Angel Beats Episode 1 Review: There’s an Angel but this ain’t Heaven…
So today begins my episode recap/review series of the much anticipated P.A. Works/Aniplex original production, Angel Beats. Beginning its run this past Saturday, Angel Beats will be a 13-episode show that is accompanied by a significant amount of alternative media goodies including several illustrated short stories and two manga series which we will eventually get around to reviewing. Many anime and visual novel fans will be very familiar with the story’s creator (Jun Maeda) and original character designer (Na-Ga) of associated Key fame stemming from such well known works as Kanon, Air, and Clannad (and in Na-Ga’s case definitely think Little-Busters).
You might ask why someone like me who has never experienced any Key works and has honestly only watched one Visual Novel anime adaptation (Higurashi) would be so interested. Well, lets just say I can’t help but be interested in shows that attempt to do novel things with somewhat stereotypical premises. Shows of this nature can often result in stunning success (for me So Ra No Wo To), or sometimes just straight up fails to deliver (think Dance of the Vampire Bund). In Angel Beats you have a show that is going for the big one by mixing it all together, just in the first episode you get almost equal doses of yet another high school setting, supernatural drama and mystery, action (Guns! Handsonics?), physical comedy, rock bands, and the yet another ahem, “different” interpretation of the afterlife. I have to admit that along with the premise the concept art and TV spot trailers suckered me in as well, you can find these here, here, and most poignantly here (pretty muzak in all these).
Well so far its lived up to the expectations I’ve had for it and now without further ado, lets get to the (Caution: spoiler heavy) fun after the jump…. …and were back!. Lets lets get this started off right with a summary, followed by some of my thoughts and a few closing pics and comments. Please understand that this first review at the very least will be rather spoiler intensive. If you’ve already seen the episode please enjoy, if not hopefully this is enough to get you watching one of the season’s most promising new shows.
The Long Story Short(er) And so it begins, our protagonist Otonashi (though neither we nor he remember this name till later) wakes up to find himself lost and amnesia stricken outside a nameless school seemingly far away from home (if only he could remember where that was). He doesn’t have very long to get things together as it appears the something serious is about to go down:
He is immediately greeted by our Sniper Rifle-Wieldin’, Brigade-Leadin’, and Hairband wearin’ (hm… well, at least the hair is different) female lead, Yurippe (Yuri for short, and especially in the doujins). Being the outgoing chick that she is, she makes fast friends with the unwitting new arrival. By making friends I mean she tries to rather forcibly recruit him into the “Like-Hell-I’m-Dead” Battlefront. During this time she kindly informs our still incredulous Otonashi that he is in fact A) Dead, B) In some weird afterlife that still involves a bastardized version of academia, and C) caught in the middle of an all out proxy war between “God” and his supposedly dead subjects. Apparently the current name of the SSS-dan changes rather frequently, however group is rather disinclined to also change their brigade (hm…) patch.
Who are they fighting against you ask?:
At this point in the show viewers might be wondering if Otonashi has stumbled into some kind of Battle Royale, as I am sure the whole “planning to headshot a innocent looking school girl” thing is a rather shocking development, our protagonist apparently feels the same way. His doubts earn him a rather stern rebuke from Yuri, and a hauntingly familiar “baka janai no?” (hm…) insult. He is also informed of a rather unique mechanic associated with the world they now live in: nobody can die (more on this later). Still struggling to absorb the information overload he seemingly declines to enlist with SOS SSS-dan and instead goes to politely talk with “Tenshi” (tl: Angel), the mysterious golden-eyed girl, in search of some more illuminating answers to his current predicament.
Otonashi’s plan of hitting up Tenshi, who also apparently two-times as angel and student council president, doesn’t actually go that bad at the start. First off, he gets a rather believable (in anime scale) explanation for his amnesia:
During their rather cordial conversation the theme of no one becoming sick or dying is repeated once again and Otonashi perhaps gets a little too smart for his own good, earning him a hands-on demonstration from our beautiful, helpful, and very violent school prez. Apparently not dying doesn’t prevent you from experiencing hellish pain but thankfully, according to the previously stated rules, he rather painfully “survives”.
Survive he does, awakening the next morning in the infirmary (why do they even have one of those, plot hole!), only to get paid a visit by SSS henchman Noda during which he is summarily punished for declining the offer to enlist.
