[content warning: discussion of suicide in fiction]
[So, as usual, I know it’s a massive stretch to compare some silly anime to “serious” philosophy but today’s theme is the Absurd, which I’ll define with Camus’ lucid simplicity in The Myth of Sisyphus: “The absurd is born of [the] confrontation between the human need [for meaning] and the unreasonable silence of the world.” For the sake of brevity, I’ll try to avoid any more philosophical jargonizing or existentialist name-dropping beyond that Camus quote. But if he’s right and there’s no meaning in the world, why am I looking for it in anime? Because I’m bored, of course. Madness.]
Oh, how to review Angels of Death?
The last time I asked that sort of question, I was looking at RErideD: Derrida who Leaps Through Time, a time-travel adventure anime that has fast become one of my favorite “just laugh” disasterpieces. Even though Derrida relies on simple sci-fi cliches, it crams so many of them into its short twelve-episode run that they collectively stop making sense. It’s a failure of over-ambition, leading to a severe lack of focus in the narrative and even plenty of “out of time and money” production problems in the sound design and animation. But for all that, I love Derrida for everything it earnestly tried to be — but couldn’t. It’s a perfectly incoherent failure, a real comedic gem.
At first glance, I hoped that Angels of Death (Japanese: Satsuriku no Tenshi) would turn out the same way. After all, it has such a perfectly ironic premise! A young girl (Rachel) who wants to die teams up with a serial killer (Zach) who refuses to let her, all while they try to escape a prison tower that wants to kill them both? I’m not big on psychological horror, but sure, sign me up. And oh ho ho… what’s that trivia? The source material is an RPG Maker game? Now that’s a mark of quality. Maybe I’d found another rough diamond…
But eh, too bad. As I crawled into the second half of the series, I couldn’t bring myself to toss the thing aside into the “good-bad” garbage bin alongside my glorious, incoherent darling Derrida. Angels is certainly confusing, but in that self-aware, winking way that tells me there’s probably more going on. After all, no one just quotes Nietzsche by accident, but Angels comes close during some climactic dialogue: “My God… is dead!” “Yeah, that’s right… [and] I killed him!” I laughed out loud at the directness of the cliche, but unlike all of Derrida’s earnest, unintended nonsense, I suspect that Angels meant it.
Despite the unsubtlety of the line though, I’ve struggled to put together much of a coherent interpretation of the series as a whole. Angels of Death resists understanding; through a heavy reliance on unreliable narrator devices like memory loss, psychological breakdown, hallucinogenic gas and a fair share of deadpan comedy (Rachel’s mewling monotone…), it’s hard to ever trust anything on the screen. Though Angels has something to say, the series quickly becomes a jumble of self-contradiction that offers little to help the viewer tease out any thematic message, let alone do the basic task of distinguishing the real from the surreal.
With that said though, I’ve been trying to apply two pieces of advice I’ve given myself on this blog: 1) to stop worrying about realism in fiction and 2) to extend a little charity to confusing writing. So, I’ve issued myself a little challenge. Can I make Angels of Death coherent?
Spoiler alert: No, not really. But as I’ve maybe already suggested, I think that might be the point. A bit like a piece out of the Theater of the Absurd, all the incoherence in Angels of Death coalesces into something tangible: it’s an existential allegory, an attempt to capture the feeling of the Absurd itself.
…aaand I’ve already lost confidence in my argument. This exercise already feels absurd with a small ‘a’, doesn’t it?
[Before I start my own post, I’d also like to give a strong recommendation for this excellent one by zeroreq011. Seeing another serious analysis of Angels’ existential themes gave me the confidence to finish my own.]
The ending in The Absurd
The term “Theater of the Absurd” was coined by theater critic Martin Esslin in this 1960 essay (it’s short, read it!). For brevity’s sake, I won’t summarize the whole essay, but one of Esslin’s passages just perfectly matches my experience watching Angels of Death:
In the Theatre of the Absurd … the action does not … go from A to B but travels from an unknown premise X towards an unknowable conclusion Y. … The action supplies an increasing number of contradictory and bewildering clues on a number of different levels, but the final question is never wholly answered.
