Children, and the young at heart, have an endless fascination with artificial alter-ego's, of which dolls are perhaps the most obvious. They'll give the doll a name, a personality and imagine it fighting for it's life in arena death-matches...okay, so perhaps the last is a little bit unusual, but CLAMP is hoping you won't notice.
The story begins, as do so many of these titles, with a young girl arriving in Tokyo. Small in size, cautious in nature and in addition both kind and conscientious. She's quite reserved, but there's the familiar shoujo feeling of both strength and weakness locked within her heart. Indeed the reason she decided to travel to Tokyo for high school, leaving her friends behind, is so that she could be closer to her mother, who she's not seen since she was a child, her mother apparently being too "busy" with work.
One can only imagine her feeling small, lost and lonely as she emerges onto the streets of Tokyo. The first she thing she notices however is a huge projection TV showing a battle between a beautiful white angel, wings spread, and another fighter. Apparently this is Angelic layer, the craze of the moment in which dolls follow the orders of their controllers and fight each other. She is entranced, drawn for some reason to the bravery, courage and beauty of the white angel. Indeed, with the help of a curiously interested stranger, she soon finds herself entering into the world of Angelic Layer. A world in which she can experience, and resolve, life from a different angle.
What shall we call this. Shoujo Street-fighter? Cute girl death-match? It's extremely interesting for this element alone, the way it manages to blend shoujo sentimentality and extremely physical arena combat into a single package. The combination of action and character, filtered through CLAMPS extremely likeable characters and impressive visual style, actually works well. Shoujo people will be caught up in the lead confronting her own strengths and weaknesses, and interacting with characters outside the ring. Meanwhile the action people will find the well represented fights, with a great deal of variation in how they play out, entertaining.
Indeed the fights are good fun. Angelic Layer is visualised as being a game in which the players, virtually all female in this series, buy a "generic" doll and customise it. They configure it's strengths, develop techniques and have a strategy. They also have a very personal relationship with the doll, how it reflects them and how they relate to it. The end result is that the dolls have character as reflections of their controller (called deus in the series) and have a lot of variation in how they fight and even how they look as an expression of this personality. The important point being the fights are a lot of fun, the fighters look cool, have varied approaches and the fights themselves have very different tempos. For example Hikaru, the leads doll, is all about the genki energy and physicalism her owner doesn't have. She's built for speed but spends a lot of time up-close, even against "heavier" model angels.
Meanwhile the background story develops nicely. The lead, being just an inherently "nice" person, comes as a bit of a shock to the Angelic Layer community. Many of whom end up resolving issues of their own and actually becoming her friend by the end of the match. Thus opponents tend to become both continuing characters and friends, in addition to her friends who don't actually play the game. These small stories tend to be the focus of the episode, while the larger story of what Angelic layer really is, and the story behind the lead, grows throughout. It's really rather well done and quite addictive... if you can handle shoujo in the first place.
Sadly there is a rather severe weakness to the title. The fact is they've also sacrificed some of the things that make fighting anime great. For example one element of fight titles is the training, a person focused on making themselves stronger through effort and conflict. It doesn't really work here. The lead, imposingly un-physical, can all of a sudden visualise complex and high speed martial arts sequences almost immediately. Likewise she never really gets hurt, she's separated from the doll (although she doesn't like seeing it hurt) and the "damage" is fairly abstract itself. As a result the power of the conflict is reduced by the separation, the fighting by proxy that dolls represent. There's just no real sense of risk or even effort on her part.
In addition the story progression requires a rather horrifying winning streak on her part. Sure she's dubbed the "miracle rookie" in the anime, but it's still a little bit too much. In a lot of fights she's seemingly on the defensive, her doll taking blows that you would imagine would end the game, while she puzzles out her opponents style. Yet the opponent also gives her enough time and space to work it out and make up the deficit. It's all rather unlikely and, once a pattern is established, means that the end result is never really in question. Nor is there really any secret to the dolls, or her, that would explain the result.
The end result of this being that the Shoujo and character elements have a lot more depth than the actual "fight story". Still, it's eminently watchable animation. There's lots of familiar CLAMP elements, including the strange school costume designs, but overall it's very attractive. The characters are well represented, with strong personalities and eminently likeable (I very much like Icchan as a character). The dolls look superb and the fights are imaginative, full of movement and sequence to make them entertaining. Sure, they have to use some short cuts to keep within their TV budget, but it's still great fun to watch. Artwork is bright, models detailed, the surrounding world well realised and the motion smooth. The voices are good, although being both young and small Misaki has a voice that western characters can only reach under the influence of Helium. The music is superb, catchy and fitting, with some of the "stadium" music going straight under the brain and into the spine.
It's Street-fighter Shoujo as a young, likeable but somewhat insecure young girl becomes involves in the game of Angelic Layer. In this game dolls, directed by the mind of their owner, fight on a game arena. And it turns out that the lead, physically unassuming, has the potential to be a master of the game. And along the way she'll grow, make friends by keeping her joy and empathy alive and even resolve an important issue from her past that still troubles her. Good action, likeable characters, excellent animation and a strong shoujo sensibility make this an enjoyable watch.