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Monday, June 3, 2013

Review: Angel Beats!

I can't do it. I can't watch it any more. Angel Beats! isn't a bad show, but the grand reveal in episode 9 is too morally repulsive for me to continue watching. I daresay if I didn't get so upset about religious issues, or was raised in the Buddhist cultures of East Asia it would all wash past me and I would find this to be a rather high quality show overall. I will contain spoilers to below the jump, after the brief review, but can hardly avoid them altogether.

Facts:

12 episodes, of which I have seen 9. Very emotional drama with comedic action elements. Available on Crunchyroll, Netflix, and Hulu.

Mini-Review (No spoilers):

My moral issues aside, I would recommend the first eight episodes to anyone. There is a sense that this was designed very much by a committee of old studio execs sitting around a table asking each other what "the kids go for these days", except that they then roll up all those elements into a pretty damn slick package. The core of the show is the life stories of all the dead students (Literally the second line is something like, "Hello, you are dead") as they run around the vaguely Buddhist purgatory trying to figure out what it all means. But while they do that they spend a lot of time spouting comedic banter and engaging in poorly motivated, over-the-top violence which is all pretty enjoyable, especially when set to the music. The music in Angel Beats is much more composed and mainstream than what you will find in Durarara, Cowboy Bebop, or other shows known for excellent soundtracks, as befits the heavily produced tone of the show. But as I mentioned, the emotional core is the life stories of the dead people, all of them pretty unfortunate and if you are a crier, you will definitely be crying (only to burst out in wet, teary guffaws as it cuts back to some humor to keep you from spiralling into depression) and even non-criers are not immune to the carefully calculated heart string tugging. Hanging over the whole thing is the mystery of how the world works, which is never really kept secret so much as not openly discussed.

That said, if you don't get the right reaction in the first three episodes (the first is mysterious and vaguely comical, the second is action-comedy, and the third should make you cry big fat tears of sadness), then you probably aren't gong to get invested enough in the characters for the big payoff and can safely move on. I give the first eight episodes a solid 7/10, and refuse to rate anything after the reveal in episode 9.

Spoilers below the GolDeMo version of the OP theme:

God Damn Buddhist Sunday School Bullshit:

I want to keep the religious discussions over on the main blog, because anime is about having fun not about being sad that there are bad things in the real world. But Angel Beats won't let me. I called it the big reveal up before the jump, but really, you figure out what is going on pretty early, but I, at least, had a voice in the back of my mind refusing to accept it, thinking that there is no way they would go there, or at least if they did it would be far more tasteful than I am expecting.

But, no.

Look, I am not a Buddhist, I was raised in a thoroughly Western context. I don't hate Buddhists and there is a lot in the religion to admire, and the focus, at least in Zen and some other forms, of prioritizing inner peace over the troubles of the outside world has inspired me on a personal level. What's more, because this is an anime and they introduce it right at the start, I will roll with the notion that our crew is in a purgatory realm between reincarnations because even though I don't believe in reincarnation it is hardly an outlandish premise for the story and the world allows them to do a lot of fun things with cartoon violence.

I was (and, residually, still am) attached to these characters. Sure, a lot of them were more sketches than full characters, but I can sympathize with Takayama and Iwasawa, and cried when Yuri fell down the stairs. Christmas with his sister and getting drugs in the locker room were appalingly touching moments. Even in the purgatory, the sillyness of their various schemes brought out just how lovable these characters are, the little moments and quirks of each character really do come out in each frame, even if sometimes those moments are a bit forced.

Yuri and the rest have had terrible lives and now finally they have a nice place to call home. Nearly all of them seem to be happy, and like Otonashi says on the soccer field the darkness in their pasts is part of who they are, and to deny that darkness, to make it go away, would be to deny their lives and their individuality. The purgatory realm is not exactly a reward for their suffering, but more a consolation, a place they can have the happy childhoods denied them by unfair circumstance.