To those that have watched Angels of Death to the end, do those “contradictory and bewildering clues” remind you of the maddeningly ambiguous finale? I think it will help to start at that “unknowable conclusion Y” to establish the series’ absurdist credentials before working back to the “unknown premise X” to explain the existential allegory. For reference, a here’s quick synopsis of the last episode:
Zach and Rachel escape the death tower, but the police arrive to take Zach to prison for his crimes and Rachel to the hospital for her psychological trauma. Several months pass with no contact between them. Then one day, Rachel hears a truncated radio broadcast mention Zach’s name before cutting off. After therapy that evening, her psychiatrist asks if Rachel has been sleeping well, telling her that tonight promises good dreams. Rachel lies and says “yes” even though she cannot sleep. The psychiatrist then breaks protocol to give Rachel a bit of news about Zach: he has been sentenced to death. Rachel does not react and goes to bed. She cannot sleep, but closes her eyes …and then… Zach bursts through the iron-barred window with his scythe to whisk Rachel away with all of his insane bravado. They momentarily hover in front of the blue moon for a mid-air embrace before the series cuts to credits. A post-credit scene shows the broken window, glass and blood inside the room, and Zach’s old knife.
Like in Esslin’s Theater of the Absurd, the ending has so many contradictions and half-truths that I can’t sort out any coherent interpretation of even the basic plot points. For example, did the radio report Zach’s sentencing, escape, or execution? On the same point, the psychiatrist tells Rachel of his sentencing, but she omits the crucial information “when” (and that unreliable narrator problem again… as Rachel’s jailor, she’s difficult to trust). She then foreshadows “good dreams” and Rachel closes her eyes, but does she fall asleep? After all, she had just described a persistent insomnia, right?
It’s probably impossible to answer any of those questions, but I can see three semi-reasonable interpretations:
- It’s just as we see. Zach escapes prison, finds Rachel in the hospital, and takes her away. Whether he kills her, they commit a lover’s suicide, or they live happily-ever-after (nope!) as criminals on the run, we cannot know.
- Rachel tries kills herself, knowing that Zach’s death sentence means that they can never fulfill their promise to each other. She uses the knife to break the window, cuts herself, and jumps, all while hallucinating Zach’s presence. Whether she succeeds in the attempt or not, we cannot know.
- ~ it’s all just a dream ~ When Rachel closes her eyes, she simply falls asleep. Whether Zach gets executed or Rachel continues living in confinement, we cannot know.
However, each of those conclusions contain some genuine incoherence:
- This can’t be true because Zach broke his scythe in episode 15. He even has the same blood-soaked clothes as in the tower, suggesting that Rachel is merely remembering him as she last saw him. It’s also wildly implausible that Zach would escape prison and find Rachel.
- This can’t be true because the broken glass scattered inside, suggesting a break-in rather than a break-out. And, as Rachel herself quipped, you can’t just break iron bars, especially without Zach’s monstrous strength. It’s also wildly implausible that Rachel would smuggle the knife into the hospital.
- This can’t be true because we see the police and splattered-blood and shattered-glass aftermath of the escape, suggesting that something happened. But then again, it could just be that lying blue moon acting up again…
You see? Maddening. I’m half tempted to choose the first option because I love a good Japanese love-suicide story. But oh, I like the second option too, because I love a good partial Japanese love-suicide story even more. But then again, the anti-romantic in me tells me to settle on the third, if only because I have trouble swallowing the physical impossibility of the first two options. I just can’t decide!
However, the specific choice doesn’t matter so much as that a choice exists at all, and the extreme ambiguity of the ending brings me back to Esslin’s description of the Theater of the Absurd. Continuing the passage quoted above, he writes:
Thus, instead of being in suspense as to what will happen next, the spectators are … put into suspense as to what the play may mean. … Each of them will probably find his own, personal meaning, which will differ from the solution found by most others … [The Theatre of the Absurd] will always confront the spectator with a genuine intellectual problem, a philosophical paradox, which he will have to try to solve even if he knows that it is most probably insoluble.
