Reviewby Theron Martin, Jul 14th 2011
DVD Complete Collection
A young man wakes up in a school yard with no memory. A female student nearby, who is pointing a sniper rifle at someone, introduces herself as Yuri (aka Yurippe) and informs him that he's dead, cannot die anymore, and should join her oft-name-changing organization, currently called the Afterlife Battlefront, in a struggle against God and his apparent representative in this world, the cute but seemingly emotionless Student Council President dubbed Angel. The young man eventually remembers that his name is Otonashi and comes to understand that everyone at the school has died, and that “deaths” in this place are just temporary inconveniences. He also learns that the students in the Battlefront are free-willed individuals who have rebelled against God by refusing to conform – and thus being obliterated from this world and (presumably) reincarnated – because they have grudges against God over great suffering in their former lives. As Yuri leads the Battlefront in various creative schemes to thwart Angel's efforts to normalize them and ultimately confront God, Otonashi also comes to understand that Kanade – the girl they know as Angel – does not have to be their enemy and that this place serves a deeper purpose than just being a Purgatory or metaphysical transition ground: it is a place which gives youths an opportunity to find the peace and happiness denied to them in life, thus allowing them to move on.
In the bonus episode “Stairway to Heaven,” set roughly around episode 5, Yuri issues a new operation to the Battlefront: the members must maintain a high level of tension and energy in whatever they do for an entire day in the hopes of confusing Angel enough that she will report to God and they can follow her. Despite the earnest efforts of several Battlefront members, things don't exactly go as planned.
Mention the names Key and Visual Art's to well-studied anime fans and most will think of visual novel-derived stories about a young man helping passels of damaged uber-moe girls solve their problems in turn, often with emotional climaxes. There are some elements of that in this newest anime-original effort created by scenario writer/scripter/composer Jun Maeda, one of the major minds behind Key, but in most other respects this is a very different series from anything previously based on Key/Visual Art's properties. It takes a novel variation on the standard “helping others solve their problems” premise and flavors it with sharp action, riotously funny humor, clever exploitation of the setting, musical performances, a cast of colorful characters where heavily moe girls are in the minority, and even a few hints of romance as it works its way towards an irregular succession of big emotional and dramatic pay-offs. Along the way it entirely avoids fan service and mostly avoids anime in-jokes and pure otaku-pandering elements, creating a series which requires no great familiarity with anime to enjoy and could be safely recommended to anime fans of nearly any stripe.
The strengths of the series begin with its concept. Souls who cannot be at peace because they are discontent with their former lives are common enough in supernatural-themed anime titles, but a setting where all of the main characters are such souls and are gathered together in one place is quite unusual. The mechanics of the setting allow only the discontent to act with free will, with the normal students being classified as NPCs because they cannot think or act outside of the box. Anyone discontent who tries to conform gets obliterated because they are now accepting normality, so maintaining distinctiveness is essential for survival as an individual. (If this is not intended as a sly condemnation of the rigorous conformity impressed upon students by Japanese schooling, then how well it serves that purpose is an amazing coincidence.) In this setting virtually anything inanimate can be created from dirt if one knows its structure well enough, which allows the students in the Battlefront to be well-armed with guns and blades and use elaborate traps to protect sensitive areas. One character is even able to use a special computer program to modify herself. The mechanic for how one willingly leaves the world is not immediately apparent, as it does not happen until the end of episode 3. When it does happen, though, its suddenness hits home thanks to director Seiji Kishi's flawless execution and significantly changes the tone of the series from that point forward.
Naturally the cast is populated with eccentric souls, but these are not the same old, dry stand-bys. Despite some design similarities to Haruhi Suzumiya, Yuri is no standard tsundere girl; she is intelligent, devious, observant, and ever in control, the kind of person whom others would naturally follow and respect (or fear). She is the one angriest with God and it is her will, as much as her leadership, which drives the Battlefront. In true Key fashion, her backstory is absolutely awful, the kind of thing which can either crush a person or drive her obsessively towards a goal, and the latter is what happens here; even though over-the-top, Yuri's past strongly implies why she does everything she does without beating viewers over the head with it. Otonashi is the sensible and caring guy in the center, but his efforts to help others do not seem forced, especially once his full backstory comes out. (It happens in two stages, and while the first part will seem a typical Key gimmick, the second one definitely isn't.) Angel, contrastingly, is the requisite emotionless girl, although as the Battlefront members eventually discover, she is not what she seems to be. The oddballs immediately surrounding them include a halberd-wielding idiot, a ninja girl who calls everything “foolish” and yet balances a broom on her finger while playing a baseball game to prove that her concentration isn't faulty, a spastic pink-haired girl who combatively exchanges wrestling moves with another boy, a seemingly mild-mannered boy who is actually enormously muscle-bound, a computer nerd who vainly insists on being called Christ, a singer/guitarist who yearns to play an original song, a guy who's always performing dance moves and talking groovy nonsense, and (later on) a hypnotist who uses his powers to amusingly evil effect. Several of them also have brutal backstories, too, but this series uses them more as tools than focal points, and that makes them much more palatable.
