Angel Beats is a 13 episode TV anime written by Maeda Jun, generally known for writing a number of visual novels for Key, several of which have had anime adaptations; notably Air, Kanon and Clannad. A common thread between these titles is tragedy, but not without some humour to keep them from getting too depressing… though as it is they can get pretty damned depressing.
In a way, Angel Beats takes it to the next level, because absolutely all the characters are dead right from the start of the show. Aside from several flashbacks to their previous lives, it’s set entirely in some kind of afterlife. The afterlife here (almost certainly one of several) is a boarding school, and all of the dead people in it are high school age. But not all of the people there are deceased; the teachers and much of the student body are what they refer to as “non-player characters”, not unlike NPCs in an RPG with elaborate scripted responses to various situations, but not truly sentient.
The story starts when Otonashi Yuzuru wakes up with no memory of anything except his own name, and even there only his surname to begin with. The first sight that greets him is of Nakamura Yuri aiming a sniper rifle at another girl, who she identifies as Angel. Yuri, as she explains to Otonashi, is the leader of a sort of rebellion against God, and she invites him to join. Otonashi initially declines and goes to talk to Angel, but the conversation ends badly when he asks her to prove her statement that “no-one dies in this world” (because they’re already dead) and she does by skewering him with a blade she sprouted from her arm.
When Otonashi wakes up again, he’s been taken in by the rebellion and decides to join. He soon learns the reason they’re rebelling against God (and his apparent servant/representative Angel) is because before dying they all had spectacularly shitty lives. Yuri, for example, had her three younger siblings murdered in front of her by people robbing their house. It’s never stated how she died, apart from her claiming it wasn’t suicide, but whatever it was happened several years after that. But anyway, they’ve decided that a God who gave them lives like what they had ought to be rebelled against. Hard to blame them on that count.
The next section does contain spoilers, so proceed with caution or stop reading if you don’t want them.
As the story progresses, we find out that things aren’t quite as they seem, or rather they aren’t quite what Yuri’s group of rebels assumed they were. You see, they’re all morons. This isn’t me snarking about the cast (not entirely, anyway); the characters themselves outright state several times that the group is made up of morons. As it turns out, Angel (real name Tachibana Kanade) is an (ex-)human just like them and also had a not-brilliant life that was cut pretty short (they’re all high school age, remember), but through a major misunderstanding that took place before the series started wound up in conflict with Yuri and her group.
More stuff happens, but I’ll refrain from giving out any further information. The thing about Kanade was itself a spoiler of some significance, and I don’t want to give away absolutely everything.
Now, obviously I like the show, if I’m bothering to review it here. But story-wise, it has a number of weaknesses. It’s entertaining, but flawed. The character designs, animation and artwork in general are very nice to look at, though. And it does measure up well against that old favourite yardstick of mine, characters and character interaction. My thoughts on the show are best summed up as “an entertaining and very pretty mess”.
It’s also worth noting that it was conceived as a cross-media project; there are a light novel, two manga series, and a visual novel has been announced. I have read a bit of one of the manga series, which deals with the formation Yuri’s rebels as an organised group; it’s pretty good and does answer some questions.
So, in conclusion: if you want some eye candy, (black) comedy and tragedy and you aren’t too picky about the story having a few holes, check it out.