Twelve-year old Misaki Suzuhara hasn't seen her mother in 7 years, and it looks like she's not going to get to anytime soon - the on-going excuse is that her mother's work is keeping her too busy to see her daughter, or even talk to her on the phone. Misaki tells everyone that she doesn't want to trouble her mother and doesn't push to see her or get into contact with her, but, really, what child wouldn't be hurt by 7 years of "sorry, work's keeping me too busy"? And who could really believe that kind of excuse anyway?
Misaki has recently moved to Tokyo to live with her aunt. Before she even gets to her aunt's place, however, Misaki has managed to get completely hooked on Angelic Layer, a new and popular game in which players battle against each other using fully customizable dolls that can be moved with the power of a player's mind (but only when the doll is on a "layer," a special circular playing field). With the help of a strange (and potentially creepy) man, Misaki selects a doll and various accessories. After customizing her doll, the strange man ("Icchan") helps Misaki learn how to play the game and even gets her into tournaments that put her on the path to playing in the national championships. What Misaki doesn't know is that her love of Angelic Layer may eventually bring her into contact with her mother.
Although I won't say that this is the best anime ever, there are plenty of reasons to enjoy it. I don't tend to be a fan on anime/manga in which children battle against each other with some kind of toy, whether it's a card game or dolls. If this series had been just about dolls ("angels" in Angelic Layer speak) fighting against each other, I wouldn't have been as hooked on it. Yes, it's fun seeing how the different angels fight and what one player will come up with in an attempt to beat another player, but if that's all that were going on it'd make for a pretty flimsy series. For me, the fun of the series was the characters and their relationships with one another, the humor, and the mystery of Misaki's mother.
There are tons of characters in this series. In my opinion, one of the series' weaknesses is that there isn't enough time for each of these characters to be thoroughly developed - in most cases, their basic motivations are revealed, and that's it. I was usually satisfied with that, but it also meant that there was nothing in the series that grabbed me enough to make me start feeling that "I need to buy this" feeling.
Still, there's plenty to like - friendships, rivalries, and even romance. This series has some of the nicest rivalries ever. Whenever Misaki beats someone in Angelic Layer (which she does almost every single time she plays - it bothered me a bit that she hardly ever lost), instead of becoming upset, most of her opponents find themselves wanting to become her friends. People who cheat at Angelic Layer end up abandoning their cheating ways after playing Misaki. I'm too much of a cynic to say that this is very realistic, but it's pleasant. Since I think the intended audience for this show is pretty young, it may be that the intention was to show viewers what proper sportsman-like behavior is.
Had this been a series intended for boys, I'm not sure the snippets of romance would have survived. As it is, they're not really a vital part of the story, but they do add a nice bit of flavor. Misaki, of course, is part of a couple romantic subplots. Kotaro, a classmate, has a crush on her, not realizing that someone close to him has loved him for years. Misaki may like Kotaro in return, but she also has a crush on Ohjiro Mihara, a handsome and talented older (15, I think) Angelic Layer player. Icchan is in love with Misaki's mother, and Ohjiro is dealing with an old crush on Misaki's mother. Really, if you drew a diagram of all of this, plus characters' other relationships to one another, it would all look a little dysfunctional. Still, the fangirl part of me says "Yay!" The way Jessica Boone voices Misaki in the English dub makes her seem a little too young for either Kotaro or Ohjiro (especially Ohjiro, who sounds very mature for a 15-year-old), but if you can get over that little detail all the romance is lots of fun, if not always very well developed.
The series' humor was one of the first things to grab me and convince me to keep watching. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that it was Icchan that convince me to keep watching - Icchan is the source of almost all of the series' humor, as he tortures his subordinate with weird punishments, lurks around Misaki like some kind of pervert (which becomes less potentially disturbing when you discover his motivations and goals), tries to deal with his crush on Misaki's mom, and generally acts odd and immature. Almost all of my favorite lines from this show come from scenes with Icchan in them. I love the way Andy McAvin voiced him - it kind of makes me wish I could see more anime he's been in.
The mystery of Misaki's mom takes a while to be uncovered. It's one of those things that's most interesting before you know all the details - once the reason for her 7-year separation from her daughter (and her continued reluctance to see and talk to her) is revealed, I found the mystery more annoying than anything. Although I suppose I can understand her reason for being reluctant to see Misaki, seven years is a long time, especially when you're talking about a child. If it weren't for the fact that Misaki's mother seems like a nice person overall, I probably would've hated her for being such a wimp. Misaki forgives her pretty quickly, but I don't think she really deserved it.
