Angel Beats is a beautiful, odd little show that doesn't know if it wants to be Haibane Renmei or Full Metal Panic Fumoffu, and sadly suffers for it.
I've been a huge fan of Visual Arts/Key's original work since becoming entranced with the gorgeous cinematic masterpiece that was Air (still the superior title of the current 4), and after the pretty but formulaic Kanon and the loveliness but AWFUL ending of Clannad & its sequel, Angel Beats feels like a true return to form for creator Jun Maeda. If you've watched any Key anime before you'll know what to expect: slice of life with a sprinkling of magic, the occasional bit of slapstick, and absurdly tragic backstories that will result in you curled up on the couch weeping copiously after the ending credits. Warning - if you're of the cynical variety who rolls their eyes at the infamous 'My Sister Needs an Eye Operation' trope, run for your life. Still here? Good, you won't want to miss out on the banquet of crisp, lush visuals, bittersweet humour and well-developed cast of lovable rogues laid out for you.
So why haven't I given this fresh, fun, eye-bleedingly beautiful little anime 5 stars? My answer is three words. Severe Mood Whiplash. And not the kind of semi-predictable Joss Whedon mood whiplash where the characters are so happy one minute that you just KNOW something is gonna come along to ruin it. Or when you have one full episode devoted to comedy and the next devoted to some tragic happening. No, Angel Beats smugly decides that it's going to take you on a rollercoaster of emotions all in 23 minutes, and it's really. effing. annoying. You'll be hooting at someone being expelled from their chair in slow-mo by a rocket in one scene, and while you're still wiping tears of mirth from your eyes you're suddenly presented with a character dealing with childhood trauma because their family was murdered, etc. Rinse, repeat. It's forced, jarring and surreal, and an unfortunate effect is that this casual flip from comedy to tragedy desensitizes you to the more sombre parts of the tale - you feel like the writers are standing behing you with a mallet while you watch, beating you over the head and alternately yelling 'Laugh now!' and 'Cry, dammit! See how tragic this is? CRY!'. It's...uncomfortable.
I do concede that the final episode of Beats was impeccable (it decided to go all Haibane Renmei in the end, very heartwarming and existential), and I haven't felt so utterly moved by a finale since Misuzu's 'Goal' scene in air. Flawless, tragic, bittersweet and memorable. Also, an additional warning - when you put the second disc of Beats into your player, WATCH THE OVA IMMEDIATELY. The OVA is a throwaway comedy episode which takes place during the main meat of the story, so if you wait until after the perfect finale and then watch the OVA (as I did) you will likely be both disappointed that the story doesn't continue, and experience more of that nasty mood whiplash mentioned earlier.
Overall Angel Beats is one of the finest anime I've seen this year and I highly recommend it; the animation and music effortlessly scores 10/10, the characters are a crazy, likable lot, and the dub is brilliant (fans of old skool ADV will rejoice to hear David Matranga, Hilary Haag and Britney Karbowski bringing the script to life with their usual wit and sparkle). My only criticism is that pesky, poor pacing between laugh-out-loud moments and tear-jerking flashbacks, which perhaps could've been fixed by drawing this out to 24 episodes rather than jamming it all into 13. Beats is ultimately a tale of friendship, acceptance and lost youth regained, and it is a wonderful little story despite the bumps in execution. (And yes, if you were wondering, all the obvious questions like 'why is purgatory a high school' and 'why are there only teenagers coming here' is all eventually answered!)