Angels of Death
by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Angels of Death ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Angels of Death ?
How would you rate episode 3 of
Angels of Death ?
Rachel Gardner is having a bad day. She wakes up alone, with no idea where her parents are and only a mysterious message about a “sacrifice” to guide her. The only way out is up a creepy freight elevator that will carry her through floor after floor of horrific trials, each one governed by another mysterious resident of the building whose sole intention appears to be killing our dear sweet Rachel, who must navigate the puzzles and traps on each floor in order to escape with her life intact.
This is the premise that Angels of Death sells to us in its first episode, and if it sounds like a video game, that's because it's based on one! Angels of Death was originally a horror adventure game created in RPG Maker, which is a genre I'm quite fond of. Games such as Yume Nikki, Ao Oni, Ib, and Mad Father are all cool and creepy experiences whose pixelated graphics and amateurish art belie some genuinely unsettling content. I have not (yet) played Angels of Death, but I recognized much of the common DNA it shares with its neighboring games: an innocent young girl protagonist, mysterious messages scrawled on the wall, a big scary monster you have to hide from, a hospital setting, etc. I can almost guarantee there will be a puzzle involving a piano at some point in the story. Now I normally wouldn't harp so much on an anime's source material, but in this case, it contextualizes some of the neat things Angels of Death does once it sheds its pretext.
Most of the first episode comes straight out of this RPG Maker horror game playbook. On the first floor, which looks more like an abandoned city than the inside of a building, Rachel runs into a serial killer named Zack, who gleefully toys with her as he tries to carve into her neck with his giant scythe. She manages to escape to the next floor, a horror hospital where she runs into a doctor that she recognizes despite her spotty memory. Doctor Daniel Dickens promises to help Rachel find her parents, but he soon exhibits a peculiar fascination with her eyes instead. Naturally, he tries to cut them out and take them for himself, but Zack saves the day with a giant scythe swing to the back. Having finally found his quarry, Zack moves to kill Rachel next. Up until this point, Angels of Death struck me as a fairly pedestrian horror romp, but I enjoyed its sense of camp and got a kick out of how little it tried to hide its more video-gamey elements. The speed and lack of subtlety with which Takahiro Sakurai morphed his performance of Doctor Danny from affable eccentric to eyeball maniac was also a thing of B-movie beauty. After this point, however, Rachel turns to Zack and politely asks him to kill her, and the real Angels of Death begins.
Instead of throwing the big scary monster at the protagonist at every unfortunate turn (a la Ao Oni), Angels of Death sees its protagonist team up with the big scary monster. The building apparently has rules, and Zack broke one of them by leaving his own floor, so the mysterious voice designates him as another sacrifice. The two then reach a gentlemen's agreement, since Zack wants to find a way out of the building and Rachel wants to be murdered, which Zack would normally be happy to do right away if only Rachel didn't want it. Their odd couple dynamic propels most of the second episode, and it's strangely endearing with dialogue like this:
ZACK: You're not thinking of running away are you?
RACHEL: I won't run away. You haven't killed me yet.
ZACK: *exasperated* That crap again?
Zack lives for the fear he sees in his victims, so Rachel's dead eyes and unfazed monotone deflate his murder lust every time, which becomes a predictable joke that nonetheless manages to amuse me. Zack also shares a seiyuu (Nobuhiko Okamoto) with everyone's favorite My Hero Academia explodey boy Bakugo, and this perfect casting is immediately obvious with every snarl and grunt that comes out of his mouth. His crass attitude starkly contrasts with the soft-spoken Rachel, which makes Zack the more entertaining character to spend time with. We've gotten some hints of much darker clockwork ticking inside Rachel (sewing up a dead bird is pretty weird), but she largely plays the straight man to Zack's amped-up antics. Rachel at least seems to realize what kind of video game she's in, constantly on the lookout for clues or triggers that could help them advance through the level. Zack, on the other hand, has absolutely zero patience for RPG Maker horror game nonsense and would smash an entire room full of graves before attempting a single puzzle. Amusingly, his wanton destruction does eventually trigger the right switch (a cartoonish big red button). Rachel blankly staring down Zack until he relents to investigate the bubbling water was also a great scene with some solid comedic timing. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Angels of Death is a parody (or god forbid, a deconstruction) of horror games, but moments like this are genre-savvy and irreverent enough to add flavor to its premise. The push and pull relationship between Rachel and Zack is the best thing Angels of Death has going for it, and I hope it can sustain itself.
Episode 3 introduces us to the master of the graveyard floor, Edward Mason, and the real structure of the show seems to reveal itself. Rachel is adamant about not committing suicide, citing God's will, but she still very much wants to be killed. Lucky for her, she's trapped in a building whose only other residents, including Eddie, want to kill her as well! Unfortunately for Zack, he needs Rachel alive in order to escape, and he wants to kill her himself. So episode 3 plays out like a twisted otome game where the heroine is trying to choose the perfect boy to murder her while they both vie for the honor of her head. Both Zack and Eddie take turns presenting their respective cases to Rachel like rival suitors; Zack kabe-dons Rachel, and Eddie gets down on one knee for crying out loud. This conflation of the horrific with the romantic is exactly the kind of absurd spin on cliché tropes that I find endlessly entertaining. In the end, Eddie's a hard worker and possesses the soul of an artist, but Zack swears to the highest authority that he'll kill Rachel, and that's good enough for her. Both Rachel's devotion to God and Zack's hatred of lies point to them having some inner moral code that helps them connect, despite one of them being a serial killer and the other being a little girl constantly begging for death. They see through Eddie's darkness gimmick and put his own lights out instead, burying him in the grave he had made just for Rachel. After that, Zack and Rachel's macabre alliance has surely given them the strength to confront whatever the next floor has in store for them.
As an anime adaptation, Angels of Death is overall fine. Again, I haven't played the game, but generally these RPG Maker horror games benefit from a charmingly rough DIY aesthetic, usually the result of a small dev team (or even solo dev team). By contrast, this anime is made by a team of professionals with limited resources, so it just looks fairly generic. The character art is okay, the backgrounds are serviceable, the colors are often muted, and the animation is workmanlike. I do like the character designs themselves. Zack's bloody hoodie and giant scythe cut a memorable figure, as he stands a full foot taller than his companion. Doctor Danny looks extremely like a doctor, but his double-irised false eye gives us some nice maniacal expression work. I love Eddie Mason's dopey-looking mask, and paired with the scarf and overalls, he comes across like a gentle distant cousin of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family. Rachel's design looks considerably blander, but such is the fate of anime protagonists. The seiyuu choices have been perfect so far, and I pray the actors continue to ham things up as much as they want. I'm more concerned about pacing issues going forward; the third episode was already rife with redundant dialogue, which leads me to believe there may not be enough meat in the Angels of Death game to sustain an entire cour of anime.
That said, I'm digging the heck out of Angels of Death so far! However, your experience with this show will probably be colored by your expectations going in. If you want to be spooked, you're going to be disappointed. If you want a story rich with thematic weight and ambitious questions, you're also probably not going to get that. If you're looking for a campy romp stuffed with eccentric killers, a protagonist with a bizarrely romantic death wish, and esoteric jokes based on RPG Maker horror game conventions, well then, you're a weird person. But I get you, and you'll get a kick out of Angels of Death. If it can sustain its macabre sense of humor and murder-centric romance antics for the entire season, we should be in for quite the ride.
Angels of Death is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Steve is a longtime anime fan who can be found making bad posts about anime on his Twitter.
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