WARNING: As always, you shouldn’t read spoiler notes if you haven’t watched the series.
Why should we consider it a happy ending if the characters disappeared?
This series needs to be viewed in the context of Japanese traditions about death.
It is widely believed in Japan that dead people wander around for 49 days before being judged and reincarnated. During this time they must free themselves from their attachments to their previous lives. Those who fail to do this become evil spirits. Or go to Hell. In any case it is very bad for them. At the very least no further spiritual progress is possible without reincarnation.
Angel Beats! draws on both traditions. Children who had tragic or unfair lives are trapped in a high school purgatory until they can come to terms with their lives, let go of their regrets and go on to reincarnate. They have more than 49 days, but staying indefinitely is not really an option. If they stayed too long they would eventually go mad or end up as soulless “NPCs” with no free will, trapped in Purgatory forever.
Why does Kanade thank Otonashi?
Many viewers have complained that she has little reason to thank him for his heart, given that she did not live to grow up. This misses an important point.
Kanade says “Even now, your heart is beating in my chest.” In other words, unlike the other characters, she is still alive, just unconscious. Her desire to thank the donor was so strong that she drifted into this world while under the anesthesia, and has been waiting for him ever since.
To her it seems like she has been waiting for years, but that’s not necessarily a contradiction. If “a year on Earth is like a day in Heaven,” then there is no reason why an hour on Earth could not seem like a year in Purgatory.
How old is Kanade really?
My best guess is that she is about 10 years old. She’s smart, perhaps even a computer genius, but she has a very childlike personality. She’s overly literal, is oblivious to the other characters’ jokes, and has trouble anticipating the consequences of her actions.
She says that she has never had a graduation. That implies that she never graduated from elementary school, which would make her 12 years old at most. But 10 years is the most common age for anime characters in elementary school, and about the minimum age at which she might be able to pull off something like this. (She is fortunate that high school work in Japan is mostly memorization.)
Why don’t the other characters notice? Probably for the same reason that they don’t notice that Otonashi is too old to be in high school.
Her age may be the main reason why Otonashi is drawn to her from the start: she reminds him of his little sister.
Is Otonashi a jerk?
Let’s see. He convinces the other characters to disappear. Then, once he is alone with Kanade, he tries to convince her to stay with him in the Purgatory world forever. That seems pretty devious, not to mention a really bad idea.
I would say that he is basically good, but flawed. He fully intended to disappear with the others, but Hinata convinced him that he and Kanade should leave last. But once he was alone with her, he realized that he couldn’t bear to part from her, and came up with an excuse to stay.
Of course she couldn’t accept. She has her whole life ahead of her back on Earth. She must return to her body; if she died it would make his gift meaningless!
In any case, though he doesn’t realize it, she’s just a little girl and has no idea what to do when a grown man professes his love to her. So she just thanks him and vanishes.
Why isn’t Otonashi stuck in Purgatory?
After all, he couldn’t give up his attachment to Kanade. But that’s not really a problem; it’s not an attachment to his previous life. Since he died without regrets, he can reincarnate at any time, and once Kanade disappeared he had no reason to remain.
Similarly, Yui and Hinata are not stuck just because they fell in love. They just have to be willing to move on, and hope to meet again in some future life.
If Otonashi had stayed his position would have been exactly that of the unnamed Programmer in Episode 12. Like him he would probably have ended up as an NPC.
WTF with Yuri’s ending?
This is probably the most important part of the story, and is also the least satisfactory, and least for Western viewers. We want to see some real closure, to let her take vengeance on the thugs who killed her siblings, or on the god who allowed it to happen.
But from a Buddhist standpoint seeking vengeance in the afterlife is the worst possible thing to do. The Buddhist Hell is reserved for those who are consumed with anger and hatred. It doesn’t matter if you have a good reason to be angry. Kikyou in Inuyasha had a very good reason to be angry and vengeful, but she went to Hell anyway. Just as Inuyasha is largely the story of Kikyou’s redemption, Angel Beats! is largely the story of Yuri’s salvation. But it is handled poorly. I didn’t get anything like the emotional lift that I got from watching the ending of Inuyasha.
(Also from a Buddhist standpoint, there is no point in trying to settle things with God. There is no god who decides your fate; there is just karma, which is unconscious and mechanical. Karma may torture the innocent and reward the guilty, but there’s nothing personal in it; it’s just the way the gears grind.)
Do Otonashi and Kanade end up together?
In spite of the final sequence, I’m skeptical. By my calculations, the reincarnated Otonashi is probably about 15, and she is probably about 25. If he fulfills the dream of his previous life by becoming a doctor, she will probably be in her mid-thirties by the time he is ready to get married. Not totally impossible, but it seems like a stretch.
On the other hand, I don’t think the story requires a romantic ending. He would probably be happy if they could just be together as friends.
Transcript of Kanade’s statements
UPDATE: It was pointed out to me that a more recent translation has Kanade implying that she is dead. That motivated me to replay the ending enough times to make a hopefully accurate transcript of what she says. Here is my translation (a little clunky since I am trying to stick as closely as possible to the literal meaning):
atashi wa anata no shinzou de ikinagarae no koto dekita onnanoko na no.
I am the girl who was able to survive due to your heart.
Note that “ikinagaraeru” also means “live a long time,” so the notion that she died shortly after the operation is explicitly denied here. Based on this sentence she either has to be a young girl with a long life ahead or her, or an old lady who has lived a long life. But the idea of her as an old lady seems inconsistent with everything she says and does.
ima wa atashi no mune de wa anata no shinzou no koto ga utte iru.
Even now, it is your heart that is beating in my chest.
Of course saying that his heart is still beating (note the progressive tense) implies that she is still alive.
tada hitotsu na atashi no fukou wa, atashi ni seisha kurita onjin ni arigatou ienakatta koto… sore o ittatte…sore dake ga kokoro no kori de…kono sekai ni mayoi konda no.
My only sorrow was/is that I was not able to say thank you to the benefactor who gave me life…If I could only say that…It was only due to that regret in my heart…that I strayed into this world.
I wrote “was/is” because the verb isn’t explicitly stated.
And finally her last words:
arigatou yuzuru. un, arigatou. un, sugoku arigatou. ai shite kurete…arigatou. inochi o kurete…hontou ni…arigatou.
Thank you Yuzuru. Yes, thank you. Yes, thank you so much. Thank you…for loving me. Most of all…thank you…for giving me Life. [Vanishes.]
I translated “hontou ni” as “most of all” rather than “truly” because I don’t think the point is that the previous thank yous were insincere. This is surely intended as an escalating sequence, with the most important thing listed last.
Incidentally, I hope you all appreciate the emotional wear and tear I endured playing that ending enough times to transcribe her words.
hitori demo yuku yo
shinitaku natte mo
koe ga kikoeru yo
shinde wa ikenai to.
tatoe tsurakute mo
yami ni tozasarete mo
kokoro no oku ni wa
akari ga komotteru yo.
I’ll continue on alone,
even if I want to die,
I can hear a voice
telling me “You must not die.”
Even if I’m embittered
and plunged into darkness
inside of my heart
a light is hidden away.
I think right now I need to watch something totally frivolous.