Reviewby Zac Bertschy, Dec 16th 2003
DVD 1: Divine Inspiration
Fresh off the train in Tokyo, Misaki, a twelve year old middle school student, is adjusting to a new life with her aunt. Miskai quickly gets swept up in to the world of Angelic Layer, a fighting game where two kids with customized living dolls battle it out for total supremacy. Misaki's angel, named Hikaru, starts climbing the competition ladder, with the help of Misaki's friends Kotaro, Hatoko and Tamayo. A mysterious stranger calling himself ‘Icchan’ helps Misaki along the way, as new mysteries surrounding Misaki's family are uncovered.
Studio CLAMP, beloved by fans across the world, has invaded nearly every anime genre at this point, usually with resounding success. Chobits marked the manga circle's first foray into shounen romance territory, while Magic Knight Rayearth set fantasy storytelling on its ear. Angelic Layer is CLAMP's entry in to the collectible fighting monsters genre (think Pokémon or Digimon), eschewing the ‘monster’ part in favor of little humanoid dolls wearing spandex. The result is difficult to judge, coming across as a toy commercial for a toy you can't purchase.
The story follows totally-average junior high student Misaki and her journey through the prestigious ranks of Angelic Layer, a highly popular game where kids pay through the nose for collectible dolls that fight eachother. Sound familiar? The entire story structure is extremely similar to shows like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!, where an impressionable kid finds out about a hot new game, and quickly becomes the best player in the land. We all know what purpose shows like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! serve; they exist to sell the game the show is based on. The problem with Angelic Layer is, it apes the formula found in these other series to a tee, but you can't actually play the Angelic Layer game, so what's the point? It's as if the director saw these other shows and didn't understand that the story was written in order to sell collectable game cards. Essentially, you have something that's written and designed like a marketing gimmick, without the product to back it up.
Of course, this being a CLAMP series, it departs from the pre-established formula on several levels, and it's these various departures that save it from the Pokémon scrap heap. The show tries to focus on character interaction and relationship development rather than the dolls themselves. As it is, we spend far too much time in the arena watching these kids throw dolls at eachother, but any time not spent there is used to develop the characters, which is a refreshing departure from the Pokémon formula. There's very little drama during the battles, since it's never really clear what's at stake. We know Misaki is competing against someone for something, but since she can't be hurt and the doll usually recovers instantly from the fight, watching Angelic Layer is a lot like watching two people play a fighting video game. It's highly interesting if you play the game yourself, but since nobody can actually play Angelic Layer, the fight scenes are completely skippable.
Regardless of the formula, Angelic Layer has some interesting characters. Misaki is somewhat bland, but since the heroine in these sorts of stories always is, that's forgivable to a point. The manic doctor Icchan is an interesting character, and provides both comic relief and story depth at appropriate moments. Misaki's friends and family both provide a huge amount of intrigue and plot development; there are few wasted characters and the cast is kept relatively small. The problem is, aside from the supporting cast, there just isn't anyone to root for in this show. Misaki wanders from plot point to plot point cluelessly. We're continuously asked to hold our attention during Angel fights that are completely uninteresting just to get to the meat of the story. It's an unfortunate flip-flop back and forth between interesting and uninteresting events, and the result is a little frustrating to sit through.
The dub is expertly handled by ADV's talented English cast. Jessica Boone voices Misaki's clueless 12-year old voice like a pro. She's one of the few instances where a young girl is believably dubbed in to English. In an amazing feat of acting prowess, Andy McAvin effortlessly pulls off Icchan's numerous leaps between stoic and insane. Again, a character that could have been a complete disaster manages to match the Japanese performance in tone and delivery to the letter. Most of the supporting cast is surprisingly well-done. Even Misaki's fiery female friend (you know, “hyperactive competitive tomboy girl” that shows up in nearly every series now) is performed with finesse. The dub for this series is nothing short of a marvel, and you should take the time to appreciate it.
The animation in Angelic Layer is a marvel. Brought to life by the world-famous Studio BONES, the characters move with grace and fluidity seldom seen in other series. The backgrounds are bright and colorful, and frequently very beautiful. ADV's crisp and flawless digital transfer really makes the show shine. The character designs are surprisingly generic for a CLAMP series; the principal characters all look alike. They didn't use much variation in the facial design, and since most of the time the chief cast members are wearing idential outfits, it makes for a somewhat generic-looking series. The Angel dolls themselves are a cosplayer's paradise, rife with crazy outfits and imaginative armor. Design, like the plot itself, seems to be split down the middle in terms of quality.
Regardless of its production values, Angelic Layer is something of a conundrum. They took what was basically a crass marketing gimmick, removed the product, and added a few reliable CLAMP ingredients. The result is something with equal parts good and bad, and is destined to divide fans down the middle. If you love the fighting monsters genre, then you'll definitely want to check this one out. Longtime CLAMP fans already know they need to purchase this. Everyone else should proceed with caution.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C
Animation : A
Art : B
Music : B
+ Great animation, fun characters
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