With all its contradictions, I think it’s safe to call Angels “insoluble” in any rational sense. So, sticking to Esslin’s framework, if we can’t even determine what happens as a literal matter of plot, we can at least guess at what it all means, finally bringing me back around to that existential allegory: Angels’ ending means nothing and that’s the whole point. It’s coherently incoherent, creating a feeling that mirrors the Absurd itself: confronted with a story that means nothing and refuses to provide answers, the viewer has no choice but to choose for themselves.
Thematically, it’s a capstone on Rachel’s own character arc, which culminates in her declaration to the priest Gray: “I’m me… It was my choice.” But what’s the “intellectual problem” that led her to that conclusion to begin with? Why, only the most basic one in all of existentialism, the examination of the self! Or, as Gray puts it in the death tower, “Who really are you?”
Not exactly subtle, huh?
That lack of subtlety extends to the structure of the allegory itself, which asks various existential questions floor-by-floor up the tower. For the remainder of this post, I’ll wrap back around to the first episode to follow the narrative from the bottom up to the top, working through the existential themes on each floor as I go. And apologies in advance, this post is about to become absurdly long…
7th Floor – The blue moon’s absurdity
This floor starts with simple, absurd non-existence, symbolized by that fake blue moon impossibly placed seven floors underground (Esslin’s “unknown premise X”). Rachel wakes up here an empty blank slate, remembering only fragments of a conversation with her doctor Danny. The floor confronts her with nothing but a message scrawled on the wall asking that essential existential question: “Who really are you?” Since she has nothing else to do, Rachel steps into the elevator, thus instantiating herself into existence and beginning the floor-by-floor death game up the tower.
6th Floor – Zach’s emotional animalism
On this floor, Rachel briefly acquaints herself with her animal body. It’s the only time in the series we see true, emotive terror on her face*. But more importantly, it’s also the only time we see her act out of a genuine survival instinct during her predator-prey chase with Zach.
For his part, Zach represents a pure, impulsive animalism via his desire to kill for no reason other than “because I like killing people.” Each of the floor bosses mock him as a monster or something close, but Cathy links his monstrosity to animalism most directly: “The way you can’t control your impulses, no matter how you fight them, is just fantastic!” If Rachel’s quest is to find herself, Zach’s is to refute the other bosses and find his humanity. She flees up the next floor, and Zach follows.
* (though I think the face issue is a matter of unreliable narrators again… Rachel suppresses her emotions but does not eliminate them. She cries and emotes several times, most importantly when she fears that Zach will die and later, when she worries that he will learn her secret. Though Zach denies it, she even looks happy during the rescue in the finale. I suspect that he only calls her face boring as an excuse to not kill her because, well, it’s a love story, right?)
5th Floor – Danny’s human intelligence
Together, the first three floors represent a sort of human creation allegory: first Rachel comes into existence as an undefined concept, then she acquires a physical animal body, and finally she gains human intelligence.
The floor boss Dr. Danny does so by severing Rachel from her animal self and restoring her conscious memories in a selfish attempt to bring back his only desire: the unreal rationality of her “dead but alive” blue moon eyes. But despite his intelligence*, it all goes wrong for Danny when that unthinking monster Zach appears to slice him open. However, though Danny could not literally remove Rachel’s eyes, he had already stolen her soul**: she loses her survival instinct and declares that she wants to die because she suffers under immense guilt for some unspecified original sin that the show will only reveal on the final floor.
However, because Zach only enjoys killing people who want to live (in other words, those with an animal’s survival instinct), he refuses to kill Rachel as long as she shows her “boring,” unemotive “doll’s” face. But he also has a more pressing desire. He wants to escape the tower, but lacks the intelligence to do so alone. So the pair make a promise: Rachel will help Zach escape and Zach will help Rachel die. She will share her cold, conscious reason to direct his unconscious animal strength, thus creating the relationship dynamic that will bring them both into a humanistic mix of the two qualities by the end of the series. They leave Danny for dead, and head up to the next floor.
