Andrew Osmond says if you liked that… you might like this…
So, you’ve finished Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Good, wasn’t it? Don’t be too depressed that it’s over. A new story is being prepared as a feature film (not to be confused with the two-part compilation recently released in Japan). Moreover, writer Gen Urobuchi revealed in October that a further TV incarnation of the show is on the cards. But if you’re looking for something to watch till then, consider Angel Beats, out on Blu-ray and DVD.
Granted, Madoka Magica and Angel Beats aren’t obvious siblings, apart from their upfront fantasy premises. Angel Beats is an afterlife story, in which an amnesiac teen boy finds himself in a strange school where a small student resistance holds out against their deadly class president, the petite, imperturbable girl Angel, who might serve God Himself. Like Madoka Magica, part of Angel Beats’ appeal is the show’s ideas, which frequently take familiar fantasy tropes and twist them around. In the opening episodes, for example, Angel is set up as a Scary Supernatural Girl, advancing remorselessly on the terrified hero a la Sadako in the Ringu films or a little-girl Terminator, but there’s far more to her than that.
More deeply, Angel Beats and Magica Madoka both play knowing games with their audience, never concealing their manipulations. They’re anime that let you see their tricks (well, some of them), even while seducing you with story. Magica Madoka plays with a definite genre, the magic girl show, initially pretending to be one more of that type. Angel Beasts plays more with tones. Its second episode, for example, has a hilarious Indiana Jones pastiche where the student rebels go down an underground tunnel of death-traps, being sliced or splatted while the survivors brush past (because death’s only temporary in Angel Beats’ world). Then with just the amnesiac boy and the rebel leader left, she tells him a ghastly story about her past, involving child murder, to explain why she fights God.
Angel Beats and Magica Madoka are in the business of wrong-footing viewers (“And you thought it was this kind of anime?”) and changing the plot (“And you thought it was this kind of story?”). In these shows, the viewpoint character may not be the true hero, and the stories don’t come into true focus until their triumphal last scenes, both classics of the form. Finally – and this is something that Angel Beats and Magica Madoka share with Evangelion – they’re titles whose tricksiness plays to both fans and newbies. In other words, they’re anime that a new viewer can “get” just as much as a fan who knows the clichés they subvert.
Angel Beats shifts blithely between emotions, and between different kinds of story, making no effort to hides its manipulations from the viewer; and yet it still manages to be charming, touching and heart-rending. The show’s motored along by genuinely good pop songs; its emotional peaks play up the absurdly contrived scenarios with gusto. Like Lost, Angel Beats packs in mini-stories from the “real” world, from misery memoirs to disaster dramas, and its final outrageous revelation is among the best in anime. Don’t expect it to be “another” Magica Madoka, but if you enjoy twisty journeys and surprise destinations, give Angel Beats a whirl.
Angel Beats is out on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.