If you’ve ever cried at the end of an anime, there’s a good chance you were weeping to the work of Jun Maeda, the creative powerhouse behind Key, a visual novel and anime production company. Some of their most known visual novels include “AIR,” “CLANNAD,” and “Little Busters!” (all of which received anime adaptations) and notably, they co-produced the anime “Angel Beats!”
It currently ranks at #273 on the user-based anime list site anime-planet, and is the 13th most watched title. Similarly, on the listing site MyAnimeList, it sits at #303, and enjoys the #11 spot for most popular title, with over 1 million users logging it into their various lists. When you consider all the anime ever made, you realize it’s nothing to scoff at.
What makes this show so special and why has it left such an enduring legacy on the anime fandom? Let’s take a look at “Angel Beats!”
Jun Maeda: Origin
To understand “Angel Beats!” we need to visit Maeda’s older work and how it influenced his writing style. Though Maeda had some work under his belt by Key’s founding, we’ll start with Key’s first visual novel, “Kanon.”
Released in 1999, Naoki Hisaya (who would later go on to write the anime “Celestial Method” and video game “Crystar”) helmed the writing process with Maeda assisting. The game includes many of the hallmarks in Key’s storytelling and themes that would appear in later games.
“Kanon” follows the story of Yuichi Aizawa and his return to his childhood home after years of being away, staying with his cousin Nayuki and aunt Akiko. For some reason, he cannot remember what happened in the town seven years ago, and as he encounters the heroines of the story, his memories begin to return.
Though Hisaya had control over the writing process, Maeda is credited with writing the routes for Makoto Sawatari and Mai Kawasumi according to The Visual Novel Database (VNDB).
“Kanon’s” themes revolve around memory, the paranormal, unknown diseases, changing life and the passage of time, tragic separations, and emotional reunions. All things Maeda would include in his later work with Key.
“Angel Beats!” is a culmination of those themes in many ways, and to understand how, and why they bring out the waterworks, we’re going to discuss his three big titles with Key following “Kanon” before “Angel Beats!”
AIR, CLANNAD, and Little Busters: Tragic separations, reunions, and other worlds
I could write entire pieces on each of these three series, but for sake of time and relevancy, I’m condensing my points about these three titles into one section.
These are the three titles that defined Maeda’s career until 2010. After “Kanon,” Hisaya left Key and Maeda assumed the head writer position, and served as the driving force for “AIR,” “CLANNAD,” and “Little Busters!” These three titles helped define Maeda’s style of slapstick and melodrama and have each received acclaimed anime adaptations on their own.
Maeda’s style of storytelling involves magical realism (magical realism purists might have a gripe about calling it that but we’ll use the term anyway for simplicity’s sake). His worlds involve the supernatural, different realities and secret worlds. “AIR” has the existence of the winged people and telekinesis, “CLANNAD” has the light orbs and the ending other world, and “Little Busters!” has the artificial world.
These other worlds enchant us. They mystify us. They represent realities where the impossible becomes possible. We can’t save our loved ones from tragedy. We cannot bring the dead back to life, we can’t fly through the sky or change the past. But Maeda wants us to believe in a world where these things CAN happen, and this is what lays the groundwork for his storytelling.
That brings us to our next point; tragic separations and emotional reunions that exist within these worlds. This is the emotional core that holds Key/Maeda’s work together. If there’s something that brings out the waterworks, it’s a separation.
Without giving too much away, we know Misuzu is separated from Haruko in “AIR,” and Tomoya is separated from Nagisa and Ushio in “CLANNAD.” Hardly anything scares us more than being forcefully pulled away from the people we care about. That fear causes us to sympathize with the characters’ suffering and it’s what endears us to them. We see ourselves in them. The power of Maeda isn’t telling supernatural stories with drama splashed in. It’s telling melodrama washed with the supernatural. Tomoya Okazaki from “CLANNAD” might be able to grant wishes but seeing everything he cares about slip away is the tragic part that brings out the tears.
Angel Beats! is a culmination of all these things. It literally takes place in another world that transcends time and space AND serves as a destination for kids who had their lives unfairly taken. Now let’s dive in and see how Angel Beats! does all that.
A world for teenagers
The premise of Angel Beats! is that our characters exist in an afterlife specifically for young people who were unable to live out their youth in full. It’s built especially to accommodate these people in the form of a huge school campus. Once these characters fulfil their “lives” in this school, they are “obliterated,” reincarnated into their next life and moving on from the afterlife. This is how “Angel Beats!” is able to weave together all of Maeda’s previous themes from his other works. You have a magical world, and tragic separations and reunions.
But what’s so painful about this is that we see ourselves in it. Normally for any other series with teenagers it wouldn’t be anything to notice. We relate to youthful characters because they remind of us of our own times as children.
But in seeing youthful teenagers (or people who appear that way, we don’t actually know how old any of them are), unable to move on because they couldn’t live out their youth, we’re reminded of our own childhood experiences. They make us question our own lives. Are we truly living in the moment? “When I die will I have regrets? Did I really enjoy my teenage years?”
It can be real, because it’s like looking in a mirror. For people who led unfulfilling lives while they had the time, it can be a bit much. And when these characters in the show finally are able to move on, we feel relieved. We’re so happy they managed to obtain something they (we) never could in life.
Life is unfair, damn it!
Unless you’re talking to a warped wealthy white man, you probably won’t encounter anyone who truly believes life is totally fair for everyone. No matter how much we try, plan or prepare, we still fall victim to circumstance. Life is brutal, and it can really, really suck. It’s why a purgatory world like this exists, and why it’s populated by so many people.
