Judge Sandra Dozier goes gaga for a girl fighter anime with heart... and cute little dollies... that kick ass.
Angels and holy terrors.
The concept of girls playing with dolls is taken to a whole new level in Angelic Layer, where the dolls are tangible, hard-wired constructs that respond to their specific owner's thoughts. This anime is in the same sort of gaming genre as the hugely popular Pokemon, but it does a good job of establishing a depth of character and story that sets it apart from its gaming brethren.
Facts of the Case
The title, Angelic Layer, refers to a multi-player game in which dolls less than a foot tall are able to move and fight in a special field called the Layer. The doll, or "angel," is controlled by the electronically transmitted thoughts of its player/owner, who is called a "Deus" (not coincidentally spelled like the Latin for "god" but pronounced as "Deuce" in the anime). The Deuses synch with their dolls, who come alive in the Layer and fight opponents in organized matches. Each doll (most are female, even when played by the rare male Deus) has her own unique abilities and weaknesses.
Misaki Suzuhara is an aspiring young Angelic Layer rookie who recently moved to Tokyo after living with her grandparents for a while. Because her mother has been away for several years pursing her work, Misaki now lives with her aunt Shoko, who works as an anchor for a pop-culture TV show. Although Misaki doesn't know it, her mother actually had to leave due to a degenerative illness that prevented her from caring for Misaki, and has been unwilling to return until she has recovered fully. Partly due to her mom's absence, Misaki is a strong, independent girl who has a core of sadness. She meets new people and makes new friends almost immediately, and she is befriended by the quirky Ichiro, an adult who mentors her regarding her Layer battles. She establishes her reputation early in the regional games and looks to be a contender to go on to the Nationals.
Misaki adores her angel, whom she names Hikaru. In battle, she is concerned for Hikaru's safety, and she learns to fight in a way that doesn't unduly injure Hikaru if she can help it…The two are virtually inseparable, and Misaki can be found in many scenes cradling Hikaru's inactive body affectionately. The friends Misaki meets will become very important to her future success as she works through the regional tournament matches.
In Volume Three, Misaki's relationship with her crush Kotaro grows, and he nervously asks if she would like to visit him at his dojo and observe his Karate practice in order to improve her skill with Hikaru. Is this a date, or not? Even their friend Tamayo-chan isn't sure (but Misaki is going to make a box lunch just in case). Meanwhile, she goes up against popular (but refreshingly sweet-natured) Idol singer Ringo and the scheming Fujisaki sisters, who don't like to lose. Is Hikaru moving so slowly because Misaki is distracted, or is it something else more sinister?
The similarity of Angelic Layer to other anime in the gaming genre is very strong—players even wear headsets and sit on specially designed chairs in an arena like in Dragon Drive, and they operate dolls that have human-like realistic movements and exist in fully realized mini-realities, such as the avatars in .hack//SIGN. There's a fairly standard roster of players, as well: Misaki, the rookie who has amazing abilities and a special relationship with her fighting doll; her friend, one-girl fan club, and erstwhile suitor Tamayo-chan (who never comes out and admits a lesbian attraction, but who dances around the issue enticingly, breaking the mold slightly for this character type); the rival (Hatoko) who becomes her friend; and the opponents and spectators who are won over by Misaki's charm, perseverance, and guilelessness.
Here is where the similarities end, and it just gets better and better as things unfold. The cast for Angelic Layer is massive, with no fewer than eight major characters that have active roles in every episode (or every other episode at least). However, the story is so well done that you not only know who each one is, but you care about them and want to know more about them. The fights are also well done—for a girl's gaming anime, you might expect a lot of pretty dolls and cutesy fighting, but what you get is real hand-to-hand combat, damage, and unique fighting styles that are based on the configuration of the doll herself. Oh, and lots of pretty dolls on top of that. The prettiest is Shirahime, a white-haired and white-garbed doll whose eyes are as cold as the color of her hair suggests—she may be beautiful, but it's a frightening kind of pretty that works well during battle.
Misaki, the heroine, is an idealist, and fills the well-worn role of the constantly optimistic young girl who opens her heart to everyone and always sees the positive in any situation. Much of the show rests on her shoulders, and this is probably what will make it or break it for the fan base. For those who find Misaki's unshakable optimism to be saccharine and annoying, the show will probably be a slow torture. However, for fans of escapist entertainment who want to relate to or at least bask in the glow of Misaki's innocence and youthful exuberance, this show provides healthy doses of inspiring determination on the part of the players, Misaki in particular.
