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Powerful, but somewhat manipulative and incomplete
on 27 January 2013
This is the kind of series that, upon finishing the final episode, will make many if not most people want to write a glowing review. Me included. And with good reason: the storyline is powerful and gripping, as is the soundtrack. The animation quality is very good, as is the voice acting (in Japanese, at least). And even though I'm a veteran of many extreme war and horror movies that contain heartrending scenes, the final scene of Angel Beats still left me in tears.
After a night's sleep, it occurred to me that this series can be viewed on at least two levels, so that my review should cover both levels. (I have done my best to keep both reviews spoiler-free.) Level 1 means that you take everything that happens in this series at face value and you do not question any of the explanations that are handed to you. Level 2 means that you look a little harder at the facts as presented in the story, including some odd ones that most characters seem strangely willing to forget about, and make up your own mind about the explanation. In order to do this, it helps to treat every `revelation' about the backgrounds of certain characters with a few grains of salt, so that they do not draw you in to their own personal dramas too much. In the level 2 review below I will give my own interpretation, which is neither disproved nor explicitly acknowledged by any events in the series, so that it does not spoil anything.
Level 1 review
On this level, I found that I could not obey my initial urge to write a rave review and give this series a 5/5 score. Why? Mostly because on the whole, the characterization is simply too weak to really make you care for the few characters that are actually fleshed out to some extent. I won't spoil any of the details, but the few back stories (6 by my count) that actually were revealed were either rather melodramatic (e.g. Yui's) or so extreme that they're basically the equivalent of suddenly having the volume turned up to 100% in an attempt to blow the viewer away (e.g. Yuri's and Otonashi's). As another reviewer points out, this basically *forces* the viewer to empathize with the characters involved, since you wouldn't wish the kind of misery they have undergone on anyone. And that's basically lazy storytelling, in my opinion.
Adding insult to injury, this series contains more than a few action scenes (entire episodes, even, come to think of it) that are more than a little superfluous. To the extent that they feel like filler. Meanwhile, more (and more thorough) characterization falls by the wayside. And that leaves a bad taste in my mouth, as if the writers really didn't care all that much about the people they're writing about. But are asking me to care about nonetheless. Forcing me to care about, even, through the use of extremely emotional music and some extreme back stories. Instead, this left me feeling somewhat manipulated after the initial emotions had subsided.
All in all, I feel that a classic movie like "The Crow" handles this kind of story better. Perhaps an odd comparison, but that's what this series reminds me of most.
Level 2 review
On this level, the very first scene of the first episode is crucial for an alternative understanding of the series. Distilling it to its bare essentials, it amounts to:
1. The young man Otonashi waking up on a concrete pathway, not knowing who he is.
2. When he looks up, he sees that he is in an almost empty schoolyard at night.
3. A girl (Yuri) is sitting crouched behind some plants with a sniper rifle aimed away from him.
4. Yuri tells him that he is dead, has reached the afterlife and invites him to join her team, which is fighting an angel hell bent on erasing every soul who winds up there.
5. Otonashi peers out to see who Yuri is aiming at and sees a rather short girl with silvery hair (Angel) standing some distance away. He walks over to her and tells her that a gun is being aimed at her by someone who claims that he is dead and is in the afterlife, which he does not believe.
6. In response, Angel passively intones the words "Guard Function: Hand Sonic", upon which a sharp blade materializes as an extension of one of her wrists, with which she stabs Otonashi in the chest. Later, he wakes up in the headquarters of Yuri's team who explain to him that he really cannot die because he is already dead.
My initial interpretation (so before I watched the rest of the series) was that Angel was some sort of automated security robot or hologram. Since I allowed myself to be drawn in by all of the action and drama that followed, this first impression soon slipped my mind. But at some point, Yuri's Anti-Angel Team manages to get into Angel's bedroom and there they find a book called "The AngelPlayer Manual" next to her computer, which explains how her special powers work...
This is simply shrugged off by those who find the book, but it seems that there is only one rather radical explanation that fits all of this: this so-called "limbo world" is really a computer game in which the player assumes the character of Angel. And that would mean that the other characters consist of Non-Player Character (this term is openly used by the Anti-Angel Team to describe the `normal' students) and Potential Party Members. From that perspective, "Angel" stabbing Otonashi is simply her way of rejecting a Potential Party Member. And yes, by that I do mean that *anyone* except Angel is simply an NPC or a scripted Potential Party Member and not the spirit of a real person. Otonashi, Yuri, everyone, they were *never* real to begin with... This would also explain some of their rather super-dramatic back stories, since those are fairly typical for characters in Role Playing Games. And "Angel" developing more powers during the series is simply her character being "leveled up" by whoever the actual gamer controlling her is.
Too radical? Well, perhaps. I actually like this explanation better than these characters and their enormous suffering having been "real" (by the standards of this fictional world).