In our protagonist’s case, his sister died of cancer, and in an effort to become a doctor so others wouldn’t suffer the same fate, he too died before rescue could retrieve him from a train crash that happened as he was about to start medical school. In the heroine Yurippe’s case, thieves showed up and killed all her siblings. With Iwasawa, a brain injury from her parents’ fighting kept her from pursuing her dream of music.
It’s almost comical how tragic and awful some of these backstories are, and to some critics it’s too comical, because it’s just so…so…so…UNFAIR, DAMN IT!
But outliers or not, these things still happen to people every day. Unfortunate circumstances prevent people from being happy; things outside their control. In some form or another, we’ve all felt this in some way. Whether it was a minor inconvenience or a tragedy, we can’t help but curse life for its mercilessness. Its cold indifference and willingness to come after anyone is, well, unfair.
We see that in these characters’ struggles, and we feel their despair with them. We empathize with the teenage girl who can’t sing anymore because her parents did nothing but fight. We grieve with them, and what’s truly frustrating is that you cannot direct that anger at anyone or anything. All you can do is choose to accept it.
When these characters do end up accepting their fate, it’s when they pass on to the next life and get obliterated.
Accepting your fate is hard, and there will be some people who choose instead to reject their terrible fates. It’s what inspires Yurippe to create an afterlife battlefront made of teenagers to track down and confront God himself (spoiler: they don’t find him).
But there’s a certain relief in accepting your past. Maeda’s message, corny as it may be, is that life is worth living, and despite those terrible circumstances, their lives were not meaningless, and instead of brooding over what could have been, these characters could truly experience that youth before passing on like they’re meant to. Iwasawa realized that after playing a personal song in front of the other students, and she is obliterated after finally finding that meaning to her life she never found while alive.
If you keep insisting on rejecting the life you’ve lived, it can prevent you from seeing what’s truly important. It’s hard, but letting go of your past can liberate you. You may never find happiness as long as you’re tied to your past, and that’s why characters remain in this academic afterlife until they realize that, and once they do, they’re obliterated. After Yurippe sees a vision of her dead siblings telling her it’s all right and she doesn’t need to burden herself or blame herself for their deaths, she breaks down in tears, and so do we.
There’s something bittersweet about it all. It’s good these characters find happiness, but at the same token, it means they (and we) have to say goodbye to all the friends we made along the way, and there’s always a tint of sadness in seeing their belongings left behind. While they’ve moved on, their mark on the world remains, which is something to be said about life in our world as well.
Our stuff isn’t coming with us, wherever we go after death. It will stay here, and those belongings will represent precious memories for others who see them, and future generations to get a glimpse of the lives these characters and we lived. Even though these characters are no longer with us, we’ll still be able to remember them.
Although, that doesn’t make it any easier. We won’t miss them any less, which brings us to our last point.
It’s hard to say goodbye
Just like how this is a world for teenagers, the final episode of the show is aptly named “Graduation.” It represents the ending of one chapter as a new one begins. It’s as much a celebration as it is a goodbye. You leave your life up to that point behind to start something new, and that’s what these characters are doing, literally. They’re leaving the afterlife school to begin new lives in reincarnation, and while it’s nice to grow, that doesn’t make it any less painful to give a sendoff to our friends who kept us going through our younger years.
Those bonds we forge are precious to us, and as Otonashi says in his speech at the end, even though it didn’t last very long, relatively speaking, he’s happy he got the chance to meet everyone in the battlefront.
“If only we had more time,” Yurippe says to Kanade, another heroine of the series. But you can’t get more time, and it’s proof that we should treasure every second we have no matter what life we’re living. That’s Jun Maeda’s main message in this series, that life is worth living. Whether you’re alive, in the afterlife or reincarnated, live life to the fullest.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Maeda without a good tragic separation, and that’s the toughest goodbye in the series, saved for the very end.
It’s hard to say goodbye, but sometimes it’s really hard to say goodbye. Otonashi is a stand-in for the audience in this series. He doesn’t want things to end. So much so he begs Kanade to stay in the afterlife so they don’t need to part.
He doesn’t hold anything back and is probably as big of an emotional mess as we are when we see this scene play out, because despite knowing that saying goodbye can be for the greater good, there’s always going to be a part of us that doesn’t want to.
That’s when reality steps in and forces us to part anyway. There’s no turning back. You can’t stop time from moving, and eventually, you’ll have to do it whether you want to or not. Otonashi has to learn that the hard way.
Although, it also wouldn’t quite be a Maeda series without that emotional reunion either.
If you can make it through all that and have your eyes dry the entire time, then quite frankly, you have no soul. There’s a magical element to Maeda’s work and he wrings the waterworks out of you in a very short amount of time, and can keep them coming.
To this day, his works are still watched by anime fans around the world and tears are still shed over them. “AIR,” “CLANNAD,” “Little Busters!,” “Angel Beats!,” “Charlotte,” and now “The Day I Became a God” have cemented Maeda as one of anime’s biggest names, love him or hate him. I’m glad “Angel Beats!” continues to live on in the anime community. Despite its age climbing up there into the double digits, it’s still both fondly remembered and discovered by anime fans everywhere.
Indeed. “Angel Beats!” still makes us cry even 10 years later.
“Angel Beats!” is currently streaming on Funimation, Crunchyroll, and Netflix.
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