Well, you guys voted for it. Now let the irony flow as I go dramatic on Haibane Renmei: The Melodramatic Version.
Fictional bullies are like real-life bullies to me in that we get along very poorly and I prefer to avoid them altogether. I have not and will never be able to tolerate that stupid fictional cliche because not only do I not consider it good conflict, but explain to me how it makes any sense that they can be dumb as bricks, and yet be able to always run into their victims out of nowhere like they’ve got security cameras lined up across the entire city. And whilst I don’t mind them if they’re funny, comedy is a hellhole in general anime-wise, and most people who make the stuff probably never even watched Back to the Future and laughed at the hilarity that is Biff Tannen. The only other alternative for me to accept that cliche is if you have a story that’s focused on a bully, what makes him tick, why he has a particular grudge against this meek person, and how he’s able to have so many friends who for some reason share the same train of thought as him. Never expected Jun Maeda of all people to be the one to write that story, but yes, Angel Beats is basically the “story about bullies” that I’ve wanted for a long time.
Okay, having the bully and the victim be a Haruhi cosplayer and a little girl who can defend herself with Matrix-like powers wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but it makes sense when you think about it. Haruhi herself was a bully and whilst the irony of your victim being a lonely little girl who happens to be able to use weapons is nothing new, it’s not a bad stereotype. I’m fully aware that most people paid attention to Angel Beats whilst it was airing because of its setting and how the characters respond to it, but I say said setting and how it works is ultimately irrelevant at the end of the day. Yes, Angel Beats sets out to say the same things Haibane Renmei does (along with The Matrix, Lost, Cowboy Bebop, many other school comedies, etc.), but that doesn’t invalidate my own reading of the show: that it’s really an exaggerated metaphor for bullying where the bullies are the main characters.
The story is focused on Otonashi, an amnesiac who joins said bullies masquerading as freedom fighters called the SSS after a poor choice of wording caused him to see a little girl in the wrong light. Said group has had their own share of baggage, and thus take it out on that little girl because they need someone to blame and due to their blindness as well as a combination of their own talents and stupidity, they try to make things difficult for her at every opportunity and don’t even bother to learn her real name – calling her Angel, or Tenshi if you want to be a weeaboo about it. Although Otonashi himself doesn’t even know what his baggage is, it makes sense for him to join the group where he’d have many supporters rather than few (well, one) and thus we get episodes of the SSS taking their frustrations out on Angel all under the justification of trying to confront God when in reality, they’re just shooting a little girl they know can’t die and thus they feel totally justified.
I’m sure I don’t have to clarify that since this is a Jun Maeda anime, it’s filled to the brim with his usual fetishes: low-IQ characters, laughably dramatic stories, characters loving baseball, decent dramatic soundtrack, derpy derpy doo. Unlike his previous works though, said fetishes actually add to the story rather than detract from it.
The SSS should offend you with their simple-minded behavior and missions that come off more like school activities. Angel Beats purposefully makes them do inconsequential things that won’t matter in the long-term in order to showcase just how empty and pointless taking your anger out on something you ultimately can’t see is, along with having them unknowingly experience the fun they thought they were above in the process. You don’t have to bother explaining how the purgatory they are trapped in really works because it has little to no consequence on the overall story. You don’t even have to bother putting that much effort into what happened in their past lives to justify their actions, because Angel Beats wants you to see that there is no justification whatsoever for being an asshole, and it’s only when you accept that fact and grow up that you can succeed in life. This particularly comes to a head in the episode where the SSS takes their antics too far and end up ruining Angel’s reputation in the school, only to realize that it was all for nothing and she’s a normal girl with a normal name who only opposed them because they caused trouble first, causing Otonashi to side with her. From there, he appoints himself as the guy who wants to make his friends realize the same thing as him, give up on their empty hatred, and move on with their lives.
Except Otonashi isn’t exactly the Jesus Christ he makes himself out to be. Even after he gains his memories of being an aspiring doctor, he can’t fully control people’s lives and is ultimately nothing more than a bit player in the grand scheme of things. He tries to get Angel accepted into the group, only for her powers to go out of control and ultimately distance herself from everyone else for a short time. Whilst he tries to make Yui happy so that she can move on, it is ultimately his blue-haired friend that satisfies her leftover wants. Everyone chooses for themselves what they want to do once the truth is forced out of him, and considering that they were already living a fun life with their missions against God long before he showed up, it makes sense that they’d recognize what they want to do so easily. Even Yuri has to confront her inner demons on her own through some programmed NPC left by a previous denizen of this world. And finally, after the characters graduate from the high school life eager to accept their past whilst starting anew, he decides to invite the girl he loves to stay at this highschool just so they can both be bit players to other people’s stories, only for said girl to reject his offer and move on without him. I’m probably in the minority on this, but Otonashi crying like a baby when he realized how much that offer/declaration of love backfired on him was just hilariously ironic to me.
