March 30, 2024

Angel Beats

Jun Maeda turned the visual novel game studio Key VisualArts into a synonym for true-to-life melodramas infused with a large dollop of magical realism. In Angel Beats, his latest anime series, he skips right past the realism and goes straight for the magical. Or rather, straight for the eschatological.

In the first scene, Yuzuru Otonashi wakes up in the afterlife and promptly gets killed again. He doesn't die because he's already dead. Which is a good thing, because he's fallen in with a gang of like-minded teenagers who have decided they do not want to "go gentle into that good night," and have armed themselves accordingly.

That means fighting Angel, who's gotten very good at killing them in turn (getting killed here is like a painful time-out in the penalty box). Angel's ungentle job it is to see that they do go gentle into that good night. And that means being good students instead of a bunch of delinquents.

You see, Angel is the student council president. Purgatory is a Japanese high school. And Angel has appointed herself Charon, the ferryman.

Refreshingly, these rebels really are a bunch of delinquents, and despite all the scheming by Yuri, their bad girl leader, they're not good at being bad. Otonashi admits he would have joined whatever group approached him first. All they know is the current status quo, so that is what they defend—to their repeated deaths.

Though following Jun Maeda's reliable formula, this is executed with a good deal of dark humor that at times is quite funny.

Helped along by the fact that Angel isn't a mindless antagonist, and this hapless gang—who admit they don't really know what they're rebelling against (to quote Marlon Brando: "Whaddya got?")—aren't necessarily the protagonists. Because the only true enemy is the self.

Yeah, I know, that's about as trite as truisms get, but stick with it. It pays off.

There's an element of The Matrix here. The red pill students know they're dead but alive in an unreal world, while the blue pill students remain completely oblivious. Except here Maeda fills in the gaps that The Matrix misses, by giving all parties compelling, even moral, reasons for their opposing choices.

Though in substance and message, Angel Beats! reminds me more of Haibane Renmei, Yoshitoshi ABe's subtle and sublime meditation on grace and redemption. ABe's protagonist is Rakka, who is reborn into an afterlife that resembles a semi-rural village in mid-20th century Eastern Europe.

In the pastoral world of Haibane Renmei, there is no god to rail against, no highway to heaven, no sign posts pointing the way. Their only job is to live out their afterlives in the community while "working out their salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).

While Haibane Renmei is quiet and meditative, Angel Beats! is loud and obvious. It's the garage band version, with the volume turned up to eleven. Literally, as one of the gang's tools of subversion is a student rock band that stages illegal concerts to distract Angel's minions during their ammo resupply raids.

Angel Beats! also has a distinctly Buddhist slant. ABe created a purposely Catholic version of purgatory for Haibane Renmei. In Angel Beats! Christian salvation isn't in the cards. Whether you move onto the next world is purely a product of self-realization or satori, and only you can hold yourself back.

On this score, Joseph Smith would agree.

For our words will condemn us, yea, all our works will condemn us; we shall not be found spotless; and our thoughts will also condemn us; and in this awful state we shall not dare to look up to our God; and we would fain be glad if we could command the rocks and the mountains to fall upon us to hide us from his presence (Alma 12:14).

Everybody in this purgatory is terrified of resurrecting the memories of who they were before they died, and instead are obsessed with what could have been versus what actually was. As Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." So the dead stay dead until they face that examination directly.

Still, it wouldn't hurt if someone could figure out these eschatalogical truths first and then point the way to everybody else. Eventually joining forces, that is what Angel and Otonashi end up striving to do, until the only job left to them is to save themselves.

Related posts

The catechism of Angel Beats!
Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry
Set Apart
Angel Beats! (Crunchyroll)

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