After seeing this series, I wish I could rewatch/reread Chobits and other related CLAMP series. Apparently Icchan is the creator of persocoms, the person-shaped computers in Chobits - I wonder how connected Chobits and Angelic Layer really are. In Chobits, Icchan died sometime in the past and had been married to a woman who now keeps a watch over Chi, one of the series' main characters. I don't see the Icchan of this anime as someone who'd ever end up marrying anyone but Misaki's mom, however, and Misaki's mom was definitely not the woman from Chobits. Of course, from what I've read, the character relationships in Angelic Layer the anime are very different from those in the manga - it's possible that Icchan's crush on Misaki's mother is one of those differences.
Overall, I enjoyed this series and I'd probably buy it if I ever found it on sale. I'd love to hear the original Japanese voices, but the English dub wasn't all that bad. As I've mentioned, Jessica Boone made Misaki sound really young, although her Japanese VA may have made her sound just as young. I enjoyed Chris Patton as Ohjiro, even if he did sound much more mature than 15 - anyway, I suspect his Japanese VA made him sound just as mature. Christine Auten as Shuko, Misaki's mother, didn't really strike me as either being bad or fantastic until the final episode - then she shined during Shuko's tearful reunion with Misaki. Crying scenes in anime can make or break so many VAs, and Christine Auten did a great job. I'm not really a fan of Kevin Corn (Kotaro), period, but that's not to say he did a bad job - he just sounds the same to me in everything that he does, which is a little distracting. Monica Rial (Tamayo, one of Misaki's friends) sounded like she had a ton of fun with her role. For some reason I kept thinking that she'd also voiced Kagura in Fruits Basket. Maybe because the roles have so many similarities?
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Chobits (manga) by CLAMP - There is also an anime version of Chobits, which is very similar, but the manga is better and, at eight volumes, quite possibly cheaper. Hideki, a cram student, comes from the country and knows almost nothing about persocoms, robots that look and act almost like humans. Unfortunately for Hideki, almost everyone has one now for their computing needs, and there's no way he can afford one. However, Hideki gets lucky and finds one abandoned next to a dumpster. She's a bit broken and can only say "chi", so that's what he names her. Chi adores Hideki, and, as the series progresses, he comes to care for her, despite his concern about the implications of humans falling for their persocoms. This series crosses over with Angelic Layer a tad. Chobits deals with somewhat weightier issues than Angelic Layer and contains quite a bit of fanservice, so it's not suitable for as broad a range of ages as Angelic Layer. I shudder at the thought of someone trying to explain Chobits' ending to a child or young teen.
- Dragon Drive (manga) by Ken-ichi Sakura - Reiji has never played a game that has managed to capture his interest, at least not until his friend Maiko makes him try Dragon Drive, a virtual reality game in which players team up with dragons to fight one another. Reiji's dragon, Chibi, seems worthless, but it's actually very rare and may be much more powerful than Reiji realizes. Those who'd like another story involving a kid who gets wrapped up in an addictive fighting game might enjoy this series.
- Hikaru no Go (manga) by Yumi Hotta (story) and Takeshi Obata (art); Hikaru no Go (anime TV series) - Twelve-year-old Hikaru is looking through his grandfather's things for something he can sell when he comes across a haunted Go board. Sai, the ghost of a long-dead Go instructor, is delighted that Hikaru can see him and basically forces him to give him opportunities to play Go. Hikaru is reluctant, at first, but he gradually learns to love the game and starts on the path to becoming a professional Go player. Those who'd like another story in which a kid gets hooked on a game and progresses from novice to awesome professional might enjoy this series. Unlike Angelic Layer, this series is based on a real-life game - you can try finding Go players to play against in your area, you can download the game and play against a computer, or you can play online against real players (be careful where you play, however - players are known to cheat more on some sites than on others).
- Fruits Basket (anime TV series); Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya - Tohru had been living with her grandfather after her mother died, but circumstances and Tohru's own desire not to be a burden meant that she ended up living alone in a tent for a while. However, she gets taken in by the Sohma family, who are hiding a secret - certain members of the family turn into animals in the Chinese zodiac when they're weak or hugged by a member of the opposite sex. Both the manga and anime are good - the anime follows the manga pretty closely (except for a few things, and the last episode), but it ends well before the manga does. Those who'd like another story involving secrets, uncomfortable family situations, and a bit of a mother obsession might enjoy this series. In addition, Tohru, like Misaki, is a character who seems like she's from a kinder, simpler era (one in which women have excellent culinary skills).