The Summer 2018 Anime Preview Guide
Angels of Death
How would you rate episode 1 of
Angels of Death ?
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How was the first episode?
I'm not at all surprised to see that Angels of Death has its origins in a video game. Based on this first episode, this is the kind of story that would work far better as an interactive experience. Controlling a defenseless character surrounded by murderous enemies can be scary since it strips away the “beat up the baddies” option that most games offer, and that fear is compounded by the notion that this is happening to “you” as the player. On the other hand, watching anime is a largely passive experience, so we as viewers are accustomed to drawing a clear line between the protagonist and ourselves. That disconnect is a large part of why this episode didn't do much for me.
It doesn't help that the currently unnamed Mr. Bandages makes for a bland opening act. He doesn't necessarily need to be the scariest character in the show since it looks like he'll end up acting as Rachel's guardian monster, but first impressions are everything in this kind of story. When the first thing a horror series throws at the protagonist is a loud, loony guy with a scythe, it implies that we're in for a story that specializes more in cheap jump scares than in subtler (and, in my book, more effective) psychological terror. Danny is at least a modest step up; his gradual shift from doctor to psychopath offers a wider range of tonal volume, instead of just staying at full-blast murder mode from beginning to end. Unfortunately, weak pacing and repetitive writing keep him from being genuinely scary, and Rachel takes far too long to figure out that she ought to be running away from the spooky doctor man.
As for Rachel herself, I can't tell if she's too crazy or not crazy enough for her role. The fact that she calmly reads ominous messages on walls and has a full conversation with a haunted typewriter takes her out of “normal person trapped in a horror film” territory, but if she's not meant to be normal then the series needs to crank her issues up a notch or two. I could see this story being more engaging, or at least more entertaining, if Rachel were just as unstable as the serial killers trying to chop her up. It seems like the show may be moving in that direction based on her operating table flashback, but what's happened so far isn't enough to make that approach work properly.
I'm not terribly impressed with Angels of Death, but its video game plot structure does have at least one upside. With each new “level” that Rachel and Mr. Bandages visit, the show will get a chance to start from scratch with a new villain. That naturally episodic structure opens up multiple opportunities to deliver an improved horror experience while still playing into a larger narrative. That's a very good thing, because as it stands Angels of Death will need every free do-over it can get.
I have long thought that horror is the hardest genre to effectively do in animation, largely because the additional disconnect from reality caused by animation deals a critical blow to the immediacy necessary for horror to work. Because of that, worthwhile pure anime horror is rare. The first episode of Angels of Death gives as dedicated an effort toward that cause as I've seen in a long time, and while it does not overcome the aforementioned disconnect sufficiently enough to be truly scary, it does at least succeed at being tense and unsettling enough to be creepy.
Advertising for the series pitches this as a story of a girl falling in with a serial killer, and while the first episode doesn't get to that point, it sets up the circumstances under which something like that could happen. The scythe-wielding maniac may have chased her down to try and kill her on initial contact, but her stitching the bird back up seemed to make an impression on him, and he seems to have no interest in killing someone who's not resisting. That strongly implies that he won't heed her request to kill her at the end of the episode, either. Since Scythe Guy seems to also be a target, I'm assuming that this is headed for one of those weird relationships where he protects her from the other monsters even though he's a monster himself. Given the structure of the setting and the vague hints dropped so far, I won't be surprised if she winds up having been directly responsible for her parents' deaths, thus belonging here alongside Scythe Guy and Doctor Eye. After all, no other reason for her being there makes much sense, unless the people in charge of the facility get their jollies from terrorizing a little girl.
The design of the facility is one of those fanciful every-level-is-a-different-setting worlds, but the artistic effort strongly pushes the creepiness factor with a design aesthetic that suggests age, decay, and neglect. The ever-present cameras also help; we may be used to security cameras being everywhere, but usually they're inconspicuous enough that they don't evoke the fear of being constantly watched. The show's emphasis on them actively promotes that uneasiness well. And while this probably goes without saying, this does look like it's going to be a pretty graphic story.
I'm not completely sold on the concept yet, but the first episode works just well enough to get me to watch more.
Horror is a tricky thing, especially in anime. As a medium, animation is so naturally removed from the immediate sensory terror that makes live-action horror work so well, and it's also too divorced from the static primal power that can be imbued in the best horror comics or literature (remember Junji Ito "Collection"?). I can count the number of legitimately scary anime on maybe two hands, with prime examples being shows like Shiki, Paranoia Agent, or maybe even Serial Experiments Lain. For anime horror to truly work, there needs to be a precise balance of creepy atmosphere, sharp character writing, finely tuned artwork, and a near fanatical dedication to sound design. The exact balance of these elements will vary from series to series, but they're all usually present in some form or another.
Angels of Death has none of these things, except for a couple of effective sound cues. The animation is fine, but the background art and direction is muddy and erratic, favoring eccentric camera angles and excessive overlays of blood and shaky-cam effects instead of lingering dread. The story itself is nonsensical so far. We have a young girl named Rachel who's trapped in a psychotically designed hospital, and she's being accosted by a scythe-wielding maniac wrapped in bandages as well as a leering doctor who takes a little too much interest in her eyes. Were this a video-game, I could see this premise working well, but nothing in this premiere gels when stripped of that interactive element. We have virtually no reason to care about anything that's happening, and Rachel's various encounters are too shlocky to be scary or even suspenseful. We simply follow this little girl through a series of terribly unfortunate events and watch things unfold, but there's no depth or menace to be found behind its overwrought pomp and circumstance.
