Monday, July 28, 2008

Gakuen Alice (manga, vol. 1) by Tachibana Higuchi

Mikan is a cheerful and energetic 10-year-old who doesn't always think things through very well. Her best friend is Hotaru, who's pretty much the opposite of Mikan - she's intelligent, cool, and greedy. She's not very good at showing her feelings, although she really does like Mikan. One day, Mikan finds out that Hotaru is going to become a student at Alice Academy, a special and mysterious place that people say is a school for geniuses. Students at Alice Academy aren't allowed to have much contact with those outside it, and Mikan becomes determined to become a student there in order to see Hotaru again. Fortunately for Mikan, the meaning of "Alice" isn't "genius" but "gift." All the students at the school have special gifts, like being able to start fires with their minds, easily invent amazing things, or fly. A nice teacher at the school gives Mikan a chance to attend Alice Academy, but she must prove that she has an Alice if she wants to stay there. Mikan tries her best, but there are already several students who hate her and try to make her life difficult.

Okay, so this isn't the most original premise for a story. I liked this manga anyway. Mikan can be annoying occasionally, since she's completely oblivious to a lot of things and has a tendency to be a bit self-centered, but her cheerful idiocy can be pretty endearing. Hotaru balances her out a little and keeps her from getting herself killed.

Although the premise, a mysterious government-controlled school for children with special powers, isn't really all that original, it's still a lot of fun. So far, each student has a different power (although it's mentioned that some powers are more common than others), so it's fun to see what other powers people at the school have. Personally, I don't think Mikan's power is all that interesting, but I'm sure Higuchi will find lots of ways to make it interesting, especially since Mikan's power means there's lots of potential for a sweet kid romance between her and Natsume (who at this point in the series hates Mikan). By the way, Higuchi tries to make Mikan's power a mystery in this first volume, but, if you're paying attention and think about it a bit, it's pretty easy to figure out what her power is within a few pages of her first meeting with an Alice Academy teacher.

The teachers are probably going to be a lot of fun. The main teacher that stands out in this volume is Narumi (it drives me crazy how similar his name is to Natsume - I kept getting their names mixed up in my head). His Alice is "Pheromone Sensitive," which means that he exudes pheromones that make him charming and attractive to both males and females. He mostly uses his ability to subdue overly aggressive children at the academy - basically, his pheromones are too overwhelming for young children, so they pass out if he kisses them (don't worry, it's nothing icky, just a peck on the cheek or something). Narumi's got lots of comic potential, so the scenes he's in tend to be pretty light in tone, but it's also obvious that he knows more about what's going on in the school than he's willing (or able?) to tell Mikan. This results in flashes of seriousness that are a lot of fun as well.

Basically, this first volume feels mostly light-hearted. There's a lot of humorous moments (including a homicidal teddy bear and a kid who produces animal pheromones) and Mikan's not really capable of being serious for too long. However, there's also lots of indications that this series could take some pretty serious turns before it ends. As I mentioned earlier, this is a government-controlled school that's so concerned with protecting these children that they aren't allowed hardly any contact with the outside world. Students who act up are made to wear an "Alice nullification mask" which makes it difficult or impossible for them to use their special abilities.

Overall, I really liked this first volume. The mix of humor and seriousness is interesting, and I enjoyed reading about what this school is like and what kind of Alices each of the students have. Although some of the characters didn't always appeal to me (like Mikan and Hotaru, whose personalities are a little over-the-top in different ways), there are also several characters I enjoy and who intrigue me (Narumi and Natsume, for instance). I'm looking forward to seeing how this series develops.

As far as extras go, there's in-depth explanations and illustrations of Alice Academy's Elementary Division uniforms, author freetalk sidebars in the form of short comics, and a less-than-lovely map of Alice Academy that looks like it was probably originally in color (it's different shades of gray and somewhat fuzzy in this edition).

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Kodocha (anime TV series) - Sana Kurata, a cheerful 5th grader who's the star of the hit TV comedy "Child's Toy," is determined to win back control of her classroom from her arch-enemy, Akito. Akito has organized the classroom boys, encouraging them to be noisy, violent, and generally unpleasant, and Sana won't stand for it. The more Sana learns about Akito, however, the more she comes to like him and see other sides to him. Those who'd like another comedy/romance/drama series starring a very cheerful girl and a complex male character might like this series. In addition, Kodocha and Gakuen Alice have very similar art styles.
  • Ceres: Celestial Legend (manga) by Yuu Watase - Aya and Aki are twins who think they have normal, everyday lives, until they turn 16 and everything changes. They come from a line that carries the blood of tennyo (heavenly maidens), and the females in the family that have this blood most strongly are killed when they turn 16 so that the family can avoid the tennyo's wrath. Aya is possessed by the tennyo, Ceres, and manages to escape. She continues to evade her family's plans with the help of a mysterious young man, another woman with weaker tennyo blood, and the woman's brother. Those who'd like another story with people who've got sudden amazing abilities might like this series. As with Gakuen Alice, characters with special abilities often find them to be uncomfortable (emotionally, mentally, etc.), but this series focuses on this idea much more than Gakuen Alice, resulting in an overall darker tone.
  • The Strange Power (book) by L. J. Smith - This is the first book in Smith's Dark Visions series. Kaitlyn Fairchild is a psychic whose drawings predict the future. The only problem is, her drawings usually don't make sense until after whatever they predict has happened. When she finds out about the Zeetes Institute, a place where she can learn to control her abilities, she decides to go, but the institute may have have more sinister intentions than Kaitlyn realizes. Those who'd like a story with romance, psychic abilities, and a school with secrets might like this book and series. Like Natsume, the main male character, Gabriel, is complex and dark.
  • Midnight for Charlie Bone (book) by Jenny Nimmo - This is the first book in Nimmo's Children of the Red King series. When Charlie Bone is 10 years old, he discovers that he can look at a photograph and hear conversations and even thoughts that people had when the photograph was taken. Charlie hears one conversation that prompts him to search for a girl who has been missing for years. When he begins attending Bloor's Academy, an elite school for the rich and endowed (that's what people with special abilities are called), Charlie makes friends who try to help him solve the mystery of the missing girl. Unfortunately, the Bloors and Charlie's horrible relatives try to make things difficult for him. Those who'd like another fantasy story with a mysterious and restrictive school for children with special abilities might like this book.

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