I saw the first few episodes of this anime years ago. It was easy to tell that it was going to fall on my soul like an emotional mountain, so I held off. I put it on my “To Watch” list. I bought it on DVD, and left it on my shelf, for years. I became rather familiar with how it ended, thank you, Wikipedia, and even saw the last episode at one point. But I knew, very well, that when I saw this anime in its entirety, start to finish, it was going to have to be all in one, single go, and it was going to be extremely emotional for me. So I waited, and waited, for a long time, for that moment when I was going to be in the mood.
Then I found, with the long-awaited countdown of my favorite anime due this month (in honor of my fifth blogging anniversary), that the time for waiting was over. I simply could not leave this one out of the running just because I was being a big, soft wuss about it. So I picked a particular Saturday, sat down, and watched it. All of it.
I am glad I did. This one is really going to stay with me for a long, long time.
I was exactly right in my expectation of the emotional weight. Even now, merely contemplating my experience with it, my emotions threaten to choke me up… again. (Have I ever mentioned that I could easily be accused of being a big softie?)
Be warned, there’s no way of exploring that properly without spoiling at least a little bit, especially the ending. So:
Angel Beats tells the story of a group of teenagers who are dead and trapped in a limbo that looks like a modern high school. As they died so young, their life stories tend towards the tragic. Indeed, that is the very reason they are in this limbo of an afterlife: because the hand they were dealt in life was unfair, often extremely so. They can only move on, into the next world or into the cycle of reincarnation (whichever), when they’ve dealt with it and obtained peace within their souls. That is the purpose of this limbo: to help their souls find that peace and move on. That is why each and every one of them is there.
The story is told mostly from the perspective of Yuzuru Otonashi. He wakes up within the afterlife, with none of his memories. The first thing he sees is a girl, Yuri Nakamura, called Yurippe by most, taking aim with a big gun. She gives him a quick, haphazard rundown about being dead, and how she leads the fight against the God they blame for their lives and deaths, as head of a “Battlefront” group whose name they keep changing because their original name wasn’t perfect and none of the successive names they’ve picked have been any better. As for what they fight, that is “Angel.” Her real name is Kanade Tachibana, and she’s the student council president, who shepherds the students through their daily routine in order to help them move on, and has abilities that the name-changing Battlefront can’t match.
As all of this is a bit much to take in for the amnesiac Otonashi, he goes and talks to the white-haired “Angel,” rather than the gun-toting Yurippe, and gets himself a firsthand demonstration of how people don’t die in the afterlife when Tachibana stabs him straight through the heart, and then he wakes up awhile later.
That’s a first encounter which would sour most anyone on anything, ya know?
Otonashi joins Yurippe’s Battlefront group more because he has nothing else to do with his time, rather than for any other reason. Until his memories return, at least, hanging with them and opposing the girl who stabbed him seem like not-the-worst ideas ever. Little does he know, but soon realizes, that he just signed on with a most colorful bunch of rambunctious morons. Some very good, funny times follow, not the least of which rely on the rather morbid humor which comes with telling a story where nobody dies (for long) from any sort of physical trauma. Heh.
But laughter is only part of the journey towards eternal peace. There are tears, too.
As Otonashi becomes more familiar with this world and the people in it, he learns, as does the audience, the tragic stories of their lives and deaths. Without going into too much detail right now, I will say that the amount of pain that these youths all died with is substantial, and extremely valid. Say what you will about stiff upper lips, but they endured a lot of truly terrible crap. Small wonder all of these young souls needed more time to deal with it, to process and live, so to speak, before moving on.
And they do.
They do move on, each one of them in their turn. It is both heart-wrenching and beautiful to behold. They could not do it, really, without the support they get from each other, but they do it. All of them. Each and every one.
Otonashi is, in many ways, the best of these youthful souls. His story is riddled with tragedy, as surely as anyone else, but he ended it on such a good note that, really, he already found peace in his final moments. He dedicated himself to helping others, to doing good for others, and that carried over into the afterlife as well. It is fair to say that he gets the lion’s share of the credit for helping everyone else, all of his friends and acquaintances, move on. He is, absolutely, a hero in this story.
But he should never have been there. He got sucked in, and there are strong indications that he is now trapped there, in the end, for all eternity. All of his friends, and the girl he loves, all gone, and he has no hope of ever seeing them again. He, alone, bears the cost that all mortals bear, that of being parted from his loved ones, but he bears it eternally, with no hope.
The happy ending becomes a terrible, agonizing tragedy at the last moment.
Now, if I was conflicted enough about that, on it’s own, I become even more so when we include the epilogues.
The first epilogue has what appears to be Otonashi, free of limbo, living his next mortal life, running into a familiar girl, and, voila, happy ending. It’s nice, and it’s what we all want to happen, but, directly on the heels of the tragedy of his entrapment and separation from her, it also feels a little like back-pedaling to avoid backlash, ya know? Particularly since it apparently was not included in the original story.
The second epilogue, included as a bonus feature in at least one version of the show available for purchase, features Otonashi still in limbo, and still helping people move on, selflessly. I sort of hate it, but I also sort of love it, because it rings true to his character, it turns his tragedy into an unusual triumph, and it shows that he can still keep going, no matter what he has lost. Heck, doing this, maybe he just might find peace again and move on after all. And, apparently, this is more in line with what was originally intended for the show, or so I heard, at least.
Either way, looking at the anime as a whole (and I tried to spoil as little as possible outside Otonashi’s personal story), it is deeply emotional and significant. It deals with issues of life and death, and how one must learn to deal with and accept the both of them if one is to continue functioning. It takes a number of the usual tropes of high school anime, like some group of teenagers with weapons fighting in some kind of war, and turns them on their head. It makes us laugh, yes, but it’s not a feel-good anime, it’s an inspiring one. It takes the entire theater of life, which is neither fair nor free from tragedy, and compresses it together, digging down to find happiness, hope, and peace.
Personally, I cannot think about this anime without thinking to myself, “What could I do better in my life, so I have no regrets in the end?”
All of this is conveyed with beautiful animation, riveting music, fantastic voice acting, and every other technical aspect of an anime that, when well done, is so easy to take for granted. Basically, this is a superbly well-crafted anime!
There are ways in which it might have been changed, especially in regards to the importance of various supporting characters and how well we get to know them, but “changing” is not necessarily the same as “improving.” It walks a fine balance between delving deeply into tragic stories against the very real possibility that too much tragedy could become either overwhelming or monotonous.
From the first note to the last breath, Angel Beats is one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever encountered. I highly recommend it, and I am quite happy to own it.
Rating: 9 stars out of 10.
Grade: solid A.