Misaki Suzuhara is a middle school student moving to Tokyo to live with her aunt (Shouko), her mother's younger sister. On the way to her aunt's, however, she gets lost - then she's distracted by a giant screen broadcasting what turns out to be an Angelic Layer match and is instantly enthralled. She loves the idea that in Angelic Layer a small person, like the "woman" (actually an "angel," or doll, used in Angelic Layer) she sees on the screen, can win a battle against someone larger. A strange man in a lab coat named Icchan explains Angelic Layer to Misaki and shows her what she'll need to buy in order to play. Misaki buys an "angel egg," a special egg containing the base for an Angelic Layer doll, or "angel." Unfortunately, she spends all the money she was going to use to get to her aunt's house, but she eventually makes it there anyway. Shouko's reaction to Misaki's new obsession with Angelic Layer is a bit odd, but Misaki's too excited about the idea of creating her angel to notice.
The next day, Misaki takes her new angel, Hikaru, to school with her. On the way there, she meets a young girl named Hatoko who seems very knowledgeable about Angelic Layer. Hatoko's brother Koutarou is one of Misaki's new classmates, and he and his friend Tamayo become Misaki's instant new friends - in addition, there's already some signs that Misaki may be developing a crush on Koutarou. Misaki doesn't really spend much time with the two of them in this volume, but she learns things from watching them that help her out in Angelic Layer.
Icchan shows up again and provides Misaki with the things she needs to make clothes for Hikaru (otherwise, she would've have to buy more stuff, since angel clothing requires special cloth). He also takes her to a place where she can practice Angelic Layer. Misaki spends a couple hours learning how to move her angel, and then Icchan declares her fit for her first battle and drags her to a match. It takes Misaki a bit to figure out what to do, but she manages to beat her first opponent (a nameless angel wearing a cat costume) with a move she had seen Tamayo use on Koutarou. Later, Icchan enters Misaki into another tournament - this time, her opponent is Hatoko, Koutarou's little sister. Although Hikaru is able to evade some of Suzuka's attacks (Suzuka is Hatoko's angel), and Misaki learns a few things from watching Hatoko play Angelic Layer, Hatoko beats Misaki easily. It upsets Misaki, and she learns she doesn't like to lose - according to Icchan, this was a feeling Misaki needed to experience in order to become a better Angelic Layer player. With that encouragement, Misaki goes to her next match, which will be against the idol Ringo Seto's Lanka.
Angelic Layer the anime (which doesn't appear to be on Joost any longer) didn't feel slow-paced to me, but, compared to this manga, it was practically crawling. By the end of the first volume, the manga has already covered what the anime took 8 or 9 episodes to do. However, I think those episodes of the anime add a few things, like an additional match and, if I remember correctly, the "dance as Angelic Layer practice" stuff.
The basic framework of the series is very much like what I remember from the anime, but I can already see some differences and some areas that are more thoroughly explained here than in the anime. For instance, in addition to feeling faster-paced, the characters in general seem more energetic and crazier. In addition, Icchan says "Icchan go boom" a lot, and, instead of forcing his underling to do strange punishments, Icchan just tells him "die." Finally, there was at least one match that Misaki did in the anime that didn't even happen in the manga.
So far, I actually prefer the anime over the manga, although it's quite possible I'll change my mind as the story progresses. The breakneck pace is just a bit much for me at the moment. The battles aren't as easy to follow in the manga, which detracts a little from the excitement they bring. I think the manga also makes it far more obvious how commercial Angelic Layer is - the angel and every single one of its accessories costs money and must be specially purchased at a toy store that sells Angelic Layer products (like Piffle Princess), and one of the motivations for winning Angelic Layer battles is that winners get points that allow them to buy even more things for their angels.
However, I did like reading some of the details that the manga provides but the anime doesn't. For instance, the anime doesn't bother to explain why the angel eggs need to be opened in a tub of water, while the manga explains that this is necessary because of the shock-absorbent liquid in the egg. The manga also goes into slightly more detail about the things that are necessary for an angel to be able to move with on a layer (the cord, why the wings on the visor need to be extended, etc.).
Before I list the read-alikes and watch-alikes (which are nearly the same as for the anime), I want to be sure to mention something that bothered me a little about this manga that has absolutely nothing to do with the story or characters - it's a little issue with the translation. Although I think it's nice when the translators for manga or anime leave the names in their original order (which, unless they're supposed to be foreigners, is usually family name first), I don't tend to be upset if the translators choose to go with a Western name order. Well, I might get a little upset when they do this with anime, since the names, when spoken, don't always seem to flow as well when they're not in their original order. However, what I always care about is consistency. The translators are not consistent in their choice of name order in this volume. For about two thirds of the volume, Misaki is "Misaki Suzuhara." Then, on page 148 (in the middle of Misaki's battle against Hatoko), the translators suddenly switch to calling her "Suzuhara Misaki." The translators stick with this, but then call Ringo "Ringo Seto" (I'm pretty sure it should be "Seto Ringo" if they were going to stick with Japanese name order). If they did all this on purpose, they really shouldn't have - it's confusing. If they didn't, they need to proofread better.
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 gradually gets better at it 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).
- Cardcaptor Sakura (manga) by CLAMP; Cardcaptor Sakura (anime TV series, plus a few movies) - [Note: if you plan on getting the anime, make sure you're getting Cardcaptor Sakura and not Cardcaptors - Cardcaptors is an extremely edited version of Cardcaptor Sakura that barely resembles the original.] After Sakura accidentally opens a book containing dozens of magical Clow Cards, she works to get them all back, with the help and encouragement of her best friend Tomoyo and Kero, the cards' guardian. Those who'd like another CLAMP series starring an energetic young girl might want to try this - in addition, I think this is meant for a similar age group (although it should be suggested with care, as some parents might object to some of the character relationships and romances).