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Andrew Osmond comes back from the dead for Angel Beats

In the first minutes of the tragi-comic-loony-weepy fantasy series Angel Beats, a teen boy awakes on the grounds of a strange school, with no memory of how he got there. He’s greeted by a girl squinting down a rifle, with an attitude suggesting, “Call me cute, make my day.” She tells him briskly that he’s dead, and that his mission – if he doesn’t want to be erased by God – is to rebel against the afterlife, and specifically the white-haired girl she’s aiming at, called Angel. The boy decides he can’t be having with all this, and goes to talk with Angel, who extrudes a blade from her hand and kills him. Game over.

But only for a bit. The boy wakes up again and gradually learns more about this daft-seeming world. He gets killed some more along the way, but it doesn’t matter – death here is a mere annoyance, though the rebels warn him against imitating the background students who act like this is a normal school. If he does that, our hero is told, he will vanish. The only way to endure is to fight the system, in the Afterlife Battlefront or whatever is its name that day – the teens’ arguments about what to call themselves are straight from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

That’s just the beginning. Angel Beatsstoryline mutates a fantastical amount in its thirteen episodes, swinging from extremes of slapstick to tragedy, sometimes in seconds. If you were going to categorise it, though, you might place it in the vicinity of Western standards like A Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life and Groundhog Day, whose protagonists get magically yanked outside life only to peer back in, without being conventional ghosts. Another running thread is that these characters are offered fantastical second chances and resets. Through Angel Beats, the Afterlife Battlefront is (mostly) wiped out several times over, and still comes back for more.

The Western titles, though, all had adult heroes, whereas Angel Beats substitutes teenagers. Hayao Miyazaki once remarked that youngsters experience nostalgia as keenly as grown-ups (just watch Spirited Away). That especially applies to adolescents nearing the end of school; the world still seems open and boundless, yet a part of their lives is closing off before they’ve really understood it. Angel Beats tugs these strings with ruthless efficiency, as did The Girl who Leapt Time, which offered its heroine endless resets to stop the drifting adolescent days ending. Slightly older protagonists figure in the similarly-themed anime by director Masaaki Yuasa, who made the run-from-God film Mind Game (still awaiting a British release) and the timelooping series The Tatami Galaxy.

All these anime must be discovered without spoilers, though it’s fascinating to compare the very eccentric journeys that they take, plots looping and corkscrewing and planting fiendishly crafty story hints. The crowning revelation in the last moments of Angel Beats – and it’s a jaw-dropper – is signposted so massively that you’ll kick yourself for not spotting it. It’s also worth comparing how the anime handle conflict, in scenarios that seem to be inherently anti-conflict, with characters who can come back from death and undo catastrophes.

An afterlife anime like the charming Haibane Renmei had barely any conflict at all. In stark contrast, Angel Beats masterfully establishes a conflict in the opening moments – the Afterlife Battlefront versus the pint-sized Angel – then leaves us to wonder if the fight is meaningful, or just invented to give them the cast something to do, reflecting genre storytelling. The series continually mucks with our expectations, confronting the Battlefront with overtly artificial monsters and threats, which just might have an ulterior purpose in moving the story on.

As of writing, it’s possible that the next Hollywood example of this sub-genre could be taken from Japan. Warner Brothers is reportedly developing a live-action film of All You Need Is KILL, a novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. (It’s available in English translation from the publisher Haikasoru, with an anime-style cover by Yoshitoshi Abe.) The plot is alien war meets Groundhog Day. A soldier dies fighting monstrous frog-like invaders, but wakes on the previous day, ready to go through the nightmare again. The humans fight in robot suits – a crimson-suited girl warrior wields a mean axe-blade – and the protagonist levels up his fighting prowess over looped time like a Shonen Jump hero. The actors linked to the film? Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt…

Angel Beats is out this week on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

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