And then, as they smile and enjoy the sort of calm, everyday peace that other anime heroes fight epic battles to obtain, Angel comes up to them and says, nope, your lives weren't unfair, you need to accept all these terrible things as the proper order, you need to forget them, obliterate yourself, and be reborn as a sea barnacle, and the moment you finally achieve happiness, you win the privilege of death.

I don't think it is controversial to say that Japan, and youth in general, have a suicide problem. Typically anime, or at least the sort that makes it over here, does a really good job universally condemning suicide and the notion that death is a solution to problems. Sometimes the hero kills people, but the villain always wants more death; death is always the enemy. The message, delivered with all the subtlety of a veggie tales episode, is that when bad things happen you need to forget about them and die. That attachment to the world, to loved ones, to personal achievements, is a bad thing that needs to be abandoned so that you can go ahead and die. This, when presented in a Buddhist koan, is beautiful and poetic, and when presented here, in a series of hypotheticals, is a grotesque mockery of all that is good and beautiful in the world.

Yuri's suffering comes from her love of her siblings, and when they die she is sad. In the show she deals with this first by being sad, but slowly coping and eventually using that loss to spur her on to deeper bonds with all the members of the battlefront. Does those new friendships replace the hole in her soul? Of course not, but the absolute morally wrong answer is to let go of that attachment, to calmly accept the omnipotence of death and let oblivion embrace you.

Iwasawa was a suffering artist finally able to achieve her dream, only to die the moment she was able to finally play the song of her heart for a grand audience. This is shown as a triumph, and yet how many more songs could she have had, how many more shows could she have rocked out for. Her death was not a grand thing, but a tremendously sad loss. She lived through music. Her first death was tragic precisely because of all the music she missed out on, and yet we are to accept that her second death was glorious just because she got a little more rocking in? We are supposed to ignore all the lost happiness she could have had, why?

I teared up when Otonashi signed his donor card, and you should have, too. This was meant to represent the abandonment of his attachment to his body (which, if we are supposed to accept that as his issue, would suggest that he shouldn't have worked on those cold winter days and instead allowed himself to slowly starve to death in some vile parody of inner peace), except that he wasn't abandoning anything, he held on to his organs until he died (at which point he didn't need them any more and was in any case unable to be attached to them) and then saved a life, allowing someone else's attachment to hold strong. His final action was noble not because he was surrendering his life, but because he was allowing someone else to remain attached to their lives, their dreams, their family. I have two organ recipients in my family, one from a post-humus donor, and Otonashi stands in for the heroes that allowed me to continue loving my aunt and uncle, who allowed them to continue the joy and, yes, the pains of life. Had my uncle died on a waiting list, he would never have seen his daughter go to prison and suffered that heartache, but he would also have missed out on going on a decade of being surrounded by friends, a family, a community at church and at work who love him and who are all enriched in turn by their attachment to him.

It is our attachments to other people, to our lives, to our dreams, to the daily pleasures of life that form the meaning of our lives and Angel, that moe bitch, spits in the face of those attachments, telling us that there is some greater peace that can be found if we cast off our lives. And Angel Beats casts her as the hero, the great sage, the example that we should all follow for our happy ending. Well fuck you, Tachibana Kanade, and fuck you, Angel Beats. Your death worshipping ethic is sick, twisted, and perverse. 

Life is beautiful, life is a series of absolutely amazing joys. No one gets away without any suffering, and that suffering is distributed unfairly and unevenly. Misfortune strikes without regard for character or desert, but it is our job as fellow human beings to find those who misfortune has struck and use our empathy, our efforts, our knowledge, our very humanity to alleviate that suffering and prevent the pain that we can. Accepting the unchangeable nature of the past is an unfortunate necessity, but only in the mind of a truly sick person does obliteration seem like a solution. If we are hurt by our attachment, the solution is to improve the things we are attached to and avoid chaining ourselves to poisonous things, and at the same time to reinforce our bonds to those things in life that are worth living for. To cast off all attachment is to abandon life and to whore yourself out to death.

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