USS Clueless - Angelic Layer

Stardate 20040711.2136

This article discusses the ending of the anime series Angelic Layer. It is loaded with spoilers and should not be read by anyone who thinks they might want to watch the series.

Angelic Layer is the story of Misaki Suzuhara, a 12 year old who is a first year middle school student. When she was five years old and in kindergarten, her mother left her with her grandparents and went to Tokyo on business, promising to return when her work was completed. But she never returned, and she never even sent any mail. The only thing she sent was monthly checks to pay Misaki's expenses. Now, at age 12, Misaki has come to Tokyo to live with her aunt Shoko, to attend middle school in Tokyo, and perhaps for other reasons as well.

Misaki Suzuhara, 12, short, cheerful, a very good cook
Hikaru, Misaki's angel
Shoko Asami, 26, Misaki's aunt with whom she lives, television reporter
Ichiro "Icchan" Mihara
Ohjiro Mihara, Ichiro's younger brother
Wizard, Ohjiro's angel
Kotaro Kobayashi, 12, Misaki's classmate and friend
Hatoko Kobayashi, 5 (going on 22), Kotaro's precocious baby sister
Suzuka, Hatoko's angel
Tamayo Kizaki, 12, Misaki's classmate and friend
Ringo Seto, late teenage, popular and successful idol
Ranga, Ringo's angel
Kaede Saito
Blanche, Kaede's angel
Shuko Suzuhara, Misaki's estranged mother
Athena, Shuko's angel

This series tells several stories. It's a classic sports story, for one thing. There's also a story about Misaki's estranged mother. But there's also the story of Angelic Layer itself, and the Angels, and in particular of Hikaru, Misaki's angel.

And of Hikaru's wings:

I've been doing a lot more thinking about that, and I also went back and reviewed some earlier episodes which I thought might provide hints.

Episode 1, in particular: When Misaki is working with the computer to set up Hikaru's stats, we hear a voiceover of her "thinking" about what she wants Hikaru to be. That intercuts with images of Athena, and in all of those except the first, Athena's wings are out. Was that a factor?

After the specs have been entered, the top ring lowers itself. Hikaru still hangs in the energy field. At that point, we get a camera angle which shows Hikaru's back quite clearly, and I didn't see anything which looked like wings, or buds, or attachment points, or which in any way suggested the possibility that she might eventually have wings.

The computer then prompts Misaki to name the Angel. She enters "Hikaru", and Hikaru opens her eyes, looks at Misaki, and smiles. Then the energy field turns off and Hikaru begins to fall forward. And there's another camera shot showing her back, and still nothing suspicious.

After Misaki makes Hikaru's costume in episode 2, episode 21 (the Beach episode) is the only one in which we ever see Hikaru wearing anything else, because Misaki somehow came up with a swimsuit for Hikaru which matched the one Misaki wore.

The back of Hikaru's suit plunges, exposing most of her upper back, and there's one scene where we can see it clearly. There's nothing suspicious on the exposed part, and no lumps under the straps.

So where were her wings concealed?

Here's my tentative answer: wings aren't physically present even in angels which have them. Wings are simulated by the layer, something akin to the terrain feature.

You can't tell whether any given angel has wings by examining it visually outside the layer. The only difference between an angel which has wings and one which does not is bits in the angel's NVM which describe the angel's specs to the layer computer.

That's actually the only reasonable way to handle wings in terms of engineering and business realities. It would make no sense to include them physically in the angels if there were any way they could be implemented in the layer itself.

If you think about it, wings are too complicated and difficult to physically create in a doll that small. And they'd have to be included in all angels, even though very few ended up using them. That would massively increase the manufacturing cost.

It's likely that the base angel bodies in their eggs are sold at a loss (or only a minimum profit), the way game consoles and cell phones are. But they would still want to minimize the manufacturing cost for angels as much as they could, so that the cost of the subsidy was reduced. The lower the sales price of an angel egg, the easier it would be to suck people in and get them hooked on the game.

