Midpoint Review: Angel Beats, Character Development, and Tragic Possibility

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Or, why sob stories are not always character development, and what the story might become.

A Brief History of My Experiences With Key

I have always been a little bit skeptical of Key’s storytelling, at least as done in their anime adaptations. (I have not played any of the games.) My first experience was them was the original Toei adaptation of Kanon, which came to my attention due to the fanboying Fred Gallagher gave it on Megatokyo. Once I was able to look past the strange character designs, I found the story passable if a bit contrived. I had a similar experience with Air, though it represented a step up in scope and ambition; the ingredients were there but the three parts of the story did not gel together as well as it should have. Clannad, however, was a large improvement: the comedy blended well with the drama and there was real effort toward some restraint and a well-developed male lead, among other things. The length of the adaptation allowed the characters to grow a bit more naturally than before.

Angel Beats is yet another audacious leap forward for Jun Maeda and crew. Romance no longer takes center stage, nor is there a harem. The show announces, from the start, Promethean ambitions–Yuri and the SSS’s mission is to fight no one less than God and his messenger, Angel. The show is about life, death, injustice, tragedy, theodicy…and given the continual refinement that was seen from Kanon to Air to Clannad, one could have high hopes for its success.

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Themes That Work–On Paper, At Least

Maeda’s works are thoroughly haunted: the specter of illness, death, regret, and the afterlife has consistently run through all of his work with Key. Angel Beats goes beyond the ghost stories that he normally turns to and considers an entire Purgatory world in which souls work out their pain and grief. This is actually strongly reminiscent of a recent Japanese live-action movie called Wonderful Life (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda), whose premise is that people who have just died get to re-enact their happiest experience in life: and, having done so, leave only with that one memory for the rest of eternity. Sound familiar?

In the right hands, this is emotionally potent stuff. It allows the storyteller to delve into the deepest motivations and longings of human beings, which Maeda at his best has done before. In this show it reached its height in episode 3, where Iwasawa, the guitarist, was at last able to play the song she always wanted to play before “disappearing”. Not only was it a fitting form of exposition to explain what “disappearing” was all about (and successfully undermined what Yuri was saying initially about it)–the excellent musical direction amplified the emotional impact. On the other side, Yuri’s horrific backstory, perhaps the most horrific of any Key character, adequately buttressed her rage against life and God; one saw her motivation clearly, even though as time wore on one begins to question whether it justifies her actions.

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This is why the way Naoi’s story was handled suffered by comparison. It falls into the common mistake made in a lot of anime storytelling about villains: it expects the audience to sympathize with an otherwise dastardly person simply because he had an awful childhood. Moreover, his past life does not really connect very well with his actions in the present Purgatory: the pottery background doesn’t have any metaphorical or analogical resonance, for instance. His feeling that he was trying to live his late brother’s life somehow leads him to thinking his memories are fake, which leads to him becoming dictatorial, “massacre” the SSS, implant fake memories to make them disappear, and thus become God. So: is disappearing bad or not? (This aspect of the world, along with the non-death dying, is among the clumsier fantasy conceits here.) Far too much weight in the present is being attributed to a fairly thin backstory, and by the time further exploration could have happened–he’s disappeared too as Otonashi assures him his life was real, and his memories were real. That’s it.

This is the essence of bad melodrama: when the emotions don’t match up with the situation at hand. One gets why Iwasawa disappeared, and why Yuri fights it: we have an idea of what it is they are looking for. The flashback and the resolution to Naoi’s story happens in such a compressed and slapdash way that I was left more confused and dissatisfied. It’s sad, too, because the brief moments where Yuri was confronted by apparitions of her dead siblings was directed in a gripping and powerful way: flashes of coffins between their smiling faces. Maeda’s strengths and weaknesses exist simultaneously, because they come from the same fount: the willingness to explore the fear and regret that drive so many of his characters has sometimes become an overreliance on it as a means to build sympathy.

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Some Hints at Some Interesting Directions for Yuri

Those small, harrowing moments for Yuri in episode 6 were gripping in part because Yuri is the character with the most potential for genuine growth and change in the show. The initial similarities with Haruhi Suzumiya are misleading, because they are motivated by fundamentally different things: one is motivated by boredom and loneliness, the other by a rage for justice. One of the better aspects of the show is how, over time, the simple narrative about this high school, about God, and about Tenshi begins to not only get more complicated but reveal Yuri’s actions to be more and more morally ambiguous.

There is potential for a genuine tragedy in the story of Yuri that could end up saving the show. Yuri’s anger and refusal to give in to the “disappearance” is understandable: it would be to somehow be reconciled with the unjust deaths of her siblings, something which strikes her as nothing less than a betrayal. Such crimes cannot be forgiven, or it would render their deaths innocuous and inconsequential. And being dead there is only one direction to turn against: against the One who made the rules and the universe where such horrible things can happen in the first place. Tenshi is His representative, so it seems. So she is the enemy, and she used every power she had to defeat, humiliate, and degrade her…only to realize that she was merely harming another ordinary soul, with her own name. The search for justice had become bullying and tyranny. Naoi, perhaps, represents the logical conclusion of where Yuri is heading: a willingness to harm to no end in order to achieve a goal. Yuri’s path, left unchecked, is the path of every dictator and villain. In searching for justice she denies herself and others peace. It is her tragic flaw, that in searching for her own peace by lashing out she ends up committing injustice.

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This is rich material. This is something that relatively few anime can handle well. It is definitely there as more than a subtext, especially as we learn more about Kanade/Tenshi. Episode 6, indeed, may actually be the story’s turning point. Our knowledge of the world at the story’s start has long been exploded and now, some new possibilities can spin out.