So Angel Beats appeals to me story-wise. It’s just a pity it’s not executed very well in regards to how it tells that story to me. Again, I’m not talking about the plot details like how Angel could have possibly arrived at the purgatory before a certain somebody and how the rules of the world just keep changing willy-nilly and whatever that Matrix-moment in the penultimate episode was all about, because those don’t really affect the story Angel Beats wants to tell when you get down to it. I’m talking about the presentation choices, many of them due to having Seiji Kishi as the director.
I’ll admit there were times where I laughed at the show’s humor, which is pretty rare in terms of anime. TK is a funny dude and those rocket chairs were pretty genius. Unfortunately, a bunch of the comedy comes from the Fullmetal Alchemist school of comedy in that it creates jarring tonal shifts that are completely unnecessary and ruin the mood the show is going for at times, particularly that scene in Episode 9 when Otonashi discovers the truth behind Angel and the touching tone suddenly gets disrupted for an unfunny gag. And when it’s not doing that, it’s pointing out the show’s own faults and then not bothering to really fix them, which isn’t good meta-humor. That’s just punching somebody and then saying that you punched somebody.
It doesn’t exactly help that it also causes the characterization necessary for this kind of story to work to suffer at times. Whilst anime as a medium will never be able to really capture the personalities of real-life people, there’s a difference between being girly and being lame, and the way Yuri acted after being relieved of her leadership duties was very much the latter. It’s an extreme, but definitely not the only time where the characters’ personalities are exaggerated too far in order to get a laugh, although surprisingly I never had a problem with the dramatic side of things. Maybe because for a Key anime, there wasn’t much in the way of actual crying.
And just to hammer the nail in, the production isn’t all that. It’s pretty decent for the most part, but there are a bunch of poor shots that would have embarrassed Deen at the time this came out. The concert scenes are pretty good with lots of detail put into the way the hands move as well as how the actually pretty decent rock songs sync up to the characters’ mouths, but the action is mostly crap. There are one or two instances where it looks cool, but the rest is poorly choreographed, shot way too close to the camera, and the two sides aren’t even in the same scene for a majority of them that you might as well be watching those Expendables films if you just want some brainless action.
Finally, that epilogue (the official one, not the one that came months later)…well I don’t dislike it because unlike what I’ve heard of [C]‘s ending (I haven’t seen that show), I don’t think it really changed much of anything at the last minute. It wasn’t like Kuragehime’s awful finale where it basically rewarded its cast of bullies for their terrible behavior. It’s just a chance reunion between two people who haven’t seen each other in a long time and considering many years had to have passed, I don’t have any reason to assume that this reunion along with the fact that the characters seem to be living fine after all they’ve been through was unearned. We don’t even really see what happens as a result of it. Nevertheless, I still think it was unnecessary to show.
Still for all its problems and despite my commenters saying otherwise, I quite liked Angel Beats in the end. Ha! See that PA Works? If you would quit wasting your time on character masturbation and focused more on drama that actually moves things along and has something interesting to say, I wouldn’t flat-out ignore you like I usually do! I do admit that a large part of my enjoyment for the show comes from how much I despise what fiction does to the “bully character” the same way a few people enjoy Daily Lives of Highschool Boys because they don’t like the “cute girl” genre it’s mocking, and whilst I think Otonashi’s hypocritical philosophy is played out well enough, it’s not perfectly executed and you may find the faults in it more annoying than I did. It’s definitely something I like more for what it could have been and I would have preferred a script and direction that’s a little less hokey (it could be argued that Flowers of Evil is like that, but I say that’s more a twist on the whole love triangle story), so take my judgment for what it’s worth.
PS: For the record, I’ve taken a look at some of the other Angel Beats-related products like that prologue light novel and some of the screenshots of the upcoming VN and I can confirm that yes, they are bad.
PPS: Who wants to bet that Charlotte is about how “with great power comes great responsibility”?