A typical shounen Tournament Arc series, save that it's done by CLAMP (and was, incidentally, their first series directed at a male audience), has a predominantly female cast without being a Bishoujo Series, and involves fighting dolls controlled by the player's mind.
Suzuhara Misaki is the new girl at Eriol Academy, living with her aunt Shouko in Tokyo after growing up with her grandparents. Her mother, Shuuko, has been so busy with work in Tokyo that Misaki hasn't seen her since she was five years old, but she refuses to feel sad about it or look into her mom's whereabouts, feeling that she'd be a burden. Upon arriving in Tokyo, she sees a crowd gathered around a screen playing an intense match between two fighting dolls, called Angels, in a game called Angelic Layer. With some persuasion from a Mad Scientist, Misaki jumps at the chance to get her own Angel and start competing nationally.
Besides the twists to the formula, Angelic Layer starts out like a regular shounen adventure series of the same mold. Misaki meets new friends, begins to fight and realizes that she has a vast, incredible talent for the game. All the while, the Mad Scientist Icchan is watching her progress in the tournament, revealing to the audience the reason that he cares so much about Angelic Layer and about this particular little girl.
The manga treats certain plot elements completely differently from the anime, which also makes big changes to the battle system later on. Either is recommended, as while the anime's changes make more sense later on, the manga is still quite good.
Angelic Layer is either an Alternate Continuity or prequel to Chobits and Kobato. This series is also notable for being a tournament series that broke conventions by feature a female leading protagonist, though Misaki isn't the first female shonen protagonist overall— that honor goes to Cutey Honey.
The manga was initially brought over to North American markets by Tokyopop, though Tokyopop's financial troubles caused the license to lapse. The manga license was later picked up by Dark Horse Comics for distribution, so the manga is in print in omnibuses. As for the anime series, it was initially brought over to North Americans markets by ADV Films with an English dub, but following their collapse, the license went to Sentai Filmworks, ADV's successor, reusing the ADV dub.
Despite the very similar premise, no relation to Custom Robo, which first appeared a mere six months after the manga.
This program provides examples of:
- Adaptation Expansion: In adapting a short, five-volume manga series into a 26-episode anime series (and before the manga even ended, no less!), a lot of content had to be added to pad the show out. BONES opted to provide a few new characters, improved development, backstory and personality for existing characters, a more arc-based narrative (as opposed to the defined beginning, middle and end of the manga), and even a more tragic explanation as to why Misaki's mother can't see her. And astoundingly, fans and critics alike have both been rather supportive of these changes.
- Alice Allusion: Arisu and the angel she named after herself.
- Anime Chinese Girl: Not by ethnicity, but Madoka and Arisu wear Chinese clothes and Madoka's Angel, Mao, is a Chinese-themed catgirl.
- Attack Hello: Tamayo whenever she meets Koutarou. Every. Single. Time.
- Barbie Doll Anatomy: For the dolls, obviously.
- Barrier Warrior: Wizard exploits the electricity the Layer runs on to create a shield.
- Butt-Monkey: Ogata, Iccan's subordinate. The things he is "penalized" for are rarely his fault, though Icchan never seems to care.
- Calling Your Bathroom Breaks: Tamayo does this a couple of times early in the series, usually to show that she's still pretty childish. As she matures over the course of the series, she eventually stops.
- Cannot Spit It Out: Icchan, toward Shuuko. Eventually, he manages to confess his feelings, even going as far as asking her to marry him. We never hear her answer. At least in Episode 20, She does agree to live with him after the project that spawned Angelic Layer is over.
- Catch-Phrase: Misaki's "Naaa!" whenever she gets surprised, and Icchan's "Icchan nyoro!" whenever he's trying to surprise Misaki.
- Clingy Jealous Girl: Tamayo towards both Misaki and Koutarou, more so in the anime for the latter.
- Comedic Lolicon: Played for Laughs by showing the typical reaction of fans of various ages — a man in the audience screams how he loves Misaki.
- Companion Cube: The Angels. They may seem like Mons at first glance, but the whole point is that they're really just dolls who can only move on the Layer. Shuuko points out that treating one's Angel as a Companion Cube is required to fully enjoy the game.
- Continuity Nod: The various one-shot characters who Misaki faces over the course of the series all show up as spectators to the final fight between Athena and Hikaru.
- Cool and Unusual Punishment: Icchan's subordinate Ogata often gets penalized for things that go wrong, with punishments including making him eat spaghetti through his nose and dropping a live octopus down his pants.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: Pretty much any fight that Misaki isn't in. Or isn't between two supporting characters (see Spoiler Opening below. Especially if Athena is involved).
- David vs. Goliath: Most battles Hikaru gets involved in.
- Defeat Means Friendship: Happens after just about every single fight.
- Determinator: Invoked by most of the Deus' but played straight with Misaki and Hikaru, particularly when Hikaru gets up after Athena's Astral Emission.
- Disappeared Dad: besides Misaki's aunt and mother, where are the rest of the parents of every child?
- Ditto Fighter: Hikaru, due to Misaki possessing the gift of Awesomeness by Analysis.
- "Do It Yourself" Theme Tune: Misaki's seiyuu, Atsuko Enomoto, performs the opening theme "Be My Angel".
- Elevator School: Eriol Academy is one. When Misaki meets Tamayo and Koutarou, she's asked if she's new because she didn't move up with them from the elementary school.
- Explosive Overclocking: Kaede's Angel Blanche and Sai's Angel Shirahime both have "Hyper Mode", which maxes their power but risks destroying the Angel's core components permanently the longer it is used. In the manga, where only Blanche has the capability, it's risk-free.
- Fighting Series: Though the main focus is still the drama that happens outside of combat.
