I remember pointedly avoiding Gakuen Alice when it first came out, mostly because it seemed like it was being marketed as the next Fruit Basket. I was quite happy with Fruits Basket and thought that I didn’t need any substitute Fruits Basket-like series, thank you very much. Then I read the first couple volumes of Higuchi’s earlier series Portrait of M&N, which displays some genuine quirkiness amidst some execution issues. I’d swapped for the first volume of Gakuen Alice and then was sent review copies of the twelfth and thirteenth volumes, so I’m bound to be a little spastic talking about three volumes with such a large gap of story between them. But this series is sadly absent from my public library, so I’m going to do what I can with the volumes I have.
The energetic Mikan is best friends with the ice princess Hotaru. Mikan freaks when she finds out when she discovers that her companion is going to a special school for “Alices,” children with extraordinary talents. Mikan decides to run away to join her friend at Alice Academy and meets a teacher outside the gates who seems to have a strange charisma that Mikan is immune to. He tells her that she has a special gift just like her friend, and she can join the school if she passes a test. With an unknown Alice, Mikan is in for a rough time as she meets her super powered classmates. She meets a sullen boy named Natsume who has the power to control fire. He’s accompanied by Luca, who has the power to control animals. As Mikan is tested she learns that she has the power of Alice nullification.
One of the things that I found amusing is that the special powers of many of the students match up with second-string X-men. Hotaru is the elementary school equivalent of Forge, with the power of invention. Natsume is like Pyro. Mikan is like Leech. The super-powered students and the boarding school setting made me think of Gakuen Alice as an extra-cute elementary school version of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Higuchi’s art has gotten a little more slick and commercial since Portrait of M & N, but it still contains some visually arresting panels. Natsume makes his appearance standing on a wall wearing a cat mask that nullifies his powers. Hotaru’s inventions resemble oversized animated nursery room equipment. Luca’s encounter with a giant fluffy chick in the woods near the school ends up looking like a scene from a fractured fairy tale.
Several volumes into the series, I can see why the comparisons of Gakuen Alice to Fruits Basket are justified. Both series feature an aggressively cheerful and sometimes not very smart heroine who manages to save people due to her emotional intelligence. Both series seem to start off in a somewhat frivolous fashion, but darker psychological issues are explored in later volumes. In the twelfth volume of Gakuen Alice, it is clear that the forces that run the school are not entirely benign. Natsume’s bad attitude which manifested itself as random pranks and angry outbursts in the first volume is shown to be the product of tragedy in his past due to the destructive nature of his power and the imprisonment of his sister at the school. There are sinister people at the academy and Mikan is willing to sacrifice herself to protect her friends. She and her friends end up overcoming their troubles for now, and the thirteenth volume heads into more fun super-powered slice of life school tales.
As the thirteenth volume opens, Mikan’s class is going to learn to make Alice stones. People with Alice abilities can manifest their powers in the form of a stone that allows others to use their unique ability. Mikan thinks back to a promise she made with Luca to exchange Alice stones with him, before she knew about the school story about romantic couples trading stones as a sign of affection. The Mikan-Luca-Natsume love triangle is still in the early stages, as both boys vow to protect Mikan while she experiences strange feelings when she thinks of her two male friends. Romance is on the students’ minds even more when Valentine’s Day prompts the girls to make chocolate with unique and sometimes horrible side effects. The boys spend most of the day trying to hide from anyone who would give them tainted chocolate. Mikan ends up using her friendly nature and a little bit of strategic planning to pull the class together for a musical performance for their friends who are graduating. After the high drama of the previous volume, this book soothed the reader with plenty of stories about the power of friendship.
While Gakuen Alice doesn’t really approach Fruits Basket’s level of psychological depth, it does add an additional layer of complexity to its super-powered boarding school setting by having an element of darkness be present as a counterpart to the stories about Mikan’s sunny personality enriching the lives of her friends. The academy functions as an odd sort of prison, taking students away from their families until their powers run out, or until they reach the age of 20. The students tend to cling together more because they face an uncertain future. What exactly is the motivation of the government in setting up the Alice Academy? While it might be good to train students with unique talents, I can see how a pint-sized army of super-powered students would be just a resource to be exploited by an unscrupulous administration. I ended up liking Gakuen Alice more than I expected. I probably won’t be rushing out to grab all of the eleven volumes that I’ve missed but I’ll be on the lookout to check out the other volumes of this series if I can find them at a library nearby.
Review copies of volumes 12 and 13 provided by the publisher.