By CLAMP. Released in Japan by Kadokawa Shoten, serialized in the magazine Shonen Ace. Released in North America by Dark Horse Comics.
Angelic Layer comes at a turning point for CLAMP, one where they had already shown how well they could succeed in the shoujo market and were trying to branch out and expand. And while they were still drawing X at the time they started this (and just wrapping up Card Captor Sakura), they clearly wanted a new challenge. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how well they succeeded – certainly this work is a decent enough diversion, and there’s never any desire to put it down or move on. But it doesn’t really grip you the way their best series do – and indeed, the way that their more successful series for a male audience, Tsubasa and xxxHOLIC, would later on. Angelic Layer is shonen, but it’s fluffy shonen.
If I want to be honest, there’s not even a whole lot about Angelic Layer that HAS to be shonen. Yes, the plot involves what basically amounts to a fighting tournament, but the fighters are mostly female, and they’re fighting using cute dolls, albeit technologically advanced fighter dolls controlled through willpower. But Magic Knight Rayearth was basically a series of ever-increasing battles as well. (Speaking of which, Rayearth apparently exists as an anime in this universe – Misaki’s Angel is clearly meant to be based off Hikaru from the series.) But the cute female lead who’s plucky but always optimistic, the vague romantic possibilities, the jealous rivals who want to take her out as soon as possible? This could easily have run in Asuka, except X already was taking its place.
The series has its heart in the right place, and clearly wants to be liked. Perhaps that’s why I’m not enjoying it as much as other CLAMP offerings – at times you feel it’s trying too hard. There are two wacky, comedy characters – Icchan, the mad scientist inventor of the Angels, and Misaki’s new female friend Tamayo – who are wacky! And funny! Oh so funny! Let us show you how wacky and funny and loud and funny they are! And it can be exhausting. The quieter, more sedate supporters of Misaki work much better.
That said, it also feels like I’m finding faults where I shouldn’t bother. As a light, fun comedy with lots of cool fights and amusing scenes, this fills its function perfectly. CLAMP are at the point in their careers here where they couldn’t really ruin a story if they tried. (That will change later – indeed, Angelic Layer gets made far more depressing retroactively if you read Chobits – but for now, it’s all smiles.) Misaki has enough things going wrong for her that we feel a need to see her win and be happy, but not so much that it verges into Pollyanna territory. And honestly, sometimes the wacky characters *are* funny, particularly Icchan and his sublime awareness that he gives the appearance of a creepy pedophile.
But there’s no depth to Angelic Layer at all, and depth is something that we’ve increasingly come to rely on CLAMP for (and get frustrated when it goes wrong). It’s a step forward into a new genre, but it’s still keeping too much of itself held back. If only it had an anime adaptation that took its good points and expanded on them? Hrm, that would be awesome…