Angel Beats does for Jun Maeda what I hope someone like Makoto Shinkai will be able to do in a future movie: it expands his vocabulary and is allowing him to explore some of his familiar themes in new ways. There has been some clumsiness along the way in pacing and in the way Naoi was handled–the comedy and drama don’t blend as well as they did in Clannad given the compressed timeframe, among other things. But the raw material for some great storytelling is there. It’s even been great at points already. So ganbatte, Maeda: keep progressing so you can earn a great review from me! :)

11 thoughts on “Midpoint Review: Angel Beats, Character Development, and Tragic Possibility”

  1. Great little piece, given that I also been donning the beret while watching Angel Beats, although I wanted to disagree with how you say that "disappearing" is one of the clumsier aspects of the series. I think it's right now one of the most thematically delicious.

    So far, the premise we've been given on disappearance is that it means you've conformed with The System, with The System being an inherently evil thing because Yuri says so. Of course, this was blown out of the water by Episode 3, where we find out that instead of conformity with The System, it means conformity with The Self – living out that dream and being at peace with what happened in life, freed from regret and guilt. Yet, Yuri (or anyone else for that matter) hasn't realized this. This is because disappearance is tied to what amounts to a 2nd death and What Lies Beyond. Instead, they'd rather have whatever it is of something resembling an earthly existence.

    It reminds me of The Fountain, where the main character is so motivated by a fear of death and afterlife that he struggles endlessly against it, only to realize that the key isn't in circumventing it, but in transcending it.

    1. Fernando: thanks for your reply. That is an interesting way to look at it, especially with comparison to The Fountain. I think what I meant with the clumsiness is what I perceived as the inconsistency in the way disappearing, which in itself is a powerful idea, is sometimes portrayed as being good, sometimes as bad. You are probably right that it depends on who is looking at it, of course–though at this point in the show it’s probably only Yuri more than anyone who regards it as bad; I think Otonashi gets it, as does Tenshi.

      One of these days I might talk about the explicit and implicit theological themes in this show specifically: not only about the theodicy parts but also about the cycle of reincarnation that may be in play in this universe as well. I’m fascinated by your suggestion that perhaps the solution is the transcendence beyond the afterlife or disappearing. At least it’s a little bit more original than the standard anime “what if we all joined as one” quasi-Buddhist conclusion we find in shows like Evangelion and its many imitators.

  2. On a simple level Naoi’s backstory does work; he thought that his own life was worthless, so he decided to become a god to satisfy his feelings of worthlessness and self loathing; this is embodied by the fact that his father didn’t really acknowledge him all that much. Otonashi’s acceptence causes him to remember that one time his father did acknowledge him, allowing him to overcome his self loathing and worthlessness. Plus, they did make Otonashi’s back story tragic and beliveable

  3. I actually felt it did work. People stay due to regrets; naoi’s was that he never gained anything, and that he himself never gained his father’s love. Otonashi helped him come to terms with that.

    1. When Otonashi helped Naoi out, that was one of the best scenes of the series. It even hit me like a freight train. However, I simply felt the transition from his childhood grief directly into the attempts at dictatorship is a little stretched. The history of dictators may prove me wrong. That’s me (Ray’s) two cents. Mike, your thoughts (since you wrote this piece)?

  4. the bit where naoi remembers his father’s congratulations was good. It made him realize that his perceptions of reality were false, and allowed him to come to terms with his grief Overall I think Mike was too harsh. The pottery wasn’t the point; it was the fact that his one attempt to gain recognition that he thought was being denied him (through succeeding his brother in pottery) failed. The memory helped him realize that his father had viewed him as more then just a replacement for his brother, and allowed him to come to terms with his self loathing.

  5. No offense Mike, but you totally missed the point with Naoi. His regret was that he always felt that his own life had been worthless, because the only time he was ever really acknowledged was as a replacement for his dead brother. When people are in a trade, they tend to focus on the brother who’s good at it, which in this case was Naoi’s brother. Even though his father did acknowledge him (as seen with the pomegranates), he was so blinded by jealousy and doubt that he failed to see it (people can actually blank out positive experiences due to irrational emotions such as jealousy). His suspicions were seemingly confirmed when his dad started paying more attention to him AFTER his brother died. And even as a replacement for his brother he was a failure due to a.) the fact that he pretty much sucked at pottery, and b.) his dad’s death. The psychological trauma of living in his brother’s shadow, and then failing to live up to it when given a real chance made him feel worthless and empty. Why would a man want to become a god? Worthlessness and emptiness. The whole speech that Otonashi gave him caused him to remember the pomegranite incident, which in turn allowed him to see that his father had appreciated him for more then just being a replacement for his brother, and that he did have the potential to be a skilled person with talents WITHOUT BEING A GOD. It also made him realize that the reason he felt empty in life was because he had tried to hard to be something he wasn’t (i.e his brother) instead of developing his own skills and talents. In short, it allowed him to see that his perception was false, and that he didn’t need to be a meglomaniacal douchebag in order to have a purpose; he just needed to develop his own skills and talents, a task that does not involve meglomania. Plus he’s pretty funny in later appearences.

  6. also during his rant he believed his suffering was the purpose when otonashi made him realize that in actuality, he could have prevented it had he actually developed his own skills. and he made him realize that his life hadn’t actually been as crappy as he thought

    1. Ryan: thanks for your comments. I have caught up on Angel Beats now and I will be giving episode 6 another watch to see if my opinion will have changed on second examination, which I’ll write about in a future article. Thanks.

  7. Thanks. I guess my main point is that naoi realized that ultimately it was his own fault his life was worthless, cause he tried to be something he wasn’t. That is what was so tragic about it. Plus did you see episode 7 (the clothespin scene) cause that was pretty damn funny

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