Angel Beats

Hironori Toba, producer of Angel Beats, said in an interview prior to its premiere that thirteen episodes wasn't enough to tell the story Jun Maeda had envisioned. He was lying. Somewhere between the baseball episode and the protracted and overblown ending it becomes apparent the series doesn't know what it's doing beyond trying to force the audience to feel something for its tepid and underdeveloped cast. Trapped beneath a script which oscillates from terrible to appalling and a story with more holes and useless caveats than development is some mediocre commentary and a smattering of interesting ideas. It is saddening such high production values are wasted on a show that with some tightening and tweaking could have been immeasurably better.

prancing between ideologies like a hummingbird with ADHD
Otonashi is dead. Now trapped in a mysterious purgatory, he must fight alongside other teenagers against a mysterious girl named Angel who is determined for them to enjoy a school life as normal students. Unlike the other members of the haphazardly coordinated battlefront though, Otonashi doesn't have any memories of how he ended up in purgatory. Everyone else it seems either to have perished in the most ignominious of ways, or wandered in rife with emotional baggage. The war against Angel is not without its complexities though and it is up to an eclectic group consisting of a hacker, a ninja, a judo champion, a spacey rocker and myriad others to tackle each challenge as it arises. Uncertainty is endemic and who was once foe may become friend, they may even meet God himself in this world.

Though the series is littered with a variety of, mostly western, religious ideas: purgatory, God, angel, a hacker demanding to be called Christ; these are only the most superficial of allegories. Little is made of them beyond name-dropping and instead there is an ostensibly deeper emphasis placed on the students' place within school and the overbearing, violent need to conform. The students, whether it is the permanently tripping T.K. or the halberd wielding Noda, stand out against the carbon-copy NPCs that populate the world. It at first appears then that Angel - the littlest automaton - represents society's push to assimilate and become "normal" and though these students may be delinquents, the celebration of their uniqueness and the teacher's inability to control or engage them is somehow a good thing.

This is dispensed with mid-way through with a revelation regarding Angel that is so blindingly obvious it's borderline insulting that any time is given over to the characters mulling it over. Regardless of the series taking a tangential route from that point onwards, that nugget of exposition stops the characters from being oddities in a world of mediocrity, and leaves them as just odd. They are eclectic for no other reason than to lend the group some dynamism, as if a roulette wheel of personality traits had been spun, only of these pockets three-quarters involve traumatic pasts, the remaining quarter include hospital beds and the unfairness of reality.

These may be typical Jun Maeda traits, and he may be responsible for the well-regarded CLANNAD and Air series; however here he has evidently been given too much leniency and too little oversight by gifting every incidental character with a past fit for a tabloid sob story. Bed-bound paralysed girls, murdered siblings, literal train wrecks are all fair game in order to eke out some sliver of sympathy for the characters. These back stories are related in such a ham-fisted way though that they completely destroy all pacing the series has built up prior to their exposure. This would be unforgivable were the stories not so damnably engaging. Short vignettes of humanity that show more promise than the ongoing events do and entire series could spring from these seeds.

Instead, there are a few minutes of pathos porn, then back to the staring into sunsets and planning the next cheeky prank to play on Angel to undermine her. To make pacing even more scattershot, moments of comedy are interspersed, sometimes with such fervour it's hard not to laugh. The goofy absurdity that characters are subjected to, whether that's bone-shattering wrestling moves or getting skewered as a valid delaying tactic, are laugh-out-loud funny, but this creates friction with the sympathy the audience is expected to feel for these pathetic lost souls. The series is composed of histories decrying the injustice of the world, ongoing skirmishes against Angel and other afterlife hooligans, and slapstick comedy. Any two of those work together, whether mutually complimentary or harshly juxtaposed, all three however leaves the series muddled and confused.

In a way it is focus not imagination that ultimately dooms the series. Creativity and talent is present everywhere from the sublime visuals and animation to the character designs and underlying connotations of the story, but squandered by always placing the onus on the uninteresting rather than the satisfying. For instance: Yuri, the self-styled leader of the battlefront is happy to extol the trauma of her past with the slightest provocation, yet we never find out how she died so young; T.K. the English-spouting musician seems utterly carefree, how is it he is so blithe yet still trapped in purgatory? Even the world itself is given a torturous back story but in a thoroughly misguided case of Matrix envy, relegates this exposition to nine minutes of torturous dialogue with a hitherto unmentioned antagonist, by the end of which one's brain is dribbling out in order to escape the reprehensible attempt at storytelling.