* (as Gray describes him: “Danny was very fastidious, as well as methodical and conscientious. He could master any task, one after another.” It sounds a bit like the way David Attenborough might introduce homo sapiens as a unique species in a nature documentary. For context on my thinking on humanism and animalism, see my previous post on Kemono Friends)
** (some more unsubtle symbolism here: Zach wields a scythe like the Reaper, and eyes typically represent the soul, but if Rachel has dead eyes, she has no soul and he has nothing to reap…)
4th Floor – Eddie’s peaceful death
Except for the cathartic top floor, this one is perhaps the most important because it establishes the logic that sets Rachel on her path towards the Absurd on the next three floors. But frustratingly, it also receives the least amount of screentime, making it difficult to parse the existential challenge here.
On the previous floor, Danny had used a metaphor to describe Rachel’s pre-intellectual, unconscious self: living “inside a dream.” By restoring her memories*, he’d also brought her back to conscious reality. But Rachel doesn’t like what she sees. In addition to remembering her own abusive upbringing, she learns of a little of Zach’s awful past from a dossier in the graveyard records room. If their horrible lives offer any evidence then, they seem to suggest that the world guarantees nothing but suffering. With the pain of her aborted childhood and guilty conscience weighing on her, Rachel confirms her conclusion from the previous floor: “I want to die.” The grave-digger Eddie then offers her a choice: she can end it now and embrace “a beautiful, blessed rest,” “dark and cool and comfortable inside the earth” or otherwise continue to suffer in life.
However, Danny had also restored Rachel’s consciousness of morality**. She remembers that the Bible had called suicide a sin and realizes that choosing to die by Eddie’s peaceful hand would function as one (in the same way that walking into traffic counts as a suicide, even though another person does the killing). This traps her between two intolerable options: life’s unresolvable suffering or the spiritual sin of suicide. But by sudden chance, Zach offers an escape when he says “I swear to God” out of frustration while dealing with Eddie. Though Zach doesn’t mean anything by the swear, Rachel misinterprets him as a matter of unconscious self-deception and imbues the promise with divine providence. This results in some twisted teleological reasoning:
The promise requires that Rachel show a desire to live on her face before Zach will kill her. However, Rachel’s suffering makes it impossible for her to show that desire. But faith offers an escape: if an all-powerful God guarantees the promise, then it will happen. In other words, Zach will kill her because he swore to God. This has the added benefit of sparing Rachel from sin: such a death won’t count as a suicide because if Zach kills her, she showed a desire to live and spiritual suicides only occur in the absence of that desire. Essentially, the divine promise absolves Rachel of the responsibility of choosing for herself to live in suffering or die in peace. Wrapped up in that logical pretzel, she declines Eddie’s offer, Zach kills him, and the pair move up to the next floor.
* (another aside on Angels resisting interpretation… Eddie observes that Rachel still has partial amnesia, though we don’t know what she’s forgotten beyond her question “Why am I here?” As a whole, the show is very unclear about when Rachel remembers what, and how much of that is genuine amnesia versus self-deceptive repression. Those damned narrators again…)
** (by no coincidence, “the rules” appear on Danny’s floor: only rational humans care about moral cleanliness. Meanwhile, animals like Zach have no concern for it. I won’t discuss Danny much, but he has an unusual aesthetic concern for purity, which he finds only in the unreality of Rachel’s fake blue moon eyes. As such, his villain arc acts as a static foil against Rachel’s self-discovery: if she learns to accept her “unclean” impurities, he never lets go and goes mad for it)
3rd Floor – Cathy’s corrupt society
I find Cathy’s floor the most interesting because it rejects itself. Non-existence and natural animalism need no justification, and Danny and Eddie defend reason and death respectively as a matter of irrational “beauty” or “aesthetics.” But Cathy is essentially nihilistic. When Rachel asks her for the “meaning” behind the prison, Cathy scolds the girl by saying “What’s the point of trying to find the meaning in it … there’s no need to search for a meaning.” Yikes.
As a judge and prison warden, Cathy represents a non-divine, social source of authority and morality. But she’s also a disgustingly corrupt, selfish, “sadomasochistic bitch” as Zach puts it. She asserts her social authority over procedure and punishment only as a matter of raw power, forcing her “justice” on the prisoners just because she can. But fitting her self-styling as a reality TV show host, she only ever uses that power to satisfy her own boredom*. She has no religious, rational, or even aesthetic goals beyond simple hedonism; so long as it’s entertaining for the cameras, Cathy doesn’t even care if Rachel shoots her. And when Rachel actually does, Cathy exclaims “I love it!” for the rush of the unexpected twist before bleeding out. Gray will later observe that it looked like Cathy enjoyed dying. See what I mean by self-rejecting?
