Review for Angel Beats: Complete Series Collection
Not everyone rates school as a positive experience. They say that our formative years are important, that how we develop up to the age of 16 or 17 will determine the course of our lives, and that we should appreciate those brief years before adulthood as the time when we could be most free, where there is a world of possibilities open to us, where the sky's the limit. You see grown-ups look back on their school days with rose-tinted spectacles, think fondly of friends, and beloved teachers. Of course they'll have forgotten the evil teachers, the horrible games and PE lessons, the peer pressure, the puberty, the bullying. For some people, school days weren't golden; they were nightmares to be dreaded. For some people, school was hell. If you can relate to that, then you'll probably find room in your anime collection for Angel Beats, where hell is school. No, really. In Angel Beats, the afterlife is re-imagined as a high school, a veritable purgatory for its students, where no one can die, and where God is the enemy.
Angel Beats is a Key/Visual Arts title, but it's unlike any of their titles that you may have seen before, such as Air, Kanon or Clannad. For one thing, it hasn't been animated by Kyoto Animation. The second thing is that it isn't a title that is based on a visual novel. You can't pick up a copy of Angel Beats for your PC and indulge in some choose your own adventure type sauciness. What Angel Beats does have in common with those titles is that it's been created by the same person, Jun Maeda. From my perspective, it seems that Angel Beats is a 'let your hair down' exercise, a way of taking the tools of the day job, and running wild with them after work. Angel Beats has the male protagonist with a mysterious past, and it has various characters whose back stories will be explored over the episodes, blending comedy and tragedy with emotionally devastating effect to the viewer, but that's as far as it goes in terms of similarities with the Key/Visual standards. What it does with these elements is wholly different. It's like a session musician who spends his days playing ballads and easy listening mood music, getting together with a few mates in his garage after work, opening a few brews, and then destroying a few amps with some serious death metal.
Otonashi is dead. He doesn't know it at first, waking up outside school without any memories. It's the girl with the sniper rifle next to him that explains it all. Yuri tells him that the high school is the afterlife, that they are all dead, and that she's leading the "Not Dead Yet Battlefront" in the war against God. The dearly departed who wake up in this high school face obliteration by the deity, and her group fights against this fate. Obliteration occurs by following the rules, conforming to the school regulations, and fitting in. The Not Dead Yet Battlefront delays such a fate by breaking the rules, by not conforming, by rock and roll. The enemy in all this is God's representative, Angel. The small silver-haired girl is the student body president, and it's her duty to enforce the rules. She doesn't just give out detention slips; she can generate all sorts of weapons to lay down the law. Okay, already being dead means technically you can't die, but being shot, stabbed, impaled, dismembered, decapitated, drowned, and skewered all really hurt. As Otonashi gets to know his new comrades in arms against inevitability, he learns of the lives that they led that resulted in this purgatory, and he chases his own missing memories as well. He also learns that Angel isn't all that she appears to be.
13 episodes of Angel Beats, plus the OVA episode are presented across two Blu-ray discs from Manga Entertainment.
3. My Song
4. Day Game
5. Favourite Flavour
6. Family Affair
8. Dancer in the Dark
9. In Your Memory
10. Goodbye Days
11. Change the World
12. Knocking' on Heaven's Door
OVA: Stairway to Heaven
Angel Beats gets a 1.78:1 widescreen image displayed at a 1080p resolution. It's clear and sharp throughout, and the richness in the colour palette really is enhanced on the Blu-ray format. The progressive 24 fps playback also delivers the animation in stunning quality, and given that Angel Beats has some truly amazing animation at times, especially the 'live' music sequences, this is the best way to experience the show. Having said that, it also becomes clear that Angel Beats probably wasn't animated at 1080 lines of resolution, with up-scaling artefacts such as aliasing, softness, and colour banding more prevalent than on a native 1080 image. Detail levels are certainly higher than you would see on a DVD, but less than a theatrical feature presented on Blu-ray. The animation, as mentioned is of higher quality than you would expect from the normal television animation, and the character designs, while generic for the medium, are memorable enough in their own right.
The images in this review were sourced from the PR, and may not be representative of the final retail release.
The audio on these discs is presented in lossless form, with DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo tracks in English and Japanese. I was very happy with the Japanese audio, as it gives the show the space and clarity it needs, presenting the action, and more importantly the music with energy. Angel Beats is a show where the music plays a large part, and it's important that the audio brings out the best in it, and other than a 5.1 Surround mix, there's nothing more you can ask of this release. I gave the English dub a try and found it to be consistent with most modern dubs. In a smart move, they've left the show's songs in the original Japanese, with subtitles, rather than translate and record them anew.
The translated subtitles for the show are clear, free of error, and accurately timed, but once or twice, on screen captions flashed by in just a couple of frames, rather than staying on screen long enough to be read. This wasn't an issue with the signs only track which accompanies the English audio. Once again, this is a show that demands that the soundtrack CD be purchased as soon as possible, with not only the credit themes very catchy, but also the songs used in the show.
The Blu-ray discs are sourced from Sentai, and present the options against static menus. As usual, there are pop-up menus to use during playback, but for some bizarre reason, on my Blu-ray player the pop-ups do nothing besides pop up during the first two episodes on disc 1, and the first episode on disc 2. It's only from episodes 3, and 11 respectively that I could highlight and select options on the menus. Naturally there are no such problems with the main menu. Each episode is followed by a translated English language credit reel, silent white text on a black background.
