If you believe in any sort of afterlife at all, it’s fairly easy to conceptualize our time here on earth as a sort of perpetual adolescence. At all stages of our conscious lives—whether teenage, young adult, middled-aged, or elderly—we’re haunted by the uncertainty of the world around us, riddled with the bullets of life, buffeted by the winds of of our emotions. It is, one might say, tough to be be alive and to make sense of life. And perhaps it’s a bit silly to take a story as patently juvenile as Angel Beats! [P.A. Works, 2010] as a microcosm for the full breadth of human life, but as TK might say, “Get chance and luck!”
One of the more sustained criticisms of Angel Beats! (besides the archetypal complaints about Jun Maeda’s capacities for writing dynamic female love interests or the volleys aimed as the show’s “tearjerker” moments) is concentrated on the anime’s inability to hold tone. It’s not an issue unique to Angel Beats!, nor is it a characteristic that is universally despised. However positively or negatively disposed one is towards the sometimes madcap way this post-mortem story oscillates between comedy and drama, though, the fact that it exists is certain. And it is around that certainty which this reading of Angel Beats!‘s tonal mess as a sort of metaphor for the whole expanse of life revolves.
To see Angel Beats! as a narrative capsule through which the relief of the angst of adolescent is explored is definitely one valid interpretation—and one that has been explored before. To read the show as a thematic musing on coming to terms with the life one has been dealt is equally valid. However, both of these understandings are somewhat compartmentalized—which is not, of course, to say that what Angel Beats! has to say on either topic is weakly stated or useless. It is only really to note that an analysis of Angel Beats! as a structural whole, from the way it tells its story all the way down to the way it handles the minute details of the large casts’ individual quirks, reveals it as something less than entirely cohesive. Which is, incidentally, exactly the point.
How? Because although we grow older and change, and although the mode of the expression of it changes, the existential panic—the hysteria of being alive on this world—never does. In language specific to Angel Beats!…the lyrics of Girls Dead Monster’s hit song, “Alchemy,” never stop accurately representing the convoluted emotions of negotiating the facts of life.
I desperately want to live. All of the days that rushed by look like they’ll disappear,
But I’ll try skipping class, so I shouldn’t be getting tired–my thoughts are inconsistent like that.
It’s like my head was hit somewhere when I wasn’t aware.
Okay, let’s go to the hospital from here for a little while.
Could you leave me some medicine that’ll keep me awake forever?
There’s no clarity in these words beyond the desire to extend. But GlDeMo is only one facet of the SSS, one of the most effective ways they have to fight against “being obliterated” and maintaining the luminal state between death and life, between peace and anxiety. The other SSS operations are neither as glamorous or as unambiguously oriented towards achieving the goal of “fighting God” or as serious in tone. And this is as true on an episode-by-episode level as it is within the episodes themselves. The fan-favorite emotional powerhouse episode, “Episode 3: My Song,” featuring Iwasawa’s poignant story and bittersweet passing from the world of the school, is followed up by the generally comedic baseball episode. The dark, moody episode 6 is succeeded by the absurdity of the fishing trip episode. And, internally, the episodes careen between moments of reflection and moments of hilarity, often with little regard for how either modifies the effectiveness of the other.
In short, Angel Beats! is a messy kind of show—lacking the steadiness to treat all of its dramatic moments with the respect and time they need and operating without the commitment to humor to be fully a comedy. But, out of the show’s wild switches between these two types of storytelling there arises a sort of recursive metatextual resonance; that is to say, the way the Angel Beats! conveys its story parallels the story itself.
Angel Beats! is a story about life, and life is neither neat nor consistent. Life pushes you from tears to laughter to sorrow to joy at will, fragmenting moments from other moments without regard for how things “should” or “ought” to be. There are times when we can only laugh in shock at something horrible and there are times when we weep over things that are beautiful and good. Angel Beats! and its lack of cohesion as a story mimics this same indelible characteristic of life—by jerking haphazardly between Hinata’s near-obliteration as he considers catching the baseball in episode 4 into Yui’s cartoony backbreaking tantrum it achieves the dissonant, disjointed affect of life as a whole, where tragedy and triumph so often coexist.
And this returns us to my opening point and to the reason I have come to believe Angel Beats!, despite its high school setting, is a show with more than a little relevance beyond simply addressing the restlessness of youth and finding peace in your particular situation. By serving, as it were, as a microcosm of a discordant life through its storytelling, it replicates the confusion and the panic of being alive in a life that is frequently at odds with itself and constantly filled with the contradictions of human emotion and natural events. While the adolescent age at which the characters of Angel Beats! is the most recognizable time period in which existential hysteria occurs (on both the cusp of adulthood and just barely over the edge of self-consciousness), their struggles are enhanced and generalized beyond the high school setting by both the spiritual pressure of their purgatorial status and the effects of the text’s storytelling.
Because, as I’ve said, we’re all just teenagers in life. We may grow up, learn more things, see more things, experience more things, be surprised by less and disappointed by more, but we’ll never escape the reality of life’s disorder. Angel Beats!, in its failings to live up to the measures of consistency demanded by conventional good storytelling, manages to link the methods by which it conveys its narrative to the story’s musing on life. Perhaps, by so accurately depicting the tonal wildness of life—whether intentionally or not—it provides itself with the perfect playground in which to encounter life’s tears and life’s laughter.