This review contains some spoilers for the manga version of Angelic Layer.
When Misaki Suzuhara first steps out of Tokyo train station, she comes across a large crowd staring at a screen. What they are watching turns out to be her very first encounter with Angelic Layer, a hugely popular game in which players control the movements of dolls called angels with their minds. They can also design the dolls and battle with other players. Misaki immediately falls in love with the game, and with one angel in particular named Athena who is the doll of the current Angelic Layer champion. With the help of Icchan, a mysterious man in a lab coat, she builds her own angel, Hikaru, and learns that she is in fact a natural at the game. But is she good enough to take down the current champion? With her new friends by her side, and the many more she makes as she progresses in the games, anything is possible.
As mentioned in my review for the manga, Angelic Layer is not CLAMP’s debut attempt at shounen but it’s their first (and so far only) try at the toy-collecting angle, similar to the likes of Yu-Gi-Oh! but without an actual toy to purchase. Basically, it’s a commercial for a non-existing property. It’s a shame such a cool toy is not actually available but that doesn’t take the thrill away from the battles themselves. They start small but as the protagonist improves and gains greater attention, the fights have greater things riding on them. Thanks to BONES’s animation and great choreography, each battle looks just as impressive as the last, like we’re watching a karate match but with dolls in fancy costumes.
As with other series in this particular genre, Angelic Layer comes fully packed with clichés that fans will instantly pick up on. This includes a protagonist that’s unbelievably skilled from the get-go, players explaining their love for the game as if it’s the most important thing in the world and treating battles like it’s a matter of life or death. And of course, especially as it’s made by CLAMP, the power of friendship and believing in yourself can earn you any victory. Unlike other CLAMP series like Cardcaptor Sakura, where they’ve taken a genre and tried to do something truly special with it, Angelic Layer sadly doesn’t have the same spark. It goes through the motions most of the time, with plot twists being rather predictable and never branching off the path of battle after battle. Because you know the protagonist will always win in the end, the fear that the characters feel in battle won’t be reciprocated by the audience, so some earlier battles come across as filler and boring as a result. Although, it’s worth noting that the majority of the players and dolls are female; since the genre is mostly targeted at boys and dominated by such, it’s nice to have this variant at the very least. If you’re already a fan of the genre, and are happy to watch something that plays homage to what you already love but with cuter, younger characters, then this series will fit the bill. If you’re looking for something that deconstructs the genre however, or were hoping for a truly unique CLAMP angle, then you won’t necessary find it here.
The majority of the anime is very much the same as the manga story, but with the anime being 24 episodes long it takes the time to expand on the game and create bigger challenges for our heroine as she progresses. However the anime’s attempt to expand the Angelic Layer rules has mixed results. It’s understandable to elaborate on moves and regulations as the series tries to make each challenge different from the last to stop it becoming repetitive but it’s the anime’s adaption of the rules that takes some of the magic out of it.
Near the beginning of the anime, Misaki faces an appointment in a ‘friendly’ match who equips her angel with electric whips. Later on, during an official layer tournament match, another angel enters ‘Hyper Mode’ which Icchan explains as a secret glitch that the first batches of angels can activate but is not accessible to the angels in later batches. The former is considered illegal in the Angelic Layer game but the latter is not, which is baffling. Admittedly, seeing an angel going all hyper and shooting energy balls is more of a spectacle to watch but the latter puts many players at an unfair disadvantage. Real-life Pokemon tournaments have rules such as not using Legendary Pokemon and the prevention of them being modified outside the official games, so something like allowing the execution of a glitch in a national tournament seems like a terrible oversight. You also have other unexplained rules such as Misaki losing a battle early on, yet still qualifying for the next big tournament; maybe it was a point system like they have, say, in the World Cup first rounds, but it’s not really explained. When they do mention points, it’s in battle, which the bold announcer says that certain hits have taken some points off opponents, but again this is never accurately explained in detail, like which moves equate to how many points. The angelic fights are still entertaining, but it’s the vague rules here and there, coupled with the waving off holes in logic in the game that take you out of the experience and end up doing more harm than good.
