Newly Enrolled – Gakuen Alice review

Title: Gakuen Alice
Author: Tachibana Haguchi
Overall: 4/5

 

If I am strictly honest, the cover of Gakuen Alice did not draw my attention at first. The design is remarkably restrained, with a mock red leather pattern, and a single person underneath the title. It doesn’t give much away, and as I wasn’t a huge fan of the style of the art on the cover I am sad to say that this initially dissuaded me from reading it. However, a brief flick through revealed that the art style of the actual manga is very similar in style to that of Fruits Basket, and re-reading the blurb I decided to give it a chance.

Gakuen Alice follows Mikan, a young girl from a small village, as she makes a trip to Tokyo to try and enrol in the famous Alice Academy, where her best friend Hotaru has been taken. Rumours about the Academy are everywhere – it is known as a school for geniuses, run by the government and not dissimilar to a prison as the students, once accepted into the school, are barely seen by the family until they graduate. Hearing this, Mikan sets out one night, with her Grandad’s cash, and the intention of getting into the Alice Academy.

What she discovers, however, is that ‘genius’ doesn’t quite cover the type of people enrolled at the Alice Academy. And whilst Mikan is not exactly a genius, it turns out that she is, despite initial impressions, an Alice. What is an Alice? The back of the manga describes it neatly: “everyone at the school has some sort of special talent”. The talents include controlling human pheromones, generation of mirages or even the ability to invent any gadget which comes to mind.

In the first volume, it’s discovered that Mikan has an Alice. Mikan is delighted about this, despite still not being entirely sure what an Alice is, but she grasps her opportunity with both hands and dives in head first. This is perhaps another similarity between Gakuen Alice and Fruits Basket – the main character, whilst perhaps not the brightest, is sweet and very earnest and will do her best even if it seems impossible. Unfortunately, this is about where the similarities end – Mikan is at times selfish, and with push forward without thinking of the consequences. This is where Hotaru comes in, a stoic and unreadable character, but who constantly brings Mikan back to earth.
The first volume works nicely as a set up. It introduces the characters, builds up the idea of the Alice and presents the challenge for Mikan to overcome, without revealing what promises to be quite a nice plot – what are the Alice dampening masks for? Why does Natsume, the fire-powered prince of Mikan’s class, hate the Alice Academy so much?

My overall impression of the manga, despite my initial hesitancy, is great. I enjoyed the setup, and the concept of the ‘Alice’, a power possessed by certain special people as well as a codename for the people themselves. The tone is nice and light, which is what Higuchi was aiming for, and it works. Despite that, there are carefully dropped crumbs of a deeper plot which will promises to be developed. Why are the Government running this facility? What have they done to upset Natsume? These asides are artfully placed, unnoticeable to the plot of the initial volume but promising so much for later on.

Not counting the plot, the characters introduced are wonderful, from the effete Professor Narumi, down to the fantastically unpleasant Sumire, each is introduced neatly and with promise for so much more development to come. You want to meet the rest of the staff, spend more time interacting with the other students. Perhaps my main issue is that, so far, Mikan has proved herself to be the least interesting character which makes it difficult to empathise with her. Her character whilst sweet, seems overly dim and thoughtless which can make her difficult to follow. It is only that the other characters act as suitable foils for her personality which pull her back down.

Mikan is very much set up for a ‘stranger in a strange land’ style story, and you can see the beginning of her character arc and development as the volume progresses – it looks set up to be perhaps the most significant of all the characters, which is perhaps why she seems almost under developed in the first volume, as if she is a template of a character to be built upon.

If you were, like me, put off by the cover art on this manga, I can honestly urge you to think again. It is very well written and paced, and the art is lovely. I look forward to reading the next volume as soon as I can get my hands on it! And the other good news? There’s an Anime!

Mikan and Natsume

If you liked this, try: Cardcaptor Sakura, Fruits Basket

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