at best, and it only shows itself when it’s needed to jerk the tears. Compare this to shows like Clannad and Kanon where, even though there are general themes about life that guide the story along its course, everything revolves around the main romantic relationship. The amazing thing about Angel Beats is that it didn’t occur to me until the very end that I was watching a Key anime without romance. In other words, Maeda managed to hook me on a tragic love story without the love story.

This is what led me to the realization that Clannad ~After Story~ should have led me to, but couldn’t because of my own bias toward Tomoya and Nagisa. The nakige “sad girls in snow” style of storytelling may be Key’s strong point if you want to pigeonhole their style into a genre or structure, but as Angel Beats proves, Maeda’s true strength is his sentimental storytelling, not his ability to write romance. Angel Beats possesses all of the distinctive Key styles that make fans cry at the end while writing 1000+ word blog posts, but the actual storyline is noticeably different from the rest of Maeda’s work. It’s like Clannad without the romance. Angel Beats is really about the challenge of finding fulfillment in an unfair world, something that could be portrayed as dark and bleak or vague and pretentious or even satirical, but it’s told in such a dramatic, tear-jerking manner that it’s just as painful as Ayu’s last goodbye in Kanon. Of course I wouldn’t want to see Jun Maeda and his colleagues drift away from the romantic stories that they’re known for telling, but Angel Beats made me realize conclusively that it’s the dramatic, sentimental storytelling that makes Key what it is, not the love-it-or-hate-it clichés of sad girls in snow and magical AIDS.

Having said that, it’s important to remember that Angel Beats tells a spectacular story on its own, regardless of its relation to the rest of Key’s tearjerkers. The theme may be simple – no life is worthless, all lives can find their own fulfillment – but it’s told in a way that isn’t often seen in anime. The afterlife setting may not be as unique as it should be, but the concept of a paradise-like purgatory that exists to quell life’s unfair pains – the very same pains that the characters of Key’s other games have to suffer through! – is both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Ultimately, nothing can sum up my feelings on the show like Kanade’s last goodbye. Otonashi remembers what it means to live, then watches his happiness slip through his fingers once more… and at some point, he closes his eyes and accepts the true happiness that his life has given him, the happiness that shines through any amount of pain. It’s bittersweet, heartbreaking, and uplifting. It’s Key, and I love it.


{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

kerobear July 8, 2010 at 2:58 am

Thank you Eternal for writing this review. Pretty much sums up what I think this anime has brought to me. Tear -jerking, but at the same time had a lot of unique funny moments.


ETERNAL July 11, 2010 at 12:01 pm

You are very welcome :)

Funny enough, I just remembered to tell you on MAL that I finished the show and wrote about it, but I guess you beat me to it~


tom July 10, 2010 at 7:39 pm

yeah, especially in the last ep, the backgrounds were like CG scenes :)
the whole series would be much more enjoyable if one could read the novels/manga at the same time as the anime


ETERNAL July 11, 2010 at 11:59 am

I’m not sure when the translation for the novels began, but it seems like most of the chapters are now available in English from the Chinese version. I plan on reading it soon, although I wonder if anything else in the franchise will be able to top the TV series.


Jinx July 26, 2010 at 8:10 am

Well, I’m glad you like it. I, on the other hand, had very big problems with the show. Maeda Jun did his best for a 13 episode anime, and there lies the issue. Maeda Jun is an epic writer. It is extremely difficult for him to cover so much background stories, so much emotions in 13 episodes. PA Work did their best, but the pacing was horrible. There were too many jumps and assumptions.

I admit that I did enjoy the show. Humor was good (mostly). Music was awesome. Animation was pretty. But I could not put it on the same level as Clannad.


ETERNAL August 1, 2010 at 10:59 pm

I didn’t watch the show as it was airing, but pacing seems to be one of the biggest complaints I’ve heard. Maybe that’s why it didn’t bother me; I pretty much marathoned it over two days. Objectively, I can understand where that complaint is coming from, but the whole show honestly felt natural to me. I’d be lying if I said that the pacing bothered me, so I suppose I got lucky.


LostGamer August 1, 2010 at 11:49 pm

Awesome review, it reminds me why I’m not a blogger. I’d be like, “I like it, it was good, you should watch” heh. I look forward to more!

The soundtracks are awesome, I have all but the last two that were only recently released and I’ll have those soon! I highly recommend them all!


Aorii August 3, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Wait, you didn’t really notice the love story until the end? I’m kinda surprised. I mean if you treat AB’s presentation that way, Clannad (not including Afterstory) wasn’t a “romance” until nearly the ending either. I also thought AB!’s humor was very typically Key and like their other works (just came in faster, but everything came faster) but… [shrug] and also, the backstories still very much emphasize on Maeda’s reliance on tragedy to draw out the melodrama… not to mention more detailed parallels like Kanade’s goodbye immediately following her revelation and how similar it is to Ayu’s final wish just after she revealed all the facts.

I guess I don’t really see a difference between AB! and Maeda’s usual melodrama techniques. The only notable thing AB! came out at me with is Maeda’s experimentation in storytelling presentation.


ETERNAL August 4, 2010 at 12:15 am

The romance didn’t really jump out at me. You could tell that they were strongly implying something, like during the fishing episode, but it never felt like the main emphasis to me so I didn’t really think about it until it was too late. I think the visual novel structure of Clannad made the romance more obvious since it’s easy to predict how everything will end.

Either way, Angel Beats’ drama doesn’t hinge on romance, which makes it a bit different than the other Key stories. Otonashi’s and Yuri’s backstories were some of the most painful parts of the series, and Yuri’s battle in ep 12 was one of my favourite moments. You could say that Maeda’s other works include themes other than romance, but they all still revolve around the basic “tragic love story” pattern. Until the last episode, I didn’t think AB! was good because it was a tragic love story, I thought it was good for… well, everything else. The whole purgatory/regrets thing is fairly different from what I thought I liked about Key, and that seems more central to the plot if you ask me.

But yes, you’re right that the techniques are similar, if not the same. I suppose he had to struggle with writing for anime instead of a 50+ hour game, but the core elements are there and I think that’s why Key fans still like it.


Wolfsbane August 13, 2010 at 2:38 am

I’ve been having trouble connecting to this show. I got through the first 7 episodes, and something about it just feels off to me. It could be the pacing, like people mentioned: the fact that it’s jammed into such a short show seems to sidestep character development somewhat. I feel like an excess of plot action can sometimes do that (like I felt happened, to an extent, with Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood). I just haven’t really cared for the characters. But since you seem to really enjoy it, maybe I’ll give it another shot.


tai August 13, 2012 at 6:38 am

I just watched this show for the first time less than a month ago, and while I found it quite enjoyable it it lacked in depth when compared to Clannad. Character is what made Clannad what it is to me, and I wished Angel Beats was able to tell and reinforce every character’s story the way Clannad was able to. While the short airtime is possibly to blame, I felt there was a strange emphasis on action scenes (like descending into Guild) that could have been more character-character socialization and interaction that made each and every character resonate with the viewer.


eternal September 8, 2012 at 3:09 am

Funny enough, I recently started playing Little Busters and it reminded me of how important character development is in these stories (and how relatively easy it is to develop characters in VNs because of how long they are). Angel Beats is indeed more theme, setting, and drama than character. This is a bad metric, but I bet there are more people who claim Kyou and Ayu as their waifu than Kanade. I still like the show but I admit that I’m more attached to its overall story rather than its characters.


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