Rachel’s insight on this floor comes as a reaction against Cathy’s arbitrary authoritarianism. As she tells Zach, “You and I are not tools. To kill and to be killed are our own choices.” She won’t realize the contradiction** in that statement until later because she still believes in a deterministic God guaranteeing her promise, but it will help form the basis of her embrace of existential freedom on the top floor. More immediately though, Rachel came up to Cathy’s floor with no reason to trust social sources of meaning and leaves with fresh evidence not to. Since the nihilistic Cathy failed to propose any alternative, Rachel goes up to the next floor with a recommitment to the authority of God.
* (am I Cathy here? I have no rational, aesthetic, or divine reason to write this blog. And it’s not like I get any animal joy out of it like Zach does with killing. I’m just a bored bored bored consumer…)
** (it’s a contradiction because choosing to kill will necessarily deny the other person’s choice to live, except in unusual cases like Rachel wanting to die. However, Rachel is also a hypocrite. She calls life or death her choice, but herself defers that choice to God via the promise)
2nd Floor – Gray’s personal divinity
In my opinion, this floor becomes a complex narrative mess that wastes a lot of time recapping the events on the other floors. But all of the excessive re-exposition builds to the next problem Rachel must face: “If there is no God, what am I supposed to do?”
Before Rachel reaches that question though, the floor-boss Gray first has to convince her that no God exists. However, he takes an interesting approach: rather than try to do the impossible task of disproving the concept of God itself, he instead disproves the existence of Rachel’s heart. He reasons that a person must have “a heart that truly believes” to comprehend God and thus, if Rachel has no heart, she cannot have a God either. He finds evidence for her heartlessness in her actions on the other floors, especially when she used Cathy’s machine guns to kill the husks of other prisoners who “got in my way” on her quest to retrieve medicine for Zach. Supplementing that evidence with witch-trial testimonies from the spirits of the other floor bosses, Gray concludes that Rachel is a “pitiful witch who loves none but herself.”
Essentially, Gray accuses Rachel of appealing to God out of a selfish desire for forgiveness despite feeling no real remorse. She lies to herself when she claims that divine providence protects her promise in order to escape the difficult responsibility of making her own choices — and suffering any consequent sins. But Gray asks her what she will do if God refuses to fulfill that promise. Will she still believe? She realizes “no,” but denies Gray’s accusation out of sheer self-deception.
However, Gray models a new idea: if Rachel lacks the heart to believe in the divine truth of a universal God, she can at least define a personal god to guide her. Gray does just that when he declares “I speak of my God. This god exists right here, in the form of myself!” Like Cathy, he asserts his godhood as a matter of power: because he is the master of illusions in the surreal death tower, he functions as a temporal god* regardless of the existence of any true God out in the real world. Though Cathy had already shown the folly of finding meaning in power, Rachel grasps for any assurance to calm her sudden crisis of faith. So, she chooses to cling to the most powerful entity in her life: while treating Zach’s wounds with the medicine before heading up to the last floor, she says “You are my God Zach.”
* (Given Gray’s ability to teleport around and conjure up hallucinogenic gas, I’m inclined to believe him. In the surreal world of the death tower, he might as well be god…)
1st Floor – Rachel’s embrace of the Absurd
Rachel immediately runs into a problem though: Zach hates liars, and Rachel had lied by omission. She wasn’t a prisoner in the tower, but just another one of the insane murderers. She filled her death playground on the top floor with impersonal traps to kill without sin and protect her purity before mutilating the corpses of her victims. But of course, that was just more self-deception: she had sinned without remorse, and as Gray had argued, that heartlessness made it impossible for her to have a relationship with the true God. By the same logic then, her dishonesty would make it impossible for her to have a relationship with her new god, Zach. Fearing that she has run out of options, Rachel decides to kill Zach like any of the other prisoners that had wandered onto her floor.
