Reviewby Casey Brienza,
Mikan's best friend Hotaru has abandoned her for the big city of Tokyo and an exclusive, government-funded private school for geniuses. Pining away for her Hotaru, who never seems to write, Mikan decides to run away from home and enroll at Alice Academy herself. Somehow. Unfortunately, she is anything but a genius…or is she? The handsome Professor Harumi immediately notices something special about Mikan, and she soon learns that “genius” is actually a means “supernatural ability.” All of the children, known as Alices, have one. Hotaru, for example, is a genius inventor. But what in the world is Mikan's special power? Her classmates are giving her hell over ignorance. Moreover, if she can't figure it out in time, she won't be allowed to remain at the academy!
If you looked at the cover of the first volume of Gakuen Alice (see above) and were not reminded of Kodomo no Omocha, then you either have never heard of Kodomo no Omocha…or you have far better imagination than this reviewer. Happily, though, any visual or thematic comparison to Miho Obana's now classic tale of elementary school kids and total wackiness is no insult, and Gakuen Alice mangaka Tachibana Higuchi, who wanted to make her third series cheerful, delivers a delightful shoujo series well worthy of its U.S. publisher's push for the frontlist.
Mikan, whose name means “mandarin orange,” has both the brunette pigtails and happy-go-lucky personality of Kodomo no Omocha's Sana, and it fast proves to be the perfect personality type to drive the plot forward. She is a determined little girl, you see, and though she can get discouraged at times, she is too stupid to wallow in her sorrows for long. In the beginning of the story, she is ready to hate the stone-faced and seemingly selfish Hotaru for abandoning her, but then she finds out that Hotaru agreed to go in order to earn the money that would save Mikan's backwater school. Her friend, in other words, sacrificed her own happiness for Mikan's, and Mikan sure as heck isn't going to sit back and enjoy the rewards. No, she wants to be united with her friend—no matter what the cost.
And so she arrives at the gates of Alice Academy, naïve as a newborn babe. Fortunately, Professor Narumi saves her from exploitation and immediately notices something unusual about her—she doesn't fall head-over-heels in love with him. No, he is not a narcissist (okay, maybe he is that, too); he has superhuman powers over human pheromones. The two are soon joined outside by Natsume, a sinister boy wearing a cat mask, who is trying to escape. Of course, Professor Narumi stops him in his tracks with a kiss. (Cue yaoi fangirl squees.) Thus begins Mikan's life at her new school and her long yearned for reunion with her beloved Hotaru. (Cue yuri fangirl squees.)
The parade of a most colorful cast of characters continues after her arrival at her homeroom classroom. As it turns out, Natsume rules the roost, and it's an instant boys vs. girls rivalry between him and Mikan. Again, note the striking similarity to Kodomo no Omocha. In any case, Mikan rises to his challenge and agrees to take on the “dangers” of the Northern Forest. With the help of Hotaru and the kindhearted class president, she succeeds—and ensures her continued enrollment at Alice Academy!
Although Higuchi's fine-lined artwork and charming character designs feel decidedly derivative (Kodomo no Omocha yet again!), you will be too busy laughing to notice. Strictly speaking, her artistic talents are no better than that of the average shoujo mangaka, but she has a rich and snarky sense of humor that transforms a story which would otherwise be pretty forgettable and makes it pretty unforgettable. Moreover, she milks childish innocence (read: ignorance) in a compassionate way that manages never to cross over into creepiness, despite several intensely-felt homosocial relationships. Indeed, all of the manga's best moments are funny ones, and skilled use of cinematic sequences and montages heighten the comic effect. From Mikan asking Professor Narumi flat-out if he is gay, to a teddy bear winding up and KOing Mikan—you will want to page back to these scenes again and again. Hands down the best scene in volume one, though, is animal pheromone Alice Luca's romantic, “Boy Meets Bird” moment with a gargantuan mutant chick. (Don't ask.) Suffice to say that the unexpected vision of a little boy embracing an enormous fluff ball while both weep tears of joy should leave you pining for plenty more Gakuen Alice.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Charming characters, an entertaining premise, and quirky, over the top humor.
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