Even though I haven’t really enjoyed Key’s works before, Angel Beats was one of the shows I was looking most forward to this spring, if only because it sounded like Key was breaking out of their typical depressing harem mold. And to that effect, the first episode was a big success. Interesting story, likeable characters, chances of depressing harem developing low, lots of action, good looking show.
Main character, Otonashi wakes up to find a mysterious girl pointing down the barrel of a gun at another girl. And we’re thrown right into the story, as the mysterious shooter girl, Yuri, tells Otonashi that he’s dead and that they he needs to join her "I’m not dead yet, I feel fine, I think I’ll go for a walk" club to take out the Angel (appropriately voiced by the heavenly Kana Hanazawa). The amnesia tactic is rarely an inventive way to start a story (especially a Key story, since it inevitably leads to a teary amnesiac love reunion), but it works here since Yuri tells Otonashi that he’s dead, in the afterworld, and probably suffered some brain damage during his death.
Otonashi, not quite believing Yuri’s story declines Yuri’s invitation and decides to get a second opinion – and promptly gets stabbed in the heart by the Angel (or student council president, depending on who you ask). This leads to a scene where he wakes up completely healed, but finds his blood soaked shirt sitting next to him. Otonashi then proceeds to die at least 101 more times, a 100 of those coming in one sequence in which Yuri’s lackey, Noda, takes offense to Otonashi rejecting Yuri’s invitation. There’s quite a bit of bloodshed in this show. And sometimes the action is quite violent. But it’s also just as often played for laughs, and since these guys apparently can’t die… again, it doesn’t feel very serious.
After his 101st death, Otonashi wakes up to find himself amidst a band of rebels. Although he intends to get erased, since feeling all the pain of dying, and not actually dying is sort of a bum deal, he changes his mind when he learns that he could be reincarnated as a barnacle. That is, supposedly, what Buddhism says. Although I’m not sure if Buddhism says anything about angels or zettai ryouki. Faced with a life as a barnacle, and a life hanging out with a motley crew of guys and some bishoujos, Otonashi decides to take the bishoujo route.
The world Key sets up is pretty interesting. The way Yuri explains it, it’s as if they’re in an RPG. Most of the people in the school are just NPCs. Mindless and following their programmed routine (although with anti-ecchi AI programmed). Acting like these NPCs will cause you to disappear (and be reincarnated). The Angel tries to get everyone to live the normal school life, while Yuri’s "I’m not dead or turning into a barnacle" club tries to rage against the machine. The basis of the story is actually pretty similar to The Matrix.
Yuri’s a cute character. As some have mentioned, she does indeed have some Haruhi characteristics. But she’s even cuter when she puts her Rena Ryuguu edition white beret on. For the unfashionable folks out there, let me suggest that you can’t go wrong with a white beret. It provides an irresistible touch of class. Anyway, Yuri lets Otonashi in on his first big mission: steal everyone’s meal tickets (is this the sort of thing SOS-dan would do?).
This leads to a pretty sweet musical sequence in which Iwasawa (on of Yuri’s club members) and her band deliver a stunning performance. It doesn’t make the most logical sense, but the way it plays out works really well. It’s not quite God Knows level, because PA Works uses a few too many lighting tricks to skimp on detail here and there, but it still looks really good and they did an especially nice job animating the drummer.
Meanwhile, it’s Otonashi’s job to distract Angel to give them enough time for Yuri’s plan to unfold. Although he hesitates in firing the gun at first, when Angel unveils her di-sword, the bullets start flying. The action sequence was pretty intense and again, really nicely animated. I never got the sense that any of them were really in danger, but combined with the concert footage, it does get the heart pumping.
Finally, with the end of the performance, Yuri opens the shades and the gust of wind sends all the meal tickets flying. Again, not the most logical sequence. But the scene in which the meal tickets light up and float around like fireflies was very, very pretty.
And with that, the gang accept their spoils of war. Apparently, because this is "normal" behavior, they’re safe from Angel’s wrath.
All in all, definitely an interesting first episode, with a lot of promise for the story. Besides the whole "what’s up with this Matrix universe?" question, I’m curious about Yuri’s club and why they do the things they do, the way they do it. Why create an elaborate plan to steal meal plans, if you’re stealing them from soulless NPCs? I’m sure there’s a reason behind it. The characters are all pretty likeable, and I’ve never heard Harumi Sakurai, but she does a really nice job as the spunky, but pragmatic Yuri. Hiroshi Kamiya does a good job giving Otonashi a little snark, that typical amnesiac male leads usually don’t have. The animation throughout isn’t quite up to KyoAni’s level, a little less detail, little flatter colors, but PA Works still delivers a good looking show. And actually, I like their character designs better than the bug eyed aliens that KyoAni typically uses.
Highly recommended. This should be a good show.