Arguably CLAMP's most accessible series brings a kinder, gentler perspective to beating people up.
What They Say
The moment small town girl Misaki Suzuhara arrives in Tokyo, she is thrust into the excitement of Angelic Layer--a high-tech, fast-paced game where dolls called Angels are controlled by the thoughts of their operators, also called Deus. Twelve-year-old Misaki, a middle school freshman now living with her aunt, quickly makes friends with others who are as interested in Angelic Layer as she is. Misaki builds her own Angel, Hikaru, and begins competing in battles where will and determination count for far more than size and strength.
Like many other ADV releases, Angelic Layer features a 5.1 English mix, which is what I used for my main viewing sessions. The standouts here are, as they should be, the Angel fights. The cheers of the crowd and the reverberating echos of the annoucements are a little more enveloping in the surround mix than in the Japanese stereo mix provided alongside (which is no slouch either). In other respects the tracks are more or less identical: they're servicable for what they're doing, and sound fine. The dub is also pretty good. Be sure to check it out if only to hear Vic Mignogna as the host.
Angelic Layer features a pretty clean transfer that makes the show look as bright and colourful as it needs to. Problems are minor and brief. There's a little bit of banding, a smidgen of noise in the darker scenes, and I caught one very short instance of rainbowing. None of this are particularly distracting, though, and I think most viewers will be pleased with the way this looks.
The five discs included are packaged in a uniform if not eye-catching combination of yellow thinpak cases and a sturdy yellow box. The cover images, front and back, are nice and cheerful, but I'm not really sure what they tell me about the show. The only visual reference to any aspect of the Angelic Layer tournament is on a card resting inside the shrinkwrap on the back of the box, which strikes me as kind of missing the boat. I'd feel better if the star Angel at least were on there someplace. The thinpak cases have some nice art and include the titles to the episodes on their respective discs, so those are fine. All in all it looks decent, but I liked the other box better.
These are about as simple as humanly possible, but you won't be spending any time here, so it doesn't really matter. Each disc has only two screens (saving the first disc, which has an extra one for the ADV previews): one for episode selection, one for language option. Episode titles are not given, so you'll need to consult the back of the case if you need to refer to those. No chapter menu is provided, but chapter stops are in the usual places if you need them.
Since I don't consider trailers as extras, I get to pass on this section.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
CLAMP can claim a large and devoted international following, among which they cannot include me. For a long time I had only ventured into their manga works and given a miss to the animated adaptations. I was unimpressed by Tokyo Babylon; revolted by Chobits; and, somehow, totally unaffected by Cardcaptor Sakura. Tsubasa initially hooked me with its premise - but I dropped it after I found the execution to be second-rate. But things I'd heard about the Angelic Layer TV series made me think about giving it a whirl sometime. I knew it was a fighting show, and that was a point in its favour. Not because I am more of a fighting-show fan than the average viewer, but because I thought the restraints of the genre would rein in some of CLAMP's more foolish excesses. It also seemed to appeal to the sort of people whose tastes are closest to mine. And it was at the very least a light show, by all reports.
So when the chance came to see the show I took it. And for the most part I'm glad I did. It was also gratifying to find that my triangulation of other opinions and my own speculations were pretty close to the actual viewing experience. I may have set my crosshairs a little too high, but not much.
The show begins simply and very, very quickly. We're not far into the first episode when we (and the heroine) catch our first glimpse of the tournament that will come to dominate the show, but not quite as much as it ought to. Angelic Layer is a sport where two mentally controlled dolls, called "Angels", get together on a round, flat surface with an invisible dome, called (you guessed it) the "Layer", and duke it out. Misaki is a small town girl who has many of the characteristics small town girls tend to have in fiction. She's simple, honest, tends to be awkward; friendly, but a little shy too; and wide-eyed in the big city. She has a lot of appeal, though, and her naivete is useful for the story as there are a lot of things that need to be explained to her and there are good reasons for scenes where the viewer is brought up to speed. Of course there are plenty of other characters of varying importance and the show does a good job of juggling its numerous and diverse cast. Personally, I could do with a lot more of Ringo, since she's the only consistently funny character in the show, but appears with frustrating sporadicity. (Is that even a word? I guess if it wasn't, it is now.)
