Why Angel Beats! Rocks (Even If It’s Too Short)

With the new Angel Beats! special episode released yesterday (I could drool all over it in a review, but I’d run out of saliva) and the VN having likely already come out by the time you’re reading this, I think it’s time I talked about my favourite anime that I’ve ever seen, in both sub and dub, on a laptop screen and on a TV. It may not be the ‘best’ anime – if you can somehow find a way to give something such a title – but I’ve always been one of those people who have done more than just love it. Yet, many people criticise it for one main ‘flaw’, which is usually phrased one way or another in any discussion on the show I encounter: it’s too short.

Has anyone considered that Angel Beats’ brevity may in fact be one of its most important features?

My way with Angel Beats! has always been critical adoration, but that’s not to say that I don’t consider its flaws. Sure, if you don’t like the characters, pacing, et cetera, then that style may just not be for you. Certain things are just not for certain people. But there’s so much going on with the design of the show which I think many people miss out on, particularly in the omission of certain details and developments, which make it stand out to me as a landmark of modern animated storytelling. There are many qualities to Jun’s work which help make what could be detrimental to one viewer a blessing to another.

But for now, we’ll focus on that main complaint: that the series needed to be longer, or have another season, to work effectively.

It’s a common trajectory in most slice-of-life shows to have a cast of supporting characters who end up sharing the spotlight in turn, alternating between episodes or arcs. The show isn’t considered compete unless the baton’s been passed down every member of the integral cast, and so the expectation is to see anyone who matters to the viewer matter to the story in terms of time given to them. This, then, immediately poses a problem for the SSS, who have a pretty sizeable member count. Maybe you don’t care about all of them – maybe your grievances with the length regard a lack of TK, as many people’s do – but to Otonashi, they all matter. Every single one. Once he realises his plan with Kanade to help them all move on, he vows to go through it one by one. This, we can say, is the perfect set-up for the second part of a longer series, with an episode or two dedicated to each person, no matter how dimensional they were in the series before, getting over their past and finding tear-inducing peace like Yui did.

That’s what we want at this stage; that’s what Otonashi wants at this stage. But the world around him has different ideas.

There’s a clear juxtaposition between the very end of Episode 10 and the moment Yui disappears; the sudden appearance of the deus-ex-machina-esque shadows messes things up big time. Clearly the world and its shady programming have observed Otonashi’s work, and their response is not pleasant. The moment those monsters appear, we have to kiss goodbye to the idea of Otonashi slowly going through everyone. Forget about the episode count; to the characters within the show a long haul appears impossible, and the process of moving people on has to be sped up. It’s unfair, and it feels unfair to the viewer. It feels rushed, like the world just wants to end itself, like time is against them, stopping them from doing everything they want to do.

Kind of like the characters’ lives, right?

The final challenge to the SSS is the invasion of the last thing they wanted to be reminded of – that life is temporal. The concept of becoming an NPC and losing their freedom is worse than death, making the shadows an encroaching force on the one luxury they thought was otherwise guaranteed. True, they could (but not definitely) have all slowly found peace under Otonashi’s guidance, but this game-changer meant that they had to think about valuing their lives. If not being swallowed by a shadow was so important, then why was it so important to delay the possibility of a new life? Yurippe had been doing this for years, leaving the club in as much of an endless loop as the NPCs themselves. This pressure on the group is the catalyst for the rapid development that leads to them quickly moving on against the audience’s wishes; therefore, while it may not be pleasant to witness for some who wanted their favourite characters to have more time dedicated to their disappearance, the ‘rushed’ change in pace after Episode 10 can be justified as a mechanic for tragically breaking the audience’s expectations by pushing the characters towards a faster climax in a world that was always supposed to be temporal, criticising those expectations for being misguidedly founded in the first place.

By not thinking about how the show was put together (which leads to judgements about episode count, Jun’s qualities as an artist) and purely focusing on how events relate to characters, this unfairness within the show really is artistically efficient and beautiful.

It’s then important to note that three days pass after Yurippe’s triumphant shoot-all-the-computers scene, during which Yurippe misses out on… stuff. Stuff we don’t know. Stuff we don’t get to see because the last episode begins by focusing on her loss of regret and reversion back into a normal girl. Because of this focus, we don’t get to see what she doesn’t get to see, and considering her desire in Episode 12 to catch up with everyone (as she’s always been the distant leader), this operates as a further tragic note on the temporarily of this realm. Now that we’ve seen this in two places, it’s worth correlating this to the context of the setting and ending; high school and graduation. Who ever thought they’d done everything they’d wanted to do at the end of a school era?

It’s rare. It’s far more common in our experience of youth to miss out on things because of circumstance or our own attitude or decisions, and it’s far more common to realise some of the things that we’ve missed out on at the end. Yurippe’s tearful talk with Kanade right before she disappears demonstrates this fantastically. The only way she’ll get to spend more time with the person she missed out on the most is in another life, just as the places we go to after our education offer opportunities to once again meet up with people who we once shared all our time with for better or worse. The most important thing in all of this, however, is that a longer series dedicating more time to the relationships of these characters would have ruined this important theme. Without explicit brevity towards the finale, we wouldn’t resonate as much with the characters’ desires to have more time together, and it would likely make the epilogue of Otonashi finding Kanade in the next life mean less as well. Had the audience been satisfied with the show’s length, we wouldn’t have connected to the characters that weren’t.