- Foregone Conclusion: Anyone who knows about the connection between this and Chobits knows that Shuuko and Icchan's relationship is doomed before it begins. Although, one should take into account the anime can easily be interpreted as taking place as a separate and alternate timeline from the manga considering how many differences there are.
- Fragile Speedster: Hikaru is a speed build who can't take many hits. Misaki built her specifically to be "small, but cool."
- Girlish Pigtails: Arisu has afro puffs, Ringo has high pigtails, and Misaki's frontlocks look a little like pigtails.
- Hair Colors: Surprisingly, most everyone has realistic hair colors, with examples like Ringo's being justified in that she's an Idol Singer. Only the Angels have really unnatural hair shades, but they are dolls after all.
- Ill Girl:
- In the anime, Shuuko; she's in a wheelchair, and this is the true reason why she left Misaki.
- Also Sai's little sister, who exists only in the anime.
- In the Name of the Moon: In the anime, everybody is required to come up with a quick blurb for when their Angels enter the Layer.
- Invincible Hero:
- Misaki only faces one major loss in the entire series. Jusified in that the series itself takes place during a single tournament. When she lost, the tournament was at a stage were losing didn't immediately result in elimination.
- To a larger extent, Oujirou is one, he almost never loses a fight except against Misaki, who he at this point has fallen in love with. It became clear that he was going extremely easy on her and had no intention of winning.
- It Is Pronounced Tropay: "Kaede" should really be pronounced "KAH-eh-deh", however, the dub pronounces it more like "Katie".
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: At least in the anime, Oujiro has this towards Shuuko, even going so far as to tell his brother he'll never forgive him if he doesn't maker her happy. He eventually shifts his affections towards Misaki when he realizes how much like her mother she really is.
- Likes Older Women: Oujiro is in love with Shuuko, though his feelings eventually shift to Misaki.
- Limited Wardrobe: Ringo, especially galling since she is supposed to be an Idol Singer, who are known to be fashion plates. In the manga, pretty much everyone.
- Little Miss Badass: Hatoko is a top-level Deus despite being in kindergarten.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: And that's not even counting the Angels!
- Locked Out of the Loop: All the adults and some of the kids in Misaki's life know the big secret that Champion Shuu is Suzuhara Shuuko and won't tell her. In the anime, the viewers find it out quickly, too.
- Ma'am Shock: Shouko refuses to be called Oba-san (auntie), despite actually being Misaki's aunt, because it makes her feel old.
- Mommy Had A Good Reason For Abandoning You: Shuuko isn't in Misaki's life because of a crippling fear of her own inadequacy. In the anime, she's very ill and confined to a wheelchair.
- Never Trust a Trailer: A lot of promo art has Angels expressing emotion while their Dei are holding them or while otherwise off the Layer. In-series, Angels only express the emotions their Dei are feeling while they're being controlled on the Layer.
- Nice Guy: Oujirou, who is referred to as "The Young Nobleman". He's even has Wizard divert an attack that would have finished off Hikaru at the end of round one during their fight.
- The One Guy: Oujirou is the only male Deus shown in the manga and the only one who matters in the anime.
- The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: Hatoko and Misaki to each other. And Madoka feels this way towards Hatoko
- Paper-Thin Disguise: Ringo's attempts to escape from her manager leave a lot to be desired.
- Pimped-Out Cape: Misaki and Hikaru each wear one as tournament champions at the end of the manga.
- Prestigious Player Title: A player is referred to as a "Deus".
- Robot Girl: The angels, naturally. (Wizard is a Robot Boy, by the way.)
- Romantic Two-Girl Friendship:
- Serious Business: Subverted. There are a number of Dei who treat Angelic Layer as Serious Business, but according to a number of characters, including the man who invented the game itself, they're doing it wrong and should just be having fun.
- Shipper on Deck: Tamayo apparently thinks this way about Misaki and Koutarou, though she's denying herself in doing it. In the manga, she succeeds in getting them together. In the anime, she ends up with Koutarou herself.
- Shorttank: Tamayo is the energetic tomboy of the group and Koutarou's childhood friend.
- Hikaru is actually based on Shidou Hikaru, the heroine of Magic Knight Rayearth; also, Eriol Academy is named after Hiiragizawa Eriol from Cardcaptor Sakura. Plus the manga has newspaper clips of how the CLAMP School Detectives have vowed to investigate the disappearance of three girls from Tokyo Tower (Another Rayearth ref.)
- There are also two points in the manga where Misaki is shown singing the anime theme tunes for CLAMP School Detectives and Rayearth season 2.
- The show's title is a shout out to Kidou Senshi Gundam.
- Shrinking Violet: Shuuko. In the manga, this is more or less the reason why she left Misaki, and it's true in the anime too, though not the only reason.
- The Speechless: Angels aren't even programmed for battle grunts.
- Spoiler Opening: The opening contains clips of the final climactic battle. Also, if you want to know if Misaki's current opponent is just a one-shot character, or has a bigger role in the story... if they don't show up in the opening, they're a one-shot.
- Stealth Hi/Bye: Icchan loves doing this to Misaki.
- Sugar-and-Ice Personality: Probably a more apt description of Sai; as Kaede points out, she is fiercely driven under the ice queen exterior.
- Throw the Dog a Bone: After spending the entirety of the series as the Butt-Monkey, Ogata eventually gets back at Icchan during the Beach Episode by putting him through the exact same treatment that he constantly endured. It's also heavily implied that he hooks up with Fujimori at the end of the series.
- Tournament Arc: Tournament Series: The entire series is basically one big Tournament Arc.
- World of Action Girls: The only notable male combatant is Oujiro/Wizard.