Tokyopop, the Los Angeles-based manga and comics publisher, has a knack for finding hits. This new series in translation from the Japanese brings over a title that was popular enough as a book series that it was made into an anime TV show, which itself has been dubbed into English. If the Tokyopop.com message boards are any indication, lots of young readers are excited over this first book in the English series, which is brimming with lovely black-and-white illustrations and all the school uniforms a Japanese pop-culture purist could hope for.
There are conventions of the genre that will take newcomers some getting used to, but ultimately they should be nice little discoveries. The book itself has been printed in the Japanese style and is meant to be read from back to front and right to left. Author Tachibana Higuchi also chimes in with a short illustrated column at the beginning of each chapter, which is a friendly set of personal asides. She writes about having created other manga series, which evidently were heavier adult dramas. She tells us she wrote Gakuen Alice because she wanted to create a “children’s romance,” which sounds odd but turns out to be even more apt than Higuchi may have meant.
Excitable, blond-pigtailed Mikan tells the story of how her best friend Hotaru left their home village for an elite school for geniuses in Tokyo. She is heartbroken without Hotaru, who she always knew was special. We readers can see that for ourselves—poor Hotaru’s eyes are bigger and fuller than most sad-eyed manga heroines’, and she never smiles. Mikan is too lonely to stay at home without her friend, so she steals money from her grandfather and runs away to Tokyo to find Hotaru.
But when she gets to Alice Academy, Mikan finds out that the word genius is just a kind of shorthand, something to throw off the normals. Rather than being book-smart, all the kids at the school have some kind of magical talent called an Alice, such as flying or mind reading or something more exotic, like an “animal pheromone” Alice that allows its user to communicate with little creatures. Being admitted to the Alice school is lucky because it means they’ll get support from the government and will be scouted by corporations, which is so weird I’m not even going to go into it. Mikan is mysteriously allowed to enter the academy because one of the teachers can tell upon meeting her that she has an Alice of her own—something that could end up changing the course of all their futures, says the pretty male teacher with a feathered bob.
But first she has to curry favor with the other kids, which won’t be easy, since they don’t believe she’s one of them. Delightfully enough, having magic talents is not unlike having behavioral problems, at least in author Higuchi’s estimation. When Mikan first gets there she sees the word anarchy scrawled on a classroom wall. Flat-affect Hotaru, who is cruel to Mikan and doesn’t seem at all happy to see her, fits right in with these hooligans. This is where the romance aspect of the story comes in—poor Mikan remains hopelessly devoted to her friend anyway.
Natsume and Luca, the bad-boy best friends who rule the school with their beautiful deadpan expressions and legs slung over chair backs, push Mikan around.
There’s even a weirdly sexual manga moment when one of the boys holds her down and takes off her polka-dot underwear, prompting her to wail, “What man would want me now!” (Keep in mind these are grade-school kids.) Natsume challenges Mikan to walk through the scary Northern Woods, where she will encounter strange animals and will have to rely on her Alice to save her, if in fact she has one. I won’t tell you how the story turns out. I’ll just say that this graphic novel is lots of fun, and as good an introduction to the darkly loony world of manga as you’ll find.