The anime adaptation however is not completely dwarfed by the manga; thankfully where it excels is with character development. The manga gave a bit of development to some of the side characters, and of course our heroine, who are treated mostly in the same way in the anime. However, with the extended running time in the anime, we get additional material devoted to the various opponents Misaki meets, such as why they love playing Angelic Layer before they take their skills to the battlefield. Admittedly a lot of the back stories are clichéd; for example, one contestant plays as it’s her dying sister’s wish (a sob story fit for The X Factor) but they do the job of fleshing out the cast well, making their various returns later in the series to support Misaki all the more meaningful. However the one character who gets the best development in the anime is Misaki’s mother, Shuko Suzihara. In the manga version she is portrayed as meek and incredibly shy – so shy in fact she can’t even talk to her own daughter. That’s the explanation given for her absence during Misaki’s childhood, and sadly nothing in the manga help paints it in a funny or positive light to make it acceptable. CLAMP have a rare talent in expressing various forms of love in unique ways but, despite their best intentions, the mother just comes across as an immature and selfish parent. Luckily, the anime takes a completely different direction with a new, less timid design for the character, and having her inherit an illness. We see her in a wheelchair very early on in the series so that’s not a massive spoiler, but it’s about halfway through that we learn more about the condition she suffers from and her part in the creation of Angelic Layer, which is far more fascinating and thought-out, making her absence from Misaki’s life a lot more emotionally relatable. The anime even gives her condition a name! That’s very rare in film/TV; illnesses are usually left nameless and given a generic set of symptoms so the writers can play the ‘dead’ or ‘feeling poorly’ card as and when it’s convenient. Her character re-write is a highlight of the series, and for anyone over the teen bracket, her involvement with Angelic Layer will be the main driver of the series, rather than the fights.
One last interesting development to note is the various couples in the show; romance isn’t the main focus but there are several couples that come together in the end, and, funnily enough, the pairings in the anime are completely different to those in the manga. Considering CLAMP’s common use of the concept of ‘one true love’; a pair of souls that are forever entwined regardless of gender, age or where in space or time they are, it’s surprising that they approved of the changes to the couplings in the anime adaption. The anime seems to start off the same as the manga, making a certain pair blush every time they’re near each other but by halfway through, they seem to change their minds and create new pairings. It’s a curious creative choice that works overall as the development builds it nicely in the second half, but maybe will leave those who prefer the pairings in the manga disappointed.
The score for the series is composed by Kohei Tanaka, who provides a few stand-out pieces with his orchestral efforts but a few of tracks don’t always gel with what’s happening on screen. There’s one particular piece that plays before a match that’s heavy on drums and trumpets but feels like it should be playing in a less cutesy show. The English dub is mostly an average performance across the board but it’s not helped that the actors have to stop mid sentence to fit with the lip flaps. The adult characters perform best with Andy McAvin giving the best comic relief as Icchan and the legendary Tiffany Grant instantly recognisable as the ‘ice machine’ Sai. But the dub suffers when it comes to voicing the children; Jessica Boone does her best and sounds almost natural portraying the 12-year-old Misaki but the constant high-pitched voice can get irritating at times. The worst offender, however, is Hatoko’s voice from Sasha Paysinger who gives a very breathy performance to hide her real age; she’s trying to match the Japanese pitch but this is easily the most grating voice of the dub.
ADV films have been defunct since 2009 so the box-set for Angelic Layer is now long out of print; however if you do manage to track down the discs, extras include clean opening and closings, artwork, commentaries and promos for ADV previously owned series. The box-set itself is a little flimsy on the inside, the discs are crammed together and the plastic hook holding several discs in the middle came apart too easily after first opening the set.
Angelic Layer is not a shining hidden gem in CLAMP’s library; it’s an easy-breezy show that tries something different for the manga artists but not much else. You can appreciate the little things here and there but it’s not as engaging as others in the genre or as emotionally satisfying as CLAMP’s other work. If you still wish to experience the story of Angelic Layer one way or another, I’d recommend checking out the manga version of this story as it’s still in print and much more financially feasible.