Angelic Layer volume 1: Divine Inspiration (eps 1-4)

By John Huxley, 31st May 04
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Clamp fans rejoice - here's another animated adaptation of the famous manga team's acclaimed work. This time around it's Angelic Layer, a lighthearted tale about a young girl's foray in to the world of a high-tech fighting game where the players control toy dolls with the power of their own thoughts. It might sound a little strange, but bare with me...

The story begins as we meet Misaki Suzuhara, a 12 year old girl who's moving to Tokyo to live with her aunt. No sooner has she disembarked from the train then she sets her eyes on a giant monitor airing a televised match of Angelic Layer. Captivated by the graceful movements of an agile combatant, Misaki is eager to try the unusual sport for herself. By sheer coincidence, luck or perhaps design, the helpful if eccentric pseudo-doctor Icchan arrives on the scene to help show her the ropes. After buying her first doll (or Angel) which she lovingly designs and christens Hikaru, Misaki is slowly introduced to the world of Angelic Layer with the help of Icchan, her new schoolmates and the kind people she befriends on her travels. Not everyone is so eager to help, however, and she soon meets a few fighters (or Deus) that would rather see her Angel in pieces. But they'll have a hard time trying as Misaki and Hikaru show a natural talent for the sport and are soon on their way

to battle it out in a fiercely contested Angelic Layer competition.

As you've no doubt figured out by now, Angelic Layer's concept bares more than a little resemblance to the ever popular Pokemon/Tamagotchi style of game where you raise and nurture your very own pet, more often than not for use in combat. In many ways, despite appearing far-fetched and a little fanciful, the Angelic Layer game could well be the natural progression of Pokemon, presuming it remains popular long enough for the technology to catch up. Feasible or not, I'm sure a lot viewers would jump at the chance to play a similar game if one existed; Clamp seem to have this uncanny ability to tap in to the popular culture of the day, extract the latest and up and coming trends and effortlessly incorporate them in to a story that appeals to a certain audience. There's never been a better example of this than Angelic Layer, and despite the lack of a big-name license, this will certainly appeal to the same audience who religiously play every iteration of Pokemon, Digimon and its cousins.

For those free of Pokemon addiction, it will take a little more than an attractive concept to persuade you to buy in to this series. Things like a good story, exciting action or well developed characters, hopefully? Well, at this early stage the story focuses almost exclusively on the ins and outs of the

Angelic Layer game, introducing us to new rules, ideas and integral characters. Unfortunately this results in what feels like a deathly slow progression, as if the story isn't and never will reach any kind of crescendo or climax. These are mostly introductory episodes, however, so there's room for some improvement yet.

Considering the subject matter you'd expect the action to help spice things up a little, but sadly this isn't the case. While the animation is fine, the direction is entirely ordinary and lacking the imagination and ingenuity required to bring a fight alive. Too often we're subject to tired and predictable techniques that do little to inject excitement it to what should by all rights be the most exhilarating scene of the episode. That said, there is some enjoyment to be garnered from these sequences and they're certainly no worse than anything seen in the likes of Card Captor Sakura or the Pokemon franchise's animations. Just as long as you lower your expectations, you won't feel too disappointed.

One aspect of Clamp's work that is remains consistently excellent is the imaginative and often beautiful character designs. Angelic Layer might not contain a single character as iconic as Card Captor Sakura, but the general quality of design on show is nothing short of brilliant. As per usual with Clamp's designs, several liberties have been taken in order to make things look that little more pretty, the most obvious being

the amusingly elaborate school uniforms that Misaki and her friend's wear for a good portion of the episodes. If all school uniforms looked like this then I'm sure the kids wouldn't mind wearing them so much! Some of the less important Angels have been given unfortunately drab, dull designs - most likely to accentuate the colourful and visually interesting Hikaru. Still, Angelic Layer provides plenty of visual interest and should be a license that makes for some great toys and figures if you're ever able to get your hands on some.

Pleasingly, the character's personalities match their colourful designs. They're more often than not likeable, bubbly characters free of the complexities of real life - typical fare for this type of animation. Most of the characters besides Misaki have some idiosyncrasy that forms the butt of a running gag - potential perverts, bullied co-workers and unlikely homicidal maniacs all make an appearance on a regular basis, keeping the atmosphere lighthearted. Very rarely was I given cause to laugh out loud or even chuckle to myself, yet I feel Angelic Layer would be worse off without the silly gags and puerile jokes as they help liven up the lacklustre action and dull story no end.

Not Clamp's finest (although I guess I'd have to read the manga before I pass judgement on Clamp themselves) but a neat concept that should entertain Pokemon fanatics and give them something to dream about...

By John Huxley, 31st May 04

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