I have a mixed history with the anime based on stories by the collective known as CLAMP. For those not in the know, CLAMP is a group of four women who have created some of the most popular manga titles in Japan. Most of their work has been introduced into the animated medium with widely varied results. I thoroughly enjoyed the altogether-too-short Tokyo Babylon OVAs, and I thought Magic Knights Rayearth was good despite several flaws. On the other hand, though, I found RG Veda to be nothing but boring, and the movie version of X is just embarrassingly bad. When I had the chance to watch Angelic Layer, I went into it with not just a little apprehension. Thankfully, I am pleased to report that the animated version works better than anything else I've seen from CLAMP. There are still nagging problems, but it is by far the least problematic of their titles--and by far the most fun.
Misaki, who's lived in the country with her grandparents for several years, travels into Tokyo to live with her aunt for a while. At age 12, she's just ready to start middle school, and she's a mix of apprehension and excitement. When she first arrives, she gets a little confused coming out of the station, and sees a game being shown on a giant monitor screen--a game called Angelic Layer. A mysterious man in a lab coat named Icchan follows her and tells her all about it...two opponents create dolls that, when thrown onto a special battlefield known as a Layer, can be mentally controlled by their users to fight. Misaki is enthralled and soon buys her own doll, which she names Hikaru. It quickly becomes clear that Angelic Layer is a huge hit not only with Misaki, but with the whole country.
As Misaki enters middle school, she makes friends and starts to settle in. As the show progresses, we see her become the "Miracle Rookie" at Angelic Layer who somehow can win despite a desperately short amount of practice and play. Misaki finds that age, height, and all the other things that make her seem small in the real world don't matter on the Layer--only her will to win counts. We also see how the flaky genius Icchan, who early on coaches Misaki, fits into the grand scheme, and as Misaki makes more friends through her progress, we are introduced to all sorts of unique characters. Of course, there is a secret behind Angelic Layer and why Misaki is so good...a secret that may change Misaki's life forever.
Angelic Layer is unique because it combines the romance and drama of a typical girls' serial with fighting sequences normally relegated to boys' programming in Japan. I think it works remarkably well at being a show that could crossover and be popular with both, as there's really something for everyone here. It's hard to categorize, since it has a wide variety of action, comedy, and drama. The only audience that could be lost would be middle school and high school boys who might find Misaki too weak a main character. Otherwise, it's a solid family feature.
I'll go briefly into why it's not a perfect show because I want to move on to why I enjoyed it so much. First, the show works best on a weekly schedule as it originally aired. The Layer fights are ingenious in showing fantasy martial arts violence while simultaneously providing comfort since no real-world character can possibly get hurt. However, back-to-back, they get old fast. Despite some unique traits, they follow the "villain of the week" mode. The best episodes are the ones where there aren't any fights at all, as a matter of fact. Secondly, Misaki is a bit too scatterbrained for my taste as a main character. Granted, she's supposed to appeal to youngish girls who feel much the same way, but she could have had a little bit more personality, in my opinion. Finally, there's not enough real tension in the show. There's no doubt from the way the tournaments are presented that Misaki will get to the final rounds--otherwise, the show wouldn't work. That combined with the nature of the fights can make for a few moments where I want to get up and take a stretch.
Don't think that I didn't like it for those reasons, however, because I did. The secondary cast is thoroughly realized here, and I completely enjoyed watching their relationships work. By the resolution, you just sit back and enjoy how the puzzle pieces have shaken out. Meanwhile, the central mysteries of the series, which are revealed almost completely in episode 14, are interesting in that the whole thing makes perfect logical sense. The show stays grounded in reality (of sorts) despite its fanciful dolls flying into battle. I appreciated that the program plays fair in this way. The concept of the show itself brought new life into the "fight of the week" genre I normally consider to be pretty worthless. And the comedy! The crazy Icchan has become one of my favorite anime characters. His pratfalls just have to be seen to be believed. Even he is more than just comic relief, though, as he plays a touching part in the last few episodes.
I can't help but smile thinking about Angelic Layer. It's fun, it's good-hearted, and it would be a shoo-in for childrens' broadcast TV in the US if anybody had the guts to run a 26 episode series on its own. It's been picked up for distribution by ADV Films, but it may be a while before we see it. Nevertheless, when it does reach these shores, at least pick up the first volume and see if you aren't entertained. It may have a few issues that keep it from greatness, but I really enjoyed it.
Angelic Layer -- mild fantasy violence (none against real persons) -- A-