After another recovery Otonashi begins to get serious about his search for answers and proceeds to explore the school grounds, allowing us viewers to take in more of the well-drawn world and setting as he searches in vain for adults and authorities to get answers. Finally he settles upon visiting the principal’s office. A sound choice mind you, so I won’t fault him at all for what happens next, it really seems like this is starting to become the natural order of things:
And so it seems that the principal’s office has been co-opted as the official clubroom hideout for the SSS, equipped rather predictably with a entirely pragmatic security system. And so the Angel Beats character introduction segment begins as we are greeted to plenty of group interaction, some continued debate on often changing official SSS nickname, and further elucidation of mysteries of the school and student’s existence. Otonashi is repeatedly told how refusing to fight Tenshi and thus God himself will result in his disappearance from this world, something he eventually develops a bit of an aversion too after it is suggested to him that the possible applicability of Buddhist-style reincarnation might result in a rather unsavory barnacle-related next life. In general three things are made clear in the hideout: Yurippe is most definitely the uncontested leader of the group, the students believe that by fighting Tenshi they will ensure their continued survival, and the SSS is very well organized in what they do. One would expect you have to be rather serious if your unit patch is going to have the slogan “rebels against the god” on it. We also get general introduction to the diverse cast of characters that will probably play a significant role in episodes to come. Amongst the crowd it is safe to say the the gaijin yankee stand-in TK is quite notable, and I’m sure we will have to put up with tons of his annoyingly stereotyped “American cool teen rebel” personality and un-accented but random english (thank god a foreign VA, much better Lucky Star’s Patty in this regard). After making a huge deal about never discussing SSS-related activities outside the hideout, Otonashi and Yuri hypocritically make their way to the roof of the school and have a long chat about some more of her beliefs on the world they live in, the mysterious nature of the school itself, and the rather odd nature of the other “students” that are present. Otonashi learns a bit more about Tenshi’s nature and how her unique style of flirting with pointy objects is something the SSS has experienced countless times before as they have fought against a system they still don’t completely understand.
Later that night back at “Anti-Angel Operations Headquarters” Oto-kun is provided with a side-arm and in a final horribly failed attempt to hide his obvious (and SM-related) infatuation with the beautiful Tenshi once again protests the use of violence against the one who pierced (and stole) his heart. All of this is a prelude for the day’s primary operation: the most elaborate heist of meal tickets in the history of man-kind.
After a briefing that involves the use of some ridiculous high-level display technology and schematics that makes you question who these kids really are, the plan is put into action somewhat against a still hesitant Otonashi’s will. What follows is the highlight of the first episode as the students and Oto, now out of his honor-student uniform and into an SSS one, fight (quite literally) for their next meal. The operation begins as the spunky Iwasawa and the rest of the distraction squad aka Girls Dead Monster, the hugely popular girls band, throw the cafeteria into chaos by firing up a pretty neat insert song/interspersed concert scene.
MEANWHILE, Otonashi is continuing down the Tenshi route by meeting her on the bridge at the appointed time:
The plan is now in motion as Otonashi and the guys desperately try to distract Tenshi while GirlDeMo continues to play its heart out to keep the NPC/Students from realizing they are about to have their lunch money “lifted”, literally, by some jet-engine lookalike devices that the SSS casually has on-hand. It is quite apparent that the SSS fight to survive is indeed some serious business and soon we will see that their opponent is also quite formidable.
While Tenshi is seemingly quite capable of holding off the assault, the double distraction works well enough and the plan does eventually succeed. As the firefight concludes and the golden meal tickets begin to fall from the sky Otonashi finally seems to come to grips with the grim reality of daily SSS operations. It seems like life will continue to be interesting post-mortem, especially when it takes a rock concert, jet engines, and heavy weapons better suited for an assault brigade to ensure the everyone gets to eat lunch tomorrow.
As the whole squad enjoys the fruit of yesterday’s labors Otonashi comes away impressed with Yuri’s leadership and charisma. Even so he is still conflicted over the amount of violence their goals require and continues to ponder the purpose behind all that has gone on in his short time with the SSS. The enemy is obviously Tenshi, but why? There is obviously much more than meets the eye to the SSS front’s fight for survival. The show closes with a solid ending song and credits followed by a Higurashi-style episode preview involving a mish-mash of spoken and written phrases flashed across the screen. Can’t wait till next week!