After a few very brief lessons in the game Misaki finds herself in the Angelic Layer Tournament. In my view this initial learning aspect of the show was too hasty. I can understand the need for getting into the fights quickly - but the way Misaki picks it all up almost intuitively is a bit of a strain on the ol' credibility. A few explanations are offered, of course: heredity, trying hard, etc. But those don't add up to quite the level of ability Misaki demonstrates. I wish some more time had been spent on learning and beefing up skills; say, at a training camp or something. That would have made Misaki's skills a little more believable, while keeping the all-important fight scenes at the beginning. As it is we get Misaki winning round after round at the tournament level. It's not a mistake that gets up and glares at you, but this part of the show has some room for improvement.
A mistake that does get up and glare at you is not something relegated to any one part of the show, but scattered all through it; and that makes it harder to overlook. Moreover, it's a flaw in a relatively simple area. The comic relief - never one of CLAMP's strong points - fails almost constantly. Most of the jokes consist of either persecution or idiocy. The worst combine the two. ("Your penalty for guessing wrong is to eat spaghetti through your nose!") It really wears you down after a while. It's not so much comic relief as comic oppression. And while we're on the subject of errors I may as well get the last out of the way. The final part of the series (as well as the middle to a lesser degree) tries to play the Big Emotion card at the expense of the Anglic Layer games that have been, and ought to continue to be, the focus of the series. This wasn't a bad idea in itself. But in the context of the series and the way things have been set up, these scenes don't quite seem to fit. The puppyish romance wasn't that good to begin with. But to yank the rug out and shuffle two key relationships in the last few episodes practically negates that whole angle. A lot of time ends up being wasted when it could have been put to much better use developing Misaki's skills at the beginning of the show. Or take the above spaghetti quote. That line is spoken by a character whose motives we're meant to sympathize with in a big way later on in the show. How can we do that once the series has established him as primarily a jerk and a weirdo?
The common denominator in all these problems - except for the comic relief, which you can only fix with a pair of scissors or an axe - is that they all take the viewer, and the story, away from Angelic Layer. And the Angelic Layer games are the life-blood of the show. Whenever it finds itself distracted from either the game itself or the game's reasons for existence, it becomes obnoxious or flails helplessly. But when it sticks to its strength and stay, it can soar with the best of 'em.
And, thankfully, the show does that more often than not. Angelic Layer is a fighting show, and fighting is what it does best. It manages to avoid the large pitfall of the genre: battles that go on forever and/or look pretty much alike. There are a couple of good wrinkles that allow for this. In the first place, the angels are almost limitlessly customizable, the upshot of which is plenty of different designs and fighting styles. Another nice touch is that the angel doesn't exactly mirror her operator: an Angel can be an extension of one facet in her controller's personality, or an expression of what she wants to be rather than what she is. Late in the tournament we get one more touch added to the Layer itself. The flat surface is replaced with different kinds of terrain in each bout (best: a pirate ship at sea) and that just adds one more angle to the strategy. And make no mistake, there is plenty of strategy. Each fight gets its own running commentary from several different characters, depending on who's watching, explaining the moves, countermoves, attacks and defenses. A double advantage lies here in that we always know the whats and whys of the battle, and can get a little more exposition at critical moments; and, even better, it increases the suspense by drawing out the fights a just a little bit more.
There is however another side to Angelic Layer (meaning the game rather than the show) beyond the genuinely exciting and imaginative Angel fighting, and that is the larger significance of the game. I'm not thinking so much of the reasons the game was invented - though this leads to some good scenes and enriches the show once it is revealed. I'm thinking more of the effect the game has on Misaki and the other players. There's a satisfaction in being good at something that the show does an excellent job at portraying. In fact, all the best elements of competition are shown to good advantage. The friends made, the meeting of minds; learning to win and learning to lose; the give and take of teaching and acquiring skills in turn; the courtesy and spirit of fair play. All of these give the show a warmth that the fighting genre is often missing. At its best, Anglic Layer is a little like Comic Party with sport instead of manga. At less than its best, it could stand to learn something from itself: the important thing is to have fun.
After all is said and done, I've probably said too much and done too little. So I'll do my best to gather my sprawling and haphazard utterances into a managable bundle. Angelic Layer is a flawed, but ultimately satisfying show. It does one thing, and that the main thing, suberbly; but it can't do anything else well. When it tries, it fails as spectacularly as it has been succeeding at its strengths. The contrast between what it can and can't do can be pretty funny at times. It's something like watching a dancer perform an intricate routine with speed and precision, and then fall down the stairs on her way out. But keep your attention on the routine and the performance will be enjoyable.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English 5.1 Language, English Subtitles
Sony 35" KV-35XBR88 SDTV, Sony SLV-D370P DVD Player (via generic component), Yamaha RX-V550 DD/DTS Receiver, Infinity Primus C25 and 150 speakers