Angelic Layer (2001)
Directed by Hiroshi Nishikiori

Artistic Value: * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * ½

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When Misaki Suzuhara, a twelve year old schoolgirl, moves to Tokyo to live with her aunt, she happens to see a broadcast of a game called Angelic Layer, in which players wearing special headsets are able to control the movements of small dolls, referred to as angels, and make them fight against one another. Fascinated by the game, and encouraged by a strange man nicknamed Icchan, who, unbeknownst to her, is the inventor of Angelic Layer, Misaki decides to learn how to play it herself. She soon becomes a champion with her own angel, Hikaru, and graduates from one tournament to the next. As she does so, Misaki encounters a variety of different persons, makes a number of new friends, even from among her opponents, and comes ever closer to challenging the reigning champion of the game and to meeting her mother, whom she has not seen for years.

Hiroshi Nishikiori's twenty-six part animated television series Angelic Layer tells a wonderfully fun and sweet story that, though it may not be particularly sophisticated or inventive, is both consistently affecting and engaging.

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Angelic Layer really is a delightful series. It is never mean-spirited, cynical, or unpleasant. The characters may be far kinder and more likeable than are the people of the real world, but, rather than being annoying because of their goodness, they are actually genuinely appealing. Misaki, in particular, is a joy. She is so charming that the viewer is quickly drawn into her life and made to experience, with a surprising poignancy, her longing for her absent mother, her love for Hikaru, and her growing romantic interest in a boy she meets. Not only is the viewer likely to be touched by Misaki's emotions, but he will also probably even be caught up in her youthful obsessions. It is hard to imagine any person who will not smile when he sees how the girl cradles Hikaru in her arms and takes the doll everywhere she goes, how she frets about her abilities and worries about disappointing others, and how she is bothered by her awareness that she is smaller and less athletic than other girls her age. She truly is an engaging character.

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Nishikiori does not, however, focus exclusively on his protagonist, but surrounds her with a whole group of intriguing individuals, most of whom are nicely realized and able to involve the viewer in their own hopes, loves, fears, and the like. While none are as developed as Misaki is, they do contribute to the series' innocent, likeable appeal.

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Despite its emphasis on the emotional lives of its characters, Angelic Layer is absolutely packed with action sequences. Instead of making the program violent, however, such scenes, because they exclusively present the battles fought between various inanimate angels, merely evoke a sense of excitement. In fact, the fights, which are, of course, neither bloody or hurtful, are not only genuinely fun to watch but are actually gracefully performed. They are even infused with feelings of compassion, as Misaki is always shown both as being worried that Hikaru may be damaged in a match and as being aware that, while the angels may not be living beings, they are operated by individuals who are emotionally involved with their dolls and with the game they are playing.

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The series' enjoyableness is generally enhanced by the quality of the animation used in it, which, while never impressive, is always appealing. The character designs, especially those of the female characters, are, with a few exceptions, attractive, and those used for the angels are invariably bright and fanciful. The backgrounds, by and large, are forgettable, but they are never poorly rendered.

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While it may not be a masterpiece, Angelic Layer is an exciting, engaging series. It is certainly worth watching.

Review by Keith Allen

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