Hinori Toba's implication then that given more episodes the intended scenario would have been played out in a more satisfactory manner seems wishful thinking. What the series lacks is not time but judiciousness: an eye to strip out the superfluous, the bloated and destructive conclusion that contorts the protagonists a prime choice; the creative strength to concentrate on a coherent theme and message rather than prancing between ideologies like a hummingbird with ADHD. More time may have given space for other characters to breathe, obviating the series' most egregious fault in letting characters literally wink out of existence, but with such a large cast would it have been possible without completely shredding the main narrative with frequent sojourns into the tear-soaked past of the next angst-ridden soul?

It says volumes for Angel Beats that in the last moments of the protagonist, when all the emotion and drama that went before should be at its zenith, nothing but disdain is felt. The idea driving the series has been done so many times before in so many different media - Iain Banks' The Bridge just one of them; yes the idea that computers can control the world is a good one, especially in Japan whose uptake of computers has been at arm's length, but it's just one of a multitude of ideas in a grab-bag of influences and concepts. The most heartbreaking part of the series is not the pure unsullied sentiment that courses beneath the skin of every character, but the realisation that it could have been so much more beautiful. As the series stands, it is a panoply of sterling ideas incompetently told with stunning visuals and sterling musical accompaniment. Great in parts, but ultimately poor in aggregate.

Responses to “Angel Beats”

I understand your desire to hone Angel Beats down to a finer thread. However, the fallacy in your argument against the series needing more episodes can be found in your critique of the disparate element within it. The problem with the comedy / intense drama "harshly juxtaposed", the problem with the world's past given revolving around a "hitherto unmentioned antagonist", the problem with the "ADHD" like focus, all can be solved by giving the series more time, more breathing room.

The comedy can be separated with more spacing from the dramatic elements, while also giving a more natural flow to the mood of the show. Hints to the past can be metered out over previous episodes and properly foreshadowed. Elements that seem tacked on or unnecessary could be given the proper backing they so desperately lack. And we already both agree on how much (a lot much) the characters themselves would gain from more fleshing out that twice the episode count would allow.

Sometimes, it is in a series' best interest to make cuts and focus in on a more specific theme. But I don't believe Angel Beats would be anything close to what it is if you cut a lot of these elements and ideas out.
Way back when Angel Beats started, I remarked that it's "like Wraith: The Oblivion except it replaces the pervasive horror with cuh-razy anime".

Good Lord, how wrong, wrong, wrong I was to even begin to compare it to Wraith.
"The most heart­break­ing part of the series is not the pure unsul­lied sen­ti­ment that courses beneath the skin of every char­ac­ter, but the real­isa­tion that it could have been so much more beau­ti­ful."

Agreed...
@Michael is Low on Hit Points: I see what you're saying, but my argument at its core is that the same scenario (Hinori Toba's exact words for Jun Maeda's input) could have been told in thirteen episodes had there been some restraint in parts.

Thirteen episodes is four and a half hours of actionable screentime, sure you have to fit around an episodic structure but that amount of time could have been used so much better. For instance, what good did the baseball episode do? What about the protracted rocket-chair scene? The extended sequence of traps leading down to Guild?

It would have been great if Jun and the production team had more time to play with and the series as-is would have benefited, but as creators and producers they should have made their input fit the media, not decry it and stomp their feet. It's disheartening because they likely will only get one shot at this, and it just feels like it's an opportunity wasted.
Well, here's the thing: what then do you cut?

The baseball episode might well have been my favorite episode. It encapsulates the whole start-silly-then-ramp-up-to-sudden-dramactic-moment that Maeda Jun is... well, liked in the first place for. The rocket chair and traps scenes were the comedy bits that made the show fun, that made the characters likable, also known as the only reason people have even praised the show. Cut that and then what happens to the show's likability? People quit looking past the other flaws, is what I think happens.

Finally, after all of that: have you even cut enough?

If there was much less comedy, much less build-up, and we got straight into the character development and setting explanations, I still wonder if 13 episodes would have been enough. To build up the mystique and pull the answers out -- leaving little or no time for comedy or slice of life in the process -- still wouldn't fit all that well without more episodes.

"they likely will only get one shot at this"

See, that's the thing: if they had developed this as 26 episodes, animated out only half of them (for their 13 episode slot) and simply said "to be continued," they sure as hell would have got the financial backing to do the requisite sequel. There was really nothing in their way from making this 26 episodes in the end.
@Michael is Low on Hit Points: I can only tell you what I think should be cut, but that boils down to opinion and I think my review made clear what I found distasteful.

