Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Sub.DVD - Complete Collection [Anime Elements]
Mikan Sakura is a bright and cheerful ten-year-old living with her grandfather in the countryside. Her best friend in the whole world is Hotaru Imai, and when one day Hotaru vanishes to a place called Alice Academy in Tokyo, Mikan wants to know why. She runs away from home to get her answers only to find that Alice Academy is a special school for kids with “Alices,” gifts that range from the psychic to the bizarre. Mikan herself turns out to have a very unusual Alice and gets admitted to the school, only to learn that things are not always what they seem and that the brightest lights can leave the darkest shadows.
Outwardly adorable, Gakuen Alice, based on the manga of the same name by Tachibana Higuchi, is actually one of the darker children's anime to be released in English, even though the anime is a bit lighter than the original manga. The story is set in a special school, Alice Academy (the translation of the title) where children with various supernatural, psychic, or intellectual gifts are sequestered from the world with the stated goal of “protecting” them. As you might guess, no government-run school could possibly be that altruistic, and the kids are also being groomed to become world leaders and commodities. We enter the school, and story, with heroine Mikan Sakura, a cheery ten-year-old whose best friend, Hotaru Imai, has mysteriously left their small rural town for Alice Academy. Determined to see her again, Mikan runs away to Tokyo to find her, only to discover that she has a power as well. These powers are all termed “Alices,” and while Hotaru's is “invention,” meaning that she has a supernatural knack for inventing things, Mikan's is “nullification” – she can negate the effects of other, more outwardly dangerous Alices. While this gets her into the school, it also doesn't endear her to much of the faculty.
It is the adults, primarily the school faculty, that makes this story so disturbing. Not on the outside, of course – taken at face value, Gakuen Alice is a fun school tale about an academy where everyone can do amazing things, like control shadows or float. But the school has clear priorities, and students, even the very youngest, are not permitted to leave campus or see their parents at all. There's a clear preference for students with “useful” Alices like Hotaru's, generally grouped as “technical class” Alices, and students who disobey or who have weaponizable Alices are labeled as “dangerous ability types,” and, as we learn around episode twelve, they can be sent on “missions” for the school that are nothing a school ought to be endorsing. Almost more appalling in the context of the show is how some of the teachers and others on campus treat Mikan: she alone is not allowed to send letters home, she is given the lowest possible ranking for her power, resulting in inadequate meals and housing, and one teacher in particular, Jinnei, routinely deals out excessive punishments for most of the show. If you step back and think about it, it becomes clear that all of this is because the adults are afraid of her nullification power – the power to render their own Alices useless. When we consider the way that Alice Academy teaches students to see themselves as better than regular people because they have powers, to essentially base their entire idea of their own worth on their Alices, this makes sense: all of the teachers were once students at Alice Academy, and thus went through the same indoctrination, and here's this girl who can take away the very thing they see as their defining trait without even thinking about it. That's got to be terrifying. On the other hand, they're torturing a ten-year-old child based on those fears.
Despite these darker issues, Gakuen Alice can be a delightful show. Mikan is the sort of shoujo heroine in the same vein as Tsukushi of Boys Over Flowers (early episodes, anyway) in the sense that she isn't afraid to stand up and tell the bad guys where to shove it. She doesn't let anything get her down for long, but she isn't preternaturally perky, either, and she gives in to emotions much more normally than anyone else in the show. Having come from the outside world with no understanding of Alices, she's a much more typical ten-year-old than her classmates, which often comes off as her being less mature than they are. While a fair amount of comedy is taken from this, it also highlights the effects of being at the academy for so long, particularly in the case of Natsume, a boy with a fire Alice who has been deemed “dangerous” by the school. For him, Mikan is the light in the darkness, and while the anime doesn't develop that fully, their relationship becomes a highlight of the show. Perhaps less satisfying is Mikan's relationship with Hotaru, the best friend she initially set out to find, as Hotaru appears to be cold to the point where the friendship is one-sided. Time proves that this is not true, and Hotaru always comes through when Mikan truly needs her; as her past is revealed, it seems that her coldness is something of a coping mechanism. Nevertheless, it can get annoying to watch her rebuff Mikan time and time again, especially when other students and teachers are so against her.
Hailing from 2004-05, Gakuen Alice's style doesn't hold up particularly well, although there is still plenty of appeal to the initial character designs. The art is often inconsistent and the animation lazy at times and ugly at others. Some of the background music is quite grating, although both theme songs are decent. Small moments, such as a cranky living stuffed teddy bear's use of the Rocky theme, are great, and one of the best episodes is sixteen, when Mikan's ability class (“special”) uses their disparate gifts to stage a live-action RPG. Not only is the animation a little better here, but the maze and the costumes are fun as well. The release itself is fairly bare-bones, with liner notes and character bios, as well as the requisite company trailers.
Viewers who go into Gakuen Alice expecting a harmless kiddy show will be surprised, or perhaps disappointed, by the story's darker themes, but if you're expecting them, this show holds up well overall. Pairing Mikan's undefeatable personality with a magic school story and humor helps to soothe away the more upsetting parts, and the fact that this is an older show does help to avoid a creepier vibe on some scenes. The final five episodes (the entire last disc of this set) are anime-original and definitely do not hold up in comparison to the manga-based ones, but on the whole, Gakuen Alice remains a good series to this day.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : C
Art : B-
Music : B-
+ Mikan's unbeatable but still recognizably a ten-year-old, nice character relationship development. Scarier moments balanced out with lighter ones.
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