And yet I can't bring myself to hate Angels of Death's premiere, no matter how messy it is, because it's just trying so hard. Absolutely nothing about it is scary, disturbing, or thought provoking, but there is such a dearth of straightforward horror anime these days that I'm willing to go along with this show out of pure morbid curiosity. Rachel herself seems to have been affected by the trauma she's experienced, so I'm at least interested in seeing how that develops over the course of the season; the scene where she dispassionately rearranges the corpse of a bird to fit her idea of purity is perhaps the one potentially effective horror beat in this episode. I don't think Angels of Death is going to be a “good” show, but I'm still going to stick around for a few more weeks to see if this misbegotten horror series has any surprises lurking in the dark.
Wow that was tedious. I'm normally pretty resistant to simply bad episodes, and often get a lot of enjoyment out of deeply flawed but interesting ones, but the truly, deeply boring premieres? Those are the actual killers, or Angels of Death, if you will.
To be honest, Angels of Death was never a show that was going to appeal to me. This style of gleeful, melodramatic horror/action is pretty much my least favorite genre in anime, from its tentpole franchises like Tokyo Ghoul to its various seasonal dregs. I find this style of extremely loud, extremely on-the-nose horror to mostly just be exhausting; it's like someone is shouting in your face to be scared, and that doesn't make me scared, that just makes me wish they would stop shouting. On top of this, Angels of Death possesses no unique hooks or strong aesthetic appeal, so it's basically just me and that screaming authorial voice, stuck in a room for twenty minutes.
The actual narrative of Angels of Death seems concerned with a young girl named Rachel navigating her way through a bunch of floors filled with murderous psychopaths. There are mysterious allusions to her larger circumstances and the nature of this “game,” but Angels of Death's first sin is its failure to understand that things aren't compelling simply because they're mysterious - we need to have some incentive to want and figure out a mystery. As is, Angels of Death is simply groundless, offering no reason for us to care about its characters or its drama.
And as far as that drama goes, this first episode is mostly consumed by Rachel very slowly escaping two similar variations on the gleeful, cackling murderer archetype. The first cackling murderer attacks Rachel with a scythe and kills a bird because that's hardcore, while the second murderer acts he's a doctor and wants to steal Rachel's eyes. The show is very clear on that particular point - not only does he mention a good dozen or so times how beautiful Rachel's eyes are, but he also sends her on a hunt for one of his own false eyes, all while making one maniacal grin after another that Rachel somehow fails to parse as a villainous giveaway.
The repetitiveness of all this horror is ultimately my final, lasting impression. When your “the audience should get scared” tonal dials are stuck permanently at eleven, everything sort of sinks into an even grey of sameness, and nothing actually feels scary. If every shot of your antagonists catches them with bulging eyes and a wicked grin, those signifiers fail to mean anything, or carry any dramatic weight at all. The bad guys here are ones I've seen before, and they weren't interesting then, even when they were better-written. The fact that this episode lightly tosses off animal deaths and suicide references for impact doesn't shock me; these shows always do that, because their ears have been so blown out by persistent dramatic volume that subtlety is an unknown concept.
On the positive side, Angels of Death's production values are solid on the whole, with the show pulling off a pretty generous number of evocative compositions and well-animated confrontations. But the storytelling here is so tired and unconvincing, and the pacing so slow, that I can't really recommend this to anyone but dedicated fans of the genre. Ultimately, Angels of Death's most noteworthy accomplishment is making “escape a building ruled by themed serial killers” feel this incredibly boring.
I am of the firm belief that horror stories ought to actually scare you. Maybe that's an odd thought, because the first episode of Angels of Death doesn't seem to be all that invested in either horror or terror, instead relying on murky storytelling and the occasional gout of blood or misshapen face to try to freak out the viewers. Those things can all be scary, yes, but they need to be bound together by more than a waif wandering around in the dark, bloody, generic halls that could have come out of any anime set in a deadly/haunted hospital talking to herself.
That's really the major issue with this episode: the stretches of Rachel walking around don't do enough to build the suspense so that when Bandage Man or Dr. Danny show up they feel more like a random appearance instead than a terror we've been building up to. Danny is significantly scarier than Bandage Man, mostly thanks to the vocal talents of Takahiro Sakurai, who does a great job with the gradual slide into lunatic mania. Seriously, he's the highlight of the episode – Danny at first seems so kind and gentle, but Sakurai injects hints of what's really happening in his head that slowly become overwhelming in an impressively subtle way. He's what the episode ought to have been doing all along: quietly slipping off notes into the story until you can't ignore the niggling doubts.
Sadly that's not what happens, and while the basic plot of the story is moderately intriguing, the execution is lacking. I liked the story well enough in the manga adaptation of the original game, and honestly, I think that's more what I'd recommend rather than watching this. It may improve as Rachel regains more memories, but it just isn't doing its job as a horror story right now.
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