The primary difference between Angelic Layer and gender-neutral or guy-oriented game anime is the social conscience of this show. For Misaki, making friends is just as important as playing Angelic Layer, and although becoming a good fighter and doing her best with Hikaru is important to her, so is being there for her friends and making sure that she has a happy home life with her aunt, Shoko, who has been very kind. There are as many scenes with Misaki cleaning the house, running errands, and preparing a nice breakfast for hard-working Shoko as there are of Misaki preparing for Angelic Layer battles. This type of personalization and outward focus is part of the core appeal of this show and elevates it beyond the sort of popcorn entertainment that is the trademark of other anime in this genre. The luxury with Angelic Layer is in being able to choose whether to watch this anime for the strong characterization and story, for the cool game and fighting, or both.
This same social underpinning is also responsible for some of the identity issues that Misaki and her friends face during the course of the series. Misaki herself is very small for her age—shorter and with a smaller build. People are constantly mistaking her for a fourth grader, even though she's in junior high school already. She's never quite figured out how to overcome it, and it's no coincidence that her doll Hikaru is also light and small. Hikaru has abilities that Misaki lacks in real life, though—power, coordination, and athletic prowess. How Misaki deals with these issues adds depth to her character and interest to the show. Her good friend Hatoko-chan, a five-year-old who adores Misaki like a big sister and is wise beyond her years, also fights a size prejudice, yet she understands that size and age don't matter in the Angelic Layer. This is a strong metaphor for real life that becomes an appealing message in the show.
The animation for Angelic Layer strikes a good balance between the sort of mass-produced simplicity of kid-oriented titles like Pokemon and the glossy super-rich look of a typical original animation video or "motion picture" title. There is a certain level of attention to detail, and some gorgeous background and landscape scenery, but animation tends to alternate between the crisp, neon-bright arena and Layer fight scenes, and the more muted but lovely scenes of Misaki's everyday and home life. In other words, the animation adapts to set the mood, which is an important qualifier for any anime that wants to achieve emotional depth.
The DVD transfer for Angelic Layer preserves the quality of the original, presenting a nice depth of color and a clear image. Sound quality is also excellent, with an active field for voice, effects, and ambient noise. Other than clean opening and closing segments, the major extra on this set is a (relatively) scene-specific voice commentary by English dub director David Williams and voice actress Shelly C. Black, who plays Madoka (one of the scheming Fujisaki sisters). This commentary isn't quite as sharp, in terms of relevance to the episode, as others that I have heard, but Williams and Black have a lively conversation, talking about outside influences on voice acting and what it is like to be in the industry, and this makes the commentary interesting for voice acting buffs. Best line: "You pick up a lot of Japanese in this line of work…unfortunately, most of it is things like 'Oh my God! It's a monster!' and 'Get those tentacles away from me!'—it's not gonna do you a whole lot of good when you're over in Japan."
And now, time for the part where I lavish my fangirl love all over ADV Films and their voice talent. Ahem. Thank goodness for ADV. Once again, English vocal performances nail every character dead-on. Even tiny Hatoko-chan has a believable child voice, which is not an easy achievement—ask a random friend to imitate a child voice and listen for the difference. What I like so much about ADV is that they do a good job of creating an English dub that translates Japanese cultural sayings into something Westerners can relate to, without completely destroying the intent or original meaning. When appropriate, even awkward-sounding phrases are kept if they have significance for a character or plot point. As an example, one of the characters is called the "Ice Machine"—the temptation here (the very strong temptation, were this left up to me) is to change this to "Ice Princess," but that would lose too much of the original sense, which is something like "Ice Fighting Machine." Thus, the compromise. The plus is that the voice actors really sell it—the announcer says it smoothly and without a telltale pause or lilt that might indicate this is at all a strange thing to say.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The gigantic cast, intertwining plots, and idealistic determination of lead and supporting characters may be too much sensory overload for some viewers. Although Angelic Layer does a good job of managing all of these things, the reality is that some people prefer a more intimate character experience and will not relate to such a wide-sweeping story. The scope of this series is simplified somewhat in that nearly every scene relates to Misaki somehow—either she is in it or seeing it from her own point of view, or it is about people who love her and/or are doing things for her. That does help establish consistency, but it also makes it easier to integrate more characters, including guest spots from new opponents and Layer game groupies, who are spotlighted for an episode or two, then leave the story line.
This is a great series for anyone interested in fighting-doll stories that pack more of a punch than just cool fight sequences and moralizing about keeping up with one's studies in the face of a growing addiction to gaming. Here you can have your cake and eat it, too…or just content yourself with drooling over the fabulous box lunches that pint-size Misaki constantly prepares.
Angelic Layer and Misaki-chan are something special—all charges dropped!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
• Commentary on "Finish It Off! Hikaru and Mao's Important Game" by Director David Williams and Actress Shelly C. Black
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