Twelve year old Misaki Suzuhara has just moved to Tokyo, and given her small stature, she can’t help feeling a little dwarfed by the big city. Small wonder, then, that Misaki immediately finds herself drawn to Angelic Layer- a sport where players battle each other using telepathically controlled dolls known as angels, and where skill and strategy count for a lot more than size. With the help of eccentric scientist Icchan and the new friends she makes in Tokyo, Misaki discovers a natural aptitude for Angelic Layer, and it isn’t long before she makes a name for herself as the “Miracle Rookie”.
Tournament series are hardly uncommon in anime and manga, and at first glance, Angelic Layer appears to be more of the same- there’s the newcomer with an almost superhuman aptitude for her chosen game, assorted friends and rivals, and of course the obligatory qualities of friendship and determination. Nonetheless, the series also comes with a few key differences- not only is the whole story over within a relatively brief five volumes, but in a shocking turn of events, the cast is predominantly female.
Admittedly, these alterations may seem fairly minor in the grand scheme of things, but as someone who is thoroughly fed with seeing the genre dominated by males whilst the female characters are worse than useless, it is a refreshing change to see the girls take centre stage for once. Better still, there is a complete absence of villainous characters trying to take over the world through a children’s game; instead, everyone who plays Angelic Layer participates simply for the fun of it.
Whilst Angelic Layer certainly benefits from abandoning some of the more annoying tournament series clichés, it has to be said that the series is far from perfect. The short length may mean that it is in no danger of losing momentum, but it also makes the series almost too fast-paced; most arcs are forced into the formulaic “Misaki starts losing but makes a comeback through the powers of friendship” mould, whilst the extensive cast barely gets any development at all. Admittedly, the animated version could be a little cloyingly slow in places, but with the manga adopting the opposite extreme, neither version of the story really does justice to the original concept.
Given that the series was created and drawn by CLAMP, it may not seem unreasonable to expect a high standard of artwork, but surprisingly, Angelic Layer is a bit of a letdown when it comes to the visuals. The basic character designs and close-ups are pleasing enough, but the majority of the manga is drawn in a rough style not dissimilar from the early chapters of Tsubasa. Backgrounds are basic; solid blacks and whites are favoured over more complex shading and screentone; and distance shots are simplistic to the point of having the characters look like a cross between a paper cut-out and an octopus. Even action scenes suffer, with some of the impacts and explosions looking like little more than rough sketches.
Although it is certainly an entertaining diversion, Angelic Layer’s weak artwork and average story ensure that this is the weak link in CLAMP’s chain of prolific releases; in fact, this may be one of the few cases where the anime is arguably better the original manga. Unless you’re a hardcore CLAMP fan or have simply run out of other things to read, Angelic Layer shouldn’t be considered a priority for acquisition.