Anime series which try to do a bit of everything typically wind up overextending themselves and creating a big plot and balancing mess, but another big strength of the series is the skill with which all of the individual elements are integrated. The series' musical component is represented by an all-female-student rock band, Girls Dead Monster (GlDeMo for short), which serves distraction duty for the Battlefront by doing guerilla performances. They perform fully-animated set pieces on multiple occasions and throw in a bonus solo for one of them. In other places the humor dominates, such as in the comical sacrifices that Battlefront members make to advance certain underground missions, the combative relationship of Yui and Hideki, or the gut-bustingly funny efforts of the Battlefront to create distractions in a testing situation so that falsified test answer sheets can be slipped into play. Action scenes do not disappoint, either, and include some intricately-animated, perspective-shifting head-to-heads as well as some more outlandish fare.
And this is a Jun Maeda-scripted title, so have no doubt that it will also be emotional. All of the zany idiocy does not get in the way of the story achieving occasional poignant moments, and not always in the expected places, either. While no scene in the series approaches the overwhelming intensity of peak scenes in Clannad After Story, those moments fare well enough, with (arguably) the strongest saved for last: the revelation of Angel/Kanade's secret and her final resolution. Few viewers will correctly anticipate the truth, as those who make assumptions based on past Key works and anime gimmicks in general will be misled, but it is a truth vaguely hinted at earlier in the series and once a viewer knows it, certain earlier scenes take on a fresh emotional impact on a repeat viewing.
P.A. Works reportedly earned the production job after impressing key people with their lead work on True Tears, and they turn in another strong effort here. The coloring is not quite as rich as their earlier lead effort on Canaan but otherwise the artistry does not fall much short of that mark, with well-rendered and meticulously-detailed settings (the overall campus shots look quite cool) and character designs that provide a great range of looks without resorting to anything too outlandish or relying on sex appeal. Knowledgeable viewers should also notice great detail work on the weapons and instruments used. The animation is sharpest in the opener, which features Kanade playing the piano, and in the Girls Dead Monster performance pieces, but it also zings in certain action scenes. In other places it goes more simplistic for visual effect. The violence is graphic enough in places to warrant a TV-14 rating, but this one ranks at the low end of that rating range. Also watch for occasional subtle visual references to other Key-affiliated titles.
The musical score was a collaborative effort between Sound Director Satoki Iida and Maeda, who also wrote all of the lyrics for the Girls Dead Monster songs and both the opening and closing themes. The result is an effective, low-key approach which supports the material, rather than leading it, and easily shifts from comedy to dramatic modes. The GlDeMo songs are all solid rock numbers save for a pretty solo ballad, and all of them suit their intended purpose well. Opener “My Soul, Your Beat!” is a lovely piano-fronted song whose visuals adjust slightly each episode to provide previews of the upcoming action. Regular closer “Brave Song” is equally good and accompanies visuals which show major characters in the Battlefront roster and regularly update to reflect events in the series; watching for these changes can be a game unto itself. An alternate rock version of the opener fronts episode 4, while episodes 10 and 13 have the poignant “Ichiban no Takaramono” as an alternate but very appropriate choice.
Sentai Filmworks snagged this one earlier this year in a minor licensing coup and, not surprisingly, deemed it worthy of both a dubbed release and Blu-Ray release; the latter was not available for review, however. The DVD version splits the thirteen regular episodes across three disks, with the second disk containing clean versions of all iterations of the opener and closer and the third disk containing the over-the-top, full-length comedy OVA which serves as the “Bad Ending.” Sadly absent is the 2½ minute short made as an alternate epilogue, and really, would it have pained Sentai too much to translate the names of the characters as they appear in the opener? The subtitles seemed in good order, though, with only one hard-to-catch error and explanatory notes in a few places.
The dubbing effort shows that Sentai dubs are back on track after a couple of recent problem releases. Here filler dialog is used seamlessly, performances are uniformly smooth, and actors are not using inappropriately wacky voices. Brittney Karbowski, who has made her VA career primarily out of voicing the “typical teen” parts, is a welcome surprise with a quality turn as Yuri, while Blake Shepard is a particularly good fit at Otonashi and newcomer Dylan Godwin is perfectly-cast as the nerdy Takeyama. The biggest questions concerned TK, who mostly speaks in seemingly random English (a lot of what he says is supposedly actually song titles) in the Japanese dub. Adam Van Wagoner, who voices the dub version, still has him speaking randomly in English but with a tone somewhat suggestive of a burned-out pothead - which, if ardent fans think about it, is fitting for his character. Oh, and after the singing travesty in Guin Saga, Sentai wisely opted to leave all of the insert songs undubbed.
If Angel Beats! has a substantial flaw, it's that its cast of colorful characters is too broad for all of their stories to be explored in a 13-episode series. As a result, large blocks of the named cast exit near the end of the series without the series ever delving into their backstories and motivations. Comprehensiveness in this respect has caused the longer of the previous Key titles to drag at times, though, so the decision to focus on only a handful of cases may have been the lesser of two evils. The series makes up for that with a beautifully-handled final episode, though, one which waits until the last few minutes to reveal the true meaning of the series' title. (It is, indisputably, appropriate, and probably not what you will expect.) Other minor flaws that the series may have also pale in comparison to what the series does right. This is one of the most complete series officially released in the U.S. so far this year and also one of the best.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Excellent balancing act of music, comedy, action, drama, and emotion.
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