I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Angel Beats! is the best all around anime series I’ve seen in the last decade. It takes the best parts of Haruhi, Evangelion, and Lost, and mixes them into something that, while not new, is wholly engrossing and touching.
Otonashi awakes outside a school, next to a cute girl with a sniper rifle. She tells him that he is dead, and that they are at war with Angel, who is approaching them at that moment. Yuri, the cute girl, asks him to join her ‘Afterlife Battlefront,’ which Otonashi does, though he though he later remarks that had he woken up next to Angel, he may have joined her.
Angel is the student council president and wants all the students to participate in the school. As it turns out, those that give in and start to enjoy their school afterlife disappear, perhaps reincarnated. Yuri doesn’t want to disappear. She doesn’t want to lose the person she is now, and she wants revenge against god for giving her the life that he did.
All the members of the Battlefront had sad childhoods, either cut short or so damaged that they weren’t able to experience a fulfilling youth. The flashbacks that detail their previous lives are some of the most effective aspects of the series. They’re dramatic and tragic, but presented intimately enough to keep them from falling into melodrama.
The theme of ‘the life that could have been’ is expressed both in the immediate case of Otonashi and his choice to follow either Yuri or Angel at the beginning of the series, and with each member of the Battlefront, who are so tormented by the memories of their prior lives, that they can’t bring themselves to enjoy the second chance they have in the afterlife. Indeed, the students disappear at the moment they experience what they most regretted not experiencing in life.
We should take a moment here to remember that Japan is a very nonreligious country, so the themes and references used in the series don’t carry the same context for the writers as they do for the North American audience. Indeed, the reincarnation aspect would put it more in line with Buddhism, and the world they inhabit seems to be build from computer code.
The plot is merely setting. Angel Beats! is a character drama. That’s not to say that the plot was lacking, it was the perfect stage for the story and includes sufficient mystery and escalation to keep things moving. But I wasn’t looking forward to the next episode for the storyline, I was looking foward to the character development; to learning more about their past, or how they would come to terms with it. I haven’t even talked about the action sequences. One of the perks of being in the afterlife is that you can’t die, so this allows for all-out, beautifully animated fight scenes.
Angel Beats! is simply a beautiful story about people overcoming tragedy and learning to live again. The metaphorical use of the afterlife and reincarnation to symbolize the process of leaving the past behind to start a new life is inspired.
The Blu Ray, from Sentai Filmworks is utilitarian. There are no extras, but the video is presented with no alterations (with the original Japanese credits and titles) and removable subtitles. Audio is DTS-HD 2.0 for Japanese and English.