Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Alice in the Country of Hearts
Alice has learned a surprising secret about Wonderland, and it's not one that she likes: human lives are easily recyclable in this world, which explains why people think nothing of trying to kill each other. In an attempt to cheer Alice up, Boris the Cheshire Cat takes her to the amusement park for a day—but more negative feelings await Alice when she returns to her lodgings, as Julius the watchmaker tells her that she may want to consider moving out and taking up residence with someone else. Yet this is not nearly as upsetting as the revelation that Ace, the Queen of Hearts' knight, wants to kill Alice just to see what would happen to her non-recyclable soul. Can Alice defend herself from Ace's murderous intentions—not to mention the mad desires of all the other men in Wonderland?
By now, the novelty of a bishounen-laced Alice in Wonderland has all but worn off, and the major players from the original have been fully accounted for. (Anyone hoping for a Gryphon and Mock-Turtle cameo might as well give up; it's not like those guys ever make it into any Alice adaptations.) This leaves the fourth of volume of Alice in the Country of Hearts with the greatest challenge yet: letting the story speak for itself. With conflicts of interest and relationships tug-of-war, it looks like there's still plenty of drama in store—but whether it forms a solid narrative is a much more doubtful question.
The manga's origins as a bishounen romance game are clear to see in the way the story bounces between subplots without ever really developing a strong sense of direction. Instead of proceeding down a linear path, or even a multiple-branching path, this series is more like a revolving door, forever spinning Alice around in circles. Is Julius subtly trying to push Alice away with his "Maybe you should stay at someone else's place" comment? Well, none of that matters after they make up and decide to maintain the status quo half a chapter later. Is Ace truly a misguided psychopath, seeking to end Alice's life just to see what would happen? This disturbing moral dilemma ultimately ends with a whimper, as Ace makes some wishy-washy excuse about how he likes Alice so much it'd be a shame to kill her. Even characters who are currently on the sidelines, like Blood Dupre (the Mad Hatter), chat idly about their feelings toward Alice without really doing anything about it.
What's especially ironic is that the only characters that really behave with human warmth are the ones playing animal roles in the story. When the Cheshire Cat (or rather, catboy) takes Alice out on a theme-park date, it's one of the few times that this series comes anywhere close to the fun, absurdist charm of the original (not to mention the hilarious and terrifying idea of a hybrid teacup-rollercoaster ride). At the tail end of this volume also comes the sorely-missed White Rabbit, with his endearing affection for Alice and whimsical rhyming speech. Nobody ever makes much progress in their relationships with Alice—and she, in the meantime, never makes any real progress in returning to the real world—so ultimately the one thing that keeps the series afloat is when the characters pull off moments of cuteness and comedy. Alice's little side-trip into the "Country of the Joker," featured as a final bonus chapter, also tickles the brain with its logical loopiness and ambiguous ending.
Although the story just ambles about in a circular manner, there remains at least the consolation of eye-pleasing artwork. A sure-handed sense of line and clean, balanced layouts make this easy reading while still providing enough visual stimulation. Well, that's assuming that swishy-haired pretty boys are considered stimulating—at its most primitive level, this whole series is really just an artist's exercise in rendering the characters of Wonderland as dashing young men. Fortunately, Soumei Hoshino is really good at that, and also makes a point of emphasizing each character's distinctive features—no "palette swap" design schemes here. There are still times, however, when the style feels a little bland: background details are often simplified to a bare minimum (or nothing at all), a shortcoming that becomes even more glaring during scenes where the characters have nothing to do but discuss their feelings at length.
Ah, feelings. The subject that fuels many of Alice's adventures in this version of Wonderland—and leads to some great stretches of dialogue, as well as some maddening conversations that end up going five pages too long. On the plus side, there are sharp exchanges like Ace and Boris's clash of philosophy over whether to kill Alice, or the three-way battle later on when Peter White hops in to argue his case for Alice's affections. Then again, Peter is fantastic all by himself simply because he talks in rhyming couplets (a tricky feat of translation which is pulled off remarkably well). However, there are also awful, rambling space-fillers like Julius's pained speech about whether Alice should stay with him or not, and the bathing scene where Blood and his gang gossip idly about Alice (clearly, plot development takes a backseat to the fact that it's a bathing scene). While the script is adapted skillfully into English, the same can't be said for the sound effects, which are handled inconsistently. Sometimes the Japanese text is erased and replaced, sometimes the translation is placed alongside it, and sometimes it's not translated at all. How these decisions are made is anyone's guess.
Anyone who is afraid of sharp plot twists and shocking revelations will find plenty of comfort in Alice in the Country of Hearts, which continues to do what it did in previous volumes—namely, not a whole lot of anything. There's some light entertainment to be had as the denizens of Wonderland fight over who likes Alice more, or get into loopy comedic situations, but ultimately the goal of the series is to maintain the status quo and see how long it can keep the revolving door spinning. If Alice ever picked which guy she liked best, and he returned the favor, it would be game over—so naturally any conflict over her must end in a draw, or "to be continued." That's why even the threat of Alice losing her life holds little dramatic weight here, where pretty boys cavorting in a slickly drawn fantasyland is the real focus anyway. It may be enough to grab one's attention, but it's not enough to truly capture anyone's heart.
Overall : C+
Story : C-
Art : B
+ Appealing character designs, entertaining personalities and lively arguments keep things moving along at a steady clip.