Shounen – Action, comedy, sci-fi
5 Volumes / 2 Omnibuses (complete)
Tokyopop / Dark Horse
On her way to her aunt’s house, Misaki sees an incredible battle between a large fighter and a small one. She learns that those brawlers were actually dolls, toys controlled by players in a game known as Angelic Layer. With the help of an eccentric stranger, Misaki decides to become a Deus. But can a newbie really succeed in Angelic Layer?
Angelic Layer can be described in one of two ways:
- Cardcaptor Sakura Lite
- The story of dolls and octopuses
Either way, that’s Angelic Layer.
Like Cardcaptor Sakura, Misaki is cute but rather gullible girl who is determined never to give up. Both have some… passionate friends with rather odd hobbies (and similar names to boot), and both protagonists each meet a mysterious boy who is always smiling.
As for the second descriptions, dolls fight, and the character’s SD forms (which appear very, very often) have them looking as if they have octopus limbs.
Anyway, Misaki, who is short for her age, decides to go to school in Tokyo and live with her mother’s younger sister. As she arrives in the big city, she sees Angelic Layer for the first time, and she immediately empathizes with the smaller doll fighting a larger one. When the little doll wins, Misaki falls in love with the game. A man known as “Icchan” appears and helps her get started in the game as she makes her Angel. Misaki becomes close with a couple of her new classmates (Koutarou and Tamayo) and bonds with some other Deuses (players) as she makes her Angelic Layer debut.
At only five volumes, Angelic Layer is a very short action series. This is a tournament manga that covers a single tournament. Angelic Layer wasn’t CLAMP’s first manga targeting a male audience, but it definitely was their first attempt at a more traditional shounen. (Their other early shounen works include the sentai parody Duklyon: CLAMP School Defenders and the phantom thief and childhood sweethearts manga Man of Many Faces.) Misaki faces increasing odds as she battles some of Japan’s best, but like many shounen protagonists, she has an innate talent for the sport.
This is best described as a gateway shounen. In fact, I would call Angelic Layer a gateway manga. The violence is all between toys, a fighting game fought with the power of the mind instead of button presses. No complicated backstories, no drama, no life-or-death situations. Misaki mentions several times she hasn’t seen her mother in years, but the reason turns out to be based in comedy, not drama. It also isn’t that far from shoujo manga, but unlike Cardcaptor Sakura, Angelic Layer doesn’t have any age gap romances. The main couple is portrayed as two young middle schoolers who like each other instead of Ultimate True Love. The only parts I guess some parents might have a problem with is Tamayo’s penchant for testing karate moves on Koutarou to the point he almost passes out and the fact a strange stranger (pun intended) pops out of nowhere and laughs maniacally. Again, though, these are supposed to make you laugh, and you likely will. Looney Tunes is more objectionable than Angelic Layer.
Speaking of Icchan, he really is the star of the manga.
He is a textbook crazy mentor and mad scientist, and a lot of people end up calling police on him. He randomly appears with a boom in front of Misaki and gives her helpful advice. Misaki doesn’t know why he takes an interest in her or knows so much about Angelic Layer, but his reasons are quickly revealed to the reader. Angelic Layer may take some flak for its not-so-secret secrets, but I find this refreshing after so many of CLAMP’s later works involve characters constantly talking in riddles. Of course, any person who has experienced Angelic Layer can’t forget Icchan’s relationship with Ogata. Ogata functions as Icchan’s gofer, and the poor sap is constantly threatened with punishment games should he fail to fulfill Icchan’s requests.
But of course, the main aspect of any tournament manga is the tournaments. (Well, in this case, tournament.) Most of Misaki’s opponents are female, so it is interesting to see a sports-like manga where females are shown to be capable participants and not included to just provide fanservice. Hikaru doesn’t get any special magic-like attacks, so a lot of Angelic Layer just comes down to punches and kicks. While a lot of fights in fantasy manga boil down to traditional brawls, Angelic Layer is just a fun activity involving toys. So because of this, readers don’t get the sense of urgency like they normally would in an action manga. Yu-Gi-Oh! often involved life-or-death situations, and a bad Trainer in the world of Pokémon could injure a live creature. Worse case is that an Angel may need a new body; Angelic Layer doesn’t have any villainous rivals who destroy Angels or anything. Most of her opponents love Angelic Layer, and the only (for lack of better term) antagonistic rivals are redeemed without Misaki ever knowing anything. I do like the rivals, but the manga is too short to get to know them outside the Layer.
One aspect of significance to consider is that this series includes a lot of CLAMP references. Hikaru of course is based on the heroine of Magic Knight Rayearth, and Misaki sings some CLAMP songs while cleaning. If you have (or want to read) Chobits, Angelic Layer ties directly into that series, so read this before Chobits. (Although I hate my ship being ruined…)
Finally, the art. In many ways, again, this is Cardcaptor Sakura Lite. Misaki’s cheerful face framed by strands of longer brown hair. However, the art is greatly simplified, a prototype of where the group would go with Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle. What also stands out is use of the octopus limbs that I referred to previously CLAMP really played up the comedy here with lots of images of bobbleheads with star-shaped bodies. They had often used this style for group shots, but they use it constantly here for main characters. You do see a lot of this type of exaggeration in their later manga xxxHolic, but at least the whole manga itself had its own visual feel, one very different from made-for-younger-girls Cardcaptor Sakura. Again, this makes Angelic Layer seem more like for younger readers.
As for the fight scenes, it can be a little hard to keep up with at times. Most of the Angels are focused on speed, so a lot of the action is just a bunch of punch effects. CLAMP also has Tamayo and Koutarou discussing the match, so this often takes up a good amount of pagetime. However, CLAMP’s designs are always gorgeous. Suzuka’s Japanese-inspired battle outfit in high heels, Kaede’s warm smiling face, a bunny-eared doll… beautiful. Angelic Layer is definitely high-energy, so we don’t get too many dramatic shots. When they take the time to show Misaki worrying about Hikaru’s weak point or spend two pages on Koutarou’s karate moves, you can see more of why CLAMP’s art is so treasured. A whole lot better than octopus limbs…
I’m not going to dive into this too much. Suffice to say, Tokyopop has problems with consistency. The boy Misaki meets, for instance, is both “Kotaro” and “Koutarou”. Honorifics appear and disappear. Certain jokes are not explained, most notably all the CLAMP references like the songs Misaki sings. However, they do keep/give Misaki and Icchan catchphrases, so at least this aspect wasn’t ignored.
I’ve compared parts of the Dark Horse version, and the translation is very similar. Some parts are edited to be more accurate (and Misaki’s catchphrase cry is changed I believe), but the bumps in Tokyopop’s version isn’t enough to warrant double-dipping. The colored inserts are in both versions as well, but the funny newspaper summaries are only in Tokyopop’s.
Angelic Layer is best for a) CLAMP fans, particular those who have or want to read Chobits and b) younger readers.
Between Dark Horse, Kodansha Comics, and Tokyopop, almost all of CLAMP’s catalog has been released. Sentai Filmworks has re-released the anime.