Ichiro was bound and determined to make "Angelic Layer" a commercial success for the suits who employed him, because that was the only way he could get the research money he needed to keep working on helping Shuko to walk again. When he originally went to the suits for more funding for his medical research, they asked him who the customer was eventually going to be for the technology he was developing. How would they make back the investment? That was a perfectly reasonable question, but at the time he didn't have an answer.

The brilliant idea to convert that medical technology into a high-tech gaming system was exactly the kind of thing they were looking for. He went back to the suits and showed them a huge potential market for the technology he was developing, and dickered for a cut of the profits to continue to support his medical research.

Ichiro's ultimate goal and commitment continued to be to help Shuko (and others like her) walk, and the suits knew that. But he could only keep working on that if he made "Angelic Layer" a commercial success. His medical research would be funded by what amounted to a commission on commercial sales of the game, and suits understand well the motivating power of commissions.

That meant Ichiro was strongly motivated to apply the full power of his genius to making sure that the corporation made a lot of money off the game. In business terms, that alone was a plenty good reason to continue to invest in his medical research, even ignoring the fact that would be spinoffs from his research which could be applied to continue to improve the game.

So Ichiro was not solely interested in "nifty keen cool". He always kept his eye on the bottom line, and if he wanted to include wings in the game at all, the only reasonable way to do it was by simulating it with the layer computer hardware. "Nifty keen cool" was vital to suck in customers, but not if it reduced corporate profits.

Observation of the last fight strongly supports the idea that they are simulated.

As Hikaru swooped down towards Athena just after her wings first appeared, Athena sprouted her own wings and took off. Athena's wings shot out sideways quite rapidly.

She actually goes from no wings to fully deployed wings in 7 NTSC frames, about a quarter of a second. Hikaru's wings deployed in 8 frames. There's no way physical wings could deploy that rapidly. (And as Athena's wings deployed, they seemed to ignore air resistance.)

Even before terrain was implemented, the layer simulated other things visibly which didn't actually exist. In the match we watched in episode 1, Athena's opponent had a force field similar to the one Wizard used later, and we could see it at one point when Athena attacked it. There was also an electric arc between them, and of course there was Athena's energy bolt and the resulting fireball.

The "Rolling Thunder" attack, which we first see used by Suzuka and later used several times by Hikaru, leaves a glowing trail of light behind the striking foot. That, too, is simulated by the layer computer.

What I think is that there was an ongoing development effort relating to physical simulation. Simulation of energy effects were phase one. That deployed the basic hardware to permit the computer to graphically display things which weren't actually there, but initially it was limited to simple effects like glowing spheres, electric arcs, and multicolored streaks of light.

Wings would have been phase 2, the first time they tried to convincingly simulate physical objects. Once that worked and was deployed, phase 3 was full terrain simulation.

So the reason we don't see anything on Hikaru's back in episode 1 or in episode 21 which would suggest that she had wings is because there's nothing to see.

Why was this the first time Hikaru used her wings? I think that's easily understood, and the answer comes from episode 19. That's the contest on the sailing ship when the layer was having technical problems during the thunder storm. Elain, the opposing angel, had the deck dissolve beneath her and was about to fall, and Hikaru swung down and grabbed Elain, swinging both of them up to a small platform in the rigging. It was an incredible display of gallantry and sportsmanship.

And it totally bewildered Elain's Deus, Chitose. It made no sense to her at all. She's the one who had a chip on her shoulder because she was exceptionally tall and Misaki was short and cute. She demanded to know why Misaki had prevented Elain from falling, since that would have meant victory for Hikaru.

(She was wrong, of course; if Hikaru had not saved Elain, it would have been "no game" due to equipment failure, and they would have fought again once the technical difficulties were resolved. But at that moment both Chitose and Misaki seemed to believe that it would have been victory for Hikaru, and their conversation was based on that shared assumption.)

Misaki said that she didn't want to win that way. She wanted to win a fair fight, going all out against an opponent who went all out.

Misaki didn't see it as honorable to use Hikaru's wings against opponents who didn't have them. (Other angels had capabilities Hikaru did not, and used them against Hikaru, but that was the concern of their Deuses. It had nothing to do with Misaki.)

Misaki preferred to lose rather than to win using an unfair advantage. She learned that, to some extent, from Kaede and Blanche -- but the only reason Kaede's message rang true with Misaki was that deep down she always believed it.