The only extras with this release are on Disc 2, and comprise the textless credit sequences for the show. Given that the credit sequences are different for each episode, often subtly so, occasionally drastically, it's no surprise that most of them are presented on this disc in two options, Clean Openings, and Clean Closings, running to 20 and 20½ minutes respectively. There are 13 of each, meaning 1 set is missing. I can't tell which ending has been removed, but the alternate rock version of the opening theme from episode 4 is absent, which I guess is down to a rights issue.
In Japan, there was a 2 minute Angel Beats short that apparently served as an epilogue, but unfortunately that isn't on this or indeed any other English language release.
Once again, I'm reminded of that scene in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, where Tuco wanders into a gun shop, and fashions an acceptably ruthless weapon by picking and choosing the best components from several, inferior guns. There's nothing all that original about Angel Beats, but by taking the best from what has come before, it delivers something fresh, exciting, entertaining, and utterly memorable. Take your Key/Visual Arts visual novels as your base, the Kanon and Clannad that they are renowned for, and incorporate their young, damaged male protagonists who go about solving other people's emotional issues, and in the process their own. Place this into a world which is a cross between Haibane Renmei and the Matrix. Add a female protagonist that has more than a hint of Haruhi Suzumiya about her. Season with a little Battle Royale, and garnish with rock and roll, and you have the recipe for Angel Beats, which may just wind up as Manga Entertainment's anime series release of the year.
Now that I think about it, a lot of what is great about Angel Beats will probably come under the definition of spoilers, so once again I'm left with the probably futile task of being as enthusiastic about a show as possible, while at the same time trying to remain nondescript about it as well. That's bound to end in failure, so before we proceed. Take a look at that score. Yes, Angel Beats is that good. Stop reading, go and buy it, and then watch it, and be happy. And from this point on, there will probably be some spoilers.
It's not the most original premise; that of restless souls consigned to some sort of purgatory, but Angel Beats gives it a novel, and at times absurd twist. This afterlife appears designed for those young souls whose lives were unsatisfying, or just plain tragic. They get sent to a world that reflects the commonality of their lives, some aspect they share, and that for these young teens is high school. But it's an afterlife invested with the rules of a computer game, where they are the players, the other students and the teachers are NPCs, and the opponent is the school's student council. They've realised that the game is to stay 'alive' and to avoid obliteration. Obliteration occurs when a player accepts his lot, and conforms to the school rules, and by doing so then vanishes from the game. The Not Dead Yet Battlefront have figured this out, and have decided to battle against this fate, to deny the future that 'God' has in store for them, and to rail against the inequities that gave them such tragic and short lives in the first place.
Of course this isn't playing by the rules, and denying fate is not supposedly the point of the game, which is why the student council and the student president Kanade Tachibana, a.k.a. Angel are trying to keep the students on the straight and narrow. Angel is the unstoppable force in this 'game' and can generate all sorts of weapons and abilities to counter the Not Dead Yet Battlefront. This is why Yuri and her followers have to use guile and strategy to achieve their aims. The Not Dead Yet Battlefront have set up in the principal's office where they plan their next moves, plans like holding an impromptu rock concert to distract everyone while they steal all the lunch ticket tokens, head underground to stock up on weapons, or storm a baseball tournament. It's a constant game of tit for tat between Angel and Yuri's forces, and given the weapons that The Not Dead Yet Battlefront accumulate, and the weapons that Angel can create, it would be a lethal affair, were anyone actually still alive.
This state of affairs may have remained eternal, but it's when Yuzuru Otonashi appears in this world that things begin to change. He wakes up in the middle of one of Yuri's operations, denying his fate, and refusing to believe that he's dead. He also finds it difficult to take the girl with the rifle seriously when she says that the cute grey-haired girl that she's aiming at is the enemy, the all powerful Angel. It's when Otonashi goes to talk to Angel, and tells her that he doesn't believe that he's in the afterlife, and she proves it, that he begins to comprehend just what he's gotten into. Given his situation, it seems natural to side with Yuri and The Not Dead Yet Battlefront, but despite what he learns, he begins to see that there's something wrong with the way that Yuri sees this world, and he also realises that Angel isn't actually the manifestation of deity that she appears to be.
He realises that instead of railing against fate, the reason that they are in this afterlife is to find some way to accept fate, to put aside their regrets and move on. The question becomes how to help people do this, and without Yuri realising what he's doing. In this respect, Angel Beats is a lot like the other Key Visual titles, but how it goes about it is completely different. It has the same emotional strength to it, the same appeal to its characters, but it infuses the story with a lot more absurd comedy, it pushes its characters to the extreme, and it isn't shy about the violence either. When this is a world where no one dies, cartoon physics can be brought into play, and skull crushing, classroom ejector seats can entertain. You can also have a hilarious baseball episode. With the surrealism of its premise, Angel Beats takes its characters and stories in unexpected and bizarre directions, which makes for some very entertaining episodes, but it also manages to keep the character relationships and emotions grounded and real.
If there is a weakness to the series, it's the length, which was apparently truncated from the original longer projected run. It makes the character overload at the start of the series a little overwhelming, and I have to admit that not all of the members of The Not Dead Yet Battlefront are developed as they should be. Some are hardly expanded beyond an introduction and a catchphrase. I also felt as the series went along, that it wasn't quite adept at its emotional manipulation as say Kanon or Clannad. The character stories that were explored didn't have the time to develop and grab the heartstrings, so they remained intellectually regretful, rather than gut-wrenchingly heart-breaking. Then along comes the final episode, where the emotional weight of the series clicks, and the show presents a conclusion that turns the viewer into gibbering wreck.
Angel Beats has it all, comedy, action, heart and despite it being built up of ingredients that you'll have seen before, it presents you with an experience that you haven't seen before. High School of the Dead did it last year, and now Angel Beats comes and does it for Manga in 2012, a show that you simply must have on your shelf.