Of course, she doesn’t succeed because Zach is just monstrously strong and it’s a ~love story~. But when the action settles down again, she’s surprised to learn that Zach doesn’t care that Rachel considers herself “unclean.” After all, he’s a serial killer! Who is he to judge? Yes, she had lied to him, but she had also saved his life twice. And, in his pragmatic animal selfishness, Zach still wants only one thing: to escape the tower. Because he still needs Rachel’s intelligence to do so, he chooses to ignore her impurity and human imperfection and just trust her.
However, Zach also needs to convince Rachel to trust herself since she’s useless while looping through her hopeless rationalizations about God and sin. He tells her to stop thinking about “pointless shit” like purity-obsessed Danny and simply trust her own desires. She wants to die by Zach’s hand. She needs no justification; like she had concluded on Cathy’s floor, it’s her life and her choice. No other authority can assume that responsibility for her. As Zach puts it: “I’m me and you’re you! … So make your own decisions for yourself!”
Finally seeing Zach as nothing but a plain human (“You’ve always been Zach!”), Rachel admits that she believes in neither a true God nor an invented one (it’s at this point we get the “god is dead” and Zach killed him moment, lol). She can no longer appeal to a higher authority to forgive her mistakes or make choices on her behalf. She must accept human fallibility and trust herself, including her choice to trust Zach. Even if he betrays her (ironically, by not killing her), it was ultimately her responsibility to fill the promise with emotional meaning against a meaningless world. While facing the absurdity of that fake blue moon in her own room, Rachel gives her conclusions in a final dialogue with Gray:
Both promising and trusting were decisions Zach and I made in our own hearts. So even if my trust is betrayed, it was my choice to trust him. I’ll bear responsibility for my own heart. I’m prepared to accept that he isn’t God. … It’s not as if I, myself, have actually changed. I’ve only accepted who I am. That’s all.
Gray asks the original blue moon question again: “Rachel Gardner, just who are you?” She replies “I’m me. No more or less than that” and when she returns to Zach, he notices that she has lost her doll-like hypocrisy with the lovey-dovey* line “You seem more human now.”
* (Ah… it’s true love between two serial killers~~~ Rachel gives a “secret” reason for wanting to die: “What I really wanted was to be wanted alive, even just for a moment, and to be wanted in death.” It’s probably her twisted way of showing love for Zach, by offering to fulfill his love for killing. But if Zach loves her back, he will always deny his animal desire. Is this cute or grotesque? I dunno, you decide.)
Epilogue and escape: Zach’s humanity and conquering the absurd
Rachel’s embrace her existential power to choose in the face of the Absurd represents the thematic climax of the story. However, in the basic narrative, she still needs to help Zach escape. Gray shows them the way, but still-alive Danny triggers the tower’s self-destruct function and shoots them both moments before they reach the door. Danny gloats about finally having a chance to kill the “monster,” but Rachel steps up to defend the humanity she had found in Zach. Just as she had learned that she was Rachel, no more or less, he was Zach, no more or less.
Extending that point, she confirms some additional subtext from the top floor: that actual outcome of their promise no longer matters because human imperfection cannot guarantee the future. Danny might invalidate the promise by killing Zach or Rachel, but he cannot severe the emotional connection between them. As Rachel puts it: “A vow cannot be stolen. Even if it can’t be fulfilled, that doesn’t matter. It’s between the two of us.”
Danny waxes antagonist for a little while longer until Gray shows up to shoot him with a crossbow in a supreme deus ex moment (since he’s blind, he’d have to be God to hit that bullseye three times in a row …and oh wait, he is god). Zach and Rachel escape while Danny and Gray have a closing exposition dialogue to explain the origins of the tower (why now..?). Gray reiterates the idea of Zach’s humanity, the death of God*, and Rachel’s embrace of absurdity before chastising Danny for failing to let go of his own search for meaning to do the same. He expresses some final surprise that Rachel had created her own meaning in her choices and the promise. Then, in the explosion that destroys the tower, the absurd contradiction of that fake blue moon burns away.
…aaannnddd finally, that brings the story back around to the Theater of the Absurd finale discussed above. The choose-your-own-ending seems to ask the audience to apply the lessons that Rachel had learned in the tower: in a universe that has no meaning, and lacks any authority figure to provide it, you might as well invent your own. Of course, the hyper-ambiguity of the conclusion makes it impossible to produce any rational interpretation of Zach or Rachel’s fate. But that absurd blue moon shows up one more time, as if daring the audience to try anyway.