After Ogata managed to halt and then reverse the "matrix cascade" which was eating up the ship from below, restoring the full terrain simulation, Hikaru and Elain both returned to the deck, backed off and faced one another, and then charged each other to fight on even terms.

That was what Misaki wanted, and Chitose finally understood it. Hikaru actually did defeat Elain, and not by a fluke. It was a totally convincing victory, one Hikaru definitely deserved.

Athena was the first angel Hikaru faced on the layer who had wings, and that was the first match in which Misaki felt she could use Hikaru's wings.

But there's an entirely different explanation, one which is based on an entirely different view of the angels.

What if angels actually are more than just dolls which are designed to move? What if there's an essential something in them, akin to a "soul"? What if they really are alive, in some way?

I imagine the existence of an angel as being something akin to the Viking image of Valhalla, where great warriors would battle each day, and then hold great feasts each evening. In those battles, warriors might be struck down and might die, but would rise again for the evening's banquet and the next day's battle.

Perhaps the souls of angels dwell somewhere else, in some metaphysical place. Perhaps when an angel is first animated, after the Deus picks a name, an unattached soul is summoned and becomes wedded to that doll. Perhaps that is what we saw happen in episode 1 when Hikaru first raised her head and smiled at Misaki.

Perhaps the first part of the process of configuring the doll is local, and perhaps the second ring floats above the doll because it prevents any angel soul entering the body too soon. That ring drops below the angel during the second phase, once the body is ready.

The setup process is complete when an angel soul answers the summons and becomes linked to that doll, that name, and that Deus. It is the soul which is truly the angel, not the physical doll.

Thereafter, the angel is again summoned to the doll each time it enters the layer, to once again animate the doll. In a match where one angel takes damage equal to hit points, or is tossed out of the layer, the angel "dies". I put that word in quotes, but in this reading it actually is death; the angel's soul leaves the doll and returns to the other place, and the doll falls and lays unmoving on the ground.

Angels are mortal, in that sense, since they can die. But they're not quite mortal, since this can happen over and over. Each time the doll enters the layer, the angel is summoned to the doll and animates it. and in the end even the victorious angel is removed from the layer, and the angel returns again to that other place to wait.

I refer to Norse mythology here, but the series doesn't make any such references which I recall. The Japanese concept of angels comes from Christian mythology. There was no equivalent of Valhalla in Japanese tradition, but I think the idea would not be incomprehensible or repulsive.

I need a name for that other place where the angels dwell when the dolls are not on the layer, so I'll call it Valhalla anyway. And like the great warriors rewarded by the Norse Gods with a place in Valhalla, the angels in Valhalla live to fight, and do not fear dying.

However, they do not like losing. They fight, and they fight in partnership with their Deus. The better in sync the angel and Deus are, the better they know each other, the better they cooperate in battle and the more effective they become. That's why a Deus who loves her angel is so dangerous.

All angels fight because that is their nature, their existence. They fight for honor and for glory, but generally if that's all they are fighting for they do not fight well. The best example of that is the three angels belonging to Ryo, who gave them unimaginative names, and saw them only as machines.

Many angels have better relationships with their Deuses. A select few angels fight primarily because they love their Deuses, and those are the strongest of all, angels such as Suzuka, Blanche, and of course Hikaru.

Girls who love their angels are not anthropomorphizing their dolls. They see this deeper truth about angels. In this view of things, Ichiro did not really know or understand what he created at first, though later he began to dimly perceive it.

Those Deuses whose bonds to their angels are strongest, like Kaede and Misaki, can come to hear their angel's voices, because if the Deus's love is strong and true, the angel will return that love. The soul of the Deus will be able to feel and listen to the soul of the angel -- but only if the Deus believes that the angel has a soul. (Kaede gave Misaki a precious gift. She helped Misaki recognize Hikaru's voice.)

If the angel's love for the Deus is strong enough, the angel's soul can come to partially inhabit the doll even when off the layer. In that case, the angel will be partially aware of what happens in the vicinity of the doll.

