Sometimes anime studios manage to confuse me, not because of anything they do, but because of what they don't do.
Take Angel Beats as an example.
Any fan of certain Key visual novels (or their KyoAni adaptations), will undoubtedly be familiar with the work of Maeda Jun, whose inimitable style, approach, and methodology to storytelling is clearly on display in Angel Beats, and on the surface this may actually seem like a good thing. Given the whole concept of a high school purgatory one would think there was enormous scope for the tale, and in some aspects the story is delivered very well. The only problem is that as a viewer, I'm kind of getting bored of watching the same thing over and over again.
Here's what I mean. Angel Beats takes the idea of purgatory (to those of you who don't know that word, google it), and places it firmly in a high school setting, something which is familiar territory to Maeda, and while the plot actually works fairly well within that setting, there isn't actually anything that I found inspiring or moving in any way. In addition to this the whole basis of the story is that this particular purgatory is only for young people, however one has to question why this is so, and also why the only young people who get to go there are all people with regrets.
Confused? Throughout the whole series not one character actually displayed any kind of violent or vengeful behaviour in their past life, and this omission place a huge bias on the story. As far as I'm aware, the nature of purgatory is that it exists not only for those with regrets, but also for those whose sins aren't great enough for them to be sent to hell.
Purgatory is, in effect, the last chance a soul has to "get it right", and whilst Angel Beats does kind of show this, the lack of anyone who died for revenge makes the whole story unbalanced. The fact that almost everyone in the story only has regret makes the whole show a bit too sugary sweet, and while the whole series is actually pretty well written, this only makes the areas that are missing more pronounced.
Still, the plot is paced nicely, and the idea is definitely unusual for a high school series. There's also the inclusion of certain elements that are interesting, but the show never really puts them to good use until near the end of the series and at that point it just seems too little, too late.
Moving on to another area of confusion, the art and animation throughout the show is actually pretty decent on the whole. The characters are designed nicely and have a certain look about them that really does remind one of KyoAni's work with Key. The backgrounds and scenery are pretty normal (the high school setting doesn't really allow for much in the way of creativity), and don't really set themselves apart from other shows of this ilk.
The problem is actually the concert scenes. The whole series is designed and animated in a certain style which at first seems pretty decent. Then P.A. Works make concert scenes that not only look better, but have more fluid and detailed animation, are better choreographed, and are just plain superior to the show itself.
Why not do the whole show in this way? It's as if P.A. Works are telling the viewer "this is what we're really capable of, but we're not going to give it to you so you'll have to make do with the leftovers". If the whole series was animated in the same manner as the concert scenes then this would easily be one of the best looking shows in anime, and the fact that the viewer can clearly see that P.A. Works are capable of much greater things is more than a little annoying.
That said, while Angel Beats looks decent where it could have been great, it sounds so much better than one might expect. Given the high school setting there's a wealth of character types on display, including the voices. The acting is pretty decent throughout, but there's very little for the seiyuu to work with as the characters are pretty much one dimensional (more on this in a bit).
What really steals the show though, is the music. Yes, there are very well produced concert scenes, but the music that's actually used throughout the series is pretty good too. Surprisingly, Maeda is also the composer for Angel Beats, while the actual arrangement of the thematic pieces is done by Anant-Garde Eyes. As for the title tracks the OP, "My Soul, Your Beats", is a decent enough pop song, while the ED, "Brave Story", is a rather nice ballad.
As far as the characters go, it's here where Angel Beats begins to suffer from the inherent lack of creativity. While there are some nice ideas and concepts in the show, the fact that Maeda and director Kishi Seiji have opted for the stereotype leaves a lot to be desired.
That's not to say that the characters are bad per se, no, it simply means that they are very much as one would expect, right down to their personalities. Yuri, for example, reminded me of a certain leader from a particularly famous KyoAni franchise. While the similarities between characters from Angel Beats and other shows may sometimes be only skin deep, the fact that no thought was given to trying out something new, especially with the more interesting ideas that the show toyed with, makes one think that the business side of the industry has taken over, at least where this show is concerned.
Now while I've been fairly critical about Angel Beats, that doesn't mean to say that the series is bad, or that I didn't enjoy it. The fact is that this show has something to offer to many people, and while I may not be a hardcore fan of this anime, or hate it with a passion, I can honestly see why those perspective are valid. The simple fact is that Angel Beats truly did have the potential to be something special in anime, and that has been wasted in favour of producing something that will appeal to the existing moe fan base.
Granted, the whole industry needs to make money (and what better way than to milk it from fans who don't know any better by giving them more of the same), but it would be nice if, just for once, one of these creators would actually give us the series that they truly want us to see.
Then again, that's probably nothing more than a pipe dream.