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.
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.
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.
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.
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! :)