We're shown subtle indications of that on several occasions. But I think the most important of those is in episode 25. During the conversation between Shuko and Misaki at that cafe in the rain, Hikaru was present. Hikaru's doll was there, but Hikaru was also there. Hikaru knew what was happening, and Hikaru cared about what was happening.

At the beginning, neither Shuko nor Misaki knew what to say, and there was uncomfortable silence. There's one scene where we can see Hikaru, and her facial expression is neutral or tending perhaps a bit towards being unhappy.

It probably doesn't matter whether Hikaru was able to understood what was said, and I generally don't think angels can do so. It's more like how dogs react when humans speak. Dogs don't understand what we say, but they do understand how we say it. They can tell if we're happy, or sad, or angry, or reassuring, or hostile, or friendly, or pleased with them. I think angels probably are about the same. Hikaru listened to Misaki's voice, and to Shuko's voice. She didn't hear the words, but she did hear the feelings.

Hikaru was also listening to Misaki's heart, and could feel the pain Misaki had finally let herself feel. Misaki was deeply confused, and lonely, and afraid. She didn't understand why Shuko had refused to see her, and feared it was because Misaki was hateful. Shuko opened up and told her everything, (as she damned well should have) taking full blame upon herself. She reassured Misaki that Misaki had done nothing wrong and was not hateful. Misaki then told Shuko that she wanted them to be together. Shuko looked up, startled, and Misaki started to smile a bit. Misaki forgave Shuko. Misaki also said she wanted to play Angelic Layer with Shuko. Shuko responded that she wanted to be with Misaki.

And then we see a closeup of Hikaru, and see that she is smiling. It's subtle; they didn't make it blatant. (If one wanted to, one might explain it as an artifact of the camera angle. But I think that she is smiling.)

Hikaru heard the voices; she knew that reconciliation had begun. She could feel the pain beginning to lift in Misaki's heart. Like a dog, she probably could recognize a few actual words, and certainly understood when Misaki told Shuko she wanted to play Angelic Layer with Shuko.

And I think Hikaru knew that a battle with Athena could complete the process of healing and reconciliation. (Note comments by others at the beginning of the battle about them "having a conversation".)

That emotional bond between Misaki and Hikaru was unusually deep, and it's the primary reason why they were so successful. I think it was even stronger than the bond between Shuko and Athena (in part because Shuko divided her love between two angels, and Athena wasn't Shuko's "first love"). If there was any miracle associated with the "Miracle Rookie", that extraordinary bond was it. And in this view of things, it was not just Misaki's bond with Hikaru; it was also Hikaru's bond with Misaki.

And we watched the "Miracle Rookie" performed a true miracle.

This metaphysical view of the series concept offers a very clear explanation for the three most significant events in the match between Hikaru and Athena: Hikaru rising after the first energy blast, Hikaru's wings, and Hikaru walking out of the fireball created by the second energy blast which killed Athena.

After the first energy blast, when Misaki was pleading for Hikaru to rise, Ichiro commented that it was "impossible, even for her". What he meant was that it wasn't possible that Hikaru still have hit points left. It was impossible that she had not taken enough damage to run her hit points to zero. It was impossible that she had not been killed. And he was right. But he was also thinking in mechanistic terms.

Hikaru was killed by Athena's first energy blast. Hikaru's soul returned to Valhalla.

But Hikaru resisted. She did not return and passively wait to be summoned the next time the doll entered the layer. She knew her job wasn't finished. Hikaru wasn't fighting that match for glory, she was fighting because she loved Misaki, and wanted to help Misaki heal. Hikaru could feel that the match was helping Misaki to dissolve that deep pain, but she also knew it wasn't yet enough. Misaki needed the match to continue. Hikaru had to keep fighting, even if only for another minute or two. But Hikaru was killed by Athena's energy blast before the job was done.

Ordinarily the scoring computer would be able to calculate and display its results in a few seconds, but in that case it took almost two minutes, and that was because it couldn't resolve the contradictory information it was being fed. (The blast struck with 2:45 left in the round; but it took until 0:58 for the scoring computer to resolve the situation.)

