Reviewby Lissa Pattillo, Aug 7th 2010
Alice the 101st
On his deathbed, Alistair's Grandfather makes a request of his grandson – to attend the prestigious Mondonville Music Academy and learn how to play the violin. Despite the school already being full at its 100-student cap, Alistair is approved by the administration and becomes the gossip-worthy 101st student. But is he worth the exception? While it'll take some more time to figure that one out, he's already been mistaken for a girl, bears witness to the social hierarchy of those attending, meets the cream of the musical-crop and made his first couple of friends. His roommate is a kind but self-doubting young man who becomes a listening ear for Alistair while a pushy first-acquaintance proves himself an experienced player of various kinds. As Alistair learns the ropes of the school, and attempts to learn the strings of the violin, he also embarks on his own reason for being there – the search for more information about his Father.
Well suited to its place in the Doki Doki imprint, which bolsters series intended as go-betweens from shoujo to boys' love, Alice 101st achieves the shoujo character-driven charm with an inkling of boys' love bait for the fans. Past being an all-boys dormitory in the hands of a boys' love creator, the only real material that speaks more directly to that genre is that of the in-your-face character, Victor, who makes a point to tease the lead character after an initial gender mistake (and perform some just-in-case pat downs). Everything else reads distinctly shoujo in flavor, excluding if you will the almost entirely male-cast, and anything else at this point is purely speculative by boys' love readers' trained-by-habit to spot potential. If you enjoy coming-of-age stories told in parallel to honing a creative craft, then Alice the 101st could very well be a book for you.
Short, cute and prone to outburst, Alistair (or Alice as he comes to be dubbed by his peers) is the story's go-get-em lead with a hazy past and an unsure future as he aims to fulfill his Grandfather's wishes. Conveniently, and expectantly, Alistair also seems to be a natural when it comes to the violin – whether he's a natural prodigy or a natural disaster amidst his peers however remains to be seen. His basic skills at playing are non-existent, his patience for it fleeting and his experience minimal. But, get him to play a song he likes from memory and he can play with the best of them. Those of any creative background should find the showcased difference of raw ability and hard-earned skill to be relatable, both in how a teacher struggles to teach Alistair the methods he's so sorely lacking and in turn Alistair's dislike of being forced through the tedious memorization and repetition of the most basic proficiency.
Alistair himself in this regard offers a great contrast to the more reserved stature of students that permeates the rest of the school. Others have worked their whole lives to get into this school, some egotistical over their standing while others immensely humbled, but all share a keen dedication to succeed. Alistair's motives to be a violinist in respect of his Grandfather's last words may be repeatedly emphasized but in comparison to the others who've worked so hard to get where they are, readers may find themselves lacking definitive care for Alistair's intent. Still, regardless of how thoroughly his reasoning is accepted as probable cause, the difficulties he faces still come off as poignant enough. From teachers talking down to him, difficult subject matter and bullying from the school's elite, Alistair faces elements that many can relate to. Because of this it becomes more sympathetic even as Alistair lacks a real 'I can do this!' drive to truly excel that's often the motivating force of morale for any story. Despite his self-inflicted predicament though, which could serve as boon or bane depending on the reader, Alistair takes everything as it comes, a combination of gusto and ignorance that makes him both a fairly charming character and an unpredictable one.
Other elements of the story begin to weave their way in soon enough, offering up more substance than boy-plays-violin-because-Grandpa-said-to. The most prominent of these seemingly sub-plots is Alistair's Father who was apparently a prodigy violin player. Having never met his Father, Alistair's task of learning how to play the violin now parallels to his hopes of learning more about his Father. It offers another empathetic reason for Alistair to be at the school, though while it does help on the caring-metre, it feels a little over-convenient and not helped any by an explanation that would've benefitted from some more subtly. Sometimes it feels like the author is trying too hard to tell readers exactly what's going on by just outright having a character exclaim it instead of letting the story evolve naturally and readers figuring it out in due course. It's not too harsh in stacking on plot devices but it gives the story a chunky feeling at times when it should flow smoother.
The musical element of the story is well handled, a theme that fits well into Chigusa Kawai's repertoire of more gentile subject matter such as the passive religious elements utilized in her previously released series, La Esperanca. The use of visual character reaction and verbal review does a good job portraying the skill (or in some cases lack thereof) of the players. The delicate art works beautifully with the refinement of the characters to paint a realistic appearance of someone skillfully playing the instruments. Naturally though not the same as actually hearing the music, there's still an attained level of authenticity to the way it's portrayed.
The artist's artwork shines overall in a similar fashion, the detail work in her backgrounds when present and clothing are very eye-catching. A good dose of occasionally over the top reaction from characters keeps things fairly upbeat as well. Comparing this work to La Esperanca, it really showcases the evolution of her skills as a manga artist including the comfort of using heavier black to good art-popping effect. It's a shame still that some of her character designs look too similar and can cause confusion.
Alice the 101st has a fair number of things in its favour, from the strong musical execution to some fun characters, but it still lacks that real oomph factor needed to keep readers hooked. Alistair is entertaining in his own right and the school is a vibrantly rendered institution with a small cast of characters each with their own personalities to bring to the table – however, despite all the different plot points weaving around them, the over simplification of how these elements are delivered to the readers keeps it from being as satisfying as it could be.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B+
+ Attractive artwork; artist has a keen eye for expressing the melodic charm of music on paper; character personalities are entertaining and there's some good humour sprinkled amidst their interaction
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