This isn’t the only theme to rest on the show’s brevity, however. We know that Otonashi spent the three days without Yurippe helping everyone else move on, after the band had previously disappeared thanks to his speech, which we didn’t get to hear. Two key silences emerge, and both are again centred around Yurippe. First, Otonashi’s speech – though one can say it’s just classy to do a montage of speaking without the words being spoken (Up comes to mind), it’s more interesting when we consider that Yurippe, while allowing him to promote his message, doesn’t accept it herself, hence her refusal of the NPC life in her dramatic dream sequence in Episode 12. Yet, this is the message that leads the band to disappear and influences the general shift in the SSS towards moving on. Clearly, therefore, much of Yurippe’s leadership is being passed to Otonashi, who is now the man of action for the rest of the team. As for Yurippe herself, her solo mission functions as a retry of her past, and this time she doesn’t fall down the stairs and break the vase, but instead saves those that rely on her, her last act of leadership in the series.

Of course, there are many ways to cinematically portray Yurippe’s lack of involvement in the passing-on of the rest of the SSS, but the use of the narrative ellipsis helps us be much more in her state of mind as the final episode dawns. I’d argue that without skipping the disappearances of many beloved characters, we wouldn’t empathise with her in the way we do, as someone who’s done everything they need to and hasn’t even seen the work that they couldn’t have done themselves. Again, there are many other ways we could have empathised with her in this finale, but Jun’s decision is a powerful one. We had a quick montage of the SS reflecting about whether to move on; we could have had a quick montage of them actually moving on. But Jun chose to give this part of the story only referenced silence. Judging by the fan response, the decision has created more interest in the characters whose passings were omitted, with TK again a prime example.

Finally, it’s worth addressing how the audience’s reaction to Angel Beats! further develops its themes. Indeed, a work of art is not just the artifact it exists as, but the body of reactions that surround it and influence its reception. From what I’ve widely read, criticism of Angel Beats! either falls into one of two camps. If you think the show needed to be longer, you’re empathising with Otonashi, including his final moments when he only just begins to learn the truth about the girl he loves before she disappears right before his eyes. You can then either accept that time isn’t something you can command and that the world of the show can’t afford to be an ‘eternal paradise’, and move on as Otonashi eventually did, or you can condemn the show for its realistic temporality, desiring it to be an eternal paradise as Otonashi did when he asked if he and Kanade could stay together. A longer show would have brought you closer to that sense of eternity, but Jun’s use of omission reminds the reader, if they want to accept it, that time is the enemy of life, even in the afterlife.

So there we have it. It may not be something you agree with, but there’s definitely something more to the shortness of Angel Beats than might first meet the eye. It’s not supposed to be a satisfying, gratifying climax and finale, but a jarring alternative to expectations, perhaps even symbolising a cry out against the temporality of being only allowed to make a shorter show when the artist wants to stay with their characters for longer. This is one of the reasons I love the series; Jun Maeda could, as some people argue, have just messed up the end being too constrained by time, but I’d argue instead that he made artistic use of his limitations that work in tandem with characters and themes in the series. This is also one of the reasons I’m so hyped for Charlotte, due to air this summer. I’m sure Jun will be thrown even more challenges by the constraints of his craft, as every artist is, and how he uses and explores them is one of my favourite qualities of his work.

Ultimately, seeing people hate on my favourite show makes me feel great, as I wouldn’t have ever put an analysis like this together without blunt opinions flying left and right across the internet. So whether you agree or disagree with this article, thank you for being part of what makes my favourite show so great, and don’t hesitate to have your say in the comments below!

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8 thoughts on “Why Angel Beats! Rocks (Even If It’s Too Short)”

  1. This show is one of my favorites also. I was just listening to “my song” on the way to work this morning on the bus. But personally, I feel like keeping the series that short really had a positive impact on the fan base because it leaves them wanting more and I say it was pretty effective.

    Do you have a link to the new episode that released by any chance?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the response!
      It’s definitely true that the show would have had less renown had it wrapped itself up too completely. The openness allows the mutlimedia project to thrive, and it may also mean that Jun’s next work shines more because it fixes the ‘faults’ of his prior work.
      I watched the new episode here: http://kissanime.com/Anime/Angel-Beats/Special-002?id=111427 I’ll hold my hands up to the fact that it’s not a ‘legal’ streaming site, but I’m going to buy Angel Beats! one day anyway, so I’m trying to not feel too guilty about it. xD

      Like

  2. Angel Beats is a show I love despite its faults. Personally I would have liked to see it have more episodes. Not 26, just 3 or 4 more would have helped. But I think you bring up a really good point of character empathy in the rushed departure of the characters that I hadn’t quite thought of before.

    While its quick narrative shifts are on one hand a flaw, I also appreciate how unpredictable it makes the show. The 2nd half doesn’t let you settle into a formula, its constantly changing who the villain and keeps the show exciting throughout its run even if it’s a bit disorienting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your response!

      The show, to me, isn’t about how ‘nice’ it is at the end, and viewers looking for that feeling of niceness – as one often does in a Key or KyoAni anime – will usually come up short when watching Jun Maeda’s raw talent at work. By leaving out certain back-stories, he alienated a number of fans while drawing many more closer to his artistry – those that appreciated the omission as part of the purpose of the work, which, considering the themes at work in the show, seems closer to his intentions as a storyteller. The fact the show is part of a multimedia project means that additional development of characters can happen outside the anime, keeping the show’s powerful brevity while expanding the world that fans want to see more of.

      Like

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