Hikaru was already extraordinary because she always had at least some contact with the doll body. The body was conveying to the scoring computer a clear indication that Hikaru couldn't allow herself to stop fighting yet. The problem was that on her own she also could not resist the natural forces which removed her soul from the body and sent her back to Valhalla. So it displayed "calculating damage" because it had no other answer.

Misaki pleaded for Hikaru to get up, and begged that her voice be carried to Hikaru. That was interesting phrasing, since the doll was only about 30 feet from Misaki and Misaki's voice could easily be heard from that distance. But that wasn't what Misaki meant. She was pleading for her voice reach Hikaru in Valhalla.

And in the end her voice did reach Hikaru. With the crowd helping her spiritually, Misaki's spirit reached and found Hikaru and pulled her back, to once again animate the doll body.

Hikaru herself was extremely surprised when that happened. That had never happened before to any angel. When she opened her eyes and looked at Misaki, she looked for a moment as if she didn't quite understand what was happening. Then she looked down for a moment, collected herself, and struggled to her feet.

And there's another reason why Hikaru was initially confused. When Hikaru returned to the doll at that point, it was not the same kind of thing as when an angel enters the layer. That is routine. This was unprecedented, and fundamentally different.

When Hikaru rose again to fight against Athena, she was no longer an angel; she was an Angel. She was no longer a normal doll whose soul had been summoned by entry into the layer. She was no longer an "angel", the trademark name referring to such dolls. She was no longer mortal, in the normal sense that angels ordinarily were in the layer.

She was genuinely an Angel, a true manifestation of the mythological supernatural spiritual being. The "Miracle Rookie" had performed a genuine miracle, without even realizing it.

When Hikaru stood up, she had been transformed, and her existence no longer had anything to do with "hit points" and "damage". She had one and only one purpose at that point: to help Misaki heal enough so she could love her mother, and to be loved by her. Nothing else mattered.

The scoring computer continued to be confused. Since Hikaru was moving, that meant she wasn't dead, so the scoring computer tried to display a nonzero hit point value for her. But none of the data being fed to it made any sense, and it couldn't come up with a consistent value for the hit points remaining to Hikaru. Hikaru was beyond such things.

The reason Hikaru had wings is simply that Angels have wings. That's all.

Other angels might have wings for other more prosaic reasons, but Hikaru had wings because she was a true Angel, and true Angels have wings. (And since she had never been a true Angel before, she had never had wings before.)

Misaki caused Hikaru's wings to appear because at the deepest level of communication between them, Misaki knew what Hikaru had become.

Hikaru survived the second fireball because Angels cannot be killed. They're not mortal; they're supernatural beings.

When Hikaru was removed from the layer after the fight, she voluntarily returned to Valhalla. She knew that Misaki had been healed, and she no longer needed to stay.

But she didn't return all the way. She is partly aware of the circumstances of the doll at all times, and can to some extent control it even when not on the layer. That was true even before that battle, and certainly it would have been true afterwards.

However it was that she ended up sitting next to Athena on that shelf at the very end, the reason Hikaru was smiling because she knew that Misaki was happy.

Hikaru snuggled up to Athena because she loved Athena, respected her, and was eternally grateful to her. The battle they fought was the most glorious battle ever fought by two angels, and that alone was a gift beyond price.

But even more, it was a way for Shuko and Misaki to communicate, via Athena and Hikaru, and to say things which needed to be said, and which could not be said any other way. Without it, Misaki might not have totally healed. There might have been residual pain, residual doubt, residual fear and guilt.

Perhaps Athena feels the same, because of Shuko. She also looks happy. But there's no mistaking how Hikaru feels.

What we don't know is whether that change in Hikaru is permanent. Next time she enters the layer, will she revert to being a normal "mortal"? Or will she still be a supernatural being, a true Angel? Could Hikaru fully animate the doll outside the layer?

I think the answer to both questions is "yes", but I also think it won't matter. Both Misaki and Hikaru will fight as if she was mortal, even if she is not, and Hikaru will voluntarily return to Valhalla if she is defeated, even though she is no longer compelled to do so by natural forces, because they both are honorable. What I talked about above regarding Misaki from episode 19 and the fight on the ship remains true. Hikaru could ignore "death" in future battles, but won't do so because it would be wrong.

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