Reviewby Theron Martin,
Angel Beats!: Heaven's Door
At some point in the earlier stages of Angel Beats!, Hinata shows up late for a meeting wearing an old school uniform, which sparks a conversation between him and Otonashi about how he first met Yuri and helped her form the SSS. He came to the afterlife after being hit by a truck and soon encountered the temperamental Yuri (whom he soon came to nickname “Yurippe” because she had the same name as his mother, which he was uncomfortable with) when she kicked him off of the school's roof. At the point Yuri was a loner who was angry with God but had no idea what to do with or about that anger. As a result of an incident where another student held the school's principal at gunpoint, they learned that the Student Council President was definitely someone beyond the ordinary – either the God that Yuri wanted to beat up or a representative of him, hence Hinata coming to call her Angel. But what good might come from confronting Angel?
The Angel Beats! anime series is unquestionably my favorite of all of the Key-connected titles, and one that I chose as the top American release of 2011, but that doesn't blind me to its most glaring weakness: that it had a lot more story to tell then what it actually did tell. This manga series, which is based on the Angel Beats! Track Zero short stories originally serialized in 2009-10, serves as a prequel to the anime, which at least makes it a good start at filling in some of the backstories that were missing from the series. That makes it a worthwhile read for any established fan of the franchise, though it falls well short of capturing the verve and overall entertainment value of the anime series.
Actually, this volume is not a bad jumping-on point for newcomers, as all but its first few pages compose the flashback story and that story lays out the basic premise pretty well: the focal point students inhabit an afterlife which looks like a massive residential school. The adults and most of the other students are effectively equivalent to NPCs in a video game RPG, and the purpose of the place seems to be to help the few true humans present become content enough that they pass on. Hence the only way to maintain one's existence for long is to passively or actively remain discontent. The story of the first volume focuses on a guy who is one of the most important supporting characters in the anime and his first prickly encounters with the girl who is the most actively discontent character in the franchise. Exactly why she's so powerfully discontent does not come up in this volume; see the anime for that.
At this point in the story Yuri is just an angry girl, so this manga series will presumably show her progression into being a leader and motivator; watching this process play out is arguably the strongest draw that the series has going forward. Her penchant for being ruthless about exploiting their immortality is already quite well-established by the end of the volume, however, as is the critical role that Hinata had in guiding her down the path of a leader. Far less clear so far is whether or not Hinata is actually attracted to Yuri at this point, which is important since little indication of this ever played out in the anime. Despite what he says, the dynamic between them at this point is pretty typical for a tsundere romance, even though Yuri will eventually prove to not quite be the conventional tsundere type. A couple of other supporting characters from the anime series also make their first appearances here, including Ooyama and the gun-toting student. Who, exactly, the latter ends up being in the anime is not made clear in this volume, but this is one case where I actually recommend looking up spoilers, as his path to becoming the character he is in the anime will also becomes a big draw once you know who he becomes.
How well-handled this all is, including early interactions with Angel, is another story. Jun Maeda, the writer for the anime, also writes this one, but this is not his best or smoothest work. The humor elements come across as lame and stiff; the particular brand of humor that the anime uses just does not translate well to printed form. The characterizations fare better, but Yuri is simply not as interesting a character now as she was in the early stages of the anime. That should improve with time, however, as this is supposed to be a simpler, rawer Yuri. On the plus side, Hinata comes across more impressively here and the pace of the story is reasonable.
Although original franchise character designer Na-Ga still provides the character designs, the artistry comes courtesy of Yuriko Asami, whose only other manga credit (Mushi to Medama to Teddy Bear) was also a co-production. Asami keeps the art relatively simple, with limited use of backgrounds and a focus almost exclusively on the cast members. Character renditions are attractive, crisply consistent, and use a wide range of expressiveness and poses. Framing choices and varying perspectives keep things interesting, too. The color cover art is also quite sharp, Overall, this is a very good-looking effort as long as the minimalizing of the background art doesn't bother you. It offers no real fan service (or really, anything even close to it) but does feature some bloody violence, hence its Teen rating.
Seven Seas Entertainment is producing the English release, which entirely replaces all original Japanese sound effects with English equivalents. It opens with a single glossy page, which has a replication of the cover on one side and a picture of Angel in a white dress on the other; the latter is also a quality effort even if you do not care for the facial design style. It wraps with a six page “bonus manga” and one-page Afterwords by Asami, Maeda, and Na-Ga.
While not a must-read for franchise fans, Heaven's Door does show at least some promise at filling in some of the gaps and thus being a worthwhile complementary piece.
Overall : B-
Story : C+
Art : A-
+ Strong (if also simple) artistry, starts to fill in some of the holes in the original story.
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