And now for My Thoughts:
Angel Beats definitely started off with a bang and I for one came away hugely impressed. There has been alot of anticipation surrounding this release and given the well-developed resumes of its creators and the strong reputation for high production values that its associated studios possess a high level of quality in presentation was almost assured. Thus, before we even get into the story itself let me talk some more about the art itself. The first episode possessed great graphic detail, some beautiful backgrounds, and the perfect artistic palette to give a slightly eerie feel to some of the show’s most poignant scenes. The animators have not yet fallen into the trap of trying to do too much from a scale perspective when it comes to action scenes and have instead provided the quality when it counted. The CG that was employed for several of the effects did not feel extremely out of place or overused. Character designs are nothing amazing to write home about, but are generally clean and attractive when they need to be. Angel Beats does not seem to rely on being a completely visual spectacle to succeed and by excelling within the scope it creates for itself I think the animation side of things will continue to be a strong point.
I mentioned before how I was attracted by Maeda’s attempt to create a VN/KEY-style show that successfully fused a variety of genres and concepts into a novel and unified story and setting. So far this appears to be a hit. While there is still plenty of room to come up short in the future, Angel Beats makes use of its diverse characteristics to create new levels of awesomeness within an enticing mystery/action plot. The opening has its light-hearted and ridiculous moments but it mostly shows us a suspenseful world where continued survival is a endless battle between the “dead” and Tenshi/God even when neither side can seemingly die or be destroyed. There is still much to be revealed about the SSS students and their day to day lives and back-stories but viewers and myself will likely continue to be entertained by the ambitious and daring missions they undertake with the simple goal of continuing to exist in this mysterious world. It will be interesting to follow how well the back stories of the various characters are fleshed out as the series continues. Tenshi as you can probably tell is my absolute favorite at the moment. As the mysterious, impassive, and powerful antagonist (or so we think) in the series she fits the role well and looks pretty darn cool doing it. The more shallow minded among us (looking at some of you MAL posters) will somehow pass her off as a Yuki Nagato knockoff but you are sorely mistaken, I hope. Its rather interesting how except for the one rather violent demonstration given to our protagonist we have not yet seen her truly go on the offensive. It will be interesting to she how she behaves as the series goes on and the SSS continues their efforts to defeat her and the establishment.
The music so far has been very good. Most of the BGM tracks set the right tone for each scene be it suspenseful, funny, or dramatic. The highlight of the show was obviously the concert/fight scene at the end and the producers simply knocked that one out of the ballpark. I didn’t really pay attention to lyrics first time through, but it was nevertheless a great insert piece the provided the perfect background for the over-the-top plan that the SSS was executing at the time. The ED is a fairly standard but also pleasant sounding reflective piece that serves as a effective “cool down” for the action and tension that will undoubtedly be a part of future episodes as well.
While its a little early for speculation I guess we might as well do a little bit of that too. All is obviously not as it seems at Otonashi’s new school aka the afterlife, but this doesn’t seem to be a stand-in for purgatory circa Haibane Renmei. Action effects during Tenshi’s fights like these:
…seem to suggest that something more “technical” is at play here. A Matrix-style setting made even more plausible due to the presence of the “NPC” students, the god-mode invincibility of the “players”, and is even somewhat foreshadowed by how Yuri suggests that if you are not willing to play along with the “game” you will simply be erased. It should be noted that we as viewers are completely taking the afterlife thing on faith right now, yes we’ve been told that, but Otonashi still hasn’t remembered how he got there and the past of his fellow brigade members has not been explained. The whole afterlife setting composed entirely of non-adults with no authority figures has not been expounded upon and definitely screams “experiment” rather than life after death, but we’ll see soon enough.
Before I wrap this up I’ll say this to anyone upset at my little game of drawing Haruhi parallels with this. The shout-outs are definitely there, especially the hair band (though its “supposedly” from Persona 4’s Yukiko Amagi) , the brigade, the awesome but silent alien/angel, and statements completely lacking any reason whatsoever:
But I guess I’ll just do what Yuri says and go with it. So Ra No Wo To might have ripped off K-on designs and slice-of-lifeness a bit earlier this year but that didn’t make it less awesome of a show. For now this just adds a little more for me to have fun with as the plot progresses. Both Haruhi and Yuri might have a habit of getting stuff done, but while one of them just wills it into existence the other one uses some pretty impressive organizational and operation skills to earn what she wants. If you haven’t picked up Angel Beats yet I really hope you do after this review. Its not moe-moe, its not powerup shonen, and it most definitely promises to be a solid if not outright spectacular series to follow. Thanks for reading and I sincerely hope you will continue to follow my reviews. Lets call it a day with a quick look at all the characters:
See you next week!
Some other thoughts from around the web: