By Deanna Nguyen
The following article contains spoilers for Angel Beats!
Once you hear the familiar piano notes of the Angel Beats! opening, a wave of nostalgia washes over you and buried sentiments reemerge with vitality.
Even if you’re just now watching the show, you’ll come to realize that Angel Beats! is something special — an anime that leaves its emotional stamp on your heart.
There’s a lot to love about the series, from its bombastic humor to its eccentric characters, complete with somber backstories. Though labeled as an isekai, the show strays from the fantasy world-building of the genre and instead transports protagonist Yuzuru Otonashi to a place that everyone knows all too well — high school.
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Oh, and Otonashi and the other humans who end up at the school are actually dead.
Video game elements are fundamental to the isekai genre, emboldening the protagonist to apply what they already know from normal life to the laws of a new world. Angel Beats! is no stranger to this.
Otonashi ends up in the middle of a battle between the Afterlife Battlefront and Angel, or as we later know her, Kanade Tachibana. He meets the Afterlife Battlefront’s leader, Yuri (or Yurippe), who’s aiming a sniper rifle at an unarmed Kanade. Trying to wrap his head around the situation and manage his amnesia, Otonashi confronts Kanade, only for her to materialize a blade on her arm and stab him in the heart. Ouch.
Respawning in the school’s infirmary with torn and bloody clothes as evidence of his death, Otonashi learns that no one actually dies (again) in this world. To further cement this, the Battlefront strategist Noda barges in and slices up Otonashi with his halberd and leaves him dead once again on the floor.
With this rude awakening, Otonashi assimilates into the high school afterlife with other Battlefront students and goes along with their antics while avoiding constant obliteration. It’s this contrast that’s at the core of Angel Beats!.
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The foundations of the show are established through juxtapositions of rebellion and conformity, humor and tragedy, war and everyday school activities and, of course, life and death.
These are most apparent with the divide between the Afterlife Battlefront and Angel. The former encompasses ideas of rebellious youth and the latter is the picture-perfect academic. One tries to resist the unfairness of their lives while the other only wishes for them to live a normal life and, in turn, accept their death when it comes.
Even the high school in Angels Beats! can be seen as a metaphor for life. Otonashi wakes up in the afterlife with no knowledge of how the world works and his naïveté forces him to learn things the hard way. He learns from others’ experiences to shape his own (before he recovers his memories) and together they go through a rebellious teen phase. Once Otonashi remembers his past life, he matures and carries his dream of saving others to his new one.
In the series’ final episode, “Graduation,” the remaining five characters attend a self-orchestrated graduation ceremony. It’s a bittersweet moment — heart-wrenching even — when these characters have come a long way to accept their deaths in order to be reborn. They’ve cast aside their differences and, aside from accepting death, they’ve accepted each other.
The show builds upon this theme of acceptance with characters like Hinata declaring that he’ll love Yui despite her physical conditions, and Otonashi embracing Naoi and acknowledging how bravely the latter lived in his past life. For some, high school can be a tormenting prison with the most judgmental people you’ll ever meet in your life. For the characters in Angel Beats! at least, they shed their facades and allow themselves to be vulnerable. It’s refreshing.
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In simpler terms, Angel Beats! brings forth the idea that everyone’s hearts are connected. While the characters won’t return to the real world as they once were like in most other isekai anime, they can start anew and reach out to the people whose souls they’ve bonded with in the afterlife.
The show doesn’t hold back any of its punches, and that’s why characters getting obliterated is the most heartbreaking thing to see. Someone you love is with you one minute, and the next minute they’re gone. But through acceptance, it’s a disappearance that’ll manifest once more in another life, and the series carries that message until its final post-credit moments.
Almost a decade since its anime debut, Angel Beats! still shakes us to our core. The music, the characters, some of the funniest scenes to ever grace an anime — all of that clings onto us in the same way the characters have left an impact on each other.
And the mystery lives on.
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