It seems that you liked a great deal of Angel Beats whereas I found things like the history/current events/humour structure unworkable. Humour and drama can work together, just look at something like the western TV series Scrubs for proof, but things need to happen to the characters not have happened. Back stories only start or reinforce empathy, they aren't the be-all and end-all.

I'm not advocating entirely removing the humorous aspects, but they need to be trimmed down because the scenes I mentioned are just dead weight to the story which is where the real problem with time lies.

Also I would love to know where you're getting the optimism regarding the supposed sure-thing financial backing in your proposed situation. There obviously was something in the way of making the series a 26 otherwise the production crew would have got it. As it is, they have a 26 episode story, no argument there, but tried unsuccessfully to cram it into a 13. Again, if they don't have knowledge of their medium - run time, audience, resources - then it reflects badly on the creators and the producers, not the financiers or the audience who finds their attempt lacking.
"Also I would love to know where you’re get­ting the optim­ism regard­ing the sup­posed sure-thing fin­an­cial back­ing in your pro­posed situ­ation."

Before the show aired, the prior success of Air, Kanon, and Clannad:

http://2chan.us/wordpress/2010/05/03/2ch-sales-numbers/

As the show aired, the obvious successful outcome occurred:

http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2010-05-10/angel-beats-6th-episode-earns-record-4.9-percent-in-osaka

http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2010-06-29/angel-beats-no.1-sells-23000-to-top-weekly-bd-chart

Seriously, who in the world would have bet against this show becom­ing a hit? And remember, most of the popularity (for investors, read as: sales, profit, etc) from Maeda's prior work comes from those humor / slice of life / backstory drama elements that you want to cut.
@Michael is Low on Hit Points: I'll cede the point that there wasn't optimism surrounding Angel Beats production, but it still leaves the question of why it wasn't picked up for a 26? I don't think anyone would have bet against it (if such a thing is even possibly with financing), but it was in no way a sure-fire success - it had a good foundation, no argument there, but a good staff does not always equate to a good series.

Regardless, this is getting away from the fundamental point of the argument as I see it, which is the production of the series was ill-suited to the length of time it was allotted. If as you are arguing, the humour and poorly integrated back stories are necessary to its success as a series, what is wrong with it? From my point of view something is obviously wrong with it, or are you claiming Angel Beats is perfect as-is?
I whole heartedly agree with you that the production was ill-suited to the time allotted the series. I don't think anyone will begrudge you that. And nobody is claiming that Angel Beats is perfect as-is. We're both on the same page, and I believe both can agree that the backstory was poorly integrated and the humor took too much time away from other important elements. What we're effectively split on is how to fix said issues.

With a higher episode count, the backstory can be more properly weaved into the core plot. With more screentime, the comedy can stay while still allowing plenty of development time for the things you -- and the rest of us, believe me -- wanted more of. The series could have been more cohesive... if it was allowed room to breath. Do you agree that more episodes could have helped? I know you "want" to go in the other direction (tighten things up at 13), but don't you believe 26 episodes with the current setup would have resulted in a better series than the one we got?

If so, then I think the main thing we're still debating is whether or not there was a possibility for 26 episodes. If not, then yes, some restructuring and refocusing could have helped things a bit. But me (and I believe the rest of the 'sphere that was asking for 26 episodes) believe that they could have made a longer series. I can't see a realistic situation in which they were "forced" into 13 episodes. It seems to me that they went too safe and severely undershot what should have been obvious to them to be plentiful potential, both critically and financially.
@Michael is Low on Hit Points: You've hit the nail on the head as to what we're divided on. Fundamentally I think doubling the episodes would alleviate a lot of problems, but my concern is that given the (lack of) restraint on display in 13 that simply doubling the episodes would introduce new problems or exacerbate existing ones.

I guess my approach is always to try and fix what's already there rather than wish for a different set of circumstances. I agree it does seem mighty odd that it wasn't a full season when series based of Maeda's previous works have all run for longer (Clannad et. al.). I'm wondering whether there was pressure to make Angel Beats a franchise by doing the cross media pollentation, or like you say and playing it too safe and shooting themselves in the foot in the process.

Still, I guess this is relatively moot now the series is over; perhaps the manga / light novels will fill in some of the blanks.