The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Angel Beats have quite a lot in common. Both are based in secondary schools, with tsundere main characters who are observed by a more "normal" male point-of-view character. Both mix big cosmological questions and dangerous action scenes with comedy and elements more typical of "slice of life" style anime (e.g. baseball episodes).
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is the earlier of the two, and centres on a restless schoolgirl who (unbeknownst to herself) is a universe-creating deity. She has an interest in time-travellers, espers and aliens, and accordingly all appear in her class, although since they are disguised as students she does not realise this. Together with the narrator, Kyon, this unlikely crew has to work hard to keep Haruhi amused and interested in her life, and to steer her away from the melancholy that might encourage her - without realizing it - to dismantle the current universe and create another in its stead.
It's an incredibly ambitious premise, and for the first half-dozen episodes the series carries it off brilliantly, with Haruhi's capricious, vulnerable and energetic personality contrasted with the pragmatic and downbeat Kyon's to great effect, and revelation-fuelled excitement satisfyingly intercut with school life. After that, however, the series very quickly runs out of steam, and by the last episode of Season 1 (which is as far as I've watched) the writers appear to have made a virtue of necessity, contriving a deliberately dull final episode in which the most exciting event is Kyon walking to the shops in the rain to collect an electric heater. In one scene we spend three minutes watching a girl reading, while we hear (but do not see) the class next door, apparently rehearsing a play. And that's it. There's something rather admirable about the way the makers are prepared to take this kind of risk, and it adds to the show's quirky charm, but it's such a change from the first half of the series as to appear to belong to a different programme altogether. In the second season, I understand this will be taken to the next level with the notorious Endless Eight, in which essentially the same episode is broadcast eight times, as a result of a Groundhog Day-style time loop. I'll probably end up watching it anyway, because there's something very appealing about the whole series, even if it is ridiculously front-loaded.
Angel Beats begins with our point-of-view character, Otonashi, having lost his memory, turning up at a high school for the dead. Most of the children there appear to be computer-simulations, or non-playing characters (NPCs), but others, led by the fearless girl Yurippe, are real children who have died in horrific or at least unfulfilled circumstances, and have formed a resistance group called the Afterlife Battlefront. They are fighting against the girl known as Angel, who (so they believe) is a servant of God and attempting to move them on to the next stage of existence by reconciling them to their lives. The minute a student's problems are resolved they are "obliterated", disappearing from the school. Yurippe, whose own tragic history involves having unsuccessfully tried to save her younger siblings from being murdered by armed robbers, has devised an endless series of operations designed to disrupt and delay this process.
I really liked this show too. Like Melancholy it combines broad humour with action, but adds in a good deal of more serious matter, as we learn about the back-stories of the various members of the Battlefront and their variously tragic, stunted, or otherwise unhappy lives on earth. In this case, rather than running out of steam, the problem is that the 13 episodes at the series' disposal simply don't give it a chance to play out the story properly. There are many members of the Battlefront whose stories we hear nothing about, and even in the case of Yurippe we never learn how she died on earth. In her case, there's also the problem that once the necessity for her to lead the Battlefront ends (for reasons I won't go into here) she suddenly ceases to be a brave, smart, determined natural leader, and reverts to being a "normal girl" - i.e. indecisive and a little silly. It's not a pretty sight. Otonashii, meanwhile, the other main character, is given an unexpectedly tragic and unresolved ending. It's not a criticism of the show to say he deserved better, but the focus on Otonashii when Yurippe has disappeared without any fanfare halfway through the final episode feels oddly unbalanced.
Neon Genesis Evangelion I watched because many people had suggested that what Puella Magi Madoka Magica was to magical girl series, NGE had been to mecha - i.e. a "deconstruction" - although what people mean by that word is a little unclear. From what I can see it has little to do with Derrida, but slides between "general critique" and "showing what would happen in real life if the genre's tropes were taken seriously". I was at a slight disadvantage, never having watched an ordinary mecha series, but I think I manage to pick up the basics.
Well, I can see it in a way. NGE makes it clear that putting young teenagers in a position of extreme danger and extreme responsibility, combined with emotional neglect, lack of information, etc., is likely to cause them to break down mentally - and in this series they certainly do. As an exploration of depression (in Shinji's case) and general mental disintegration (in the case of Asuka), it's a fascinating and original series. But in other respects it's entirely unrealistic. The giant bio-mechanical hybrids known as Evangelions, which the youngsters are asked to pilot against the deadly "angels" (angels have a bad press in this post) that are threatening to wipe out humankind, are very impractical and unstable humanoids; while it seems that the organization on whose shoulders the fate of humanity rests is staffed entirely by people whose obsessions and psychiatric problems make them spectacularly unfitted for the role. By the end of the series, the original premise of Big Robots vs. Other Big Robots has indeed been displaced by a philosophical-cum-psychological disquisition on life and its meaning (if any); there's been a shift in genre at least as decisive as that in Haruhi Suzumiya. However, in this series as in the other two in this post, there was a slight feeling of unfinished business, that it had written a cheque it couldn't quite honour, even if it had done something else more interesting instead.
I shouldn't complain. All three of these anime have the virtue of trying out ideas and taking on themes that are spectacular and original, and I really did enjoy all of them. However, they all served to remind me again of the wonder that is Madoka - a deconstruction that nevertheless manages to be a beautifully formed, perfectly paced example of that which it apparently critiques. When I first wrote about it here I hadn't really had a chance to think or feel through the experience, but since then I've given it a lot of mulling, and I can see that I may have to write a series of posts (one isn't enough) on Why Madoka is Awesome, and why it's been by some way the most intense aesthetic experience I've had in any medium during the last 12 months.