Pretty neat narrative device, huh?
* (one last aside: Gray’s “death” is pretty funny from the perspective of the Nietzsche cliche again. If Gray is god but declares himself human before allowing himself to die in an explosion, does that then mean that “God is dead, and he killed himself?” lol).
Angels of Death demonstrates exceptional thematic depth in its existential allegory, especially for a schlock psychological horror piece that originated as an ignoble RPG Maker game. I went in expecting some “funny-bad” incoherence like Derrida and found a genuine “coherently incoherent” product of the Absurd. But as much as I might praise the themes, I have trouble recommending much else.
Angels of Death simply lacks style. It’s a competent production (unlike Derrida…), but doesn’t dazzle in the same way as a genuine classic like Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Apart from the excellent symbolism in the blue moon, it lacks much visual flare. Meanwhile, the soundtrack becomes a bare, repetitive chore, especially with Rachel’s two-note piano theme. Even for a death tower full of wacky serial killers, the character designs feel lackluster. I love all the twists hidden under Rachel’s static exterior and Cathy has some great mad panache (such excellent voice acting!). But Gas-Attack Gray? One-Episode Eddie? Dog-Tongue Danny? They don’t have much character texture. Zach’s usually fun, but even he misses the mark with the extreme melodrama of his childhood. His father dowsed him in gasoline and lit him on fire before sending him to a foster family that made him dig up the corpses of previous children that they had murdered? Yeah, forgive me, but I couldn’t stop laughing through that entire flashback. It’s waaay over-the-top, creeping into Derrida-style “funny-bad” territory.
On that point, it’s also worth noting that for many viewers and reviewers, incoherence is still incoherence regardless of any well-considered absurdist themes. For better or worse, there’s a lot to mock in Angels. As I’ve observed over and over again, the reliance on unreliable narrator devices can turn the series into a baffling blob of comical ambiguity, especially once Gray’s hallucinogenic gas starts blowing around. Though Angels has a lot of genuine comedy, I laughed my way through most of the serious philosophical scenes as well. I’m even embarrassed to say that on my first viewing, I didn’t pick up on the big twist — that Rachel was a floor boss — until Zach straight up asked “This is your floor, isn’t it?” It’s oddly ironic: though Angels lacks subtlety in much of anything, it also lacks clarity in just about everything.
Angels has a bigger, more boring problem though: it repeats itself far too often, perhaps because it tries to faithfully adapt the level design in the original game. Though the series boasts an extended 16 episodes, I suspect that a better-focused narrative could have fit into a regular 12 episode season with a little more assertiveness. For example, most of the events on the 2nd floor do little but reiterate the thematic insights from Rachel’s quest for medicine, which in turn just reiterated the insights from her first visit to each floor. In the game, the narrative padding expands the gameplay with some extra puzzles to solve. But in the anime, it doesn’t do enough to justify its interruption of the steady ascent up the tower. Consider some numbers: Angels clears the first five floors in six episodes, but the 2nd floor alone takes five! That’s some seriously imbalanced pacing, especially when Eddie appears and dies in less than half an hour.
Anyway, I have many more minor criticisms, but I don’t want to give the appearance that I dislike Angels of Death. Over the course of studying the series to write this post, it’s become a bizarre favorite of mine: an anime I enjoyed more reading the script than actually watching. That’s a “damned with praise” neg if I’ve ever written one, but I think it speaks to the series’ greatest strength. When Angels isn’t repeating itself ad nauseam or descending into comical melodrama, the narrative does an excellent job conveying the floor-by-floor logic of the existential allegory. It just helps to sit down and read it rather than watch it… (maybe I would’ve enjoyed the game more?)
Angels of Death is no masterpiece. But I’d like to use Rachel as a visual metaphor here: the series hides such great thematic depth under its otherwise bland everything-else. In the same way I have adored other “meh” shows like Gakkou Gurashi, I’ll defend Angels to death.
And hey, I can’t judge it too harshly. After all, nobody’s god.