By Hugh David.
In the near future, the biggest sporting phenomenon in Japan and a hit on Japanese TV is the fighting ‘electronic doll’ game Angelic Layer. The ‘Angels’ are remote-controlled android dolls, while the ‘Layer’ is the combat arena. Twelve-year-old Misaki Suzuhara moves to stay with her aunt in Tokyo, but stumbles across a match and becomes hooked by the game, especially the thought of piloting one of the ‘dolls’. Roboticist/game guide Icchan becomes her fairy godfather in making this dream come true, and we follow Misaki alongside the friends she makes as they battle their Angels through the layers of the competition in search of victory.
The CLAMP team are creative legends who, after such a long career, should need no introduction – this year sees the thirtieth anniversary of their first publication. It is probably still worth mentioning, though, how unique they once seemed to the eyes of Western fans, a group still getting used to the breadth of possibilities inherent in the medium. Alongside Rumiko Takahashi, they blazed a trail for works by female Japanese creators as their media expanded, while as a creative collective they demonstrated a remarkable consistency in their works: of artistic style, of narrative tone, and of emotionally deeper characterisation. More importantly to foreign licensors, they were hit-makers; their 12th series, 1990s manga and anime Cardcaptor Sakura,was not just a massive hit in Japan, it even aired in its US-localised version in a children’s slot on ITV here in the UK. There, it became a key gateway for a younger generation, and not merely the young men being enticed by Manga Entertainment’s approach that same decade.
Angelic Layer was, and still is, one of the most purely fun stories to come from the collective. Misaki is a delight of a heroine, untroubled by too much angst and carried forward by a tomboy’s ambition to excel at the sport she enjoys. Her bond with her Angel Hikaru is as important as that between Ash and Pikachu, aimed at a similar audience at the time. Arguably it helped put the now-legendary Studio BONES on the international map, given it was their second series, and both their fluid animation and renderings of CLAMP’s designs remain as enjoyable now as they did then. The costumes, the humour, the fight choreography and the unfolding drama (the latter replete with family secrets) all make for a visually attractive and emotionally compelling experience over and above the typical fighting tournament series.
Sadly, for all its relative global success Angelic Layer did not live up to the commercial expectations foreign licensors had for it. The female fans created by Cardcaptor, who by then were coming of appropriate age and spending power, would, it was argued by senior execs at Western licensors, only buy manga, not DVDs. Instead, given most discs sold back then were bought by male fans, the release was targeted solely at them, as if the format of the subgenre would be enough to capture them. Sure, there was a collectible element designed into the show in terms of the Angels and their abilities, but all those other, more substantive elements mentioned earlier were at the time just not sufficiently interesting to them. Or maybe they did not like the satirical digs at male otaku that CLAMP were starting to sneak in, which would reach their peak in their later series Chobits, set in the same world as Angelic Layer and far more controversial. Either way, maybe now the show can find its true, broader audience in the streaming world with a new generation of fans. It certainly deserves to.
Angelic Layer will be released in the UK by Anime Limited.