Angel Beats! has a very ambivalent opening three episodes: at times it's dealing with infanticide and domestic abuse, the next it's parodying the first Resident Evil film and punting schoolchildren out of windows with oversized mallets. Written and designed by two notable producers from the powerhouse Key, most often associated with the sad-girls-in-snow franchises of Clannad, Air and Kanon, the first episodes are a grab-bag of different influences and storylines which don't shy away from drama but never shed the feeling that there's a twist approaching rapidly.
Otonashi wakes up with no memories of his past and a girl near him brandishing a high-powered rifle. The girl, Yuri, breaks the news that he has died and is now in purgatory, swiftly followed up by trying to recruit him into their fight against the overseer of the world: Angel. Disbelieving her story, Otonashi approaches Angel, a diminutive silver haired teen, who promptly skewers him with a blade which appears from her arm for his scepticism of whether he can die or not. Waking up unharmed in the hospital, it takes some cajoling but he eventually joins the eclectically organised group and, little by little, begins to discover their reasons for fighting and the militant framework which support their rebellion. Their fight against Angel is becoming more vicious, yet Otonashi's memories show no sign of returning and with the threat of death removed, the only thing he has to fear is disappearing.
The series' portrayal of purgatory bears streaking similarities to juvenile delinquency - a baseless insubordination using weapons, obstinance and rock-and-roll against an authority figure while still trying to exist within the structure that they're fighting against. The first episode has the group pilfering meal tickets from students agog with a four piece, all-girl band; the third episode meanwhile has them breaking and entering while the band play a rare scheduled show, opposing the commands of burly teachers. Combine this with death and pain now merely and inconvenience and the show's mentality becomes suspect. Contrast this however with the theological overtones - a hacker demanding to be called Christ, purgatory and reincarnation, Angel - and the video game styling with mention of NPC's and the constant text overlays of where characters are currently located, and the result is a barrage of different messages. If the remaining episodes are able to balance all of these threads with the extensive cast it will be a grand feat of storytelling.
The characters themselves are diverse, varying from the headstrong, halberd wielding Noda to the English spouting TK. Yuri is the most enduringly intriguing and begins as Haruhi-lite: favouring fast-talking and a stand-offish attitude, but her charisma begins to show with the initial revelations about her past. The Haruhi comparisons continue with the introverted automaton, Angel, who channels Yuki Nagato in abilities and intonation. Otonashi on the other hand plays a successful straight-man but switches too quickly to being blasé about the ongoing bedlam and, infuriatingly, asks the most obvious but least revealing questions. The third episode is definitely the highlight with Iwasawa providing a touching and emotive one-shot that demonstrates the series has more than just high production values and the measure of it will be the quality of the individual stories as well as the overarching plot.
Angel Beats! is supremely accomplished aesthetically with backgrounds and lighting making the world feel tantalisingly tangible; a shame then that the characters, while devoid of the standard trogladytic Key style, still feel out of place and certain angles and motions jar more than they reasonably should. Music plays an important role and is pleasingly varied from the piano medley of the opening to the poppy drawls of Girls Dead Monster and most affecting in the raw emotion of Iwasawa's acoustic send-off. Putting aside its sporadically goofy comic relief, in three episodes the series has shown more than enough to carry it through ten further episodes, whether it will remain coherent and not just a sequence of tragic back-stories interspersed with muted action scenes will be its ultimate test.